From Sex Appeal To All-Action Grittiness, Who Is The Real Lara Croft?
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Words: Ruth Cassidy
This piece is published as part of GAMINGbible's celebration of the Sony PlayStation at 25.
When Tomb Raider first came to our screens for SEGA Saturn and Sony PlayStation in 1996, the game boxes had stickers proclaiming, "Featuring Lara Croft," banking on the idea that she would become the star that would carry the game. Twenty-four years later, the Tomb Raider franchise is credited with helping bring video games into the mainstream, and Lara Croft is widely recognised as one of the medium's greatest heroines of all time.
Across this time, Lara Croft has been killed, resurrected, lost her parents and her hair braid, spanned four generations of game consoles and seen the Tomb Raider franchise be fully rebooted - twice, actually, in both 2006 and in 2013. Lara Croft is a gaming icon - but can the history of the Tomb Raider franchise reveal who she actually is?
For better or for worse, one of the things people often talk about when they talk about Lara Croft is her bust size. Her larger-than-life proportions are famously attributed to a bug - as the story goes, a developer allegedly increased her bust size by 150% instead of 50%, and this was either kept in on purpose, or missed. This story has been a game development legend for decades, but it wasn't until the 2013 reboot from Square Enix that we saw Croft's silhouette meaningfully change. Regardless of the origin of her design, it was one multiple design teams had a strong aesthetic commitment to not moving on from.
Lara Croft's sex appeal was a significant part of her early marketing, with the Tomb Raider series' publicity controversially employing promotional models to depict Croft at gaming events such as E3, and releasing posters with the digital Croft provocatively posed and dressed. When her silhouette was changed in the 2013 reboot, there was a significant backlash from a portion of the fanbase who felt that having a Lara that was specifically sexy to them was a key part of their gaming experience.
With this reboot, Lara had a change in appearance, though much of her original concept remains recognisable. As graphics moved away from cartoonish performance, so did Lara move away from her cartoonish proportions. She's still recognisably the Lara Croft we've known all this time though, even if some changes to her appearance proved controversial.
This controversy was not created by the reboot arbitrarily altering an uncomplicatedly sexy character, however. Toby Gard, who designed Lara Croft's original concept, left Core Design in part due to a feeling of lack of control over marketing and PR. His perception of Croft back in a 1998 interview with Gamasutra was of a comic book-style caricature, but not an exploitative one. Drawing comparisons with male comic book heroes, he said: "You can represent an over the top hero figure by augmenting characteristics like a jutting jaw, wide shoulders, thin waist etc, and that is not degrading to men."
From the very beginning, then, Lara Croft has been a sexualised figure - and somebody whose sexualisation is complicated.
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Part of Lara's initial appeal was her quintessential British coolness, with her first voice actress Shelley Blond being directed to be unemotive, like a "female [James] Bond". As an unflappable action hero, Lara was cool even in the face of death - not that her death ever managed to stick.
When Tomb Raider was rebooted in 2013, Square Enix controversially said in an interview with Kotaku that their re-envisioned Lara was one you would "want to protect". This Tomb Raider saw a Lara unaccustomed to adventuring, stepping into that world for the first time. Unlike early Tomb Raider games that see Lara kill almost indiscriminately, violence is traumatic for reboot Lara. We know that she speaks to a therapist between Tomb Raider and its sequel, 2015's Rise of the Tomb Raider, trying to grapple with the fact that she killed in order to survive.
We see reboot Lara go on a journey, however. While she never carries the iconic twin pistols, she acquires a significant arsenal of weapons that she's able to craft herself. Do we need to feel 'protective' over a woman carrying cluster grenade arrows? When you hear comms chatter between Trinity agents fearing for their lives because Lara Croft is on the way, it suggests that this Lara may have as much capacity for ruthlessness as the ones who came before her.
In the original Tomb Raider, Croft has a fiancé, the lofty sounding Earl of Farringdon. She neglects this engagement in order to go adventuring, which ultimately finds her disinherited by her rich father (who is alive enough to do such things in the first games, until she's orphaned in 2006's Tomb Raider: Legend, and stays that way). Her indifference to both her engagement and her aristocratic obligations cements Lara's image as someone who is too cool, too busy, and too aloof to have relationships.
However, a distinct disinterest in men opens up an alternative avenue of interpretation for invested players than simply "aloof". In the 2013 reboot, many players observed a romantic subtext between Croft and her fellow adventurer Sam Nishimura, whom she rescues from danger several times - in one instance, while Sam is wearing a wedding dress, underneath a rainbow.
Sam doesn't appear in the sequels, but she does play a prominent role in the comics, canonically set between the games. The two repeatedly profess how much the other means to them, and in one instance share a hug that the comic writers and artists intended to be a kiss: a moment where Lara realises her feelings for Sam. With confirmation of anything more concrete shut down at some point along the way, we can't say that Lara Croft is canonically one sexuality or another - but there is room on the page for players and creators who see another side to her aloofness.
Ultimately there is no one "real" Lara Croft, not only because her story and the way we interact with her has changed so much over the last 24 years, but because as players, we bring different contexts to how we interpret her. In the same way that archaeology is more complicated than taking an artifact and running, history isn't nearly as linear as it seems looking back at it.
Lara Croft's cultural legacy is that she can mean so many different, even conflicting things, to players and creators alike. She was complicated and conflicting when her designer argued about how her image should be used and marketed back in 1996, but even Toby Gard doesn't own one "real" Lara. In becoming a gaming icon, Lara Croft exists on a vastly different scale than individual details could take away from. Rather, they only add to her legacy, mystery, and multifaceted identity.
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Featured Image Credit: Eidos Interactive, Square Enix