Chances are that everyone who lived through the romanticized nostalgia of the 90s will have played the hugely influential 1996 video game Tomb Raider. Capitalizing upon the widespread critical acclaim and financial success the original game achieved, it went on to spawn a franchise that now encompasses video games, feature films, novels, comic books and even theme park rides.
But what of Lara Croft herself? The tough-as-nails titular tomb raider has become even more prevalent than the games from which she was born, appearing in animated shorts, comics and more merchandise than you can shake a pry axe at. She’s taken on a life of her own, appearing in advertisements and been licensed as a spokesperson for Cancer Awareness, even breaking through into Hollywood in the form of actress Angelina Jolie in the film adaptations. She’s become a flesh and blood image in and of herself, both as a feminist icon and a major sex symbol - a confused amalgamation which still sparks much debate.
But who really is Lara Croft?
Is Lara a role model, a champion of progressive representation in video games, or just a large chested cardboard cut out manufactured for the purposes of the male gaze?
It’s an issue that’s been debated over and over throughout Lara’s history and one that’s still relevant today. Though she’s done a lot of good for the representation of women in video games there’s still difficulties with her as a character, especially from her origins…
The First Female Video Game Protagonist?
Though Lara Croft is often pointed to as the first female lead in an action-game, the sci-fi adventure game Metroid is in fact widely held to be the first instance of a video game that featured a female protagonist, the bounty hunter Samus Aran. Covered by her Power Suit armour it wasn’t until players had reached the end of the game that Samus was revealed to be female, even the game’s instruction manual referred to her as a male to keep the reveal secret. Though Samus in her Zero Suit has since become fetishized in the fandom, the primary difference between her and Lara Croft can be summed up in one image.
To be fair to the games, Tomb Raider came along a decade after Metroid did so obviously the graphics were much improved and allowed for clearer rendering of her more ‘feminine attributes’ (read: boobs).
Lara’s (In)Famous Bust
It’s pretty well known by now that Lara Croft’s oversized pointy chest did in fact come about via a programming error that the developers decided to keep in the game, and they’ve gone on to become a central facet of her character. Even Angelia Jolie had to wear padding in her bra in order to bump her chest size up to compete with Lara’s unnatural proportions.
So whilst Metroid kept Samus’ figure under wraps for the big reveal, Tomb Raider shoved it in our faces. “This is Lara Croft, kick-ass, dangerous, adventurous and overtly feminine. Deal with it.” they said. And we did; fans loved Lara as much as they did the game itself, and her appearance went a long way towards breaking away from the male protagonist dominated video games of the era. As for her figure itself, its an argument perhaps most closely aligned with ideals of post-feminism and the sexual woman as liberated. Lara knows she’s a babe, but she’s too busy kicking ass to care.
But of course there is the other side of the coin. Finally including a playable character with these kind of explicitly feminine attributes was arguably purely for fulfilling the purposes of male dominated aesthetics; it’s all well and good to have a women in a video game but we’d better give her massive breasts so the guys playing the game have something to look at. It’s tricky issue and one which is still debated even as Rise of the Tomb Raider releases.
Lara’s Character Development
Rhianna Pratchett, lead writer on the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, describes the original Lara Croft as very one dimensional: “She barely had a voice, let alone a character.” We got her back story in the manual; the aristocratic but adventurous orphan of famous architect and rich-guy Lord Richard Croft, but little of this was covered in the original games. Back then it was all polygon breasts and a waist that left no room for internal organs.
The 2013 reboot of the series for the next-gen consoles might as well’ve been called Tomb Raider: Origins, as it charted the beginnings of the badass Lara Croft we’ve come to know and love. Despite the more realistic proportions given to Lara this time round the game was criticized for making her appear weaker and more sensitive, ‘just a girl’ in a savage man’s world.
The way she was described prior to the game being released by executive producer Ron Rosenberg made Tomb Raider fans want to vomit all over their disc trays, as he hinted that we’d have to fight off a rape attempt and protect the poor innocent Lara from this strange land she finds herself in. Fans of the franchise will know that this is a far cry from the Lara we know and love.
It was a weird character change, obviously intended to reflect her youth and inexperience as this is Lara starting out on her quest and learning to overcome difficulties and obstacles, but it is interesting to note that with a dialing down of her sexualization so came with a reduction in her power, tied to the post-feminist concept that women’s bodies are linked to their power and status.
“The way Lara is marketed now, is not sexualized. Its still beautiful, its still strong and its still, characterful, but it’s not sexualized in the way it has been done before. I was attracted to the project because she wasn’t over sexualized. She shows who she is as a person, not as an object.”
So Has Lara Affected Gaming?
Even now, nearly 20 years later main characters in video games are primarily male, and Ubisoft came under fire recently for reneging on their promises to include a playable female assassin character in last year’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity. So whilst representation is definitely getting better, the gender gap is still an issue that prevails today.
Lara Croft made big waves and rightly so, but we can do and have done better since: Faith Connors in Mirror’s Edge, Evie Frye in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Chell in Portal, Joanna Dark in Perfect Dark, Lightning in Final Fantasy XIII, Heather Mason in Silent Hill 3, Nilin in Remember Me, Sarah Kerrigan in StarCraft, the female Commander Shepard in Mass Effect, Aloy in the upcoming Horizon Zero Dawn… The list goes on, and that’s without mentioning supporting or secondary characters of which there are many awesome examples.
This doesn’t mean we’re without hurdles now though; as Remember Me developer Jean-Max Morris says there was issues getting the game out into the world due to publishers taking issue with the main character’s gender:
“‘We had [some companies] tell us, ‘Well, we don’t want to publish it because that’s not going to succeed. You can’t have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that.’”
So it’s still somewhat of an uphill struggle for developers wanting to have women as their leads, but the concept that video games have a primarily male audience is a myth that is slowly but surely losing grip on the industry consciousness, and rightly so.
Though issues like GamerGate (which is itself problematic) show that there’s still a way to go before women in the video games industry aren’t harassed or threatened for being women, we’ve come a long way in the last 20 years in terms of representation in games.
Lara Croft isn’t perfect, but without her we might not have gotten to where we are today; we just need to remember to keep going.
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