Tomb Raider at 25: How Lara Croft evolved to become gaming’s greatest female icon

Lara Croft wasn’t supposed to be a girl. When her creator, Toby Gard, first pitched Tomb Raider to Core Design head honcho Jeremy Heath-Smith, the character headlining the game was a rugged male explorer in the Indiana Jones mould. Eager to avoid a lawsuit, Heath-Smith greenlit Tomb Raider on the condition that Gard reworked the player character’s design, and when the game hit shelves this month 25 years ago, Lara Croft – an attractive, tank top-clad, Uzi-carrying adventurer – was on the cover, instead.

Lara’s switch from male to female was only the first step in her evolution. Since then, she’s been rethought, reshaped, and revamped to keep pace with advancements in video game technology and storytelling sophistication. Along the way, she’s taken advantage of shifting views on diversity and representation to transcend her problematic roots as a figure of male objectification, becoming what she was always meant to be: the greatest female icon in game history.

Female empowerment figure or embarrassing sex symbol?

To see just how far Lara’s come, let’s rewind to the months leading up to Tomb Raider’s launch. At this stage, Lara Croft wasn’t Lara Croft at all – she was Laura Cruz, a hard-as-nails South American explorer. However, Eidos Interactive (Core Design’s new parent company) wasn’t thrilled Laura’s name or nationality – believing that a British name and background would be more appealing to audiences – and so, after a few hasty tweaks, Lara Croft was born.

One aspect of Lara’s design that Eidos didn’t challenge was her (in)famously shapely figure. Funnily enough, Gard claims he never set out to make Lara titillating; her buxom curves simply reflected the way all game characters in the 90s – male and female – boasted idealised physiques. He also maintains that he tried to set her apart from other, “sex object” female video game characters by giving her a keen intellect, scrappy personality, and air of mystery.

Whatever Gard’s intentions, the sexual allure Lara presented to male gamers – even rendered in the primitive 3D graphics of the time – was obvious, and Eidos clearly banked on this being enough to overcome the mid-90s stigma around female player characters. It was a gamble that paid off: Tomb Raider was one of the best-selling games of 1996 – and one of the best-selling PlayStation games ever.

“She had a real difference to the games characters of the time. Compared to the burly men shooting guns she had a real appeal.”

Lara Croft creator Toby Gard discusses Lara’s mid-90s popularity, in The Guardian

Now, part of this was down to the gameplay. Tomb Raider boasted a ground-breaking mix of the 360-degree movement introduced in Super Mario 64, the puzzle-solving elements of Resident Evil and the shoot ‘em up mechanics of Contra: Legacy of War. It was a dazzling combination that proved insanely playable. Yet the main draw of Tomb Raider wasn’t the gameplay: it was Lara.

Tomb Raider didn’t break into the mainstream pop culture consciousness in 1996, Lara did. Her face adorned the cover of the Financial Times, Newsweek, Time, and The Face, and the articles inside barely paid any lip service to what it was like to play the game. All anybody wanted to talk about was how many copies had sold, and how much Lara’s relatively unique status as a female protagonist in a male-dominated industry drove this success. Invariably, the conversation turned to Lara’s looks – and it’s here that the push-pull between her status as empowering female icon and objectified sex symbol first began in earnest.

Was Lara a kick-ass hero who gave girls someone to identify with and boys someone to respect? Or was she little more than an embarrassingly voluptuous male fantasy come to life – a character who made men drool and women cringe? It was a debate that would continue to haunt Lara’s legacy for years to come.

The Angel of Darkness nearly becomes the Angel of Death

It’s a legacy that was already in danger of fizzling out by the early 2000s, thanks to a flurry of increasingly repetitive sequels that failed to build on the original Tomb Raider in any meaningful way.

Gard left Core before the studio began work on Tomb Raider II (dissatisfied with his level of creative control over Lara and her increasingly racy public image) and his absence is telling. While the response to Tomb Raider II, Tomb Raider III: The Adventures of Lara Croft and Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation was broadly positive, critics began to complain that franchise’s largely unchanged formula was growing stale. But how could Core innovate when Eidos expected a new Tomb Raider title every year?

The Core team’s exhaustion due to the franchise’s gruelling release schedule became increasingly apparent with each successive sequel. It reached the point where they even tried to kill Lara off in Last Revelation just to get a break from Tomb Raider! But things really hit rock bottom with the one-two punch of Tomb Raider Chronicles and Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness.

“[Tomb Raider Chronicles] was effectively a load of old shit… Three years of hammering it, and we were burnt out. That shows in the product.”

Former Core Design staffer Andy Sandham on the Tomb Raider franchise’s declining quality, in Eurogamer

Despite an overall graphical upgrade and a few new gameplay mechanics, neither of these efforts is all that different from the game that came out in 1996 – and what seemed revolutionary on the PlayStation felt downright prehistoric on the Dreamcast and PS2. Sales for both games were poor, and Eidos began to reconsider the ongoing viability of the Tomb Raider franchise.

Worse still, throughout all this, we never really got to know Lara herself any better. Sure, there was the odd scrap of additional backstory here or there – not to mention two forgettable movies starring Angelina Jolie – but she essentially remained a blank slate. In an era where video game storytelling was finally starting to approach the sophistication of cinema, this threadbare characterisation was woefully inadequate. Next to her more fully-realised peers, Lara Croft felt like a cardboard cut-out with oversized breast implants, further fuelling accusations that she wasn’t fit to be the female icon the industry so desperately needed.

Underdeveloped and overexposed (Eidos even had her plugging Lucozade, in an admittedly awesome advert), Lara Croft and her failing franchise were on the verge of burning out. But just as a radical creative choice resulted in Lara’s creation, another such choice would also prove to be her salvation, too.

A legend reborn (and reborn again)

No longer confident in Core Design’s stewardship of the Tomb Raider franchise, Eidos handed control to Crystal Dynamics. The newly appointed development studio decided the best way to move forward was to start over – not just by re-thinking the established Tomb Raider gameplay mechanics, but also by revamping Lara herself. As part of this, Crystal Dynamic lured Gard back to the fold, and the trilogy of games that resulted – Tomb Raider: Legend, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, and Tomb Raider: Underworld – proved that Lara could still be a force to reckon with in the modern era.

You can chalk up some of this success to the games’ improved controls and shiny new physics systems, but the work Gard and the wider team did to retool Lara is at least as important. They didn’t just settle for dialling down her bombshell looks, they beefed up her characterisation, too. Heck, thanks to Legend, we even learned the emotional context behind Lara’s graverobbing lifestyle – something that drove the narrative of that game’s sequels, and gave gamers a story they could finally invest in.

By the time Underworld arrived in 2008, Lara Croft was a firmly entrenched as a video game icon again – only this time, something was different. Yes, she was still a female character made by men (and reflective of everything that entails), but now, she felt like an actual person. This distinction encouraged gamers of all genders to stop dismissing Lara as an outdated throwback; to look past her sex symbol status and see her as an important – albeit flawed – female empowerment figure, instead.

It was a defining moment in the development (or should that be “rehabilitation”?) of Lara’s legacy. And then Crystal Dynamic went and hit the reset button again with 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot.

“…we had gameplay innovations we wanted to apply, but we realised [Lara] herself was probably one of the things that was challenging a sense of innovation and freshness the most.”

Tomb Raider (2013) co-director Noah Hughes explains the motivations by the second series reboot, in The Hollywood Reporter

A second series do-over may seem like a premature move, but unlike many prequels and reboots, looking backwards turned out to be the best way to propel Lara and the Tomb Raider franchise forward again. True, retelling Lara’s origin story again felt more than a little unnecessary. Yet this most recent batch of games – the so-called “Survivor trilogy” of Tomb Raider, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider – is so well-executed, that it’s easy to forgive Crystal Dynamics for re-treading old ground.

As with the Legend trilogy, the most important innovation here wasn’t emulating more modern gameplay mechanics (although incorporating elements of upstart franchises like Uncharted was certainly a smart move). Nor was it further adjusting Lara’s physical proportions or retiring her traditionally skimpy outfits. No, it was digging even deeper into Lara as a character, exploring her moral dilemmas as she gradually transforms into a more grounded version of the plucky adventurer we know and love. There was no denying it any longer: Lara wasn’t a big-boobed male fantasy anymore – she was a three-dimensional character that anybody could root for.

The associated marketing reflected this shift. While even the Legend-era games indulged in the odd bit of suggestive box art and advertisements, the Tomb Raider promotional imagery from 2013 to 2018 (when Shadow of the Tomb Raider was released) emphasised Lara’s grit and survivalist qualities. Some pundits will never endorse Lara as a positive force in the industry, but her current trajectory suggests she’s fully committed to winning them over, all the same.

Who knows? Maybe her next outing will do the trick. After all, there’s no word on the next instalment in the Tomb Raider franchise (not counting mobile game cash-ins) and considering Shadow of the Tomb Raider was criticised for being too same-samey, safe money is on another character-revitalising reimagining. But whatever form Lara’s next adventure takes, one thing’s for sure: now more than ever, she’s the perfect woman for the job – and fully deserves the mantle of greatest female icon in video game history.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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