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If there is one enduring facet of the video game industry, it is the ability to create symbols. Every entertainment media has their own stable of recognizable superstars. From Audrey Hepburn to Michael Jackson, many of these personas rise to the top of the mountain and never look back, despite rocky shores ahead of them.

The gaming world of course is no different. We have our greats in the likes of Mario, Zelda, Master Chief, and Commander Shepard, but even among the elites some transcend other boundaries and become a symbol of status in ways unimaginable. Perhaps the most popular and still relevant symbol in the gaming would be the Tomb Raider herself, Lara Croft.

It would be somewhat pointless to discuss Lara’s character history and backstory, because it was never fully hammered out in a coherent order until the recent releases in the Tomb Raider franchise. Each iteration before the reboots had Lara’s story change to suit the context of the game, her past experiences transform the type of character she is within each iteration. This made her follow a sort of serialized action heroine role in the vein of famous characters like Doc Savage or Indiana Jones; she is a pulp heroine, one that is thrown into extraordinary situations designed to be both grounding yet fantastic.

The basic plot of any Tomb Raider game would feature eventually some sort of magical artifact or ritual that would bring about a mystical being into the real world, give or take a few deviations to this plot point. It is simply Lara’s job to stop this from happening. 

For the majority of the Tomb Raider franchise, Lara is a blank slate, a hybrid-style character that is created to drive the plot forward. She has a name and visual persona, yes, but in the original Tomb Raider games, it was truthfully of little consequence. Following the traditions of iconic characters before her, Lara was simply the avatar for something new, and in 1996, that “new” thing was three-dimensional puzzle-platformers.

Much like Mario’s stint on the Nintendo 64, Lara’s role in the early days of the PlayStation was to serve as the precedent for 3-D action puzzles. From a gameplay standpoint, the complex movements on the PlayStation controls allowed for various degrees of dodging, strafing, ducking, climbing, and jumping. All of this was smooth and functional at the time of release, making the action combat seen in the original Tomb Raider a gaming high point. The game’s level design was also a primary factor, utilizing the action button to interact with the environment and solve puzzles.

Gameplay controls are really just one side of the coin though. Lara’s adventures became emblematic due to both good game design, as well as a good character for fans to follow. As an avatar for the player, Lara transcended barriers simply due to her gender, a point of often dubious distinction among fans and critics of the Tomb Raider series. Her abilities made her a capable adventurer, and in a way sort of eliminated such gender stereotypes typically seen in most female protagonists at that time.

This actually did manifest with what little personality Lara had in the early Tomb Raider games. Her posh, “refined British woman” sensibilities were originally a more militaristic, by the books soldier, which never truly meshed with the adventures the character would have. It should also be noted that early in development Lara was a male placeholder, and that the official reason for the change in sex was, not as creator Tony Gard once glibly quipped “to stare at her backside while he’s developing the game,” but rather to complement the gameplay mechanics. Even last minute changes by Eidos, which turned Lara British instead of South American, were done for marketing reasons over character development—in this case so the game would appeal more to UK fans. The heavy use of puzzles and stealth in Tomb Raider emphasized the character’s change, and eventually her personality was molded to fit into the world created around her.

So there is a thought process behind Lara and her design, but it is mostly mechanical and artificial, versus with substance, in the original release.  Lara was created by Gard to be a player avatar and was molded by Gard and Eidos to be appealing to the player base. By the time Tomb Raider 2 hits store shelves, Lara would already be deemed gaming’s first female sex symbol.

Lara’s sex appeal catapulted her to loftier heights, putting her into the spotlight with other 90s sex symbols, such as Duke Nukem. At the time it was seen a normal aspect of her character too, especially in a hobby that was then “dominated” by the stereotypical male demographic. This new status, however, would be a double edged sword, one that would forever shackle Lara to the accusations of sexism, even to this day. Of course, there is some truth to this, especially looking at how Lara has been depicted over the years. In a modern day context, however, such accusations don’t really hold anymore.

Fake centerfold shots like this were highly prevalent in the late 90s, and Lara become the premier female sex symbol of th day.

Fake centerfold shots like this were highly prevalent in the late 90s, and Lara become the premier female sex symbol of the day.

It is actually an interesting phenomenon, all things considered. Lara was the forerunner of female leads in video games, but because of how she is rendered, it has caused much ire over the years. Sexual pandering has become part and parcel with Lara’s persona, sometimes overruling any advances in character personality or design changes. The eventual hyper-sexualization of the late 1990s is also a contributing factor to this perception. The later Tomb Raider games had such issues, up until the release of Underworld in 2008, where minor controversies were raised regarding Lara’s attire or even facial structure caught the ire of some in the gaming community. Even the reboot of the franchise starring a younger Lara Croft is met with a mixed reaction because of how Lara looked, over how the game played.

This is mostly due to advertising over characterization. Lara as a character was always marketed as a sex symbol first, with the gameplay itself becoming secondary. This is why some feminists are largely correct regarding their cries of sexism in this case; the marketing was pandering to sex appeal of their character over the substance of their product. This doesn’t mean some critics are correct on every charge against Lara, but in this instance, the marketing of the game due to the popularity of the character has actually done damage to Lara’s credibility. 

It is curious to see many articles around the Internet praising Lara for being less overly sexualized in the recent iteration, yet at the same time finally citing her as a positive role model for female gamers. It is the sort of backhanded compliment that tends to belittle the design choices of Lara over the years. Of course, Lara in many ways was a product of her time, games were going into the realm of 3D, and Lara being a female avatar captured the minds of many young consumers back in the day. Yes, the nude mods that surround Lara are often a bit over the top, which does no favors in making Lara a more capable character when focused on, but they have become a part of her symbolic status, like it or not. 

Many also neglect to point out the other aspect that has evolved over time, the changes to the puzzle-platforming genre. In all versions, up until the recent reboot, Lara was already a capable, dependent character in game. She is the player’s avatar yes, but one that was always ready for any challenge, effectively empowering the player through gameplay. Now, not every game controls well in the Tomb Raider franchise, but Lara, as a hybrid character, is a vessel for the player for the actions in game, namely getting through levels without dying.

Most platformers today are now more dynamic and cinematic in presentation, utilize new techniques, such as Quick Time Events or precise controls, and focus on the presentation over the skill of the player to create a heightened sense of tension. This form of storytelling is perfect for hybrid characters like Lara, which are depicted in a narrative first, with gameplay and interactivity second. Combining the two makes Lara Croft now open for more narrative possibilities than before, which in turn has made people sensitive to how Lara has been handled in the past.

Take her arguably inconsistent treatment in the Tomb Raider reboot. Her constant questioning of her capabilities while simultaneously showing her mettle in the environment is often jarring, and in some ways cognitively dissonant to what Lara is as a character, mostly due to gameplay. True, Crystal Dynamics underplays her sexuality but fundamentally changed the facets of the personality of Lara by making her a more vulnerable character, at least in the cutscenes.

Take, for example, Lara’s most controversial moment in the Tomb Raider reboot. After a helicopter crash essentially kills her, she is revived by her mentor and father figure, Conrad Roth. After Roth revives the helpless Lara, he succumbs to his own wounds after the members of the islands crazed cultists attack, striking Roth as he protects Lara. Through her pleading cries as Roth dies, Lara is essentially stripped of any power she may have; she is weakened and, in some respects, the cause of Roth’s own death depending on how you see it, a far cry of what we would expect from Lara as a symbol of empowerment for players through gameplay, while other characters console her over the death of Roth. 

However, is this the norm in the new Tomb Raider games? One can argue this is not necessarily a change in Lara’s character, but it is adding on a trait that does not fully adhere to her symbolic status as an empowering heroine, at least up until this point. See, her transition to this change, while somewhat heavy handed, leads us to the more familiar role of Lara. Throughout the new Tomb Raider, she is forced to adapt without guidance, to fight and survive on her own against the cult and become increasingly more aggressive and aware of her situation.

As a symbol, Lara always personified several traits since the first game in the series. Visual look of course, but also capability and talent are important aspects of her character. The new Tomb Raider games would arguably change that perception of what is “wrong” with Lara as a character by emphasizing her subservience to her confidence, and in-game “tell” the player how Lara is growing in talent and capability as time goes on. It doesn’t always work, however, once again being saddled with a dissonance between the gameplay narrative and player’s actions on screen, but it is there in some parts of the game fully to show that transformation.

The new Tomb Raider games fuel this character change by depicting Lara as a green but capable adventurer through gameplay. So all of her talents are there; it is a matter of time to unlock them as the game goes on to become more capable as a character. This sort of progression does help in the transition for Lara, giving the new Tomb Raider games a narrative framework for why Lara is the character we’ve seen since 1996. We also get a few knockout moments that really hammer home abilities that show her bravery and confidence, in particular the scene where Lara climbs a large radio tower in the snow.

From the cinematics to the gameplay, the tower climb is meant to be harrowing for Lara. A woman, dirty and freezing in the cold, climbing a rusted radio tower on the side of a mountain in the vain hope of finding a rescue signal. What sells the moment is it is the first time in the game we see Lara breathe a sigh of relief, accomplishing something due to her determination, in spite of the dangers surrounding her. It is a character shifting moment for Lara, showing her capabilities in the face of impossible odds, a hint of what is to come.

So the question of how tasteful her visual look is somewhat of a misnomer—times change the tastes and demographics of any medium. So rolling with the changes while staying true to your roots is how many of these iconic characters survive in the long run. Truthfully, Lara’s sex symbol status is never going away. Even in the reboot, Lara proves to be a beautiful and capable character, when the plot doesn’t call her capability into question. In fact, her transition within Tomb Raider shows that future iterations of Lara Croft will no doubt be a return to form as her role of an empowering avatar.

All of this sprinkled with modern gameplay conventions found in the Tomb Raider reboot, both for good and ill, are really the hallmarks of Lara’s true evolution as an icon in the gaming industry. For Lara Croft, that is all you need to be a memorable character. She is a symbol, one that is both defined by gameplay, derived from sexuality, and most recently, dynamic through narrative cut scenes. Through this she transcends stereotypes and becomes more than just another protagonist, but an icon recognizable by any in the gaming world—a modern day superstar.

Hope you guys enjoyed this episode of Character Select. Sorry it took so long. Let me know what you think, leave your comments below or message me @LinksOcarina.

Robert Grosso

Staff Writer

A game playing, college teaching, erudite-minded scholar who happens to write some articles every so often. Have worked as a journalist, critic, educator and blogger for over five years now, with articles published (as user editorials) on Game Revolution and Giant Bomb as well as a contributor for the websites Angry Bananas and Blistered Thumbs. Now making TechRaptor my home.

  • Slo

    Ehh… No, she’ll stay a chew toy until the next reboot.

  • Hobo-Tobo

    Not even surprised to see the author’s name under articles like this anymore.

  • Robert Grosso

    I’m sorry?

  • MT Silver

    Having recently finished Tomb Raider 2013, my feelings about Lara are mixed. One moment she’s quick to kill people (like the scene where her and Whitman are confronted by thugs) and in the next she’s a scared girl and I had a hard time getting a read on her personality.
    I kind of wish the game had more flashbacks to flesh out her character and motivations.
    For example, is she rich? She was filthy rich in the old games but there’s nothing I could see to indicate either case in TR2013. Another question is how she feels about her dad. Is she living under his shadow? She mutters a few times some disrespectful comments about her father’s beliefs in the supernatural but I can’t tell if the two of them were close or estranged.

    Maybe this stuff is explained in Rise of the Tomb Raider. I don’t know, I haven’t played that one yet, but I do feel that her character wasn’t sufficiently fleshed out in TR2013. Most of the time I spent with Lara it felt like she was just groaning, moaning or screaming from physical pain. I think she gets impaled by something like 3 times during the course of the game, not to mention all the times she falls and hits the ground painfully. It’s almost comical how much abuse she takes throughout the course of the game.

    In any case, the new Lara is definitely more interesting than the old one. Let’s be honest, old Lara was nothing more than a genderswapped version of Indiana Jones.

  • Neutral

    All the latest reboot did for me was neuter her sex appeal and intelligence. They spent more time making her into cold blooded killer with no sense of self-awareness and less about her being an intelligent person trying to uncover the mysteries of some lost civilization. The game was held back by it’s combat system and atmosphere that was contradictory to it’s heroine. She is portrayed as a natural born killer from the first moment she kills someone and it’s relentless from that point on. And for this, I didn’t find her compelling or a strong character at all.

  • Hobo-Tobo

    You’re exactly the kind of author I would expect to write a lengthy diatribe about the character development of a protagonist in a game that is basically a bunch of action movie clichés cobbled together.
    This is why the game industry is so shit. In film, nobody in their right mind would write about the character development of whoever’s the protagonist in the latest Transformers because Transformers is just generic action trash and everyone knows it, but in video games action trash like Tomb Raider 2013, Bioshock Infinite and others guarantee dozens of writers scrambling to write an article about the deep, deep meaning of what is essentially verbal diarrhea, doing their hardest to make clear that they “get it”.

    And these games need it because their gameplay is utterly terrible.

  • Scootinfroodie

    I’d agree with this, but also add the fact that I think the new game (or games, considering everything I’ve seen of RotT seems to follow this trend as well) miss the point to a fairly hefty degree. The old guard TR fans I’ve spoken with enjoyed the platforming elements of the game and thought the character was fun. I myself have gone back and dabbled in the early TR games and the pulp charm and often terrifying jumps necessary to progress still shine through after over a decade

    Meanwhile, 2013 does its best to ape Uncharted’s gameplay, with no skill required platforming and bland cover shooting replacing the clunkier but far more involving mechanics of the originals. Lara herself is no longer fun and is only capable when the plot requires it, with her most praised attribute being a rather well discussed downsizing.

    On that last note actually, I do find it quite interesting that people speaking out against so-called objectification and shaming women do their part to imply that characters modeled after real people have freakish and shameful proportions, and praise the redesign as a result

  • Robert Grosso

    Eh, 2013 Tomb Raider was ok I thought.

    You know what I would consider “action trash” personally? Dark Souls.

    The reason is because it doesn’t attempt characterization, it is gameplay centric in its design, and focuses wholly on the game mechanics for excitement, which tends to be more hit or miss now a days.Even then, it’s not a bad thing, (action trash is a misnomer I feel) it just tells a story based on a different style of play, using gameplay over a focused narrative.

    Tomb Raider was a platformer puzzle game, but attempts to inject characterization into Lara in a different light than before by going the full on cinematic route. She has always had character traits, so trying to evolve her is kind of important to the evolution of Tomb Raider as a series I feel, retaining some aspects of it’s original gameplay that way but focusing on something else.

    It does make the game more modern in that regard, and we can argue if it compromises the gameplay aspects (in some way I think it does honestly) but what is important is how Lara has been portrayed since 1996, like it or not she is a face of video games, like a Marilyn Monroe-super star.

    Doesn’t make it necessarily good of course. But it is important, at least to me, to talk about. Not because it brings legitimacy to the industry, but because it’s part of our industry at this point.

    Thank you for the comment though, it is food for thought at least.

  • GrimFate

    “The reason is because it doesn’t attempt characterization, it is gameplay centric in its design, and focuses wholly on the game mechanics for excitement, which tends to be more hit or miss now a days.Even then, it’s not a bad thing, (action trash is a misnomer I feel) it just tells a story based on a different style of play, using gameplay over a focused narrative.”

    Did you just imply that games that place gameplay above story are trash? That in a medium that is defined by its interactivity, that it is better for titles to place the (often) non-interactive story above the interactive gameplay?

  • Robert Grosso

    Short answer, no I didn’t and it’s a matter of opinion which is better.

    Long answer, if you read what I said here:

    “Even then, it’s not a bad thing, (action trash is a misnomer I feel) it just tells a story based on a different style of play, using gameplay over a focused narrative.”

    It wrong to call it trash in the end, it’s just an interpretation of what a video game can be. i’m arguing that games defined by their gameplay only, or are gameplay centric over a story, are different form of game without depth in narrative to it. In response to Hobo-Tobo’s comment about no one analyzing Transformers movies because they are “action trash,” basically such games with no real narrative it would be hard to analyze any form of character development in them. I feel that Tomb Raider is not in that camp.

    So no, they are not trash, I just used his phrasing so he would understand what I am inferring, although apparently I wasn’t clear enough so sorry about that.