Lara Croft is one of the iconic characters in video games, with the same level of pop culture penetration as the likes of Mario, Pikachu and Sonic. She’s a legend of the medium, and a trailblazer for her gender. However, her success might have come at the cost of those around her, and her 2013 reboot shines a light on the way heroines have always stood on rockier ground.
First, let’s go back to the start. Tomb Raider released in 1996, and by putting a woman front and centre of an action game, marked a big step forward for gender presentation in video games. She was not the first – Samus already existed, alongside a handful of others – but because Lara also brought with her the action adventure genre which would go on to define single player video games for more than a decade, it’s difficult not to see her as the most important.
Initially conceived as a cold, militaristic, every woman, aspects of her personality were tweaked during development, drawing inspiration from Indiana Jones and James Bond to give her a more fleshed out persona. This made her feel like she was a real person, not just a collection of polygons there for you to shoot and climb with.
Things were not plain sailing, however. While Lara clearly had agency and existed with a forthright purpose – not only to be leered at or seduced – an apparent coding error gave her breasts increased by 150% rather than 50%. Had her head, hands, or feet been increased so disproportionately, it’s difficult to imagine the team just leaving things as they were.
Another problem arose from Lara Croft: she was too successful. Any attempt to introduce another female starring character through the ‘90s and early ‘00s was viewed as direct competition with Lara, and few elected to take on such a titan. Why would you, when creating a male character was less controversial, and despite the plethora of male characters, was viewed as having less direct competition?
Whenever players discussed the idea of having more female characters in games, the response was always for their opposition to point to Lara. You have one of the biggest stars on the planet… why do you need another one?
In a way, these detractors had a point. Though ‘90s gamers had less of a hair trigger when it came to the ‘politics’ of women in games, the marketing of games was still highly male centric; Nintendo even marketed the GameBoy as an alternative to masturbation. It was a man’s space, and the fact that a woman got to rule it was progress in itself.
Things were not perfect. The space in which she existed was, if not outright misogynistic, then at least enough of a boys club for the rise of sites like Nude Raider and for Lara to evolve into gaming’s number one sex symbol by virtue of being the only woman in the office. In fairness though, the Tomb Raider games never referenced this environment and always sought to present a well rounded character whose priorities were the success of her mission rather than the titillation of her viewers.
In short, it’s complicated. Though her presentation was imperfect, she was ahead of her time. Her runaway success proved to everyone that female characters could carry a successful franchise, but the fear of competing with her meant she couldn’t fully live up to her ‘trailblazer’ tag.
The success of Tomb Raider as a genre probably had more immediate impact than Lara Croft as a character, though her going first took some of the pressure off Faith Connors, Aloy, Senua and the rest.
In many ways, Lara Croft is the foundation video game heroines who came after are built upon. To explore that most effectively, we need to look at her 2013 reboot.
After taking the world by storm in her first few entries, Lara Croft seemed to stumble a little, through titles like the vastly under appreciated Legend and the wayward Angel Of Darkness. By 2013, the character remained a legend, but was mainly trading on her name rather than any recent success. The new trilogy, which launched in 2013, galvanised and modernised the character, offering a fresh start, a grittier reboot and an almost completely different version of Lara Croft.
Any links to her suave and cocky Indiana Jones/James Bond personality were shorn away to make her a generic ‘Last Girl In The Horror Movie’, reinventing her from the ground up. No, Lara Croft wasn’t born with a shaken, not stirred dry martini in her hand, but this casual wiping of her legacy to rebuild essentially a new character in her place has never sat particularly comfortably. We’ve seen plenty of male characters go through soft reboots recently – Kratos, Thor, very shortly we’ll see Batman – but these characters retain the core principles of their characters. Tomb Raider (2013) was a very good game with a fairly interesting character and some intuitive gameplay. But Lara Croft? Not really.
It trades on Lara’s name to tell an entirely different story. She is the archetypal female lead in gaming, and to see her backstory and established personality be wiped away is careless enough… to then replace it with a generic and vague trauma storyline just feels rather pointless. Even by Rise Of and Shadow Of, while Lara had at least crawled out of just trying to survive a horror movie, she still hadn’t really recaptured that charm. Yes, the writers may just have been trying to do something different, but a) I fundamentally feel like they stripped away too much for this to be an acceptable excuse, and b) what exactly was that ‘something different’?
Seriously, other than being good at raiding tombs, what precisely is Lara’s character in Rise Of and Shadow Of? That she’s a fairly nice lady? Hardly the stuff of legend.
The only tangible thing from pre-2013 which the reboot keeps is Lara’s loss of her father and fixation on living up to his name, a plot point which doesn’t even originate from the games, but from the Angelina Jolie led movies.
By slicing off everything recognisable about Lara Croft’s legacy, the Tomb Raider reboot highlights the lack of care given to the history of female characters in gaming, and the lack of originality when it comes to writing their stories. With the trilogy now concluded, we may get some stronger, more fitting directions in the future. Hopefully the next game will be Tomb Raider, and not just some lady who raids tombs.