Described as Christmas for gamers, E3 has rolled around again and is ready to provide more fuel for the hype train than you can wave your shotgun at. In a way, Tomb Raider holds a special place at E3. The game’s first appearance at the 1996 expo not only blew away critics and helped to cement Sony’s new system, the PlayStation, on the show floor; it was also only the second E3 in existence. Both the Tomb Raider franchise and the E3 expo have grown up and developed together.
So, let’s head back to 1996. The build shown at E3 1996 had some serious stylistic differences. Lara could not dive or roll, and she could not fire her weapons without locking onto an enemy. Pretty much all the animations were different, including swimming and landing, and the items were scattered throughout a world much larger than what we saw in the final build. It was buggy, but journalists still saw the potential in a game that, by today’s standards, came from a small, somewhat indie, team from the UK. Tomb Raider gained a vast amount of coverage from the press and laid a solid foundation for its release later that year. Click the image below to watch the first Tomb Raider E3 trailer.
In 1997, excitement hit E3 once again as Tomb Raider II demoed alongside other iconic games including Fallout, Half-Life, and Panzer Dragoon Saga. It was also the year that Eidos named Rhona Mitra as the first official Lara model. IGN described the adoration for Rhona’s Lara as “bigger than Mario and Sonic combined (no pun intended)“. IGN added that “a huge contingent of show attendees stood by the booth for long stretches of time just to get a look at some model in a green tank top, black shorts, and sunglasses.” Ignoring the fact that Lara’s shorts are actually brown, the reception for the official Lara models was certainly popular on the show floor. However, some journalists found it hard to cover their disdain in their reports. In 1997, as the popularity of gaming expos and the media attention they gathered grew, the establishment of ‘booth babes’ became a normal sight, including at the Eidos booth. Unfortunately, the official Lara models became swept up in the FHM-style ‘lad culture’ that was rife in gaming media in the late 90s. Interestingly, E3 had a small pornographic section for its first few years before this was disbanded in 1997. Although it was a mere cultural coincidence, the use of sex appeal in the show gradually switched from the inclusion of the porn industry, to a much more nuanced approach with these ‘booth babes’. In 1997, and alongside Lara on the show floor, there was a Duke Nukem look-alike who strutted around with two glamour models. They would pass out invitations to their booth; but these invitations, upon closer examination, turned out to contain condoms.
As for the game? Well, that went down a storm and achieved rave reviews.
The following years carried on the trend set in 1997, and included demos, booths, the odd trailer or two, and an official model. These models switched from Rhona in 1997, to Nell McAndrew in 1998, Lara Weller in 1999, and Lucy Clarkson in 2000. However, these later Tomb Raider titles failed to capture as much hype as the first two entries in the series. Having said that, the booths remained packed (despite being reduced in size by the year 2000), and sales for the games remained steady.
E3 2002/2003 heralded a new age for Tomb Raider, as Angel of Darkness demoed for the press. Reactions were, sadly, mixed; Eurogamer described the demo as “a poor introduction to what appears to be a promising game. The level on show at E3 has a nigh on vertical learning curve, a frustrating control system, and [sic] instant death jumps which hardly help endear you to the game. We were looking forward to Angel Of Darkness, but after such a frustrating and glitch ridden introduction to the game, it just reminds us why the game has had such a tortured birth. If Core can’t even get a decent demo level prepared for E3, then the project really is in trouble. But we’re still holding out hope that Core will get it right on the night…We shall see when we finally get a finished build in a few weeks time, but, as ever, we’re not holding our breath“. You can read the full E3 2003 review here.
Meanwhile, it was business as usual on the shop floor with Jill de Jong taking on the role of Lara and entertaining the crowds.
Fast forward to 2005. The Tomb Raider franchise had been passed on to Crystal Dynamics and the whole series had been given a reboot with Tomb Raider: Legend. At E3 2005, media attention was high, and everyone was eager to see what had changed with the series. Many reviewers praised the more-realistic physics, in particular the water and fire effects. The change in overall digital media also influenced the distribution of Legend. With greater emphasis on video content, E3 became more of a global spectacle for fans on the internet to join in. Tomb Raider as a franchise fell parallel to this trend with content tailored to disperse online. Click the image below for an example video.
Towards the latter end of the 2000s, Tomb Raider began to dip in popularity at E3. The 2007 demonstration of Legend on Nintendo handheld systems didn’t stir very much buzz, and Anniversary seemed to be overshadowed by the noise that surrounded the upcoming Tomb Raider: Underworld.
So that leaves us with the current reboot of the series, which perhaps represents the biggest impact Tomb Raider has had on E3 since the late 90s.
In 2011, the first trailer for Tomb Raider was presented to E3 by Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix, in addition to the first sneak peek at the Xbox press conference. Interest was high, although gamers worried that the gameplay would be based around too many quick time events, and too much scripted narrative, than they were used to with the Tomb Raider franchise. At E3 2012, the second Tomb Raider trailer was released alongside the E3 Ambassadors Program, which built upon the drive for fan-driven content to market games and events. Seventeen fansite webmasters were invited to Los Angeles to help promote the game, both to the press and via their own distribution channels on the internet. This reboot also heralded in a new age of Lara Croft image ambassadors, with Tomb Raider 2013 being the first game since 1996 to not have an official model at E3. Instead, cosplayers were invited to help promote the image of Lara Croft with their own creations. This step was later mirrored by other games and other companies, as cosplayers were brought in to replace the typical ‘booth babes’ as public opinion began to sway against hired models. However, that discussion is for another blogpost entirely!
At E3 2014, the first trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider was shown to the public to universal praise. Tomb Raider 2013 became the best-selling game in the franchise, and people had high expectations of Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix in upcoming E3s. However, once the infamous Microsoft exclusivity deal was announced, Tomb Raider as an internet community turned in on itself, and this carried through to E3 2015. Despite the return of the ambassador project, the now well-established online content creation of E3 remained cynical. Interested, but undoubtedly cynical.
So where does that lead us now? Tomb Raider will still be very much a part of future E3s. As a franchise, they have grown up together and evolved in the way they disseminate information about upcoming titles. Whether it will reach the heady heights of 1997 or 2012 again, I can’t say, but like Lara herself, Tomb Raider is a spirited franchise which certainly has an integral place in E3 history.
(References: Eurogamer, Gamespot, IGN, Tomb Raider Girls, Tomb of Ash, Unseen64, WikiRaider)
Tomb Raider: 20 years of E3 by Helen Johnson / Survivor Reborn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.