Lara Croft: The History of the Tomb Raider

(Written as of 2014)

Lara Croft is an English Archaeologist adventurer, who has appeared as the central character of the game series Tomb Raider since 1996. She has also appeared in animated short films, printed media, and even two feature-length films, and has been portrayed by six different actresses in film and video games. Lara has developed a massive fan following over the past twenty years and has picked up six Guinness World Records; those being for most successful video game heroine, most recognizable female video game character, and most detailed video game character, whilst the game series, Tomb Raider, holds records for highest-grossing computer game spin-off, most successful live-action transfer and most official real-life stand-ins in a video game. Given the character’s history and an astounding level of cultural impact that came with her being a female, it’s interesting to think that Croft was originally envisioned to be a male character.

Toby Gard, the lead graphics artist at Core Design, first went through five different designs before settling on a male character wearing a hat and wielding a whip, very much like Indiana Jones. But the co-founder of Core Design, Jeremy Smith, was unhappy with the final outcome and wanted more originality about the character. Gard came to the conclusion that it would work better overall if the character was a female rather than a male. After all, what better way to make a character stand out in an industry whereby the majority of fictional characters were male? So despite initial skepticism in the beginning from Gard that a female character would work better, he went on to change the character’s gender, also expressing a desire to avoid perpetuating female stereotypes, which he has personally characterized as being “bimbos” or the “dominatrix”.

The inspiration for Lara Croft came from both pop artist Neneh Cherry and a comic book character called Tank Girl. Early concepts for Lara’s creation actually involved her having characteristics such as muscularity and her being a draconian militant-type person. What Gard settled on was a woman of South American origin called Laura Cruz. However, Eidos Interactive wanted the character to have a more UK-friendly name. So whilst looking through an English phonebook, Gard found and took the similar-sounding name, Lara Croft, as well as incorporating a British origin.

To make Lara look and feel as realistic as possible for the time, Gard scrapped quick animation for fluid movement in order for players to be able to more easily empathize with her. But in the first few Tomb Raider games, I found Lara’s movement to be particularly annoying, which for me hampered the beginning of the franchise quite a bit. Another mistake that Gard made, which he would later infinitely regret, was accidentally increasing the graphical dimensions of Lara’s breasts by 150%. Ultimately, it was argued that the change should be kept. I guess it was to make the character more appealing to male players, but their enthusiasm wasn’t transferred to Sony at first, who believed that the original Tomb Raider just wasn’t interesting enough to be released on PlayStation.

But after tightening the screws on the character design, giving Lara a good voice actress in Shelly Blond, added an appealing musical score to the game, and made further adjustments to both the story and the cutscenes, Core Design and Eidos Interactive went to Sony a second time, who were subsequently blown away by Tomb Raider and Lara Croft. But after the completion of the first game, Gard left Core Design over concerns of a lack of creative freedom and control over marketing decisions related to Lara Croft. The accidental increase of Lara’s breast size actually made picking out a marketing strategy particularly easy, and Gard himself wasn’t happy about it.

With each installment of Tomb Raider, Core Design would go on to improve Lara’s graphical appearance. These adjustments included increased numbers of polygons to make up the character as well as new outfits, more maneuverability, and more realistic curves to her design as well as a new voice actress in Judith Gibbons. When it came to developing the fourth game in the series, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, a younger version of Lara was created for use in a flashback sequence at the beginning of the game. Lara’s move set was expanded threefold to add much more variety of gameplay. However. By the time development on The Last Revelation began, Core Design felt that from a conceptual standpoint that they’d exhausted their creativity options regarding Lara Croft, citing concerns that the series overall lacked innovation. The decision was ultimately made to kill Lara off at the end of the game, depicting Croft being trapped by a cave-in.

However, another game was developed in the early 2000s called Tomb Raider Chronicles, which depicted Lara via flashbacks from her friends. The game had more of stealth feel to it, which would carry on into the next game in the series; Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness. Both games were being developed at the same time, with a new development team working on Angel of Darkness. In an effort to reinvent Lara for the upcoming sixth-generation of gaming, Adrian Smith, the co-founder of Core Design, conducted market research and had an online poll to aid in the development of Angel of Darkness. Of course, the PlayStation 2’s hardware would allow for further graphical improvements to be made to Lara’s appearance as well as allowing for even more maneuverability and further increasing gameplay variety. But the most significant improvement in my opinion was that instead of using the d-pad, they finally opted to use the PlayStation controller’s analog stick to allow for better movement. However, due to a deluge of setbacks, including excess content and missed production deadlines, Angel of Darkness ended up to be a particularly poor game in design. Criticisms were that Croft was brought back too abruptly and that the game’s controls still lacked precision despite intended improvements.

Facing looming financial problems, Eidos Interactive decided to hand over development duties for Tomb Raider to one of their subsidiaries, Crystal Dynamics. Work shortly began on Tomb Raider: Legend and even Toby Gard returned to the project to work as a consultant. Both Lara Croft and the franchise’s brand value were reassessed. Eidos understood that most fans of the series saw it as their own rather than Eidoi. So with this in mind, Crystal Dynamics asked themselves the question “what could Lara do?”

It turned out that there was a lot Lara could do. Her move set was once again increased and updated to allow for better fluency in controls and variety in gameplay. In addition, animation and environmental interaction were also improved to give players even more in-game options and diversity. Visual detail was also improved on, with the added graphical feature of Lara’s clothes appearing wet or dirty after either swimming or rolling on the ground; a feature that Naughty Dog would adopt for use in their Uncharted series. Staying true to the fan base, Lara was re-designed to incorporate more of a realistic feel, whilst the development team also retained past character design elements in addition. Lara was also given a new voice actress in Keeley Hawes, although it was rumored at first that actress Rachel Weisz would provide Lara’s voice. Tomb Raider: Legend became the most critically acclaimed game in the franchise since Tomb Raider II, and two more games were just around the corner; Tomb Raider: Anniversary, an enhanced remake of the original game, and Tomb Raider: Underworld, a direct sequel to Tomb Raider: Legend.

With their focus once again being on realism, new technology was used to improve Lara Croft to align with the seventh generation of gaming. The dirt accumulation and water cleansing mechanics were both implemented as real-time mechanics, and spherical harmonics were added to provide indirect lighting to Lara and other in-game objects. Skeletal animation, texture layers, and shadows were also added to make Lara’s character model more complex than in previous games. A further element of realism was added to Lara’s character by making the decision to keep her hair tied back, as developers felt that Lara wouldn’t want her hair flying around whilst in danger, and to add more realistic proportions, Lara’s body size was increased and her breast size reduced.

However, unfortunately for Eidos, Tomb Raider: Underworld received merely mixed to positive reviews. The main criticisms of the game were that it was considerably dubbed down and oversimplified. The combat was also cited as being non-existent by IGN. Initially, the game failed to meet sales expectations, selling 1.5 million copies worldwide, but later, Eidos announced that 2.6 million copies had been sold and that sales expectations had been met. Despite that, there would be a five-year wait before the series was revamped and released in 2013.

In 2009, Japanese game company Square Enix had acquired Eidos Interactive, and thus gained the publishing rights to Tomb Raider, with Crystal Dynamics remaining the franchise’s principal developers. The second reboot of the franchise was eventually announced in late 2010. It was planned that the new Lara Croft would have a much darker, grittier, and by the same token, even more, realistic feel to her, and after playing the finished product, I could see that they weren’t kidding. The main issue Crystal Dynamics had with Lara was that she needed to be made more human so that players would be able to better care about her and better identify with her. It was stated by Brian Horton, senior art director at Crystal Dynamics, that:

“After creating the biography, our goal was to make it as believable and relate as possible. We wanted to make a girl that felt familiar, but still has a special quality about her. Something about the way her eyes look and the expression on her face makes you want to care for her. That was our number one goal. We wanted to have empathy for Lara, and at the same time show the inner strength that made clear she was going to become a hero.”

The game was a huge success, garnishing a barrage of positive reviews and selling one million copies within the first two days of its release. It even set new records for the franchise, doubling debut sales of Tomb Raider: Legend in addition to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions becoming the fastest-selling individual formats of any Tomb Raider game released to date. In August, it was announced that the revamped Tomb Raider had sold over 4 million copies worldwide. The definitive edition of the game was later released on both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One with all features and DLC intact.

In addition to Lara Croft’s appearance in ten Tomb Raider games and two feature-length films, the character has also had a significant cultural impact on the world of video gaming and in the general media. Her debut was cited as a catalyst for more female leads in video gaming in addition to helping to redefine gender representation in the industry in general, providing different interpretations of what women are capable of, and making this point as valid and true to life as possible. Video game magazines have also cited her as a cultural icon in the industry, even being seen as a means of bringing video gaming to a much wider audience. The Tomb Raider films are also seen as the main catalyst of Angelina Jolie’s rise to superstardom, with young children asking her to sign objects and merchandise as Lara Croft. After the first film, the Cambodian temple of Ta Prohm even become known by the local inhabitant as the Angelina Jolie Temple, and her favorite alcoholic drinks were even advertised as Tomb Raider cocktails in local restaurants. In addition, before the release of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the first Tomb Raider film was the highest-grossing video game movie of all time.

So although Lara Croft had a shaky start in terms of gameplay and controls in my opinion, looking further into how the character has impacted the industry, as well as the media in general, has made me look at her and the Tomb Raider franchise in a completely different light.

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