[Editor’s Note: British spellings have been preserved upon request.]
Hey there, FemHype crew! Welcome back to “Leading the Pack,” where we examine some of the very best women and nonbinary folk in games. This week, we’re going to take a look at one of the characters who was—and still is—a true leader in the industry: Lara Croft.
Simply chronologically, Lara is one of the earliest representations of women in games. She first appeared way back in 1996, meaning that she been around for 20 years and is still going strong! Thanks to this longevity, Lara has gone through many iterations. At least 23 games feature her as a protagonist. Accordingly, she has changed much throughout her digital lifetime, reflecting equivalent changes in the industry. It is these changes that we will focus on in order to examine the ways in which Lara has been both a leader and a product of her time.
Thematically, Lara was specifically designed to be a leader in representation. Deciding that the originally designed protagonist for Tomb Raider was too similar to Indiana Jones, designer Jeremy Smith eventually settled on a South American woman named Lara Cruz. While she was unfortunately changed to an English woman, this was—and to some extent, still is—a significant deviation from the standard player character of the time, if not as significant as it could have been.
This was a specific choice by the developers at Core Design who wanted to generate interest for their game by specifically countering the stereotypes and expectations of game protagonists. Clearly, the simplest way to do this was by having her be a woman, but they were also careful to go against the issues that plagued the few women in games at the time. Therefore, they stuck to the personality and skills of other video game protagonists even as they changed her gender, making her an athletic, determined, and intelligent adventurer.
This is also when her now-iconic outfit saw its debut. That general presentation is a good way to examine how Lara herself has changed across the franchise, and how the developers wanted the player to feel about her.
The very first outfit featured Lara in a tank top and very short shorts, her tiny waist and large breasts obviously designed with a certain kind of player and intention in mind. It almost feels like a trade-off: for women, a competent and relatable heroine; for heterosexual men, a visually pleasing protagonist to draw them into the game despite its player character not being who they likely expected.
Things continued in much the same way until, in 2006, a rebooted Lara Croft appeared on our screens, this time in Tomb Raider: Legend, developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Eidos Interactive. Lara was still sexualised, baring her flat stomach and long legs. In case there was any doubt as to what the developers intended by designing Lara in this way, a GameZone review of Legend stated: “It’s hard to say no to a pretty girl that still has what it takes to show us a really good time.”
Additionally, this reboot featured Lara’s mother being killed in an accident involving archaeological ruins when Lara was nine years old. The plot centres on Lara later returning to that place in order to study what happened. This is an example of the still-popular Stuffed into the Fridge trope, usually used to motivate a man through his plot and character development. Its use with Lara is interesting, as it shifts the focus to relationships between women, whilst ultimately demonstrating that Lara was continuing to be framed as a standard video game protagonist who has simply had their gender changed.
Interestingly, Legend’s box art features Lara’s face looking determinedly at the viewer. Previous titles had usually shown Lara in an action pose, demonstrating both her body and capability at the same time. Legend, instead, does not make a big deal about Lara’s sexualisation to the prospective buyer. However, Crystal Dynamics’ next Tomb Raider games—Anniversary and Underworld—took two steps backward in this respect. The first showed Lara in a Boobs-and-Butt pose and the second was passive and often had half of her face cut off, clearly demonstrating what was intended to be important to look at.
Underworld was the final Tomb Raider game until the second reboot in 2013, this time published by Square Enix. This second reboot wanted to remove “Teflon coated Lara,” which made her a more relatable character by demonstrating the emotional struggle of her arc in the game. However, it also put the player in the position of “her helper,” with executive producer Ron Rosenberg saying that players will “want to protect her.”
Creating empathy for your player character can be great, and Tomb Raider (2013) does this well, but the underlying assumption about the appeal of Lara’s character is disappointing. No one ever designs a man as a protagonist who needs to be cared for.
This new Lara was also made more commonly proportioned. The trademark short shorts were replaced with cargo pants, though the sleeveless vest shirt remained. The plot was adapted to make Lara more relatable to the audience; a grounded woman who struggled to put herself through university by working several jobs, and who became an adventurer after choosing to travel the world with her long-time best friend Sam.
These changes reflect an updated, yet enduring view of women in the current gaming industry. Lara does not appear as blatantly sexualised, but her design is still impractical, with a lack of sleeves and hair that is constantly obscuring her vision. She is still presented as a brave and resilient character, but her pose on the box art is guarded, looking away from the camera and clutching an injured arm. Unlike the earlier trends of an action shot, this plays into the stated desire to have the player feel protective of Lara rather than heroic as her.
Lara is also put under the threat of sexual assault, implying that the developers assumed that no player would be personally affected by this threat of sexualised violence. Coupled with the sexist language in the threats of enemies who are men, Lara’s narrative hinges on overcoming gendered victimisation.
This has, again, been a common thread in recent games as the numbers of women as protagonists increase, demonstrating the modern double-edged sword: in earlier Tomb Raider games, Lara was sexualised, but the narrative treated her as any leading man would be. In later games, she is less sexualised, but treated in ways that only leading women are.
On the other hand, this new Lara is more fully realised as a character rather than simply as a heroic figure. One of my favourite moments in her current arc comes in Rise of the Tomb Raider when, frustrated, she sweeps everything from her desk onto the floor in a classic demonstration of anger, something we rarely see from women in games.
Rise was announced at E3 in 2014 with a trailer showing her at therapy (though this scene was not in the game). By allowing Lara to showcase a spectrum of feelings, Crystal Dynamics delivered a more relatable and layered character rather than a cookie cutter, Indiana Jones clone.
Equally, Rise improved upon Lara’s outfit and presentation. On this box art, she is fully covered, as is appropriate for an adventurer, especially in the cold climate. She is clearly in the process of exploring, pickaxe in one hand and flare in the other. She could do with a pair of gloves and some bobby pins to keep her hair out of her face, but it’s a clear improvement.
Ultimately, all of these things can exist in tandem. Lara can be a character created in a way that developers thought would appeal to straight men while also having relatability and aspirational heroism for women who play as her. The 2013 reboot both improved and detracted from Lara’s character in appearance alone. Any piece of media can have simultaneously positive and negative aspects, and a franchise as storied as Tomb Raider is bound to fall on both ends of the spectrum.
I see Lara as a symbol of the games industry’s slow, but visible improvement. The 2013 version of Tomb Raider was a step forward with a stumble, one that Rise of the Tomb Raider in 2015 built well upon. Hopefully, the third installment in the reboot series will allow Lara to be unsexualised, heroic without the need for any player protection, and further built upon as a leader among women in games.