Presenting Lara Croft and the Franchise of Destiny.|
It was a man's world. But it was nothing, not one little thing, without a woman and her guns.
Lara Croft is the First Lady of gaming, the face on a fifty billion dollar franchise, a character so iconic she handily eclipses the very games that feature her. She's a beacon for post-feminist independence and a sophomoric pin-up fantasy, all in one ass-kicking, mouth-watering package. Sex, danger, mystery... Lara carries it all, and she does it all with English class.
Because past the magazine covers, commercials, comic books and Hollywood blockbusters, Lara's just a simple girl who's happiest when crawling through a crumbling Aztec temple loaded with instantly lethal booby-traps. Her adventures might be straight out of the best pulp cliffhangers, but when Lara Croft leapt her first bottomless chasm, the future had arrived, and every other blood-and-guts action hero had catching up to do.
This lady was no tourist.
Not Just a Pretty Face
Core Design made a reputation on delivering simple, solid games in any genre you liked. Side-scrolling combat, point-and-click adventure, puzzle games, kart racers, even a pre-Wolfenstein first person shooter were all on their menu. They'd seen modest franchise success with Rick Dangerous, an Indiana Jones/Flash Gordonish platformer, and turned in a game tie-in for Steven Spielberg's Hook. Nothing terribly flashy came out of their Derbyshire offices, though the reviews always gave them the thumbs-up.
But by the mid-'90s, technology was rapidly changing what a videogame could do, and that gave one of Core's lead artists an idea for something more closely resembling an interactive movie than a video game. Early sketches detailed a 3D world of grid-based pyramids, temples, tombs and jungles for an equally 3D adventurer - not unlike a certain whip-wielding archeologist - to navigate. More accurately, the environment had to be solved, traps avoided and enemies plugged. Combat, puzzles and platforming, all in one game. The artist's name was Toby Gard.
Core had never even attempted to make a 3D game environment before. Few developers had. If that wasn't ambitious enough, Gard wanted his manly hero on-screen at all times. That meant creating a 3D game with a successful third person perspective, a formula the great Shigeru Miyamoto had struggled to crack for years.
Gard's excitement caught on fast. His project got the go-ahead. His hero didn't; it was exactly one lawsuit shy of being Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. himself. Looking to get as far from Raiders of the Lost Ark as possible, Gard suggested bumping one of his female character designs up to the lead role. At the time, females in games existed mostly as victims or hostages... nobody even considered asking male gamers to play as a girl. Core co-founder Jeremy Heath-Smith decided that made a great hook for a cutting-edge game, and Gard started drawing. Sociopathic blonds, muscle women, flat topped hip-hopsters and a Nazi-like militant in a baseball cap came and went. Eventually, they settled on a tough South American woman in a long braid and hot pants, willing to go to any lengths to win the greatest trophies lost to history. An Olympic-level athlete, an expert of antiquities, a born survivor. Gard named his creation Laura Cruz.
The name hit resistance from above. Core's parent company had recently been acquired by Eidos, a video compression and editing software company, and management wanted a more "UK-friendly" name. The six-person project team opened the Derby phone book and started calling out names. A vote chose the winner: Lara Croft.
Her background changed with her name. Lady Croft became an upper-crust thrillseeker, an 11th generation Countess who rejected a life of comfort, learning rugged self-reliance at an early age. It took Core just over 540 polygons to build their brassy explorer. Great care went into animating her. Her trademark braid had to be cut from the in-game avatar, but she walked, ran, jumped, grabbed, shot, dived, rolled, climbed and swam in the trade-off. The twin automags on her lovely hips never ran out of bullets, and the tiny magic carry-all lunchbox on her back always had room for another priceless artifact.
The lady looked impressive all over, far more realistic than other games even attempted. Complete realism wasn't possible, of course, and Gard intended Lara to have somewhat exaggerated dimensions from the start. While making test adjustments to her girlish figure, a slip of his mouse turned an intended 50% increase to her breast size into a 150% gain. It met with instant approval from the team before he could correct it.
That approval didn't transfer to Sony. Core finally had a game with serious reach and Eidos' marketing machine backing them to the hilt, but Sony passed on the beta. It just didn't impress them enough to allow it on the PlayStation.
Core went into overdrive. They tightened controls, hired Shelley Blond to give Lara a voice, added a compelling music score, and pushed the story forward through full motion video cutscenes, another rarely-seen ingredient. Gard's accidental "one-fifty" design made picking out a marketing strategy remarkably easy, and under Eidos' strict direction, the buzz started to build. When Tomb Raider made a second pass at Sony, it received an enthusiastic response. Lara wasn't in the PlayStation doghouse anymore.
Now she was its killer app.
Fortune and Glory
Lara's adventures kicked off in Calcutta with a job offer from wealthy industrialist Jacqueline Natla: travel to the Andes to recover the Scion, an ancient and mystical artifact of unknown origin. Fairly wealthy herself, Lara declined the money and accepted the job. The twin lures of treacherous Peruvian temples and a mysterious relic were simply irresistible.
Sadly, Natla proved treacherous as well, sending her goons to literally take the Scion over Lara's dead body. Never willing to put up with such behavior, Lara quickly claimed the Scion's other missing components and discovered both it and Natla were originally from the lost civilization of Atlantis... and Natla's plans for the device went far beyond recovering a nice museum piece. She'd been imprisoned a thousand years ago for using the Scion's power to further her own insane genetic experiments. Now her vision of proactive evolution meant unleashing an army of mutant creatures on the world.
Lara responded by introducing her former employer to a bottomless pit, then shooting her full of holes. After dispatching a T-Rex in Peru and a giant prototype Scion mutant, killing a flying, fireball-throwing Natla wasn't so difficult. The damaged Scion destroyed the Atlantian pyramid housing it, then the entire island it sat on as Lara made her escape on Natla's conveniently vacant boat.
Tomb Raider debuted in November 1996, six weeks after Super Mario 64. By the end of the first day, it was an unqualified hit. It went to number one in a matter of hours and stayed there for months.
Core couldn't have timed things any better. Lara arrived on the leading edge of 3D gaming with an innovative, engrossing game and, as luck had it, more sex appeal than Mario. PlayStation sales rose in her wake. Soon, Lara appeared on the front page of the Financial Times, the top business paper in the UK. Cover stories in TIME and Newsweek followed, but an 8-page cover article in The Face, Europe's premiere fashion magazine, solidified her image. Toby Gard's creation was a gaming icon on Day One, but now she became a pop culture icon recognized the world over.
Product endorsement and product placement offers came in hard and fast; a Sola wetsuit went into a sequel game already two months into development when the first hit stores. Lara did commercials for Visa, energy drinks and Spanish sports cars, graced French postage stamps, made an appearance in U2's PopMart tour and recorded a single with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. Eidos hired flesh-and-blood Nathalie Cook for promos and photo shoots, the first of many models to carry the mantle of Lara. Magazine layouts put virtual Lara in bikinis, slinky cocktail dresses, and her shadow-covered birthday suit.
The phenomenon went global faster than anyone through possible, certainly faster than anyone was prepared for. Tomb Raider the game almost became an afterthought.
Edios found itself fielding animal rights activists who didn't care for Lara ruthlessly gunning down big game. Scientists calculated her body-mass index - something nobody ever did for Pac Man - and loudly claimed nobody with those dimensions could walk upright, much less jump around. Some feminists vilified her over-objectified figure, others lauded her attitude and independence. As far as Eidos was concerned, Lara single-handedly took them from a $2.6 million deficit to a $14.5 million profit in just one year. They were damn well going to take advantage of the most unique opportunity in marketing history: a virtual sex symbol.
Toby Gard had a problem with that. The Lara Croft he invented wouldn't pose nude for anybody, and wasn't some airhead fashion model. She was cool and refined, confident, sharp witted and exceedingly deadly. She was also the property of Eidos. Decisions on the selling of Lara were made in Wimbledon, not Derby. Disillusioned by the complete lack of creative control over his own character, Gard left Core.
His team went forward, delivering Tomb Raider II almost exactly one year after the original. Everything the first game did, the encore did better.
This time, Lara was on the trail of the Dagger of Xian, an ancient Chinese weapon that, when stabbed into one's heart, literally bestowed the power of a dragon. Competition came from Venetian mobster Marco Bartoli, a man committed to fulfilling his family's long history with the Dagger by using it on himself. Their deadly chase led to the sunken wreck of the luxury liner Maria Doria and a Tibetan monastery before returning to the Dagger's hiding place under the Great Wall of China.
Core went into the sequel with improvements in mind and a game engine optimized to let them create the franchise's defining entry. Dynamic lighting and atmospheric effects gave eighteen huge levels more weight than any other game on the market could grab at. More enemies stood in the way, including a few very tenacious Great White sharks and a fire-breathing Bartoli-dragon. Lara added assault weaponry and grenade launchers to her arsenal, and driving to her repertoire. Vehicles could be picked up and dumped anywhere, Grand Theft Auto-style. Lara cruised the canals of Venice in a stunt-heavy motorboat and painted Tibet red in an armed snowmobile. They could even spare the extra 46 polygons to animate her braid in-game.
If Tomb Raider financially put Edios into the black, Tomb Raider II made the black darker, deeper, and bigger. Eight million copies shipped. Edios and Core were now firmly in the Lara Croft business, and the goal became a new Tomb Raider every November. Like clockwork.
Tomb Raider III hit in late 1998, right on schedule, building on II's improvements. Derbyshire actress Judith Gibbins returned, having taken over from Blond in II, to give Lara a deep, cultured purr. Animations added new details, like shell casings ejecting from guns. New moves, new vehicles, new weapons, new threats, five huge worlds to solve and a fun story to follow... all the notes rang true and strong.
After chasing down a jungle-fevered lunatic in India to retrieve the legendary Infada stone, Lara learned it was actually a meteorite fragment sought by Willard, a Scottish scientist working to excavate the meteor itself in Antarctica. Intrigued, she agreed to help track down three more fragments scattered around the globe by sailors on the HMS Beagle during Darwin's famous voyage.
Early on, the team at Core decided to let Lara do more above-ground work than before, and let players take on the fragments in any order they wanted. Some felt a Tomb Raider should be tomb-focused, but modern settings didn't make for any less of a challenge. Lara was caught sneaking into Area 51 (on a none-too-subtle quad bike) and had to stealth-game past soldiers, stealing "Element 51" from a UFO on her way out. On a South Pacific island, she dealt with cannibals and quicksand, got help thinning the dinosaur population from the locals, and avoided piranha while kayaking the rapids of Madubu Gorge. In London, Lara got a first-hand look at what the fragments could do going up against immortal cosmetics executive Sophia Leigh and the Damned, her discarded, disfigured experiments.
Naturally, when Lara joined Willard in the Antarctic, she found he'd experimented on his own dig crew... and on himself. His obsession with evolution, and the meteorite's ability to accelerate it, transformed him into a hideous arachnid creature, which Lara quickly made extinct.
With III pulling a critical and commercial hat trick, Eidos started cashing in on past successes. The first two games were re-released as Gold Editions, featuring new levels and nothing more. Unfinished Business and The Golden Mask occasionally expanded on existing stories, and The Lost Artifact reconned a fifth meteor fragment and a rematch against Sophia Leigh, but other improvements were slight to nonexistent. So many Tomb Raiders in one year, with another always due before long, rapidly over-saturated the Lara market. Some suspected she'd already peaked.
By the time Core ramped up development on The Last Revelation, they'd been in a constant state of development crunch for nearly four years. The strain showed.
Judith Gibbins left the series, replaced by Jonell Elliott's slightly tinny voice. Also absent was the typical globe-hopping. Lara limited her raiding to Egypt for thirty-three out of thirty-five levels, and started things off by swiping the absolutely wrong trinket. All things considered, it was bound to happen at some point. Taking the Amulet of Horus from its resting place also unboxed the apocalypse in the form of Set, Egyptian God of Chaos. The solution: assemble the Armour of Horus, summoning Set's greatest enemy for an old fashioned godfight. Hounding her every step was Werner Von Croy, once Lara's adventuring mentor, now her nemesis... and Set's puppet.
Revelation clocked in as the largest Raider yet, but technically the advancements were slim. Lara kicked down doors, swapped ammo types, combined items in her inventory. Her animations marginally improved. It made a solid game, but in some ways Revelation felt identical to the Gold Editions; more levels, less innovation. Most at Core felt they'd exhausted the possibilities. Some dreaded another crunch year in service to Lara.
The solution was obvious: kill her.
Set wisely destroyed the Armour before Horus could be summoned, forcing Lara into a hasty Plan B. She used the amulet to seal Set inside Horus' temple, and ran. Badly wounded, she almost made it out before the sight of a repentant Voy Croy made her hesitate, and the famous Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, was buried in her own tomb.
Eidos wasn't so willing to let their girl stay dead. Tomb Raider scripts circulated wildly in Hollywood, a trio of hand-held games bounced around the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance, and diminishing returns were still returns. Core, despite their best efforts, went back into the crunch. Tomb Raider Chronicles arrived as predicted, in November 2000.
The story picked up with three of Lara's friends - led by Winston, her long-suffering butler - eulogizing Lady Croft with untold tales of past exploits. In death, Lara got a new grappling hook that she never had in life. Long dead enemies made appearances. The episodic format let Core jump from high-tech New York to a haunted isle off the Irish coast to a sunken German U-boat.
It was staggeringly dull. The innovative game engine and its grid-based system from 1995, recycled and optimized for a seventh time, now looked horribly out of date. PC ports carried game-defeating bugs. Common gameplay advances were ignored. Four years after her celebrated debut broke ground and shattered boundaries, Lara hadn't changed so much as she'd gotten old.
Core insisted Chronicles was only designed as a patch while an entirely new team went to work on a next-gen effort for the PlayStation 2, sporting an entirely new game engine. Writer Murti Schofield came in to draft an epic, multi-game arc that took the series in dark directions. Lara herself was redesigned and, long portrayed as a superb fighter, finally got some hand-to-hand moves and dedicated Splinter Cell-like stealth options. They introduced a second playable character, Kurtis Trent, hoping to springboard a new franchise. In fact, every gaming trend that had passed Lara by, every idea management came up with, all of it went in. Eidos let fans and doubters know that Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness brought Lara well into the 21st Century, back to being a super-badass adventurer, in the most ambitious Tomb Raider ever conceived.
When the experienced Raider crew turned in Chronicles, they moved over to the Angel production team and found a full-speed disaster in progress.
Moving from PS1 to PS2 didn't go as smoothly as planned, and what did make it across didn't make any sense. Management's committed feature set was too much. Deadlines fell away unmet, one after another. Hollywood, not known for its speed, put two Tomb Raider movies in the can as Core struggled on one unwieldy mess.
Release dates slipped further and further down the calendar until the team received orders to start cutting gameplay. Core moved the second and fourth locations, Castle Kriegler in Germany and Cappadocia in Turkey, to Angel's proposed sequel, The Lost Dominion. Kurtis' hero skill tree, most of his levels, and the franchise planned around him were scrapped. Only his weird Krull-like weapon remained. The expansive feature set went in, each in a highly abbreviated form. Character animations took priority over character controls, leading to the memorable sight of Jeremy Heath-Smith cursing at his own game while attempting to demo a simple first-level game mechanic at a buyers' conference, just a few months before its release. He simply could not get Lara to climb on top of a garbage bin. Nobody else had any trouble trashing her.
Core knew it wasn't ready, but Eidos pushed Angel of Darkness out the door in time to reach stores before Angelina Jolie's much-anticipated sequel, Cradle of Life, opened in theaters. Not the wisest of choices, as it turned out.
During another falling out with Von Croy, Lara (alive again without explanation) witnessed his murder and found herself framed for it. Tracking the real killer through Paris and Prague put her on the trail of immortal alchemist Pieter Van Eckhardt and his Cabal cult's plan to revive the Nephilim, hybrid offspring of humans and fallen angels. She also struck up a flirtatious rivalry - then partnership - with Kurtis Trent, sole survivor of a group dedicated to stopping Eckhardt.
Players enjoyed the music and the story... when they could follow it. All the cuts opened up continuity holes nobody had time to plug. Entire areas made no sense. Lara spent most of the game skulking around a strangely deserted Paris and its strangely vacant nightclubs. Deeply frustrating controls didn't help. RPG elements felt tacked-on, and branching dialogue trees rarely affected the story, making them pointless. Worse, the game went Gold loaded with glitches and bugs. Paramount Pictures blamed the game's dismal press for Cradle of Life barely grossing half its budget domestically - a fifth what the first film raked in - killing not only a planned third film, but a Halle Berry vehicle based on her Bond Girl character from Die Another Day. Female-lead action, a sub-genre Tomb Raider popularized, now translated to box office poison.
Blame for Angel of Darkness went around in circles. Key members of Core's team, people who'd been there from the beginning, left or were fired. Heath-Smith resigned less than a month after the game's release.
Ultimately, Eidos succeeded where Core failed. This time, Lara Croft was dead for real.
You Only Live Twice
And again, Eidos refused to make the condition permanent. They took the Tomb Raider property away from Core and passed it to another subdivision, California-based Crystal Dynamics. Bad enough her creators were left in the cold, but now Lara was in the hands of the Americans.
Shaky starts and bankruptcies well behind them, Crystal Dynamics produced five solid third-person action games in a row for Eidos with the Legacy of Kain series. Handed one of the best known titles in the world, lead designer Riley Cooper and Senior Producer Matthew Guzenda brought their Kain team over and, in a move that instantly won over Raider aficionados, hired Toby Gard as a consultant. Seven years away from his character, Gard was more than ready to help a sixty-person crew - ten times the size of his original Raider team - completely reboot Lara Croft.
For the first time, Tomb Raider came off the grid. Crystal Dynamics culled elements from prior games and added new ones. Chronicles' grappling hook and Zip, the hint-giving computer expert, were joined by nebbishy research assistant Alistair and, of all things, a flashlight for Lara's use, replacing years of cheap flares. Keeley Hawes became Lara's new voice, benefiting from one smartly written script, full of sharp, sometimes cheeky dialogue and genuine drama. Lara's backstory altered slightly to include seeing her mother vanish after tampering with an ancient sword. Her new quest gave Lara fresh leads on what happened to her mother and put her up against a childhood friend she thought long dead in another tomb mishap.
Lara herself underwent a total redesign. She came out no less buxom, but now within the realm of biological possibility. Her moves were fluid, her controls more responsive than ever before. Even the beautifully rendered cutscenes became playable, finally realizing Toby Gard's original vision of an interactive action movie.
Landing in 2006, Tomb Raider: Legend relaunched the series in the best possible way. Faithful fan were a little put off by the accent on gunplay during Lara's journey to recover Excalibur - and, by extension, her mother - but their girl was undeniably back, and the reviews reflected it. The chief complaint was that it ended far too soon.
That June, two months after Legend and one month after Core's assets were sold to Oxford game and comic book publisher Rebellion, a Tomb Raider: 10th Anniversary Edition video popped online. It showed a revamped PSP version of the original game, developed internally at Core... who no longer held the copyright. Fandom spread word across blogs and message boards until Core insiders chimed in; the video's release turned out to be completely unauthorized, and the project official canceled. The video teaser vanished off the internet.
Eidos issued a press release the next month, announcing Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider: 10th Anniversary Edition for 2006, across all platforms, even though the finished game wasn't delivered until June 2007. Appropriately titled Tomb Raider: Anniversary, it completely overhauled the original Tomb Raider with Legend's look and gameplay. Gard went from consultant to designer, helping to recreate all his puzzles, enemies, and action set pieces for the modern gamer. Lara's formerly careless attitude towards violence also got an update, playing into the revised story's themes of power and ambition. Particularly in the final battle against Natla, who was no pushover this time around.
But Tomb Raider's fame was originally built on innovation, not repetition, so Crystal Dynamics is raising the bar considerably for Lara's next outing.
Scheduled for the last quarter of 2008, Tomb Raider: Underworld picks up Legend's story with Lara traversing dimensions to raid Xibalba (literal translation: Place of Fear), the Mayan afterlife. She'll be fully animated through motion capture, performed by former Team USA gymnast and Hollywood stuntwoman Heidi Moneymaker, and early demos look to recapture the wonder gamers felt staring out over the first game's then-amazing vistas. Underworld promises to let Lara do the things Lara would do, from balancing weapons and items against emergent AI enemies to interacting with her environment. She will leave an impression on her world, just as she's left one on ours.
Lara Croft isn't quite the global phenomenon she was back in the 90's, but her adventures are finally proving worthy of her name again. There are reasons books have been written on her cultural impact. She certainly wasn't the first, but every heroine in games, in movies or on television owes something to Lara for proving gender isn't a factor for those who choose to lead the way. At her best and truest, Lara takes us places others don't dare for the sheer fun of it.
That's her legacy. And with any luck, her future as well.
Source: ign.com, by Rus McLaughlin