Ah, Lara Croft.
Has there been a more polarizing woman portrayed in video games? I doubt it.
From her debut on the PC, Playstation and Saturn in 1996, the sexy spelunker has raised as much debate and discussion on her image as she did testosterone levels in newly pubescent male game players.
Her fans hailed her as a hero for women, especially girl gamers (once considered a huge minority); no longer would we once again be rescuing the tired-and-true damsel in distress from an evil villain. This time, we took on the role of a British explorer who put herself in danger simply for the fun of it – Lara herself says in the opening cutscene of the first game, having been given a lucrative offer from Natla for the Scion artifact, that she “only plays for sport.” Gamers followed her cross continental journey to recover pieces of the artifact, discovering an ancient race on the lost continent of Atlantis along the way and enduring a betrayal by her new employer.
Eight million sold copies later, Tomb Raider gave us more than just a new gaming hero – a pop culture phenomenon was happening before our eyes. We were given sequels whose names emphasized Lara’s name more than the franchise that gave birth to her. We got two movies out of it, starring everyone’s favorite hot, talented actress turned soccer mom Angelina Jolie as Lara. Top Cow Comics gave us new stories as well as a crossover with another buxom badass, Witchblade. Hell, Bono himself actually gave up a bit of the spotlight to feature Lara on footage projected during their 1997 Popmart Tour. That, my friends, is fame.
Oh, yeah. We also got Nude Raider.
Look at that picture and try not to laugh. Digital nudity is now nothing more than a nice aspect of an M-rated game (and something that fuels this awesome website), but sixteen years ago, a legion of game players with newly sprouting hairs and a sudden eruption of unwarranted erections salivated over the idea that somehow, in some way, you could remove Lara’s clothes while playing one of her games. Console gamers spent every waking minute on message boards, debating countless methods on how to actually bring about the ultimate cheat code. I vaguely remember one theory regarding finishing the game without taking a single point of damage, a feat so laughably impossible it could only be correct. Without the restrictions of closed files, PC gamers hacked their way into the game’s code and did it themselves. On top of this, digital renders of Lara’s model in the buff circulated throughout the internet, adding fuel to the out-of-control fire and resulting in many great pranks, not the least of which was an April Fool’s code by Electronic Gaming Monthly in 1997.
Unfortunately for Eidos, Core Design and Toby Gard, the man who is credited with Lara’s inception, infamy began to overshadow whatever image the team had attempted to portray. Lara was meant to be a counterpoint to typical female heroines, with near superhuman agility and expert marksmanship in a variety of firearms. Personally, with breasts the size of cannonballs on an otherwise rail-thin frame, I’m not exactly sure what kind of stereotype they were hoping to break. I feel like Gard may have been trying to please too many people at once, and the attempt to balance strength and sex appeal broke the scale. For all her badass skills, Lara Croft was not accomplishing anything Samus Aran hadn’t already done herself a decade prior. And her sex appeal? I’m an old-fashioned man with a preference for “women.” Lara, no matter what she could do with a pair of magnums, always struck me as a girl.
As does happen with popular culture and fame, the spotlight moved away from Lara and people really began to notice something else: her games were really, really starting to suck. I understand nostalgia for its own sake, so I’ll grant you the original, but try playing through Tomb Raider II through V and tell me you can tolerate it for more than ten maddening minutes. It got so bad that after the release of Angel of Darkness, the lone PS2 console-exclusive entry, Eidos decided they didn’t want their darling dragged any deeper and handed production to Crystal Dynamics. They came up with Tomb Raider: Legend, a game that I enjoyed but owed almost all of its platforming mechanics to the Prince of Persia trilogy that began with Sands of Time, a trait even more exploited with the Anniversary remake and Underworld.
At this point, we’ve seen everything Lara has to offer. We’ve learned about her family, the true reason for Natla’s involvement in her life and followed her quite literally to hell and back. Now under the expanding umbrella of Square Enix, Eidos and Crystal Dynamics are taking the a deeper plunge than Lara herself has ever done.
When Game Informer first broke their exclusive story on a complete and total reboot of Tomb Raider, I remember a passing thought enter my head about all the “remakes” and “reboots” that had been popping up, often dropping numbers altogether for sequels. It’s happened with Mortal Kombat and Twisted Metal most recently, along with Medal of Honor, Turok and SSX, as well as the upcoming X-COM. Skeptical of what they were doing with this new take, I read one page and my fears were dashed. To put it simply, Lara Croft and Tomb Raider aren’t fucking around.
This new Lara demands that you throw everything you remember of the series out the window and never look back. Right out of university and eager to become a raider of tombs, Lara instead realizes she is in way over her head. She is put in immediate, life-threatening situations that have nothing to do with conspiracies, evil benefactors or genetically altered races. Forget about running out of ammo; now you need to make sure you have water. She has limbs broken, gashes opened and scars created before you even take control of her for the first time. She issues vulgar curses at the darkness and obstacles while blood from her wounds flows freely.
I can’t think of anything sexier than watching a female of the species reduced to her basic, primal instincts of survival. If you need a point of reference, watch Neil Marshall’s brilliant movie “The Descent” from 2005, another product of the UK. I picture a blood-soaked Lara, handmade shank in one hand and a torch in the other, emitting a guttural roar and clawing her way back into the spotlight, albeit a very different kind of popularity.