Lara Croft vs Tomb Raider

In playing through and beginning to write up a review for the recently released Tomb Raider reboot, I’ve been mulling over how much space to devote to discussion of the subject that has – for better or worse – dominated the conversation around the storied franchise since its beginning.

On the one hand Lara Croft – a figure born much more of marketing ingenuity than anything else – has been instrumental in the rise, fall and rebirth of the hugely influential games. On the other hand narrative and semiotic elements were never an integral part of the actual gameplay of the  Tomb Raider series, and so one could deliver a solid analysis of the game and its mechanics without really needing to add to the largely ridiculous analysis of Croft as a sexual figure.

In the end though, the series’ past does colour the experience of the most recent game, and it’s interesting to see how the games — once unable to wrench themselves from the unfair stigma that resulted from the protagonist’s breast-size — have traveled from  revolutionary, to rehashed, to refreshed and finally to refined. In fact in the latest game it could be argued that the image issues of earlier entries have been turned entirely on their head. Rather than attempt to cover the whole discussion in my review, I thought I’d discuss the legacy of the Lara Croft stigma in this standalone article.

Croft as she was introduced in 1996.
Croft as she was introduced in 1996.

Even back in the mid-nineties video games were no strangers to controversy. However, in a prime example of western society’s completely muddled moral standards, the presentation of an over-endowed heroine was a major cause for concern against the backdrop of typically male ultra-violent titles. There’s no doubt in my mind that the dimensions of Croft’s body as it appears in art and promotion for the original Tomb Raider were decided upon quite separately from any gameplay decision. Marketing material, as a non-interactive and wholly semiotic experience, has always struggled to convey the immersive experience of play. In the same way that games of the 8-bit era featured complex and colourful scenes on their covers with little or nothing to to with the gameplay in an attempt to hook players and draw their attention, Tomb Raider eschewed attempts to present it’s gameplay in a visual way and instead put an attractive, hyper-sexualised avatar front and center.

The reason I’m so sure of the separation between gameplay intent and risque presentation is because of the absolute lack of sexualisation within the original game. Lara Croft, for better or worse, became an internationally recognised figure featuring in magazines, television and the adolescent fantasies of people the world over. Meanwhile, the people who were actually playing Tomb Raider were falling in love with an entirely different aspect of the experience: the gameplay. There was nothing sexual about the gameplay of Tomb Raider.

Games academic Espen Aarseth makes an interesting point about Croft’s relationship with the player:

The dimensions of Lara Croft’s body, already analyzed to death by film theorists, are irrelevant to me as a player, because a different-looking body would not make me play differently.

The distinction between player and impartial observer is an important one, considering the input required of a player to progress in the game. It can be easy to forget exactly how revolutionary Tomb Raider was, and how important it was in shaping the games of today. Of its contributions, the idea of ‘environmental puzzles’ (which it did not introduce but certainly popularized and perfected) is the most salient.

The player is given a set of commands that produce precise and predictable actions: a standing jump takes you exactly so far in any direction; hold the action button to attach to nearby grabbable surfaces; tapping back to hop backwards gives you exactly enough lead-in for a running jump, etc. Given the rigidity of the commands, the environments can be constructed in such a way to require an exact combination of actions from the player to progress. This results in a fundamental difference in play mode compared to something like Super Metroid, as the player is either analysing the environment for gaps of a certain length and ridges of a certain height, or their painstakingly positioning the character on the invisible grid of the environment to ensure the perfect lead-in, jump, grab, shimmy or climb.

The reason these mechanics are important is that they highlight the truth in Aarseth’s statement: the character model is the one thing on screen that makes absolutely no difference to the person actually playing the game.

A look through any news reports or academic studies about video games in the mid-nineties will show an overwhelming amount of content on Tomb Raider. What effect does it have on our children’s perception of beauty? Is it interactive porn? The disconnect here is that the gaming public at the time was still moderately young on average, and the people undertaking the research and writing the news certainly were not in a position to look at the games in terms of its mechanical design. In the same way that the non-interactive marketing displays cannot capture or describe gameplay, analysing gameplay based purely on its semiotics — character and visual design, sound design etc —will never return a very useful result.

Today the side that understands just how little Croft’s appearance matters in a Tomb Raider game is substantially older and larger, but the other side still exists. In any conversation about the game series in mixed company somebody is bound to say “oh I remember Tomb Raider. Yeah if you were ever playing that game you were only doing it for one reason”. The fact is games needed exciting visuals and non-game concepts to sell games in the nineties and they still need them now.

infiniteA useful modern-day parallel can be found in the recent example of Bioshock Infinite‘s marketing – specifically its cover design. The game is an emotionally and rhetorically charged fantastical adventure with overtones of american fundamentalism, yet many fans felt the cover art followed extremely closely to the generic ‘rugged white guy with guns stand near an explosion’ action game standard. The game’s director Ken Levine has had to respond to fans multiple times to explain that not everybody they want to buy the game will already have an understanding of the concepts, and the cover as it stands is a much sounder commercial decision than a more obtuse or artistic one that is true to the spirit of the game.

So what does all this mean for the Tomb Raider series today? In some respects the series has suffered greatly as a result of the hyper-sexualisation of its main character, and there is still a large number of people who will not take the series seriously, or worse still find it offensive. For whatever reason an attractive woman grunting with exhaustion as she climbs a cliff-face is still a more tsk-worthy sound than generic soldiers screaming as you cut their legs off.

The gameplay of the series has had its ups and downs, but has always existed in Croft’s shadow. The first three games were an explosion of new ideas and innovative, exciting structure. A creative lull hurt the several preceding games, and the Angelina Jolie movies really put a nail in the coffin as far as removing the sexualised stigma goes. 2006’s Tomb Raider Legend and the follow-up Underworld refocused the series, bringing the same philosophy with modernised mechanics, and reminded gamers how thrilling properly-executed environmental puzzles could be.

Now, with the newly released Tomb Raider reboot, Crystal Dynamics has delivered the first game in the series that legitimately does something interesting with the Lara character from a gameplay perspective. The game has, once again, kicked up a stink among critics whose only frame of reference is cinema and movies, but this time it’s been different. Croft’s femininity has simultaneously been played down as far as sexualisation goes and brought into the reality of gameplay for the first time in the series. The critics weren’t upset that she has a ludicrous body this time, they were upset at the distressed young woman being depicted in such gritty and challenging situations. The minute-to-minute gameplay still exists completely seperately from the narrative and other semiotic factors of course, but that shift from troubling objectification to troubling humanisation in the eyes of non-gamers in indicative of an overall shift in the philosophy behind the new game compared to all that preceded it.

You can read my full review of Tomb Raider right here.

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