Lara Croft is one of the most recognisable characters from video games. Not only has she starred as the protagonist for ten (main series) Tomb Raider games since 1996, she has also been the subject of media attention outside of the gaming world. Lara has featured in novels, comics, films (one of the very few examples of a half decent film/game adaptation) and has even be used as advertising to sell Lucozade. The Guiness Book of Records has even recognised her as the most successful video game heroine of all time and the film adaptation casting Angelina Jolie in the lead remains the highest grossing film with a female lead.
Yet despite her incredible success and her status as a cultural icon, no character has ever divided the world of games so definitively. Even now, eighteen years after Lara first graced our screens (did I just make you feel old because I certainly feel old) gamers are still trying to work out whether she is a positive female role model or a negative example of male fantasy fulfilment.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Lara Croft is a sort of female version of Indiana Jones. Although billed as an archaeologist Lara is really more of an antiquity hunter, which would go some way to explaining her blatant lack of interest in all those ancient vases/pots she smashes, looking for valuables within. That and the games might lose their pacing if Lara stopped to marvel at every discovery she makes and got out her pick and toothbrush every time she came across a floor tile.
Semantics aside Lara began life as a spoiled aristocrat until she was the sole survivor of a plane crash. Mastering survival skills and her natural instincts Lara made it to a nearby town some weeks later. Unfortunately after this little jaunt in the Himalayas, aristocratic life lost its glamour and Lara turned her back on it, opting instead to hone her skills and become an adventuring treasure hunter.
Although her survival story was modified to expand the role of her mother during the series’ first reboot in Tomb Raider: Legend and rewritten entirely for the most recent instalment Tomb Raider (2013) for the majority of the games Lara has been aristocrat turned athletic adventurer.
To many fans, Lara was one of the first examples of a strong female protagonist in video games. Tony Gard, the initial designer of Lara’s character intended her to be sexy through her strength of character rather than her appearance. She was based on Swedish pop star Neneh Cherry and her physical dimensions were restrained. Gard said in an interview that it was “never the intention to create some kind of ‘page 3’ girl to star in Tomb Raider. The idea was to create a female character who was a heroine, you know, cool, collected, in control, that sort of thing.”
Even though Gard left the team after releasing Tomb Raider (1996) the developers have shown themselves extremely protective of Lara’s image, keen to disassociate it with any ‘softcore’ connotations. When gaming magazines produced pictures of Lara in provocative poses wearing revealing clothing or underwear the creative director of Tomb Raider: Underworld came out in criticism of the layouts, claiming that they were completely out of character for Lara and also because they focused on her looks rather than her personality. Nell McAndrew, the model who portrayed Lara for promotional materials was actually dismissed from the position after posing nude for Playboy, while Eidos threatened the publication with legal action if references to Lara Croft were not removed from the issue.
For many then, Lara Croft is a positive role model whose physical appearance is a side effect of her athletic ability, a necessity given her choice of career. She is an independent heroine who can nonetheless rely on the input on her friends to help her out, something which is often a flaw in ‘strong’ female characters where they become so independent they literally need no other human input to survive.
For the opposing camp however, any strong personality flairs are lost when considering her physical appearance which has usually focused on her breasts. Developers have gone so far as to outright state her bra size, something usually lacking in female characters as it’s quite irrelevant. Critics have also pointed to the media’s preoccupation with Lara as a ‘sexy’ character and the existence of mods for the PC version of Tomb Raider games to remove Lara’s clothes. Equally some of the promotional materials throughout the years have shown Lara in less a Tomb Raiding situation and more a ‘wouldn’t you like to sleep with me?’ scenario, something which is frustrating because this is not the Lara shown in the games. It is at least just her body which provokes the sexist argument, (rather than many of the other forms of sexism in video games which are often more damaging) as many claim that her physical appearance is unrealistic and thus a vehicle of male fantasy fulfilment rather than empowering to women. Fans of the series will no doubt remember how every time a new game came out the first question was usually, ‘have they made her breasts bigger?’(They didn’t, over time her breast size was actually reduced to make it more realistic as graphics improved).
Lara through the ages
I fall quite firmly into the first camp, as I feel that just because a character is attractive it does not diminish their abilities and just because a woman has breasts doesn’t mean her achievements should be dismissed. At a time when my video game choices were; play as a man or race Formula One cars (in which case who cares who’s “technically” in the driver’s seat) Lara Croft was a breath of fresh air and my first role model from video games. Even physically she inspired me, especially during my Egyptology phase when I basically imagined myself as the illegitimate love child of Lara and Howard Carter.
None of which stopped me throwing her from great heights after she had refused to jump where I wanted her to a few dozen times in a row.
But I digress.
Initially Lara suffered from Gordon Freeman syndrome. The earlier games presented minimal direct personality allowing players to consider her in whatever vein they preferred. The strength of her character relied on her backstory and abilities giving Lara little interaction with other characters (locking your butler in a fridge doesn’t count). This of course changed as games developed and storylines became more complex giving her a mentor, friends and an antagonist (also a woman *gasp*). As a result, Lara is quite a balanced character who has no qualms receiving help from her companions and no superiority issues in giving help, something which is often a flaw in supposedly ‘strong’ characters.
As the games developed the focus moved towards a sense of realism when developers Crystal Dynamics took over the series for Tomb Raider: Legend, Tomb Raider: Anniversary and Tomb Raider: Underworld. Original designer Tony Gard was also recruited and Lara saw a number of changes to her character to make her more realistic including a reduction in breast size but an increase in muscle. As well as this several gameplay mechanics were added such as revamped combat and better environmental interaction. However any alterations have always been to her physical form in a bid to make her more believable and her personality has not suffered any major changes, in fact it has been developed as her relationships with other characters have been expanded.
Reboot (mark 2)
Although the game was rebooted in 2006 for Tomb Raider: Legend, Lara has recently undergone an even greater transformation for newest reboot Tomb Raider (2013). The immediate change to Lara is obvious; once again her physical appearance has been altered. This time to give her a far more natural look with a body image that should satisfy those fans firmly in the fantasy fulfilment camp. This Lara is not scantily clad, she is fully clothed with reasonable measurements and less defined curves.
As this is a reboot her earlier survival story is discarded, instead there is no childhood/teenage plane crash this is her survival story. This game actually sees you take on the events that create her as the adventurer we all know and love.
For the new series, Lara is an archaeology graduate who is on an expedition to find the lost kingdom of Yamatai. (This is a game after all so we can suspend our disbelief that a recent graduate has landed a job in their chosen field so quickly). While en route to the island of Lara’s theories the ship Endurance fails to live up to its name and after encountering a storm splits in two leaving the expedition ship wrecked and Lara kidnapped. The lost kingdom might be lost but it is far from uninhabited, unfortunately for Lara and her friends the occupants are other survivors of past shipwrecks most of whom are violent criminals and have developed a violent cult.
Lara’s survival then depends on a lot more than a gruelling walk across the Himalayas to the nearest payphone. Instead, as well as acquiring some survival skills pretty fast, she must also overcome the island’s inhabitants. The Lara at the start of the game is naive and hopeful, ignorant of any dangers she might face. The Lara who ends the game has been tested in the most cruel way possible, having to create tools to survive (necessity is the mother of invention), hunt her own food and of course, most affectingly, having to kill other human beings before they can kill her. We can see her become, most definitely, the survivor of the earlier series’ and the game ends on a hopeful note where Lara looks to the horizon now aware of her own endurance and looking to find other tombs to raid. Needless to say Lara Croft is not going anywhere and will probably be as recognisable as a cultural icon for a good few years to come.
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