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There are a few female video game characters that stand out above the rest: Samus from Metroid. Jill and Claire from Resident Evil. Mona Sax. Tifa Lockhart. Ellie from The Last of Us. The Boss. Uncharted‘s Elena Fisher.
But none hold a candle to Lara Croft in popularity, legacy, or controversy. Lara is one of the most beloved — and criticized — characters in the video game canon. She evokes heated debates on feminine strength, the male gaze, gender representation, and power.
Tomb Raider is one of the most successful franchises in video game history. And Lara’s wide appeal is very much at the center of that success. She’s both hailed as an empowering example of a strong female protagonist and belittled as an unrealistic male fantasy trope.
And, maybe above all, she takes us on adventures that simply wouldn’t work with other video game characters. There’s just no one else like Lara.
In this piece, we’ll dig through the history of the Tomb Raider franchise — both its ups and its downs — and looking at some of the issues that surround Ms. Croft herself. People have written entire books about Lara and her effect on culture and video game gender stereotypes, so we’ll just scratch the surface here.
But in the end, maybe we’ll get a glimpse into her appeal, her legacy, and the powerful magnetic force that keeps us coming back to Tomb Raider games.
A Journey Back in Time
The video game world was a different place in 1996. The year before saw Chrono Trigger, Panzer Dragoon, Mortal Kombat 3, Command and Conquer, Tekken 2, and Rayman released. When Tomb Raider was released in ’96, the PlayStation had only been available in North America for about a year.
To give you an idea of the state of video games at the time, Tomb Raider was also released on Sega Saturn and MS-DOS. This was a world before Halo‘s Cortana and Gears of War‘s Anya Stroud. In fact, up to this point, most of the playable female characters in video games were confined to fighting games like Street Fighter and Battle Arena Toshinden.
In short, if you were playing video games, you were playing as male characters.
Lara would change all of that.
On the surface, Tomb Raider is fairly straightforward. The player controls an adventurous archaeologist who explores ruins and solves ancient mysteries. Along the way, she faces off against shadowy corporations, ancient Atlanteans, genetic mutants, and ferocious animals.
The inclusion of Atlantean mythology is a great example of Tomb Raider‘s melding of realistic gameplay and fantastical plot elements. This blending of the real and the fantastic has become a signature of the series, and something that sets it apart from its competitors. It’s neither realistic, nor completely out-of-this-world.
It’s somewhere in between, and that leaves players with an uncomfortable, but tenable, view of the game world. There’s much that we’re used to — but there are mysteries as well.
Mythical races, aggressive tigers, and men in suits, however, aren’t her primary foes. That title belongs to the gaps, ledges, mazes, and puzzles that litter the game. Tomb Raider is a core example of the action-adventure genre, where “adventure” includes a great deal of 3D platforming.
It’s one part Indiana Jones, two parts Prince of Persia, and three parts uniquely Lara. This storytelling style became a signature element of her adventures. It’s not the only aspect that comes to mind when people think of Tomb Raider, though.
Here, we come to the other element that has long defined Lara: her rather voluptuous femininity. Her waspish waist, shapely legs, almost non-existent shorts, form-hugging turquoise tank top, and startlingly (some might say alarmingly) large breasts were new for a playable protagonist.
Mainstays of the female character canon like Chun-Li and Sonya Blade were similarly hyper-sexualized. But Lara’s strong characterization, status as the sole main character, and 3D rendering made her different. She was something totally new.
Starting in 1996, women — and men — had a strong, no-nonsense female character to step into. And the fact that this form was clearly unrealistic and overtly sexual made it controversial. While many praised the game for its impressive graphics, challenging gameplay, and interesting storyline, discussion on Lara’s 230-polygon physical form (which was insanely detailed for the day) abounded.
Was Lara’s inherent femininity and gravity-defying bust (which, incidentally, was a development mistake) a symbol of feminist power and the reclamation of video game agency from its historically male-dominated demographic? Or was it simply the result of a pubescent male fantasy?
There’s also the possibility, of course, that it’s both. “There’s no getting around it: Lara Croft, the star of the Tomb Raider series, is a genuine action hero with ginormous breasts,” feminist Carol Pinchefsky mentions in her evaluation of Lara. “[This] has made her both a symbol of female self-empowerment and an object of sexual desire.”
There was — and is — no consensus. The only fact everyone could agree on was that Tomb Raider was a blast to play, and that it heralded a coming age of massive success for the PlayStation.
Lara didn’t stop there. She starred in a major release every year for the next seven years. Tomb Raider II, Tomb Raider III, The Last Revelation, Tomb Raider Chronicles, Curse of the Sword, The Prophecy, and The Angel of Darkness all came out by the end of 2003.
The sequel saw minor game improvements: bigger levels, tougher puzzles, more enemies, more vehicles, and a wider array of equipment. Lara herself was the biggest improvement over the first title, though. She was less pixelated, her hair was fully animated, and she was given new outfits.
One might hope that the developers learned their lesson from the outcry against Lara’s painfully unrealistic form. But it would be years before that happened. Her pixelated form became more refined over the years (jumping to about 300 polygons for Tomb Raider III), but doesn’t change much.
Throughout the rest of this first phase of the series, this becomes a theme: each game sees a smoother, more robust version of Lara. She sported 4,400 polygons in Angel of Darkness. In fact, you could consider this the defining element of newer Tomb Raider games. Lara even once received a Guinness World Record for the most detailed video game character.
Unfortunately, throughout this period, she doesn’t deviate from the painfully obvious stereotype she’s built upon. She continued to garner controversy because she didn’t change. The formula worked, and there was little reason (financial, anyway) to change it. Lara was still the hybrid feminine hero/masculine fantasy that gamers loved and hated.
Tomb Raider II also capitalized on one of the series’ most crucial aspects: an engaging story. The platforming, gunplay, and buxom heroine are all part of the Tomb Raider blueprint. But international archaeological intrigue is necessary to bring it all together. Players discover yystical daggers, meteorites, the Philosopher’s Stone, the Spear of Destiny, and numerous other esoteric objects in early sequels.
As time passes, Lara gains new abilities — she can grab ropes, use flares, climb poles, crawl, and super-jump. She picks up more weapons and equipment. The games get more complex and even more engaging.
Although Tomb Raider II was a huge success, Tomb Raider III started the series on a decline. Eidos Interactive, long-time publisher of Lara’s games, tried some new experiments. These included Game Boy Color games, isometric viewpoints, and a darker image and tone. But none of those could capture the pure fun of the first two games.
In 2004 and 2005, Lara took a break. But she was far from retirement.
A Labyrinthine Canon
At this point, it seems like a good idea to talk about the wider Tomb Raider canon. I mentioned that the original slew of games included Game Boy Color and Advance games, but there’s a lot more to the world of Tomb Raider than different platforms.
2001 saw the release of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. It was the first movie featuring the archaeological adventurer, this time portrayed by Angelina Jolie. The movie was a bust. At the time of writing, it has a score of 33 on Metacritic (even for a video game movie, that’s bad).
The follow-up, 2003’s Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, released to marginally better reception, and currently stands at 43 on Metacritic. In general, nobody remembers the films. Or the short-lived 2007 animated series.
In 2018, the movies will see a reboot with Alicia Vikander (of Ex Machina fame) taking on the role of Croft. The choice of Vikander over someone with the old-school-Lara-Croft-like curves of Jolie echoes Lara’s transformations over the past few years, and has given at least a few people high hopes for the series.
It’s not just the big screen where we’ve seen Lara make appearances outside of her games. She’s been in print too, with several novels and numerous comic books (authored by noted comic writer Gail Simone) to her name.
Lara graced the covers of numerous magazines, including PlayStation and Xbox magazines, NextGen, Newsweek, The Face, Entertainment Weekly, TIME Digital, and more.
Lara’s been the subject of academic studies, the focus of books, and part of a great trove of fan fiction. She’s been in commercials. Our heroine was even featured in a U2 tour. In short, Lara Croft has joined the pantheon of the few video game characters who have become cultural icons.
All these appearances outside of the games have generated discussion and contributed to the wider world’s view of Lara Croft. Her true spirit, however, is held in the series’ games. You can find backstory, new adventures, and alternative views in other media. But Tomb Raider will always be a gaming franchise, and Lara Croft will always be a video game heroine.
The Quiet Years
Lara was back in 2006 with Tomb Raider: Legend, a game that many considered a return to form for the series. Although it didn’t stand out from many of the day’s similar games, it proved to players and critics that Lara was back to doing what she did best.
The following two years saw Anniversary, a remake of the original Tomb Raider game from 1996, and Underworld, another game generally viewed as good, but not great. Although Tomb Raider had started making a comeback from its lackluster performance at the turn of the century, Ms. Croft hadn’t shown us anything spectacular in a while.
Lara was given a slightly more realistic body shape, though she still had the signature curves that had come to define her character. With 32,000 polygons, she had gained a huge amount of detail — but still wasn’t as compelling a character as she could have been. It seemed that Lara had begun to stagnate.
A New Direction
So Eidos thought it would try something new. 2010’s Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, though it didn’t carry the Tomb Raider moniker, tried to capture some of the early games’ focus on puzzles, platforming, and ancient mystery. It diverged from the typical pattern of the series’ games in a number of ways.
Its fixed perspective evoked 2D adventure games like the older Prince of Persia and Game Boy Color Tomb Raider games. Cooperative play was a highlight, with a second player able to take control of Totec, Lara’s Mayan companion. The game was well-received, with many critics praising the return to Lara’s previous puzzling ways.
Though, as you can see, she continued to sport Barbie-like proportions and painted-on clothes.
Guardian of Light is certainly a product of the mobile gaming age. Only a few months after its initial release on console and PC, it became available on iOS. And while this does seem to have encouraged the developers to create a game that channels the original spirit of what makes Tomb Raider great, there’s no denying that there’s something missing — and it’s not just the Tomb Raider name.
Guardian of Light is a blast. But it’s a spin-off. It looked like Lara was headed in a new direction.
Even with this success, the series was looking less and less relevant. “[W]ithout the popularity of Lara herself, the series would potentially have been confined to gaming history,” says Esther MacCallum-Stewart. Lara is the heart of Tomb Raider.
And she wasn’t done with the series.
Lara’s Triumphant Return
In 2013, Lara returned to the spotlight. Finally, she would star in a new game, on powerful new platforms. It carried a new origin story, a new look, and a new style of play. This was something entirely different from the previous entries in the Tomb Raider canon.
And it was simply called Tomb Raider.
This isn’t the first series to release a reboot. But it might be the most important. It’s almost certainly one of the most talked about. And at the center of all that discussion, of course, is Lara herself.
The new age of Tomb Raider doesn’t start like it did in 1996. Lara isn’t battle-hardened and more comfortable with pistols in her hands than without. She isn’t reality-defyingly curvy. She’s not an international globetrotter, always with another mystical object on her radar.
When we see her for the first time, in fact, she’s on her first expedition, and has no idea what she’s about to get herself into. After a shipwreck, a series of alarming discoveries, and great deal of anguish, she starts becoming the woman we’re familiar with.
Tomb Raider shows us how Lara becomes the strong heroine we loved in the late 1990s. It’s a difficult journey, and there’s a great deal of character development that wasn’t present in previous games. But this entry, as you might expect, wasn’t immune to controversy either.
New Era, New Controversy
Although Lara’s portrayal is more realistic, early comments by people involved with the game were quite sexist. In one interview, the executive producer stated that players would want to “protect” Croft, drawing a huge amount of ire from the feminist gaming community. The controversy over establishing her character through a rape threat — though later discredited by the game’s writers — had many people crying foul as well.
Lara’s vulnerability is, of course, an important plot point in the game. We’re not being given a decorated warrior; we’re taking on the role of a woman who’s thrown into an extremely difficult situation, and watching her come to terms with that. She has more depth than she’s had in the past. And that makes for a better character and a better game.
(Is it a coincidence that Lara’s best incarnation was written, for the first time, by two female writers? Probably not.)
From a solely mechanical perspective, the reboot is great. The supporting characters aren’t super deep, but the gameplay is a blast. Platforming, combat, exploration, hunting, and crafting all play important roles in making it through the adventure. It mixes a linear and non-linear structure with side quests and lots of places to explore. It’s a quintessentially Tomb Raider game.
And Lara is absolutely a bad-ass. She nails stealthy take-downs, wide-open combat with automatic weapons, acrobatic platforming skills, and shows her academic side in her quest to stay alive and solve the mystery of the island. She platforms her way through the story, jumping over spike pits, hanging from ledges, and climbing ancient walls — without sacrificing combat or exposition.
Lara was back.
And she built on the momentum of that big success. Rise of the Tomb Raider came out in 2015, and expanded on Lara’s family background and a new adventure chasing after her father’s seemingly insane research on immortality. Like its predecessor, it was a commercial hit.
And like previous sequels, it expanded on Lara’s bag of tricks: improvised weapons, a cool day-night system, stealth options, and new equipment for moving underwater and picking locks. There is, of course, a great deal of platforming to conquer, as well.
In some ways, Rise of the Tomb Raider is a perfect sequel: it channels the great aspects from the reboot and adds just enough to make it feel fresh. There’s tons of space to explore, thrilling battles, fun puzzles, and a story that doesn’t disappoint.
The new games aren’t perfect — but they feel pretty close after a long stretch of lackluster titles in one of the most significant video game series of all time. And there’s hope for more in the future. Rumors of a sequel, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, are flying fast and furious.
It doesn’t look like the Lara’s less-traditional adventures will stop, either. A sequel to Guardian of Light, titled The Temple of Osiris, was released in 2014. Two more mobile games, Lara Croft: Relic Run and Lara Croft Go, hit devices in 2015. They may not be Tomb Raider, but they’re absolutely Lara.
A Legacy That Can’t Be Denied
Even a cursory look at the history of the Tomb Raider series makes it obvious that it has as many twists, turns, hidden side passages, and surprises as the 1996 classic itself. Lara has starred in everything from major console games to comic books, endless runners to feature-length movies.
And there’s no indication that she’ll stop. There’s something compelling about Lara — in all her forms — that keeps us coming back. Maybe it’s the always mysterious and fantastical artifacts and places she explores. Or the new vulnerability, relatability, and compelling storytelling we’ve seen in the past few titles. It might just be that it’s fun to jump over spike pits and battle tigers with dual pistols.
Whatever it is, there’s no denying that Lara is one of the most important characters in video game history. She’s important to different people for different reasons, of course. Both men and women find her an empowering way to assume a female form in the traditionally masculine arena of video games — a completely different way of interacting with the digital world (Helen Kennedy even argues that it offers a sort of digital transgendering). Others deride her as an artifact of male fantasy that simply wants more curves and more guns, no matter how far from reality the depiction is.
Does Lara Croft empower? Inspire? Belittle? Reduce? The answer, of course, depends on who you ask. And maybe it’s this controversy, and Lara’s precarious navigation and re-negotiation of it, that keeps her in our hearts.
And in our games — there’s no doubt that Lara has had a significant influence on contemporary titles. Games like Uncharted and Far Cry owe much to Tomb Raider for the great combination of exploration and combat. And you can see elements of Lara’s adventures in games like Arkham Asylum and The Last of Us. While there still aren’t nearly enough great female characters in gaming, we’re certainly making progress — and Lara is at the forefront of that progress.
What Do You Think of Lara?
In the end, it doesn’t matter what the developers, designers, writers, and critics think. Lara Croft means something to all of us. To some, she’s a vision of an empowered female gaming community. To others, an icon of the male gaze in the digital world. Some see her as a way to experience a type of digital gender fluidity. She can be whomever you’d like.
And maybe that’s why we keep coming back to hear more of Lara’s stories. Not just because those stories are so great, or because no one else gives us quite the same fantastic platforming adrenaline rush. But because we all see something of ourselves inside of her.
We’d love to hear what Lara Croft means to you. Please share your experience with the Tomb Raider franchise and all your thoughts on this landmark character in the comments!