The Evolution of a Tomb Raider
Lara Croft is one of the earliest female protagonists in video games and has been held up numerous times – for both right and for wrong reasons – as a gem of the industry. Like it or not, Lara Croft has become synonymous with video games. While her most recent exploits haven’t been game changers, and have allowed more modern franchises to take her crown, Lara Croft remains strong in my heart as one of the few characters to be held up as a shining example of how video games have evolved.
Bursting onto the scene in 1996, the original Tomb Raider which was lauded for its gameplay, atmosphere and cutting-edge graphics. It was the appearance of Lara, one of video games first real female protagonists, that caught the media’s attention. With her brown shorts, turquoise shirt and dual pistols she stood out from her dull and uninteresting male counterparts. Tomb Raider went on to be a critical success and helped cement Lara Croft as a videogame icon.
Lara came under as much scrutiny as she did praise. Her strength as a female and ability to handle herself in any situation was something videogames had been missing and yet the developers choice to design a woman with near comical body proportions, and have her set in poses that would ensure her overt sexuality was the focus of much of the media attention, led to controversy.
Although the games played into this in some ways it was the outside attention that really caused the problems; Girls dressed as Lara would attend PR events and Trade shows (Comical Proportions in check) and Lara would appear in magazines scantily clad or nearly naked. For a time that which had empowered her was taken away, an image that was cultivated so easy shattered with simple strokes; strength was overshadowed by sexuality. For the longest time Lara became a pun, the edge with which she had burst onto the scene with was little more than distant memory.
Although the games continued at a constant rate, Lara Croft’s impact lessened with every one as developers failed to realise the mistake they had made and a fallout that would arise due to a distinct misunderstanding of what the majority of their target audience wanted. Gamers who may have enjoyed the sexuality in the character soon tired of the gimmick; 8 Tomb Raider games followed after the original in the space of five years and Lara’s image was in tatters.
Rather than a strong, intelligent role model for gamers to understand and sympathise with, Lara was touted as an example of what was wrong with the industry. People were citing the images as an example of the misogynistic culture rampant within the gaming world, rolled into a single character that had so much potential when she first took the gaming world by storm.
After 2001 Tomb Raider took a break from video games and Angelina Jolie was cast in the motion picture and its sequel; both followed the core concept of Lara Croft but had an original story, though neither can be considered a box office success, and the films did nothing to help Lara’s already damaged reputation.
Lara made her triumphant return to games in 2006 under a new developer; with a new design she became a more believable figure, yet still the game allowed focus where there should have been none. While the game is a lot more subtle with its titillation, Tomb Raider: Legends still can’t quite break away from old habits.
The game is by far the best in the series and so the much publicized return was little more than a return to her previous form. One of my most hated parts of Legends – and perhaps all of video games (Though this is not the only offender) – is one of the hardest unlocks being a bikini outfit for Lara to wear. A bikini. Even thinking about the reasons behind this makes me squirm. But, fortunately, Legend wasn’t a complete bust (pun intended? – ed.). Lara Croft had found a voice that I could actually believe from actress Keeley Hawes who would go on to star in an entire trilogy including 2007’s Anniversary remake of the original game.
Tomb Raider: Underworld provided probably the best outing for Lara since the original game. While it lacked the refinement and polish of games of the same era it was certainly the strongest of the franchise. The game focused more on Lara’s origins and her family with a pretty strong story and atmosphere. This alone reinvigorated my interest for Lara and the world surrounding her. Finally, it seemed, someone understood what it was I had wanted from them all along, a deep story that focused on a woman driven to tomb raiding her whole life after the loss of her parents. Even on paper it was interesting but had never been something developers chose as a focus until now.
Lara’s place in videogame history is indisputable but, unlike most other characters on a similar list, her exact role in aiding the modern era of games will largely be contested by many as some will remember her as the strong female role model while others will remember the shot of her covering herself with only a pillow that was used in the marketing for one of the later games.
I always loved Lara Croft and even through the bad years I could see the merit behind having a strong female lead, although the modern age has shown us others who are certainly stronger and more developed (Alyx Vance – Half Life 2, Samus Aran of Metroid, to name a couple) Lara Croft is, in my mind, a leader and role model for modern video game characters. She has seen the worst and the best of times and will no doubt be around for years to come.
Lara Croft returns in 2013 with Crystal Dynamics reboot of the franchise as they set out to make something different and outside of the normal platform puzzler. Lara is younger, at the start of her life, and trapped on an island alone and afraid. This is where she will learn her trade and her fight for survival will teach her the skills she will need in all her future adventures and I for one can’t wait!
Look out for more coverage on the upcoming Tomb Raider on Gamer Euphoria!