Lara Croft is one of the few video-game characters to have crossed over into real-world celebrity. As with James Bond, her various iterations have reflected the times. When the first Tomb Raider game was released in 1996, she was a sex symbol in sunglasses and a tank top, later featuring in Playboy and on the cover of style magazine the Face.
Embodied by Angelina Jolie in the 2001 film, she is curvy and capable, kicking the collective ass of the Illuminati. In 2013, she was a shipwrecked student in torn cargo pants – an accidental metaphor for graduates struggling through the economic recession. Now, in a Tomb Raider movie out this week, Alicia Vikander plays a tearaway Croft dossing around in London.
Although she is a multilingual archaeologist with extraordinary athletic abilities, it’s hard to call the original Lara a feminist icon. With her improbable proportions and minimal outfit (hot-pants and a tank top in the tundra?), she was a product for the male gaze. Women might have loved her, but she was all we had. The prevailing wisdom – now disproven – was that video games starring women wouldn’t sell.
The game that became Tomb Raider originally had a male hero. Toby Gard, an artist working at Derby gaming company Core Design, suggested a female character and came up with the design for Croft. Ian Livingstone, then chairman of Tomb Raider’s publisher, Eidos, recalls that, while her exaggerated features prompted the most discussion, she was never designed to be a sex symbol.
“While [Toby] was aware that most gamers were male, and lad mags were all the rage, he didn’t want to create a page three cyber-babe for Tomb Raider,” says Livingstone. “The Spice Girls were dominating pop culture and girl power was on the rise. Toby wanted to create an aristocratic woman who was strong, intelligent, independent, athletic and powerful.”
Plummily voiced by Shelley Blond, the original Lara Croft was an upper-class English action hero with two guns and a talent for one-liners. The game saw her leaping from motorbikes on to speedboats in search of a lost Atlantean artefact. Due to its early 3D graphics and awkward controls, it hasn’t aged brilliantly – but at the time it blew critics away. “Lara is the perfect heroine,” enthused British games magazine Edge.
It is embarrassing for video game fans that one of the most famous game characters was so obviously sexualised, but there was a disconnect between how Croft existed in the virtual world and how she was marketed in the real world. In the game, she was a gentlewoman, proficient with firearms, author of books. In merchandise and marketing, she was a big-breasted 3D model designed to lure teenage boys. A rumour that the first Tomb Raider contained coding that could remove Lara’s clothes became so notorious that it’s still commonly thought to be true.
“I wasn’t a big fan of the way she was marketed then,” says Rhianna Pratchett, lead writer on 2013’s Tomb Raider, 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider and contemporaneous comics. “It wasn’t so much the sexualisation aspect that bothered me – it was pretty ubiquitous in the 90s – but the way she was being solely aimed towards male gamers.” However, Pratchett says, “that method of advertising undeniably worked in helping Lara become a household name.”
Tomb Raider’s popularity was explosive: the first two games sold more than 13m copies and Croft became an international superstar. Her emergence coincided with the crossover of video games into mainstream culture; this was when Sony was marketing the first PlayStation at nightclubs.
“Nobody imagined Lara would become a cultural icon who would grace the covers of lifestyle magazines, become a symbol of Labour’s Cool Britannia, or be a star on the silver screen,” says Livingstone. “But she gained celebrity status because the game was so good. Brands were queuing up to use Lara in their television adverts. Lucozade was even co-branded as Larazade for a time.”
When Jolie took the title role in the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, it represented the height of the character’s fame – becoming the highest-grossing video game movie (until it was outdone by Prince of Persia nine years later) and breaking records for a film with a woman in the leading role. However, Croft’s burgeoning fame was taking its toll on Tomb Raider’s developers at Core Design. They were asked to produce a game a year, and the quality began to decline. Released in 2000, Tomb Raider Chronicles sold 1.5m copies and did not impress players.
This prompted Eidos to shift Tomb Raider from its British developers to a US studio for Croft’s second era, and Crystal Dynamics in California took over. Three moderately successful Tomb Raider games were released between 2006 and 2008, featuring a restyled Croft, who now had a ponytail instead of a braid, although the vest and skimpy shorts remained. As video-game audiences matured and started to expect more complexity, however, Tomb Raider’s next developers rose to the challenge.
The Tomb Raider 2013 “reboot” set out to imbue Lara Croft with humanity – and vulnerability. “We were keen to give her a more relatable backstory that wasn’t based on having all the guns, gadgets and wealth to deal with any situation,” says Pratchett. “She’s cut herself off from her wealth and put herself through university, taking side jobs and living with her friends, the same way that millions of 21-year-olds do. We ditched the witty one-liners as Crystal felt they suggested confidence she didn’t yet have. We kept the traits people associate with Lara – bravery, resourcefulness, curiosity, tenacity – but rewound them to a point in her life where they are being properly tested for the first time.”
Not everyone responded well to a Croft who was terrified instead of implacable in the face of danger. A scene depicting the first time Croft kills a man, in which a pirate’s hands start to stray threateningly down her body, sparked controversy. It is a well-worn trope that female characters’ strength must be forged by sexual assault. Narratively, the scene represents the moment when Croft transforms from victim into survivor, but it also marks the point at which the game pivots towards the more familiar and comfortable territory of action games – shooting and explosions – rather than Croft’s humanity.
It says a lot about Lara Croft as a character that imagining her as a real human being was a challenging novelty. Although Camilla Luddington’s performance as the rebooted Croft had more range than the impassive star of the early Tomb Raider games, people couldn’t project their fantasies on to her as they once had. This is the Croft that Vikander plays in the new Tomb Raider film: the action heroine with friends, family history and a life beyond her escapades.
Croft’s journey over the last 22 years has mirrored that of the video games industry – from commercial products marketed at adolescent boys to cultural creations that strive for narrative depth and significance. Pratchett no longer works on the Tomb Raider games, but she hopes the character continues to evolve. “I’d love to see an older Lara, maybe in her 50s,” she says. “I’d like to see how the tomb raiding way of life has changed her.
“Male characters are allowed to get older during the course of their games, like [Metal Gear Solid’s] Snake and [Splinter Cell’s] Sam Fisher, but it doesn’t happen very often with female characters. Perhaps motherhood could even be explored. We are starting to see a lot of fathers and father figures in games, but not a lot of mums. Lara as a mother would throw up some interesting challenges.”
- Tomb Raider is in UK cinemas on 15 March.