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I Miss the Old, Superheroine-Like Lara Croft

Lara was an icon in the late-1990s – but the modern version of her is stuck in the shadow of gritty gaming precedent.

by Jake Laverde
05 February 2016, 10:56am

The original design for Lara Croft was definitely focused on a "lads"-pleasing aspect of her appearance (image via the Tomb Raider Wikia)

In 1996, Core Design's Tomb Raider was released onto the PlayStation and PC after being a timed exclusive for SEGA's doomed Saturn console – and it was on Sony's breakthrough system where it really laid its franchise-forming roots. Arriving after a huge build up of hype, the game achieved the rare thing of surpassing expectations by being not only a more-than-decent adventure, innovative in several respects, but also by starring a sexy, ass-kicking, dual-pistol-wielding heroine, the likes of which the medium had never really seen (at least, not until the end credits). Looking like she'd stepped straight from the pages of a comic book, Lara Croft played a massive part in making video gaming cool for the PlayStation generation.

While the Saturn version of Tomb Raider was near enough identical to the one seen by more people on the PlayStation, it was lacking one telling move. On the PlayStation, Lara could handstand onto a ledge before gracefully flipping over to stand upright. It's ultimately a pointless gesture, extraneous to gameplay needs, just a nice bit of animation. But it speaks volumes about Lara's character, in a moment crystallising her confidence and grace under pressure.

Twenty years later, Lara Croft the capable comic-book (super)heroine is a distant memory. In her prime, she was one of the rare gaming avatars to break into mainstream audiences by crossing over into the wider media sphere. She appeared on the cover of The Face magazine (ask your parents); she was a sales woman for Lucozade (after Viz's The Fat Slags. No, really); and inspired a copycat TV series starring Tia Carrere from Wayne's World.

Lara Croft as she appears in 2013's 'Tomb Raider'

The Crystal Dynamics-made 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider, and 2015's Rise of the Tomb Raider – an Xbox One exclusive now available on PC, with a PS4 port coming later in 2016 – are both great games. Let's not get that message confused here – they are, in their own ways, hugely impressive achievements. And both show a very changed Lara from the one we knew in the 1990s – she's now a hard-bitten survivor, not a supermodel explorer with a habit for running into dinosaurs. They're set up as prequels, of a kind, to the older games, showing how Lara became the infamous icon we thought we were familiar with. But that makes their stories dead-ends – all the questions they ask the player, we know the answers to. The games' gritty aesthetic is a hangover from the military shooters of the Xbox 360 era, too, when video gaming grew up not by innovating, but by layering on more guts and gore atop its grey backgrounds.

And now, allow me to take a brief diversion.

Back in the early 1980s, Alan Moore, with his revival of forgotten British superhero Marvelman, and Frank Miller's run on Daredevil, both deconstructed the concept of superheroes, taking them into bold, darker new territories. With Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Moore's Watchmen both released in 1986, they brought a new level of maturity to a medium that was constantly dismissed as being "just for kids".

Come the '90s, there was an endless array of supposedly mature comic titles, full of gratuitous violence and titillation aimed squarely at a young male audience. The ideas that Moore and Miller had brought to comics were quickly turned into self-parody through unthinking overuse. Dark and brooding became the default setting for superhero teams. This was the era of extreme grimacing, Rob Liefeld's mutant chests and Batman looking like a shit Gundam.

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Okay, back to Lara.

When Tomb Raider was released in 1996, the gaming landscape was filled with the corpses of failed mascot platformers. (Remember Mr Nutz, or Aero the Acro-Bat? Of course you don't. Nobody does.) Lara Croft stood out as a relatable character because it felt like you could be her. She was at once both a fantasy figure and attainable lifestyle choice, inspiring an excellent ad campaign.

A straw poll of some of my female gaming friends tells me that opinion is still divided over Lara. Some saw her original design as a swashbuckling adventurer version of themselves. Others called out her top-heaviness, tight top and micro-shorts. Given that the creative lead on the first Tomb Raider, Toby Gard, is a guy, it's fair to say that Lara was dreamt up with the lad's mag crowd at least somewhat in mind – the story goes that Gard was even asked to include a "nude code" in the game, something he refused to do. But it's undeniable that she was a bona-fide icon at the peak of her popularity, whatever your take on her, ahem, assets.

It's hard to see the gritty Lara of today's rebooted titles ever enjoying that level of recognition, though. If one aesthetic dominated the previous console generation, it was the brown Xbox 360 shooter. Titles in the Call of Duty, Halo and Gears of War series were real games, for real men. (Shout out to Simon Miller.) Triple-A games, those made at massive studios and aimed squarely at the largest possible gaming market, embraced dilapidated locales and casual hyper-violence. Once a trailblazer, our new-look Lara Croft is now following the lead of muscle-bound meathead super-soldiers while uttering pompous clichés like, "I went looking for adventure, but instead adventure found me."

Adventuring during the early stages of 'Rise of the Tomb Raider'

Diversion time again. I never warmed to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. Those movies lacked the romance and wit of Tim Burton's Michael Keaton-starring brace, and the sublime Animated Series. Nolan's take was cynical and dour, an intentional step away from the gaudy Joel Schumacher films that followed Burton's wonders, perhaps. But they never felt comfortable with how patently ridiculous the idea of a man who dresses up as a bat to punch clowns actually is.

Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2, however, firmly embraces the ridiculousness. "Guy named Otto Octavius winds up with eight limbs... What are the odds?" exclaims JK Simmons's excellent J. Jonah Jameson, tongue firmly in cheek. When The Dark Knight Rises attempts to break the fourth wall, it falls flat on its face due to Christian Bale's gruff voice. And that's before you get to Tom Hardy's Bane.

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Both Nolan's Batman films and the two recent Tomb Raider games share more than just the initial similarities of their central protagonists being millionaires with daddy issues. Both go to great pains to show you how grown up and mature they are, spouting half-baked philosophical platitudes that are essentially meaningless, like living, Instagram-inspiring quotes accounts.

Then again, maybe it was the only direction Tomb Raider could take after Naughty Dog's Uncharted series took its place as gaming's top archaeological adventure attraction. Nathan Drake is, by and large, an obnoxious haircut who cracks jokes while committing mass murder. But like Lara, Drake has the same attainable fantasy appeal. Judging from the amount of guys I see at Yates's who dress like him, at least.

'Lara Croft GO' sees the "classic" Lara back in action

But while she may not have the spotlight she once enjoyed, the classic Lara Croft lives on in modern spin-off games like Guardian of Light, Temple of Osiris and the excellent puzzler Lara Croft GO. All are very enjoyable titles, with the latter right up there beside Monument Valley as one of the best mobile gaming experiences of all time.

But even with my many reservations about how she's portrayed today, it's good to see Lara Croft back in big-budget titles, like Rise of the Tomb Raider. There'll always be something timeless about exploring ruins in games, and it's so depressingly rare to see modern triple-A-level developers prioritising a female protagonist – though that situation is improving. I only wish that Rise... and its reboot predecessor didn't take themselves quite so seriously, and better embraced the adventurous spirit we saw back when Lara was chugging energy drinks on her way to taking over the world. Let's see her do another handstand at the very edge of a deadly drop, just the once. Her legendary reputation has to begin, again, somewhere.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is out now for Xbox One and PC. Read our review of the game here.

@jake_laverde

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