It could all have been so different. She began as a man – a hat-wearing, whip-wielding archetype dismissed by Core Design as an Indiana Jones derivative. One trip back to the drawing board later, and she became female and muscular, at one point so ferociously violent she allegedly resembled a neo-Nazi. She morphed again and became South American: Laura Cruz, a tough and sexy woman from a tough and sexy part of the world.
The Core Design hierarchy liked elements of this design but felt that an English name would be easier to market. Cue one of the greatest impromptu brainstorms in gaming history. A team of six based in a Derby office opened the local phonebook in a search for inspiration and stumbled across an English translation of Laura Cruz that would retain the sonic allure of the original…
Everything was falling into place. A frantic spark of an idea that gestated for months in the mind of her creator, Toby Gard, finally crawled from the ectoplasm of brainstorm to forge her own identity. Puberty followed quickly. While working on the character model to smooth Lara’s rough edges, Gard accidentally adjusted her breasts to preposterous proportions.
“Wait!” someone said (at least, that’s how I imagine it). “Just wait a minute there…”
So Lara Croft was born, and with it, the ethical paradox that has come to define discussions of her character: is Lara a tough and independent role model for modern women, or, the digital manifestation of a relic, a polygon Page 3 model for the (literal) titillation of men?
There is no doubting Gard’s original intent. Realism was the name of the game he set out to develop, and Gard believed he’d spotted a gap in the market. As console technology moved from 2D to 3D, developers were still thinking in terms of the cartoony limitations of early video game design. His vision for Tomb Raider was a game with realistic 3D environments – and a realistic character to explore them. Long before Lara was born, the claustrophobic tombs she’d raid with such rigour were mapped out and modelled with grittiness in mind.
Lara was a revelation for many reasons. Yes, her bosom was enhanced – but would an enhanced bosom on a cartoon character have created such a storm? Would it have put her on the cover of The Face? The point missed by so many in discussions of Lara’s physical characteristics is that they were a sensation not because she was so unrealistic, but because she was so realistic.
Lara and Tomb Raider propelled gaming into another dimension. There is still a place for the cartoony antics of Sonic, Mario and their peers today but only in the shadow of games where the leads look and move like real human beings: Solid Snake, Nathan Drake, the leads from Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. The big budget games that reach out to us with their TV trailers stun us with cinematic realism. Rise of the Tomb Raider, the ultra-hyped Xbox One exclusive debuting this week, used extensive motion capture to make Lara’s movements as natural and human as possible. The results are incredible, as anyone who’s YouTubed the E3 2015 gameplay trailer where Lara is seen clinging to icy cliffs while storms and avalanches batter her will testify.
The original Tomb Raider was one of the chief pioneers of this new breed of game, the interactive action movie, and Gard was clued in to the key advantage of animating characters realistically: players will be able to relate to them more.
To say that his thesis has been proved would be understating the matter in much the same manner as Lara shrugs off a battle with wolves followed by an improvised parachute descent from an avalanching mountain. Gamers took to Lara in a way that hasn’t been seen before or since, regardless of whether they’re male or female, young or old, rich or poor. A Google search for Lara Croft returns 29,100,000 results. Search for some real life people if you want to put that number in perspective, but be warned: if you’re a world leader or movie star it may be bad for your ego…
Perhaps because she was the first truly captivating human character in a video game, perhaps because she was the first captivating female character in a video game, Lara has become one of us. She speaks to something in us, changed something in us, and that’s why we remember her. A little part of us will always be with her, in the depths of some tomb, plunged in darkness, listening for the scratching of wolves. Who knew a Derby phonebook could connect you to somebody worth knowing?
Lara’s next adventure, Rise of the Tomb Raider, releases 13 November on Xbox One and Xbox 360. Order your copy from Amazon