Lara hit in The Face:
Article by Miranda Sawyer
She looks like a girl. She fights like a girl. She makes millions for Sony because she looks like Girl Incarnate. She's Lara Croft, fantasy of millions and star of the Playstation's Tomb Raider. But is she girl-power heroine or mere boy-toy fantasy? Could her byte be more dangerous than anyone thinks? Never underestimate the power of Lara.
What's a girl to do? Lara Croft, a posh bird with a problem, is stuck inside a the kind of Minotaur-friendly, map-free mountain tunnel-system that Indiana Jones would find bamboozling. Still, with her It Girl breeding, her pistol-packing sawn-off shorts, her ready-for-anything knapsack and her Comaneci gymnastic skills (not to mention her poke-your-eyes-out bosoms), Lara's got the wherewithal to be out before too long. On her way to the "exit" door, though, she's got to blast her way through a selection of wolves, dinosaurs, bears, bats, crocodiles and automatic-toting besuited men, plus swim through underwater caverns and still come up looking pretty. Oh, and she's got to collect some ancient religious artifacts while she's at it, too. But there you go, that's computer games for you.
Once she's out (and it'll take you about three weeks of four hours play every day to get through the sixteen levels of Tomb Raider and free the ever-pesky Lara; and that's with a cheat-book) Ms Croft has plenty to keep her occupied. For a start, she's been booked as a video-guest for U2's PopMart tour. Her role? To come rat-a-tatting out of the mile-high backscreen like a Spice Girl with a humour bypass, Uzi-ing the crowd to virtual smithereens as U2 come over all boombastic. It's not a major role - she's sandwiched somewhere between the dancing Keith Haring characters and the animated Lichtensteins - but Lara's people seem excited.
Lara also has to train up her human equivalent in dress-sense, accent, past life and weapon-wielding: an actress called Rhona Mitra, who will be taking on the more mundane aspects of Lara's existence, like hanging out and technology trade fairs, opening computer games shops and recording a single with Dave "The Rave" Stewart, out in September. Dave is out recording in the Amazon at this very minute, finding the correct jungle vibe (ho). There's talk of the human Lara making a film too; the computer Lara is already booked for Tomb Raider II, which will be launched at the quid-chucking public just in time for Christmas. Anything else? Well, just tap in "Lara Croft" on the Internet and check through the 35,000 entries you get back: "Lara is awesome!", "Lara appears in The Economist!", look! Lara appears in the awesome nude. Busy, busy Lara. Lucky for her that in vitualife, real-time is an elastic construct.
You may not have noticed, but there's a war on. And it's being fought over your pocket money. Lara and her game Tomb Raider, along with other PlayStation insta-classics like Tekken, Wipeout and Formula One, are leading the revolutionary Sony attack against the old guard Sega and Nintendo in a deadly battle for the world's weekender cash. At the moment, Lara & co are winning: and in doing so, they're saving one of the biggest, most powerful corporations on earth.
Before it launched the PlayStation in September 1995, Sony was reeling. It's two main sources of income - pop-music and film-making - were giving sluggish returns: the movie side, in particular, had been turning in some Middlesbrough-type results for the millions invested. Today, you can hear the Japanese Sony president, Noboyuki Idei, blithering on about "digital dream kids" like an over-pixelated Timothy Leary: this is because it was the digital interactives that rescued his company, turning in the profit they so desperately needed. Sony moved into the virtual world and hit a real jackpot: 880,000 PlayStations have been sold so far in the UK alone, at between ?130 and ?300 each; over five million Tekken games have been shifted worldwide; Tomb Raider has managed 400,000 British sales on the PlayStation at ?44.99 per game. The dream kids just handed Sony their piggy banks.
To understand how this happened, you have to know two things. One: that in the last few years, games-making technology has made mammoth leaps in sophistication and ability. Two: that Sony's last two "new-invention" launches were the Sinclair C5-troublers, BetaMax videos and the MiniDisc.
Where BetaMax and MiniDiscs failed was in the software aspect: the formats themselves were fine, but there just wasn't anything for you to buy. There weren't enough good films on BetaMax; MiniDisc didn't offer you the tunes you actually wanted. Rival formats, with their huge range of quality films and LPs, just stole the market from under Sony's snivelling nose. So when the corporation decided to make it's move into the cyber-future, it knew that its fantastic little handset would not be enough: it had to have the games to go with it. Lots and lots of top-flash games.
The other aspect, the new technology, meant that the games could actually be built. Amazingly, it's only in the last few years that computer processing power has become advanced enough to deal with the thousands of polygon graphics needed to move a three-dimensional character around a three-dimensional environment. After more than a decade of clunky graphics and barely-2D characters, the equipment and the talent finally existed to make the kind of computer games that we'd been promised for years.
Sony invested millions. Five hundred million dollars on software development; $500 million on hardware development. And with that much invested, there's no room for failure. Virtual rocket-launchers ablaze, Sony wne tfor an all-out, pan-global, no-prisoners attack. It whupped Sega's Saturn console and bamboozled Nintendo, which hadn't expected such fierce force from a company that had never before been in the running. The Nintendo64 (64 bits), actually a more powerful and technically excellent piece of hardware than the 32-bit PlayStation, with an even more retina-wrecking potential was forced to delay launch for twelve months due to the PlayStation's success. N64 came out in Britain in March this year - but, fatally, with only three games attached.
Admittedly, one is Super Mario 64, the moustachioed guv'nor, but that's hardly compensation when you can buy over two hundred games for the PlayStation. The fact is that Nintendo doesn't really care. It's much more bothered about the Japanese market, and if N64 misses in Britain and Europe, Nintendo won't put the effort in just to please us. Still, Sony dropped the PlayStation's price to ?129.99 when N64 came out, just to make sure of your custom. Because, remember, it's you they're after. Although you may not realise it, you're one of those dippy digital dream kids, a sucker for anything cutting-edge. You read The Face, don't you? Then it's you they want.
For thirteen years, post-Pacman, pre-PlayStation - computer games in Britain sold to twelve and thirteen-year-old boys, a devoted, demented, but severely underfunded market. The boys would get two new games a year, one for Christmas, one for their birthday. Frankly, they and their parents just weren't spending enough. With the PlayStation, Sony made a conscious decision to go for the sixteen to twenty-four-year-old market. Old enough to earn a little money but young enough to splash it on a good time. Sony needed computer games to lose their nerdo status: once they became even vaguely cool, then, Sony hoped, all the twentysomething ex-Space Invaders addicts would return to the sticky screen-and-joystick fold. Equally, if younger teenagers saw older ones playing, they'd aspire to playing those games too.
So, in summer of 1995, Sony made its move. Every festival - Glastonbury, Tribal Gathering, T In The Park, even Oasis and Knebworth - had a Sony stall with have-a-go PlayStations, just to let you know what you could be in for. PlayStation chill-out rooms opened in all the major clubs of the country. Consoles suddenly started appearing in bars and pubs, in nifty record shops, cafes everywhere you went. PlayStation sponsored dance-music tours, provided backdrop graphics for all-nighters, made video for use by, ahem, club "VJs".
Sony's other tack was to place PlayStations with so-called "option-formers". Pop stars and footballers, mostly. Sony also struck a deal with Tour Elite, a coach firm which provides buses for bands and DJs like The Prodigy, and Paul Oakenfold. Tour Elite put a PlayStation on each bus. In March, after Liverpool's David James had let in three Newcastle goals, he blamed his one-off (then) bad performance on his addiction to Tekken and Tomb Raider. Poor David. He just couldn't concentrate on the real world.
Come into Lara's world, why don't you? Tantalisingly dream-like, almost never-ending, it twists around a Russian-dolling, U-turning series of underground tombs, dives daringly down a tumbling waterfall, nips swiftly around sphinxes, goes underwater with full blood-in-ears sound effects. Lovely place she's got here - but then, she's a lovely girl.
The story of lovely Lara can be found in the Tomb Raider introductory pamphlet. She's 29 - her birthday's February 14th - the daughter of Lord Heshingly Croft (her mother is unnamed and unpictured, so we never discover whether Lara's greatest assets and enhanced or genetic). Lara was born and raised as posh as you like: sent to finishing school, and all set to marry wisely, when the plane taking her home from a skiing holiday crashed into the Himalayas. Lara was the only survivor. For then on, she travelled the globe alone, studying ancient civilisations and writing of her exploits. Her family disowned her, but she's hardly penniless: when you first use the game, she demonstrates her agile abilities in the several ballrooms of her manor.
Lara Croft is the dream baby of Toby Gard, a graphic artist once employed by Derbyshire games company Core Design. Toby is something of a computer legend: a gameboy wonder who walked away from fame and fortune and, seemingly, disappeared. Twenty-four now, so just twenty-one when Lara first sashayed into his imagination, Toby was the sole shaper of Ms Croft's dynamic presence. Lara is Toby's fantasy. Yet Toby left Core in early March, just two or three months after Tomb Raider's release.
Now they insist that they have no idea where he is. No, he won't be working on Tomb Raider 2. No, they don't know what he's up to. No they don't have his address.
But we do. Toby may not go out much, but he does have eMail. Of course, he doesn't usually answer it - still, he can make exceptions, if he likes you. So. Mr. Elusive says he left Core after making ?50,000 in Lara royalties in just two months. Today, because he doesn't own her copyright, Lara earns him absolutely nothing at all. Toby would, of course, have got more royalties if he'd stayed with Core, but he wanted to start his own games company instead.
Back to Core Design. Toby was not the only designer working on Tomb Raider; Core employed a team of six people for two years to work on the game. Adrian Smith, Core's product development director, explains that Tomb Raider was never meant to be sold on Lara's charms: Core thought that its two unique selling points would be its cinematic imagery (they wanted it to look as though you were in a film) and the fact that you could see the character (whatever she happened to look like). Usually, with this type of exploration game, the player is the character: the screen shows your point of view, where you have to go, what enemies are in front. But Core wanted a visible persona in there, and it very soon became a woman.
"It wasn't a shoot-'em-up game," says Adrian, "and we wanted the character to be coy and stealthy and agile. It just fitted more with a woman."
So Toby set about designing the perfect girl, and Lara was born. For a long time she was called Laura Cruise, but, knowing that Tomb Raider had to appeal in the US as well, Laura became Lara. And as the name became more American, the character became more British (Adrian: "Americans love upper-class English accents"), so her surname changed to Croft, to fit in with her background. After all, only someone with a lot of money behind them could afford to take weeks off work to waltz around being archaeologically resourceful in teeny hot pants.
There are those who think that those shorts are the bottom of all things. Because the game is Lara-centred and you see things through her perspective, you're constantly faced with her perfectly rounded derriere as Lara pads away from you, plait bobbing, pistols cocked. You rarely see her face. Occasionally, the camera allows a glimpse of slanted brown eyes and luscious lips, but otherwise Lara's always out ahead, out of reach, like the perfect girl who passes you in the street, whose face you just miss, who never sees you, who you never see again.
Stuart Campbell, of games magazine Edge, reckons that "Lara's popularity comes down to two words. And the second one is jugs". It's strange when you see men leer over a computer image, yet leer they undoubtedly do. Even Adrian will admit that there are those who back Lara in to a corner so they can flick the camera view across her marvellous chests. Hardly an original sell, in these bountifully-bosomed days, especially when you consider that ninety per cent of games-buyers are male - yet Adrian insists that, at the time of conception, a female game character was considered against the grain, even a little dangerous. Core were warned by "the French and German territories" that a heroine would never work. How could nerd-boys identify with a silly girlie?
Tasmin Hughes, a technology writer and producer of Radio 1's Digital Update, rates Lara precisely because you're forced to identify with her. She points out that even when a game has an active female character (as opposed to someone being rescued) as they do in Street Fighter 2 or Virtua Fighter or Tekken, it's always as a choice: would you like to be a muscle-wrapped thump-'em-up hero or a karate-chopping hi-kick chick? With Lara, there is no decision.
Plus, Tomb Raider being a strategy game, is universally acknowledged as appealing to women. Eighty-five percent of computer games are driving or fighting: girls are held to prefer puzzle-solving. "Not to imply that we're all into Take a Break mag," says Tasmin, "but Tomb Raider requires logic, which women enjoy using."
So men like Lara's ballast; women, her mind. Surprise. But there are no subtleties here. Lara also appeals to women because of her no-nonsense style: other over-cantilevered computer heroines are all pout and apres-tussle chest-heaving, or they will keep knicker-flashing when they fall down. Lara, however distractingly curvaceous, just gets on with things. There's a sense of stiff upper lip about her: she doesn't fuss or wiggle or get snazzy; she just lopes along into terrible danger and gets through with brain-power and unshowy athleticism. Plus she keeps her kit on. Or does she?
"There's some that say if you tap out 'Wannabe' on your keyboard, Lara starts running around in the buff," says Stuart. Others insist that if you get two PlayStations and do something clever with your knobs, Lara will oblige you to a striptease. None of this is true. But there's certainly some Internet nudity: some on-line artist has doctored Lara into appearing without her vest and shorts. Who says computer boys don't know what real girls look like?
Tomb Raider is a high-quality computer game - it's topped the British sales chart a record three times, and it's still one of the best you can buy. Of course, if the game were useless, then no-one would be bothered about Lara's charms. But it's not, and we are: marketing is making sure of that. Poster of Lara in full effect, all boosted bust and booster guns, are appearing country-wide. Eidos Interactive, which owns Core Design, is convinced that in Lara it has a genuine icon, a proper starwhich can transcend mere games-appeal to wolrdwide recognition. And it is all excited. "We have the character," says Eidos' marketing man. "We just need to breathe life into her."
Which explains the "real" Lara. There've been two so far: one from Berkshire called Natalie Cook - "The Croft Original", bibbled The Mirror, having swallowed Eidos' blether that Lara was modelled on Natalie, rather than the other way round.. Poor Natalie was unceremoniously dumped for Lara Number Two when it was decided that Lara should make the inevitable pop single - ands that she, Natalie, couldn't sing; now Eidos have found Rhona Mitra, who will "work" with Dave Stewart to make Lara's pop-star debut.
It's when you see a human Lara that you realise: if Lar was real, she'd be crap. A real woman dressed in combat shorts and Timberlands, brandishing pistols and bristols as she opens a superstore... real Lara just doesn't seem as cool as her virtual sister. A real woman would fall over if she was Lara shaped.
Making Lara real misses the point; in fact it makes things uncomfortable. When Lara's off raiding tombs, a cartoon va-va-voomer in a cartoon world, she's far from just a pretty face. Her heroic gymnastics, her SAS shooting and her marthon stamina make her more than a mere model: she's undeniably brilliant, one of the best characters invented. But Human Lar is just another pretty bird who's outgrown her wardrobe. She can't turn somersaults at the press of a button; she can't dispose of dinosaurs while swallow diving. Human Lara can, of course, talk, but her employers will only let her chat in Lara-speak, and who looks to a games character for wit? Computer Lara is a woman of few words. Just a little orgasmic "uh", when she's working really hard.
Still these are breast-happy days and Lara fits in very nicely, ta.
Even five-year-olds know the message: Girl Power. But the medium lets the message down. These laddettes grew out of, and in response to, lad culture; and lads still run the culture, from tabloids to telly companies, from magazines to chat shows. Lads edit, lads dilute, lads make mute. Geri Spice might try to tell us something but she can't be heard over the screaming headlines that annouce another topless shot. Geri's just another girl whose chests pop out at awards ceremonies. And let's face it, Lara Croft, a fantastic, complex character in a mind-breaking, world-beating computer game, looks just as good when she's frozen, when she's out of the game. She's a darn sexy poster model. Lara might have her knockers, but she's still got her knockers.
There have been over half a million Lara games sold in Britain alone, on all formats: eighty-five per cent of them have been to men.
"You have to understand," says Edge's Stuart Campbell, "that the computer-games industry has not grown up yet. There's no indie sub-culture: it's still very corporate, with corporate, mainstream attitudes. For all their talk of Girl Power, Lara isn't threatening at all. She's designed for men. You control her. And you never see her shaving her legs."
Of course she's not. She's a cartoon. Lara's not real, is she? But for Violet Berlin, a new-technology writer and broadcaster, the problem with Lara is that she's too real, too close for comforting cliches. With her voice and her movement and her dinky little history, Lara's like a proper girl. Only better. Violet prefers Manga heroines, despite their kinky pants tendencies because they're deliberately stylised and unrealistic, "and at least their clothes are good. Lara Croft dresses appalingly". Lara's appeal, reckons Violet, is that of a seventies car advert: a half naked women being used to seel the machinery beneath her.
Fantasy's a fantastic thing: what's wierd is that, as technology advances, the realm of the fantastic becomes more and more real. Edges blur; worlds bump; a games-character warps and becomes a human being. In this age of reality bytes and computer-graphic violence, real men drool over a hi-tech drawing, the ideal girl lives in virtual space. Toby Gard's ultimate fantasy woman exists in his mind; then in a digital dream; then she walks out and gets a career.
Wierder? What about supermodels, as real a fantasy as you'll get: genuine perfection, faultlessness made flesh? Technology touches up their photos: supermodels are unreally good-looking humans whose pictures are doctored to make them look even better.
Still, as Violet points out, technology can make real people look better too. The real you can become a real fantasy, as you're lifted, separated, tucked, trimmed, lasered, enhanced and moulded into the kind of figure that computer heroines have. We can rebuild you too. We have the technology. Fantasy figures are a thing of the past. Some day soon, Lara Croft will really exist. But who designed her exactly?
Interview with Toby Gard
Here's the interview with Toby Gard, the designer who gave life to Lara:
[The Face] Has Lara changed much (physically, character-wise) from your original idea of her?
[Toby Gard] Well, she went through a period of wearing slightly more military-looking clothes, but she looked too Nazi-like. For a while she looked a bit like Neneh Cherry; baggy trousers and crop tops, but before long she found her hot pants and leotard and away we went!
[TF] Is she based on anyone you know?
[TG] No, it's not often you meet gun-toting psychopaths down the pub.
[TF] So what's with the unfeasibly large knockers then?
[TG] Slip of the mouse. I wanted to expand them fifty percent and then - whoops, one-hundred and fifty percent. Darn.
[TF] Did they get bigger when marketing became became involved?
[TG] Not really; they were just focused on more. The marketing men just saw them as the easy route to take with their campaign. I reckon they must have thought, "How are we going to market this? Hey, look at her enormous oojahs! I have a cunning plan." Clever lads.
[TF] Did your girlfriend mind you spending so much time with another woman?
[TG] If you want a girlfriend, avoid working in computer games like the plague. If you work seven days a week, fifteen hours a day for almost two years, with barely enough time for a pint, you have no time whatsoever for relationships. Plus computer-games makers are regarded as being about as hip as abbattoir workers.
[TF] What do you think of a 'real' Lara being used in promotion - will you be buying her single?
[TG] I think it's really wierd when you've drawn a character and then you meet someone who's actually paid to dress up the same and pretend to be her. Very strange. As far as I'm aware the single is no longer going to happen. If it does, though, yes, I'll buy it. I like a laugh.
[TF] Is Lara a feminist icon or a sexist fantasy?
[TG] Neither and a bit of both. Lara was designed to be a tough, self-reliant, intelligent woman. She confounds all the sexist cliches apart from the fact that she's got an unbelievable figure. Strong, independent women are the perfect fantasy girls - the untouchable is always the most desirable.
[TF] Would she work if she wasn't a posh bird?
[TG] I can't somehow imagine her in a council house wearing whote stilettos and sporting a fake-blonde perm. She was made to be as quintessentially British as possible. It's generally held that unless you have an American hero you won't be able to sell a game in America. I though that by deliberately reversing as many rules as possible, ie female (but strong, not tarty), a British not American lead character, and American not British villains, we'd make something that was unusual and fresh.
[TF] Which is more important: the character or the game?
[TG] The game is always the most important thing: the way it plays, the interface, and the content. A good character is useful to bring the thing to life.
[TF] Are you still in love with Lara or are you sick of the sight of her?
[TG] Neither. It's good to see the character around still, quite satisfying in fact. I don't think it would be quite normal for you to love something you made up though, a bit too Bride of Frankenstein for my liking.
Article published in the June 1997 issue of The Face.
©1997, Conde Nast Publishing.