Since her debut twenty years ago, the character of Lara Croft has become one of the most recognisable faces in popular culture. She has transcended the Tomb Raider video game from which she originally came, becoming the subject of two blockbuster Hollywood movies, with a third currently in production. She has appeared in comics, books, and an animated series. She has undergone at least five – yes, count them five – reboots. So who the hell IS this Lara Croft person the world is so obsessed about?
Well, sure as cute little Scions are Natla’s playthings the character running around in 2017 – who was stranded on Yamatai and subsequently fought Trinity in the depths of Siberia – isn’t the same Lara Croft who discovered Excalibur and Mjolnir, nor the Lara Croft who defeated Marco Bartoli and Pieter Van Eckhardt. Neither is she the same Lara Croft who went after the Triangle of Light, or who found the Cradle of Life.
I don’t mean that the character has evolved and grown.
I mean that she isn’t the same character.
The protagonist in the most recent title, Rise of the Tomb Raider, has nothing in common with the one from 1996’s Tomb Raider except for her name and a penchant for archaeology. She is not a younger, less confident version of the original; she is a completely different person both in terms of her background and personality.
Much more than twenty years’ worth of polygon improvements separate these two characters
Before the trumpets start raining down fiery Armageddon, let me break down the narrative a little and explain the reasoning behind this claim. That doesn’t mean to say that any of the incarnations of Lara Croft are necessarily bad characters – they have simply become too differentiated to still be legitimately thought of as the same person.
This isn’t just me saying this, either. Others have noticed the “identity crisis” that has emerged in the Tomb Raider franchise over the last few years, including Eurogamer, Metro, and countless gaming forums. All of these reviewers say the same thing: while the current generation of games are still entertaining and serviceable, the only time they really shine is when they remember the roots of their heroine and the things that made the games stand-out from the crowd in the first place.
So how and where did it all start? And how did it change so radically over time?
As this is such a complicated topic with such a lot of ground to cover, it will be split into several parts. Each part will examine each of the main incarnations of Lara Croft, and break down exactly where she comes from, what makes her tick, and how she differs from one incarnation to the next.
Part 1: Core Design first era – 1996-1998
Part 2: Core Design second era – 1999-2003
Part 3: First movie era – 2001-2003
Part 4: Crystal Dynamics first era – 2006-2008
Part 5: Crystal Dynamics second era – 2013-present
It’s worth noting, however, that Lara Croft has undergone several other reboots that have subtly altered her background and/or personality (for example, the Top Cow comics). This list is by no means exhaustive!
Core Design first era – 1996-1998
This era covers the first three games: Tomb Raider (1996), Tomb Raider II: The Dagger of Xian (1997), and Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft (1998)
In 1996, Toby Gard and Vicky Arnold sat down to create a protagonist in a new third-person action-adventure game, Tomb Raider. Originally, Gard went with a male protagonist, but a popular fictional character already existed who was too close for copyright comfort (coughIndianaJonescough). The decision to switch the character’s gender was just the beginning; over time, Gard and Arnold shaped and reformed names, personality traits, background, and visual styles until they ended up with someone whom we know as Lara Croft.
According to Arnold and Gard, Lara Croft was born into an aristocratic British family, with wealth and privilege permeating every facet of her life. Her education was the best that money and connections could buy, and culminated in both a stay at Gordonstoun boarding school and a Swiss finishing school.
In Arnold and Gard’s biography, Lara’s father helped arrange her marriage to the Earl of Farringdon when she was 21 years old. Soon after the engagement, Lara was travelling home from a skiing trip when her plane crash-landed in the Himalayas – leaving Lara as the only survivor. Lara finally emerged from her ordeal after spending two weeks alone in the wilderness, only surviving by virtue of her wits and physical endurance.
After rejoining British high society, Lara found that she could no longer cope with the claustrophobic atmosphere and expectations placed upon her. She struck off alone and immersed herself in archaeology – the only pathway that offered her the thrills, danger, and rewards she had come to crave. She also began publishing detailed articles about her exploits. Arnold once described how Lara probably wound up completing at least one correspondence course (such as those offered by the Open University) in anthropology and/or archaeology to put the polish on her knowledge of ancient cultures, languages, and history. According to her original biography, when it came to her former pre-marital arrangements, “the Earl is still waiting.”
Lara’s independent and eccentric lifestyle was too much for her father, Lord Henshingly Croft. He disowned his prodigal daughter and cut her off the from the family fortune. Lara’s writing became the primary means through which she could fund her expeditions, but she would also take commissions now and then, when it suited her. Arnold also thought that one (or two) of Lara’s great-aunts must have bequeathed her a small manor and, in contrast with her father, firmly supported her outlandish lifestyle.
Watch out for thorns…
As time went on, Lara Croft became synonymous with fortune and glory – not to mention a killer attitude and a ruthless craving to win at whatever cost. More a thrill-seeking treasure hunter than a professional archaeologist, Lara Croft tackled every challenge head-on. However, she retained her aristocratic mannerisms: she was always scrupulously polite, even to her enemies, and matched life-threatening dangers with dry wit, poise, and grace under pressure. She was motivated to pursue dangerous ancient treasures, not only for the prestige and monetary reward of the artefacts themselves, but because she only felt alive when she was alone in the field risking death at every turn.
Personality, motivation, and visual profile
Lara Croft’s personality was sophisticated, witty and deadly. She was game for anything – the more dangerous or rewarding, the better. She was also, nine times out of ten, only serving her own interests. Put simply, she was a thrill-seeking, treasure-plundering, no-holds-barred adrenaline-junkie. Knowledgeable and fiercely intelligent, yes, but she chose archaeology for the danger and glory, not because she harboured a scholarly interest in investigating or preserving ancient sites, and not because her parents had laid the foundations of her interest with their own archaeological careers.
Lara’s motivation to go on adventures stemmed from two sources; firstly, from her baptism of fire in the Himalayas, and secondly by the subsequent rejection from her family when she refused to settle down and be a good little aristocrat. We can justifiably conclude that Lara felt driven to an extreme degree: She did not hunt down ancient relics for the monetary reward, but because she felt her life simply wasn’t worth living if she wasn’t risking it on a regular basis. She was always trying to prove herself by tackling the deadliest challenges, pushing herself to the limits in every capacity.
Evidence for this can be seen in her initial exchange with Jacqueline Natla in Tomb Raider (1996); the prospect of monetary reward held little interest for Lara compared to the challenge of braving the Peruvian wilderness. And again, in Tomb Raider III: Adventures of Lara Croft, Dr Willard did not entice Lara with money or material wealth, but with the chance to travel to remote and/or dangerous locations seeking unique treasures.
“I only play for sport.”
It is also worth mentioning how uninterested this incarnation of Lara was in forming relationships. Again, there is a disparity between product and marketing. In the games, Lara Croft was polite to all, but kept them at arms’ length. She seemed full aware of her physical attractiveness, but was equally unconcerned about engaging in relationships of any kind. She sometimes showed a certain degree of tenderness and concern (for example, towards Brother Chen and the wounded Aussie Sergeant), but she was equally firm about booting the audience out the door when she broke the fourth wall at the end of Tomb Raider II.
In contrast, the marketing department of the day took full advantage of Lara’s curvaceous figure to sell everything from energy drinks to cars; the advertising incarnation of Lara Croft was just as eager to take her clothes off and blow kisses as she was to abseil down buildings and steal ancient treasures.
Put all of this together, and we can legitimately conclude that this iteration of Lara Croft possessed many hallmark traits of a sociopath, as described by C. J. Patrick’s triarchic model:
“Boldness. Low fear including stress-tolerance, toleration of unfamiliarity and danger, and high self-confidence and social assertiveness… Fearless dominance.
Disinhibition. Poor impulse control including problems with planning and foresight, lacking affect and urge control, demand for immediate gratification, and poor behavioral restraints… Impulsive antisociality.
Meanness. Lacking empathy and close attachments with others, disdain of close attachments, use of cruelty to gain empowerment, exploitative tendencies, defiance of authority, and destructive excitement seeking… Coldheartedness but also includes elements of subscales in Impulsive antisociality.”
Bold, uninhibited, and disdainful of close attachments? That’s our Lara. True, her behaviour was never quite as extreme as some examples of true psychopaths (all right, apart from the cold-blooded shooting of a helicopter pilot in Antarctica), but there are too many similarities for her not to be considered at least a low-level sociopath.
Physically, Lara Croft kept herself in top condition – going so far as to install a gym in her ballroom and an assault course and shooting range in her back garden. She kept her hair long but almost always tied it back in a no-nonsense braid. She never overburdened herself with fancy equipment or gizmos beyond the barest minimum needed for survival or for getting from A to B. For self-defence (and for persuasive purposes), she habitually carried two pistols, and could happily handle any other weapons she encountered in the field. She never wore any visible jewellery or mementos (one marketing photo-shoot showed her with a navel piercing, which was never part of her in-game ensemble); her personal style mixed simplicity with practicality.
Perhaps the most obvious of Lara Croft’s physical assets was, of course, her chest size. The original model builders at Core Design have stated that her astonishing proportions were initially the result of an error in programming, while her athletic, leotard-clad physique was chosen to emphasise her femininity. It’s worth remembering at this point that Tomb Raider appeared in the mid 90’s alongside the likes of hyper-macho figures like Duke Nukem. In addition, the limited graphics capabilities available at the time made it far easier to portray both men and women as exaggerated caricatures than the realistically-proportioned creations we take for granted today. Accusations that Lara was an unrealistic role model for women must take both of these facts into account.
So there we have it. Originally, the character of Lara Croft was a lone adventurer who neither wanted or needed companionship. She was disowned by most of her family for her recklessness and disregard for proper aristocratic conduct. She chose to explore and loot ancient sites – the more dangerous, the better – because she harboured a fundamental, burning hunger for challenge and an intense antipathy towards conformity. She chose a fairly minimalist lifestyle; her only indulgences were travelling and home renovations that were specifically designed to hone her physical prowess. She scorned authority and did things how she liked, when she liked. She was charming – i.e. witty, intelligent, and articulate – but had no moral qualms about beating seven kinds of snot out of those who tried to take advantage of or harm her. However, it is obvious that her recklessness could also be considered legitimate cover for deep, unresolved psychological issues, including (but not limited to) survivor’s guilt, a fear of confinement, and uncaring and/or aloof parental role-models. She was an anti-hero: the heroine who defeated all odds, but who wasn’t necessarily a nice person with socially acceptable personality traits.
Tomb Raider 1996-1998 game style
Lara’s first three games had a characteristic and quite formulaic style. They all followed the established trope of searching for a MacGuffin (or frequently a dismantled MacGuffin), an industry term for an object or goal whose existence drives the plot forward. Lara would go in search of an artefact of great power (the Scion, the Dagger of Xian, the Meteoric Artefacts), while others tried to stop her or wanted to take the MacGuffin for themselves, and the story would end when Lara escaped either with the MacGuffin as a prize or simply to fight on another day.
This style of plot mirrored many of the Saturday matinee adventures that also inspired the Indiana Jones franchise (and, slightly later, Uncharted). While each new adventure was basically a stand-alone story, this was a very successful formula for the action-adventure genre, puzzle-solving, exploration-based gameplay that Tomb Raider helped define in modern videogaming.
Just keep walking…
The games also placed a heavy, double-whammy emphasis on isolation. Lara lived and worked alone (except for faithful Winston and his tea tray). She rarely interacted with anyone except via her pistols, and – apart from the aforementioned Winston – had no close friends or permanent allies. There was no team back at the Manor to advise her through a satellite-link headset. Indeed, Lara only spoke on friendly terms with a handful of NPCs (Geordie Bob and the Aussie Sergeant to name two) in brief cutscenes.
Not only was Lara a lone wolf in-game, but players could not ask for help when they got stuck like they can nowadays. At most, Lara would give a stern “no” if you tried to perform an impossible action like use a medipack in a key slot. There was no hint function, either graphical or via Lara providing in-game dialogue, to toggle on or off from the main menu. Exploration, platforming mechanics, and trial-and-error backtracking, rather than obvious white ledges and cinematic QTEs, were the primary means of getting from A to B. On top of that, when the games were first released in the late 1990s (before the rise of Internet forums, Let’s Plays, and walkthroughs), players could rely on, at most, a network of local friends and a printed strategy guide. The games were tough, and access to help – both in-game and externally – was very limited compared to nowadays. This only added to Tomb Raider’s strong sense of isolation and emphasised Lara Croft’s original personality: you beat the game by your own wits and persistence, or not at all.
What are you memories of the first three Tomb Raider games? What was it about this incarnation of Lara Croft that you loved (or hated!). Feel free to discuss your thoughts on the Survivor Reborn forums.
- Eurogamer Rise of the Tomb Raider Review
- Metro Tomb Raider 2013 Definitive Edition Review
- Core Design original biography
- Vicky Arnold interview with Brian Chew
- The Open University
- Psychopathy on Wikipedia
- Anti-Heroes: What makes them different? – Troped!
- Lara Croft: Lethal and Loaded documentary
- Duke Nukem on Wikipedia
- TV Tropes: The MacGuffin
Who IS Lara Croft? Part 1 by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.