The History and Evolution of Lara Croft

Although it doesn't seem like it, Lara Croft has been venturing into tombs for mysterious artifacts for longer than you’d think. The release of  Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the third game in the latest reboot trilogy spearheaded by video game company Square Enix, marks the 22nd anniversary of the prolific Tomb Raider franchise. Lara Croft, the main protagonist of the franchise, has been in 18 video games since the release of the titular first game Tomb Raider, and been the subject of animated films, feature films, comic books, and magazine covers. Lara Croft as a character has had a huge impact on popular culture and is cited as being a catalyst for the inclusion of more female protagonists in the video game industry - an industry that has had a longtime lack of diversity. Although the depiction of Croft was once incredibly problematic, the way that she has evolved as a character indicates a shift in the way that female protagonists are depicted in media. The Tomb Raider franchise is an example of the way many female characters in the action or adventure genre have evolved from sex icons to complex and fully developed human beings, and how the traditionally male-dominated video game industry can move towards including more characters that exemplify female growth and empowerment.

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The first game in the franchise Tomb Raider - released in 1996 by the game development company Core Design - was the first time that we got to see Lara Croft in action. Croft was first designed to be a man with a whip and a hat who explores tombs; if that sounds like another famous explorer you know, it’s because the game designers were trying to base their character on Indiana Jones. Toby Gard, the lead graphic artist in charge of character design decided that a female character would work better design wise but there were not a lot of female lead characters featured in video games at that time. Despite this, the original Lara Croft, the British archeologist, explorer and tomb raider, was born and was instantly deemed a pop culture icon. Although it was an incredible feat to introduce a female protagonist into the mainstream zeitgeist of the time of Tomb Raider game’s original release, there were issues with the first seven Tomb Raider games designed by the Core Design team.  One was that the character of Lara Croft was designed in a way that was not anatomically accurate to the female form; in other words, she was designed to have large, unproportionate breasts. The way that Lara Croft was designed didn't only exude sexism but also negatively impacted gameplay. During gameplay there were times when it seemed like even Lara’s ability to run was impacted by her design scheme, as the player was forced to run, jump, and fall using a character model whose body wasn't designed in a way that made Croft maneuver like a video game character, let alone an actual human being. Croft would also be dressed in a pair of booty shorts and a tight tank top or sports bra - which again, wouldn't be an issue until you think about that fact that those clothing choices didn't make any sense with the rock climbing, free falling, and fighting Lara was doing in the games themselves. All of this made it glaringly obvious that players were supposed to focus on the Lara’s body, not her abilities as a tomb raider.

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The worst part is that, foregoing all of the issues with Lara Croft’s physical design, the writers of the original game gave her a backstory that was actually compelling. In her original iteration, Croft is born into the pampered life of aristocracy, surrounded by servants and high society. After losing both of her parents at a young age and surviving a plane crash at the age of 21, Lara is forced to rely on herself and her instincts to survive. Left with an empty manor and a large sum of money, she becomes famous for discovering sites and artifacts of archeological interest. This is really where Lara’s story starts but other than this little piece of her backstory, you don’t get to know much more about her. Her personality allows her to appear fearless as she navigates tombs, battles enemies, and solves puzzles with what seems like a practiced ease and confidence, though you rarely get to see her inner-thought process. Although her personality somewhat offsets the blatant sexuality of her character design with personality traits that made her a feminist icon to some, it’s hard to forget what the physical attributes of Lara Croft’s character design symbolize - that she is a character to be objectified. The character of Lara Croft - and the mainstream reception of her character - is best epitomized by the original Tomb Raider movie franchise starring Angelina Jolie.

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In 2001 the first film in the franchise, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was the biggest film of that year starring a woman. The film was released during the peak of the video game franchise’s peak popularity and garnered millions of dollars from the box office. Although it was insanely successful, if you were to watch the film in 2018 it would feel like a relic of the era it was born in. From the beginning of the film, Lara Croft is portrayed as less of a fully developed character capable of feeling emotions and more of an unfeeling avatar - swinging around her mansion and beating up bad guys, rappelling down into a cavern and beating up bad guys, etc, etc. All in all, apart from the stunt work and Angelina Jolie’s bravado and charisma, there isn’t a lot to dig into in terms of Lara Croft as a character. Even though the first Tomb Raider film could be deemed a success with the barriers it broke in having a female lead protagonist, it still feels particularly slimy to think about the fact that even with all of the badass tomb raiding that occurs in the film, the film’s production team still had to enhance Angelina Jolie’s breasts.

After the success of the original Tomb Raider film franchise, the popularity of the original Tomb Raider games started waning due to poor quality and negative reviews from critics. The game development and franchise rights were transferred to Crystal Dynamics in 2003. The design team at Crystal Dynamics was focused on believability in evolving Lara Croft as a character - focusing specifically on what exactly Croft would be able to do. The look of Lara Croft completely changed - her hairstyle and wardrobe was updated, and she was given a more proportionally structured body - the disproportional breasts replaced with more muscle tone in the rest of her body. Gone were the tank tops and short shorts, in their place a v-neck shirt and cargo pants. There was more detailing added to her facial structure, to allow the character to respond to events that occur in the game with a visceral emotional response. All of these updates lead up to 2010 - the year that Square Enix announces a reboot trilogy for the Tomb Raider series.

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The first game, simply titled Tomb Raider  and released in 2013,  was supposed to act as a complete reboot for the franchise and a way for fans of the series to experience Lara Croft’s transformation into a skilled adventurer and tomb raider. First building onto the previous updates to the physical design of Lara Croft, the design team for the reboot used a relatively new technique called motion capture-based animation. The technique includes tracking and recording live-action face and voice performances using motion capturing devices, and then using that data in the animation process to make a character appear more lifelike and emotive. This allowed Lara to be completely reimagined with the features of Camilla Luddington, the actress who provided the voice acting and motion capture, giving her more human-like attributes than ever before. Although the physical changes were astounding, the most revolutionary changes made to Lara Croft as character were mental and emotional. The reboot trilogy of the Tomb Raider games was meant to be grittier, portraying Lara’s struggle to survive in a way that is darker and harsher than previous games. The titular first title in the reboot finds Lara shipwrecked off the coast of Yamatai, an island off the coast of Japan. In this game, Lara starts with no skills as an explorer or adventurer and is forced to rely on her instincts to survive as she tries to find the other members of the ship’s crew. The game is the definition of abrasive but Lara also appears more fully human. You can’t help but cringe alongside Lara as you witness the first time that she is ever faced with injury and peril. Lara cries and screams, and exudes nothing less than sheer terror through this first game, but by the end of the game she is shooting arrows and finding supplies to defeat the enemy hidden on the island and to save her friends. The second game in the reboot, released in 2015, was called Rise of the Tomb Raider and served as a look into Lara’s life a year after her experience on Yamatai. This game takes a darker look at Lara’s psyche as she deals with the effects of PTSD from the harrowing experience she has. The game shifts from Lara’s cultivation into an adventurer to her desperate search in Siberia to find what her father was looking for before he killed himself - something that haunts Lara through the entire Tomb Raider franchise as she faces psychological demons, not physical ones. This game leads into the recently released Shadow of the Tomb Raider. In this new installment, Lara is a seasoned adventurer and explorer, working in South America with her friend Jonah to stop Trinity, the organization behind the death of her father. In this game, Lara battles herself as she is faced with the consequences of what seems like a obsession to solve the world’s mysteries no matter what the cost.

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Along with the release of the reboot trilogy of the Tomb Raider video game series, the film Tomb Raider also came out in March of 2018 as a reboot of the film 2001 film franchise of the same name. This film centers on the plot points seen in the first game in the reboot, and tracks Lara Croft’s (now played by Alicia Vikander) journey to survive the perils of Yamatai and rescue her friends. Although the film received mixed reviews, it is a world apart from its 2001 counterpart. Gone is the clean glitz and glam of the old and seasoned adventurer Croft, replaced with a dirtier and more realistic version of a survivor tale. There are many times in the film when Vikander falls and gets injured then falls again, making as many mistakes as she finds solutions in her interpretation of Lara, making her more vulnerable than she ever was but also more compelling to watch.

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In this particular trilogy of Tomb Raider games, it is clear that more attention was paid to the more emotional and mental aspects of Lara Croft’s character. Some critics like Louisa Peacock -  deputy women’s editor of the Telegraph - complained about these changes:  "I don't want to be reminded that superhero Lara Croft is just a girl ... why do they need to show her human side? Why does she need to make mistakes, become vulnerable?" One response to this is that giving more care to the internal and external struggles of a character like Lara Croft doesn't necessarily take away from her character, but it instead serves to make her a more well-developed and complex. After all, in the games Lara isn’t vulnerable because she’s female, she’s vulnerable because she’s been placed into situations that push her limits as a human being. Even so, why can’t a woman still be brave if she’s afraid? Isn’t that what makes Lara Croft so courageous in the first place? Any person would struggle if they were shipwrecked on an island or dealing with the untimely death of their father - that’s what makes us human, and that’s what makes Lara human too. Anyone who says that giving Lara the capacity to make mistakes and be vulnerable shows that she’s “just a girl,” misses the idea that she is also learning to survive and believe in herself and her own abilities - something that is equally, if not more, inspiring. Over the 22 years of the Tomb Raider franchise, the character of Lara Croft has undergone countless changes on every adventure she has been on. Her journey from an objectified symbol to the fully realized and complex character she is today is incredibly indicative of the evolution that has occurred in the way we look at the worth of female lead protagonists. It will be exciting to see how Lara continues to evolve on her next adventures, as she continues to prove that female empowerment in the face of overwhelming obstacles can only ever be a good thing.