Next week sees the long-awaited return of Lara Croft, as Square Enix’s Rise of the Tomb Raider finally hits shelves.
For a number of years, the Tomb Raider series had become an afterthought in many gamer’s collections, struggling to keep up with a rapidly evolving industry throwing innovative new titles at consumers left, right and centre.
But a 2013 reboot of the franchise bucked the trend, and its sequel – the first on next generation consoles – looks to reinstate Lara Croft as the first lady of gaming once more.
Before a mid-00s slump in both quality and sales, the Tomb Raider series was one of gaming’s biggest draws, outselling the competition tenfold and proving that the girls do it just as good as the boys.
Here, we take a look back at the story of one of gaming’s most iconic characters, from her inception, to her mass market crossover, to her modern-day reincarnation for a more intelligent age.
Birth of the Tomb Raider
The inception of gaming’s most famous leading lady is one riddled with interesting tidbits of information, many of which will be unknown to casual players.
Development for the original PlayStation title started way back in 1993, with Toby Gard – lead graphic artist of Eidos subsidiary Core Design – being charged with the design of the game’s lead character. Initially, Gard’s idea was of a male protagonist with a whip and a hat, an image that should be instantly familiar to many film fans.
These similarities to Indiana Jones didn’t go unnoticed by Core Design co-founder Jeremy Smith, who requested that the character be redesigned along more original lines. It was at this point that Gard decided “the female character just worked better”, and started shifting to early designs for Lara.
He was keen to provide a counterpoint to the stereotypical depiction of women in video games at the time, who were often portrayed simply as eye-candy and sex objects, and set about designing a character based on the unlikely reference points of Neneh Cherry and comic book character Tank Girl.
“The idea was to create a female character who was a heroine, you know, cool, collected, in control, that sort of thing.” – Toby Gard (Gamasutra, 1998)
Lara’s initial designs included a muscular woman, a Nazi-like militant and a sociopathic blonde, before the final design was settled upon. There was still some tweaking to be done though, and initially Tomb Raider‘s hero was to be of South American decent, and named ‘Laura Cruz’.
After Eidos’ management argued for a more “UK friendly” name, Gard took to the phone book and settled on Lara Croft as a decent similar sounding name for a compromise.
Building the legacy: marketing Lara
But there was still work to be done.
When Eidos showed off an early build to Sony, the PlayStation heavyweights were originally less than impressed, and even decided to pass on the title, so it was back to the drawing board for the Core Design team, tightening up features for a second round.
Lara was always supposed to have exaggerated features, more from a game design standpoint than anything weird, but while making final tweaks to the character’s curvy wire-frame model, a slip of Gard’s mouse increased a planned breast enlargement by 150%. Before the changes could be reverted, an almost unanimous decision from Core Design’s six-person project team meant the new, buxom Lara was set to stay.
It provided an easy angle from which to market the game: here was a larger than life character who would easily appeal to male gamers, hooked into the belief that “sex sells”. Along with an overall polishing of the game that included a cinematic musical score, voice acting and full motion video cutscenes to further the story (a rarity at the time), Eidos’ second attempt as wooing Sony was more successful.
What followed was an aggressive marketing campaign, featuring ever provocative ads, pushing Lara as the PlayStation’s mascot of choice, and introducing 3D gaming to an alternative crowd too adult for Super Mario 64 (which debuted just six weeks before).
It was a move that didn’t sit well with Gard, who had to watch as a character he’d initially envisioned as challenging gender-stereotypes quickly succumbed to them.
“What I objected to was the marketing which represented Lara in a way that was nothing like the character. At the time I didn’t like that and it prompted me to want to retain control of characters I created in the future, so that’s why I left.” – Toby Gard (The Guardian, 2006)
An icon is born
Any whiff of trouble at developer Core Design was quickly extinguished by the sweet smell of Tomb Raider‘s success.
The game climbed straight to the top of the charts within hours of its release, where it would stay for months on end.
“We didn’t realise how big Tomb Raider was going to become. I think we put 100,000 units in the budget and ended up selling seven million. Lara Croft made us all look very good at our jobs.” – Ian Livingstone, former Head of Eidos (The Independent, 2015)
Lara quickly captured the attention and imagination of popular culture, with commercial tie-ins that would make today’s questionable gaming cash-ins look sane. Gard’s creation was taking the world by storm.
Lara appeared in adverts for energy drinks, credit cards and cars, branded wetsuits were coded into Tomb Raider‘s sequel through a partnership with Sola, and her pouting face even graced postage stamps in France.
Bands wrote songs in her honour, she posed in ever skimpier outfits on the covers of popular magazines, and even prestigious publications like the Financial Times were featuring front page articles on the heroine of the moment.
Lara wasn’t just a gaming icon: she had become a celebrity in her own right, drifting further and further away from Gard’s original intentions.
Models and movies
Of course, there was only so much a virtual heroine could say or do that would keep media attention fixed on the character, and so the then head-scratchingly bizarre practice of hiring real life models to ‘be’ Lara Croft began.
Nathalie Cook was the first model to portray the character, hired by Eidos to attend publicity events, promotions, and trade shows, and it was later reported that Core Design were very strict on what their hirees could say and do when representing the character.
Being somewhat protective of their money-making IP, Nell McAndrew was famously fired from her role as a Lara Croft model after posing for Playboy, with the issue in question being the use of the Tomb Raider connection in its promotion without prior approval from Eidos. A Core Design injunction against the magazine forced Playboy to place stickers on the cover, obscuring any reference to the title.
Reflecting a shift in attitudes towards the character, the practice of real life representations of Lara was eventually halted with the series’ 2013 reboot (more on that later), but not before the high number of models used over the years (around eight) prompted Guinness World Records to award Lara Croft the record for the “most official real life stand-ins” in 2008.
The whole thing had reached its logical conclusion years before anyway, with the launch of the Angelina Jolie starring movie franchise. 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and 2003’s Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life only fueled the Croft fervor further, but despite the sequel’s more sensitive, character driven approach and their status as some of the strongest video game to movie adaptations going (though that would hardly be a difficult feat), they’re not regarded as the character’s finer moments.
Reshaping the gaming landscape
It’s easy to get swept up in the modern day morality and outrage a highly sexualised lead female character would bring, but it must be remembered that at the time, despite the larger than life assets and frankly damaging body expectations, the fact that Lara was a strong female character fronting one of the best selling video games of all time really was a positive turn of events.
While she may have gone on to become gratuitously titillating, many have cited Lara as the spark that lit the fire for more strong female characters to be featured as the leads in video games, a far cry from the ‘damsel in distress’ model that was seen in many games before Tomb Raider‘s arrival.
PlayStation Magazine rejoiced at the arrival of “girl power” to video games, while IGN argued that Croft redefined gender in video games, providing a different interpretation of what women could do other than being something to be rescued by a male protagonist.
There also no denying Croft’s role in bringing gaming to a more mainstream audience through the various promotions and tie-ins the character was involved in throughout the 90s. Would gaming be as big a business as it is today without her presence? Possibly not. And it’s certainly difficult to envisage any modern video game characters having the same enduring impact.
Tomb Raider gets its first reboot (2006)
Ten years after Tomb Raider‘s first foray into the world, interest in the series was drastically waning, and new titles were suffering sales slumps due to a lack of innovation outside of Tomb Raider’s original PS1 trilogy.
Add to the mix society’s smartening up to gender equality, and Lara’s exaggerated image quickly became the butt of many gamer’s jokes.
Something needed to be done to revive the series, and so in 2006, after many failed attempts by Core Design to reboot the franchise with a ten-year anniversary remake and various portable platform ports, Crystal Dynamics – who had been acquired by Eidos – began work on Tomb Raider: Legend.
The game aimed to take the character back to her tomb raiding roots, after recent series entries had strayed far from the usual mystical settings of the original games, and looked to present an intelligent, character-rich narrative that provided some backstory on Lara, journeying through the early childhood loss of her mother, to her deciding to follow in her father’s footsteps as an archaeologist.
With Toby Gard back on a Tomb Raider team for the first time since the original game, things seemed to be looking up…
The second reboot (2013): Lara for the modern age?
But despite the competent platforming and intriguing environmental puzzles of Legend and the few games that followed, something was missing.
Perhaps it was simply the tired game play mechanics, found in nearly every other platform title out there and not really doing anything drastically different from the original games, that were equating to poor sales and lower than average review scores.
Or perhaps it was a lead character that didn’t resonate with a new audience of Tomb Raider fans, hard to empathise with due to a larger than life persona that was once the bread and butter of video game heroes, but now seemingly dated? Perhaps those earlier games just weren’t ‘cinematic’ enough?
Publisher Square Enix took all of the above in to account with 2013’s reboot-cum-origins story, simply titled Tomb Raider.
Fusing open world exploration sequences with puzzle-platforming and tight, scripted set-pieces, the experience was a long way from what Tomb Raider fans had come to expect from earlier titles.
They reworked Lara too, presenting instead a young, raw character much more like the average player sitting at home and therefore more relatable; acting out of necessity, desperation and the need to survive when she is shipwrecked and stranded on a threateningly mysterious island early in the game.
The majority of the credit for this much-lauded reinvention of Lara can probably be placed at the door of writer Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of Terry and someone with a deft hand at crafting distinctive, memorable female characters through her experience with Mirror’s Edge.
Hired to work on the project after “Crystal Dynamics went looking for a girl with daddy issues to write its game about a girl with daddy issues”, as Pratchett jokingly put it, she turned Lara around, stripping back her character to the very beginning and layering on personality traits as players went along. Tomb Raider is more the story of the creation of Lara’s character than it is any mystical runes.
“In the movies, she lacked some charm… nothing moved her, nothing touched her. A lot of crashing planes into mountains, throwing money, gadgets, guns and one-liners at any situation. … We took her traits like bravery, resourcefulness, resilience, independence, strength, etc. and rewound those traits until they were just below the surface. Because you don’t actually just pop out being a badass with all those traits in place. There is no bravery without fear. We wanted to show where that came from and how it evolved.” – Rhianna Pratchett (Polygon, 2014)
The developers also did away with the over exaggerated sexuality of the original Lara, instead giving gamers more of a “girl next door” (albeit extremely rich girl next door) aesthetic.
“We did a focus test on the final concept and it tested very well, most people were more drawn to her face than they were to her body.” – Brian Horton, Senior Art Director at Crystal Dynamics (Wired, 2013)
Players experience first hand the traumatic experience of her first kill, the gritty realism of makeshift first aid, and all the breathtaking action set pieces many have come to expect from modern day Triple-A titles.
It all adds up to one of the best adventure games of the tail end of the last generations, and a game that performed exceedingly well critically, taking home myriad game of the year awards.
It shot Lara back to relevance, with a reworked character on a learning curve.
While Rise of the Tomb Raider will see Lara more adept at surviving after all she has learned in 2013’s reboot, we’d wager she still won’t necessarily be the over-the-top action heroine we saw 19 years ago. And that can only be a good thing.
“Tomb Raider is essentially about solving mysteries and exploration and these will always be interesting. So I don’t see why she shouldn’t be relevant in years to come.” – Toby Gard (The Guardian, 2006)
It remains to be seen whether Lara can ever recapture that pop-culture zeitgeist status she held on to so tightly in the 90s.
Would she even want to? It’s a sad fact of mass media that the more rounded, down to Earth and altogether more likeable version of Lara probably doesn’t get marketing types as excited as her busty forebear, but that doesn’t mean that she won’t be taken to hearts by those actually playing the games.
We can’t wait to see where Lara’s new story takes her next.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is released November 13 on Xbox One and Xbox 360, and will be out for PlayStation 4 and PC next year.