More Than a Sex Symbol – Lara Croft | Character Select

Take a look through Lara Croft's journey so far from sex symbol to heroine, now that Rise of the Tomb Raider is here.

Published: August 13, 2016 1:00 PM /


Lara Croft can be seen

If there is one enduring facet of the video game industry, it is the ability to create symbols. Every entertainment media has its 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 the 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 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 and 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 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 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 sex change 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 emphasizes the character’s change, and eventually, her personality is 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 as 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.

Lara Croft can be seen in underwear, laying down
Fake centerfold shots like this were highly prevalent in the late 90s, and Lara became the premier female sex symbol of the day.

It is 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 of 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 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, the changes to the puzzle-platforming genre. In all versions, up until the recent reboot, Lara was already a capable, dependent character in the game. She is the player’s avatar yes, but one that is 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 the 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, who 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 changes 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 island's 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 death depending on how you see it, a far cry from 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, 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 the 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, climbs 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, despite 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 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.

This post was originally published in 2016 as a part of our Character Select series. It's been republished to have better formatting.

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| Staff Writer

A longtime player of games, creator of worlds, and teacher of minds. Robert has worked many positions over the years, from college professor to education… More about Robert

More Info About This Game
Learn More About Rise of the Tomb Raider
Crystal Dynamics
Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC
Release Date
November 10, 2015 (Calendar)
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