As far as video game lead characters go, they don’t come much bigger than Lara Croft. For Joe Donnelly, that was exactly the problem.
Lara Croft’s name precedes the Tomb Raider franchise. She has enjoyed the spotlight in every one of its video game renditions, as well as a couple of Hollywood outings, and a huge number of merchandising and advertisements spanning her glittering 17-year career – too multitudinous to count.
That’s all well and good – I’ve followed Lara’s journey from the Tomb of Qualopec, to the Lost Island, and everything in between. I understand what it’s all about. But if you were to ask someone not so interested in video games – say my Mum for example – you get this response: “Tomb Raider? That’s the female character with the guns and the big boobs?”. As someone who hasn’t played any of the games, that’s the lasting impression Lara Croft as a market icon has left on her. Lara is famous for the wrong reasons.
As a female lead character, Lara Croft has had to endure an unfair amount of polygonal stereotyping, crude sexualisation and exploitation, all of which combined have overshadowed almost everything the heroine has achieved in her rein at the helm of the Tomb Raider franchise, to the point where her relevance – and the Tomb Raider brand’s relevance itself – in modern gaming has been altogether questioned. This alongside a succession of disappointing instalments, means it’s consistently failed to achieve the heights of the late 90s/early 00s.
If it’s broke, fix it
It is no secret that our popular culture – predominantly the mass media – perpetuates gendered sexualisation and sexist objectivism, however those in charge of Tomb Raider’s development and publishing over the years are arguably just as much to blame for exploiting Lara Croft’s perceived sex-symbolism, utilising this as their main marketing tool, as opposed to gripping storylines, adventurous puzzles and quality visuals.
The latest rendition, plainly titled Tomb Raider, was Crystal Dynamics’ second stab at the much maligned series this generation, and has reinstated Lara as a credible protagonist who has allowed the franchise to be recognised once again as a frontrunner in the action-adventure genre, receiving considerable commercial and critical plaudits for its ‘stripped back’ approach. Tomb Raider touches on so many wider-reaching issues, perhaps partly by accident, creating a game which is not just a success in gaming terms, but a success on a much wider-reaching scale.
Most famously known for her PlayStation endeavors in her early years, Lara Croft ran, jumped and climbed onto PS1 in 1996, championing 3D action-adventure platforming on Sony’s toddler console to great avail. Such was the success of Tomb Raider’s debut outing that the series received annual sequels until the year 2000, where Chronicles conveyed flashbacks of Lara’s most memorable missions, following her assumed death in the previous year’s installment, The Last Revelation.
Lara Croft was however revived as developer Core Design led the series into the subsequent generation, but the commercial and critical failings of Angel of Darkness ultimately marked the end of its tenure. Crystal Dynamics grabbed the reins, and saw out the generation with the relatively successful (although certainly not without its critics) Legend and 10th year testimonial re-boot of the original, entitled Anniversary.
Underworld then released in 2008 to very mixed reviews, making it clear that Tomb Raider was beginning to lose its footing in the contemporary marketplace. Since Tomb Raider 2 – a whole decade prior – the series had been in decline: the general consensus being that Ms Croft may have had her day in the sun. In essence, a lot rested on the shoulders of 2013’s Tomb Raider.
So, when it’s obvious the general gaming public are getting tired of what you’re offering, but you’re still keen on pleasing them, and still keen on delivering a game which will entertain and, ultimately, sell, what do you do? You seek inspiration. It’s glaringly obvious that Crystal Dynamics has leant heavily on Naughty Dog’s well-esteemed action-adventure series Uncharted whilst crafting the mechanics of Tomb Raider.
Some cinematic scenes are resonant of Heavy Rain, and stealth set-pieces echo Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell. But why not? If something works, i.e. Uncharted, does it not make sense to draw inspiration from any such ideas to create another equally enjoyable experience? Naughty Dog will no doubt watch on with pride as Tomb Raider doffs its cap to Drake’s adventures; the almighty Tomb Raider, 17-year veteran, turning to the young Uncharted, relative newbie in the grand scheme of things, for inspiration.