Lara Croft is one of the biggest names in gaming. The frontwoman of the Tomb Raider series, which has spanned three decades, started from humble beginnings on the original PlayStation’s 1996 third-person adventure game Tomb Raider and quickly shot to the stratosphere. From action figures to Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between, Lara Croft is a ubiquitous character that just about anyone even tangentially familiar with gaming recognizes.
The character has spanned more than a dozen games, three (soon to be four) feature films and, yesterday, developer Crystal Dynamics announced another addition to the Tomb Raider series, to be built with Unreal Engine 5. It's great news for fans, but I'm still skeptical that we're going to get more of the Lara who's been growing ever since the launch of the Tomb Raider reboot trilogy. And it's time to move past that if this new entry is going to impress me.
The Lara that comes to mind for players getting familiar with her in the last few years likely conjures a much different persona than those who have been on board since the very beginning. Lara has changed significantly since the Tomb Raider reboot — and not for the better. Though the character has received a slew of attention in the last few years, it’s all been lavished upon a complete redesign of Lara meant to be less intimidating and brazen and more vulnerable. Less voluptuous, of course, as we wouldn’t want anyone to feel as though her figure were unattainable, even though they’re playing a video game.
Despite all these changes, there’s one thing fans (and all gamers) should consider: the old Lara is still important and doesn’t deserve to be erased from the overarching Tomb Raider narrative.
The new Lara had many of her edgier attributes softened in order for the prequel trilogy to work. Those games, billed as the story of how Lara eventually transformed into the titular "Tomb Raider," reveal a more “normal” Croft, with a more realistic model, less confidence, and the unfortunate luck of a thousand black cats. She’s forever dodging death and dealing with terrifying situations, but she’s also scared, crying, and filthy while doing it. She handles her business in the end, but one wonders why we never have to see characters like Nathan Drake in such “vulnerable” positions.
It’s all more in line with real life, but it also loses much of the charm from the original Tomb Raider series. And while this made for a trio of action-packed games, it also inadvertently dialed back what women as protagonists are “allowed” to do in gaming, lest they be offensive — because, in our society, independence, strength, and grit don’t work with the idea of “sexy” and women need to show how hard they’re trying, lest their adventures not be believable.
Lara Croft has always been considered a sex symbol. Unfortunately, she’s also always been seen as a throwaway action hero created to attract men, but she originally came with a sassy, self-assured personality, interesting origin story, and deadly aim, as well. And even if she were created partly to attract buyers looking for an attractive woman, what of it? Aside from heteronormative assumptions about who would find Lara attractive, that mindset fails to take women into accommodation at all.
What of the women who felt empowered playing as a buxom brunette with guns? What of the young men who grew tired of playing as male heroes and wanted a more feminine point of view? Lara didn’t exist solely as a sexual object and claiming such has always been reductive and silly. She was a beacon in the gaming realm for many younger players who found themselves looking for a hero to emulate in the PlayStation era. She was even an ambassador of sorts for non-gamers. Just as everyone recognizes Mario, they know Lara, too.
Today's Lara may be strong and resilient, but she's also bland and inoffensive. There’s so little panache in her personality that she could be replaced by any other woman in video games and wouldn’t be missed. Unlike such characters as Uncharted’s Chloe or even Elena, there’s nothing to make Lara stand out. You could not say the same of her original design, however. With her iconic dual pistols, long braid, dangerous curve, and seriously cool shades, she commanded attention. As soon as she opened her mouth to speak, she proved herself calm, cool, collected, and more than a little saucy when the situation called for it.
In bringing Lara more in line by giving her realistic proportions and forcing her to fight for her life, the series has birthed a Croft who may as well be anyone. Would it go over well to ask a self-assured, sexy woman in 2021 to change everything about herself to be more palatable for a wider audience? Or would we acknowledge that she’s still capable of containing multitudes and let her do her own thing?
The sexier, sassier Lara was never championed as a character worth putting on a pedestal. Instead of propping her up as a great new female character who held her own with her male brethren, she was always reduced to some sort of seductress. She couldn’t possibly be good for women gamers — at least, that’s what many thought of her, because she was clad in somewhat revealing clothing.
That shouldn’t have invalidated her experience, quick wit, or accomplishments and it never will. In fact, it enhances them. She's the total package. In a society that simply refuses to reconcile intelligence, kindness, and other qualities “befitting” female role models with sexiness or traditional femininity, Lara exists as something of a quandary. And it's puzzling that, in an age where we're celebrating women (or so we say) we want to push back on all the qualities that women embody.
We see this attitude even with the actresses chosen to portray Lara. Alicia Vikander’s version of the Tomb Raider herself is a bland, watered-down generic action hero. There’s no verve, no attitude, and certainly very little of the Lara we used to know from Angelina Jolie’s campier counterpart.
And not only has the change in Lara’s look and personality been evident, but the series as a whole has shifted. It’s all solely about real-world dangers, throwing away the fantastical. It was entertaining to see the occasional dinosaur tossed in earlier games for good fun. Now, if Lara isn’t sussing out some hidden artifact or tribe, she’s fighting off everyday dangers and occasionally raiding tombs. It’s all well and good, but why not harness the power of the video game medium for some truly out-there adventuring? Why do we need to remain mired in reality?
If the new Tomb Raider game is going to impress me, that's what's going to have to happen. Or it's going to at least have to dial back the rugged adventurer who's secretly vulnerable trope exponentially.
It's time we welcomed the old Lara back, even if it's just in spirit.