By the time the Tomb Raider series was rebooted in 2013 I – and many others, I’m sure – would have been more than happy to see the back of Lara Croft.
Now the series is over 20 years old, the games are blockbuster once more, and Hollywood’s latest foray into video game movies – 2018’s Tomb Raider, starring Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander – is premiering worldwide this week. Let’s take a look back at the history of the series, and where it all went wrong. (It went wrong a lot.)
One of the key early titles for Sony’s fledgling PlayStation format, Tomb Raider has tumbled inward on itself so many times it was beginning to look like a parody, and a very bad one at that. This feeling wasn’t helped by lacklustre entries into the movie world in 2001 and 2003, and even one of Hollywood’s biggest draws of the time – Angelina Jolie – couldn’t salvage the franchise as it stood, floundering outside of the decade in which it was born.
The key problem with Tomb Raider, unfortunately, was its lead. Lara Croft should be – and for a while, was – a feminist icon, an arse-kicking antidote to the John Rambo or Snake Pliskin characters that were swelling the ranks of video game character rosters. She gave young girls everywhere a character they could feel proud of, and one that didn’t assume they wanted to play video games with Barbie or My Little Pony as the lead.
Lara Croft, however, could have been very different. Originally pitched as an Indiana Jones clone, Core Design felt that a wise-cracking male adventurer would never work in a crowded market that was crying out for more originality – did you hear that, Naughty Dog? – so lead artist Toby Gard was tasked with coming up with an alternative.
His female protagonist went through several iterations, with his design train calling in at various female action hero trope stations along the way, before settling on a relatively understated, relatable South American heroine named Lara Cruz; later changed to Croft, to appeal to an English-speaking target market.
Lara Croft, née Cruz, was conceived very much as we know her today. She wore long hair in a braid, realistic jungle-and-tomb adventuring attire (in a green tank top and cargo shorts) and – aside from a 230 polygon limitation – was drawn and animated far more realistically than other female characters of the time.
Then, legend has it that Toby Gard accidentally increased Croft’s breast size by 150% with a programming error. Though he wanted to change it back to preserve the realistic and relatable look of his character, Gard was ultimately outvoted by the rest of the Core Design team, and against the adage that sex sells.
As it turns out, they were right.
Lara Croft became a split entity, a kind of bizarre quantum feminism, in which the observer effect fundamentally changed the effect of the character based on the proclivities of the player.
If you were female, then you most likely saw Lara Croft as a gaming role model, a fundamental icon of feminism and agency in a male-dominated world, who brought legitimacy to girls in gaming.
If you were male, then you probably saw her as a tawdry, pneumatically-enhanced wank fantasy, who by sheer good fortune also happened to be starring in a game that was half-decent to play (with your one hand that wasn’t permanently lodged down your pants).
By way of an example, this was an actual magazine advert, for Tomb Raider 3, which featured in the Official UK PlayStation Magazine in 1998:
And there were many more like it. Lara appeared in various states of undress, in everything from ‘proper’ games mags to Loaded, and – because sex was indeed selling Tomb Raider titles like the hottest of cakes – as graphics improved she became far sexier. The whole thing descended into a grotesquely farcical caricature of a once great feminist icon, Angelina Jolie and all.
Then in 2013, everything changed. Tomb Raider received a reboot, but more importantly, so did Lara Croft.
In the 2013 reboot, we joined Lara Croft at the beginning of her journey to become the great adventurer archeologist we know. Redacted is the original backstory of… I dunno, some nonsense about a plane crash in the Alps, and her mother going missing in a temple, or tomb, or…?
Anyway, the new Ms Croft is – quite realistically for a trainee adventurer – on something of an archaeological apprenticeship, travelling Pacific islands on a ship with a crew resembling an earthbound version of the cast of Firefly, searching for some treasure or other. I didn’t say it was perfect; just infinitely better than what came before.
But what really sets the new Lara Croft (and therefore the new Tomb Raider) aside from its forebears, is twofold:
- Lara looks like a real human being that could actually exist, not like a fourteen year old boy assembled his dream woman out of modelling clay and pictures of Megan Fox.
- The writing in the 2013 Tomb Raider and more specifically, the characterisation of Lara herself, is smartly put together and very believable.
Both of these things are borne out of what appears to be an acute understanding that the world – in general, not just the world of video games – has changed since 1996, a time when an accidental 150% breast augmentation was seen as a “happy accident” that would sell more games. The global climate of gender and equality in 2018, in the wake of #MeToo, is radically and indelibly changed. For the better.
This is a world where “because most of our audience is male” isn’t acceptable anymore. Partly because that statement simply isn’t true (no matter what the comment section troglodytes would have us believe; gaming is a gender neutral activity) but also because as a society and a community, we strive to be better.
This is a world where the characters in Overwatch have been toned down compared to what we’ve seen before, largely because a senior Blizzard staffer couldn’t explain to his young daughter why all the female characters in World of Warcraft were dressed in ‘swimsuits’ for armour.
There are exceptions, of course. A lot of rampant creepiness, overt sexism, or utterly disgusting conduct is frequently swept under the rug under the guise of, “Oh Japan, you’re so weird”. Somehow, Hideo Kojima can get away with inflicting Quiet upon the world, because he’s seen as an auteur. Bayonetta is back to pole dancing disguised as combat, still fully nude but wearing a catsuit of her own hair. And in spite of the best efforts of Blizzard with Overwatch‘s female cast of characters, rule 34 of the internet – if it exists there is porn of it, no exception – has been proven true.
I could go on, but that would make me sad. And things are getting better, slowly but surely, largely thanks to the continued participation and dogged determination of women in this often hostile domain.
Lara Croft is actually a fantastic litmus test of this effect in the industry. She was always intended to be an attractive character, but left in the hands of the 150% committee with the remit that sex sells, she decayed to not much more than a pair of ginormous breasts with dual-wield pistols attached to them. (They might have been held in hands, attached to the breasts by arms, but who can say for sure? The breasts were obscuring all other things, and the series was faltering as a result.)
Wind the clock forward to the Tomb Raider reboot of 2013 however, and thanks to those two points highlighted above – realistic human proportions from the designers, and genuine, human writing from the fantastic Rhianna Pratchett – the series is born anew. It finally feels like things are back on track; or perhaps, they’re only just on track for the very first time.
And though it doesn’t feature Rhianna Pratchett on its writing team – we asked her, last year, and she confirmed it to be true – the fact they’re basing the latest Tomb Raider movie adaptation on the modern, human Lara created by Pratchett is positive for the movie, and the video game franchise going forward.
That’s not to say that the 2018 Tomb Raider movie is a guaranteed success, of course. If history is anything to go by, the best this movie can hope to achieve is “not terrible” – though that in itself would be considered a resounding success for a Hollywood video game movie – but with the distinctly modern Lara Croft front and centre, and the missteps of her history cast aside, there will never be a better opportunity.