15 June 2001

Lara’s story

Biography of a tomb raider

It is Valentine’s day, 1968. In a hospital in Wimbledon, London, a baby daughter is born to Lord and Lady Henshingly-Croft. The girl has a drawerful of silver spoons in her little mouth. Between the ages of three and 11, she is privately tutored at home; she then attends Wimbledon High School for Girls and Gordonstoun. At the latter, she discovers a passion for rock-climbing in the mountains of Scotland. (She also takes up shooting, but is soon banned for showing “too keen an interest”.) By the time she is 18, everyone can see she has a wild streak, but her parents believe that she can be thoroughly civilised – and eventually married off to the Earl of Farringdon – after three years at a Swiss finishing school.

While in Switzerland, however, the young woman takes to extreme skiing, and spends a holiday pursuing the sport in the Himalayas. On the return journey, her plane crashes deep in the mountains, and she is the only passenger left alive. Somehow she manages to survive for two weeks until she staggers into a mountain village. By this time, the course of her life has changed. She has learned that she only feels truly alive when travelling alone. Lara Croft has decided to become an adventuress.

Or you could look at it this way: Lara Croft was born on the screen of a computer in a Derby videogame studio at some point in 1995. First she had been a pencil sketch on paper; then a series of more detailed, coloured illustrations. Next, her vital statistics were plotted in glowing lines on a VDU screen. Thousands of triangles meshed together to build a computerised outline of a female form. At this stage, Croft would have looked like a sculpture in chicken wire. Then the figure was “skinned” – wrapped in shaded, coloured surfaces to approximate a clothed human being. Lastly, she was animated – the word literally means “given a soul”, and for Lara Croft, who exists through action, the etymology is appropriate. She was taught to walk, to somersault, to run, to pull herself up on rocky ledges. At the same time, virtual worlds were being built around her that would test her physical abilities to the limit.

Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider franchise are the products of Core Design, the Derby-based game-development studio where Lara was born, and Eidos Interactive, its British parent publishing company. The man who fathered her was an artist in his early 20s called Toby Gard. “When I came up with the idea for Tomb Raider,” Gard says now, “it wasn’t necessarily going to be a female character. We wanted a real-time cinematic game, and I designed a couple of characters – one was a girl, one was a bloke. Eventually we realised that there was going to be a lot of story element in the game, and we couldn’t keep both the characters, so it was back down to one.” So which should they choose? At the time, a lead female character in a game was almost “unheard-of”, Gard says. “There was resistance from marketing quarters saying that female characters never sold.” Eventually, Lara Croft was chosen by the heads at Core – as a refreshing antidote to the muscled meatheads that usually populated videogames. And boy, did she sell. Twenty-six million units, and counting. That’s about a billion dollars gross at retail.

Having turned her back on the suffocating upper-class society of her parents – who terminated her monthly allowance in disgust – the young adult Lara set about turning herself into a modern-day, female Indiana Jones. She had inherited a mansion in Surrey, and commissioned the building of an assault course in its grounds to keep her in peak physical condition. Then she got her first commission as a professional tomb raider, hired to retrieve the three parts of a mysterious artefact known as the Atlantean Scion. Hurtling through Peru, Egypt, Rome, and the lost city of Atlantis (well, it wasn’t lost any more), Croft had to negotiate sadistic booby traps – rushing boulders, spiked pits and swinging blades – as well as defending herself, with the twin 9mm handguns permanently strapped to her thighs, against a wide variety of aggressive wildlife, including rats, tigers, and, alarmingly, a Tyrannosaurus rex.

In later quests Lara travelled to Venice, an oil rig, Tibet and the Great Wall of China, snuck around the American military institute Area 51 and battled goons in the London Underground network. She was last seen in a sequence of flashbacks over earlier, previously undocumented adventures, having gone missing in an attempt to defeat the evil plans for world domination of the newly awakened Egyptian god, Set.

Along the way, Lara was constantly learning new skills. On the trail of a weird dagger that could turn you into a dragon, for instance, Lara suddenly discovered she could climb walls, flip through 180 degrees while jumping or swimming, and wade into shallow pools of water. She must have sighed ruefully as she remembered how difficult her previous job had been for the lack of such skills. By the time of her next adventure she found, to her delighted satisfaction, that she could now crawl on her hands and knees in order to negotiate low tunnels and air-conditioning ducts, monkey-swing from walkways above her, and run much faster than she had ever imagined. She could even blink.

It was the programmers at Core, of course, who were extending Lara’s capabilities and animation routines with each new game they released, exploiting the fact that Lara had become a star in her own right. But the original Tomb Raider had been an excellent game even if you ignored its heroine. Setting its action in a believable, three-dimensional world of murky tunnels and tombs, it oozed moody atmosphere, helped along by an excellent musical score. And it required a degree of thought, of logical puzzle-solving, that was rare among contemporary action-oriented products. Tomb Raider became popular with a far larger proportion of women game-players than warmed to the usual fare of machine-gunning grunts. In fact, its architecture resembled that of a three-dimensional Tetris (the videogame that remains most popular with women) – challenges required the player to think laterally, push stone blocks around and jump on top of them, throw switches and visualise their effects in the room beyond.

The original Tomb Raider game was closer in genre to a puzzle game than an all-out action adventure. This changed somewhat in the sequels. Just as James Cameron’s sequel to Alien switched genres from horror film to war film, so Tomb Raider II featured far more gunplay, as well as the first appearance of Lara’s famous ponytail. Now she really was an action heroine. Later games in the series offered Lara more weapons and vehicles to play with and painted her worlds with more realistic detail (flaming torches and so on). But it was a gradual, evolutionary curve. Tomb Raider became an annual tradition: every year, another sequel popped up just before Christmas and went straight to the top of the videogame charts.

Lara’s parent company, Eidos, became a stock-market darling. In 1998, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, named the British firm as the world’s fastest-growing company, and in the summer of 1999 Eidos’s share price was trading at a delirious high of £13. But there was a dip in the rollercoaster ahead. Eidos then suffered a terrible year that saw the resignation of its chief operating officer and chief financial officer, and a plunge in the share price of more than 85%, to a 2000 low of just 177p. Some commentators remarked that gameplayers might have been frustrated with the “sequelitis” of the Tomb Raider games, the refusal to change the winning formula too drastically.

Eidos was almost bought out by French rival Infogrames, but after a recent restructuring and rights issue the future is looking rosier. It has potentially fruitful relationships with other British videogame developers such as Elixir and Free Radical, and it has sold millions of copies of the licensed Who Wants to Be a Millionare? game. Officially, Eidos is not discussing the details of its relationship with Paramount, the producers of the upcoming Tomb Raider film, except to say that it is not forecasting any financial return into next year’s balance sheet, and that any return would be “considered separately”. Eidos must have learned its lesson: Lara doesn’t appreciate being ridden as a mere cash cow.

Lara Croft, we must note, has brains as well as beauty. She is said by her biographers to have penned several travel books, including A Tyrannosaurus Is Jawing at My Head and the follow-up, Slaying Bigfoot. But she clearly does not read the newspapers or watch television, for in none of her adventures to date do we see any awareness on Lara’s part that she has become an international media star.

The first wave of Lara hype came shortly after the game’s initial 1996 release, with Liverpool goalkeeper David James explaining to the Times that he was playing badly because he had been staying up late playing Tomb Raider, and the Prodigy blaming the delay in recording their new album on an obsession with Ms Croft. In 1997, U2 jumped on the bandwagon, using specially commissioned digital footage of Lara in action on their Popmart tour. Lara appeared in comics, and plastic action figures of Lara sold like hot cakes. The original game had appeared on both the Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayStation game consoles, but Sony soon signed an exclusivity deal that meant episodes two and three would appear only on PlayStation: Lara was thus instrumental in helping the Japanese electronics giant slay its industry competitors.

Then came the acme of media acceptance: Lara on the cover of the Face in June 1997. Not only was this the first time the cooler-than-thou style mag had used a digital person on its cover, but it was the first time it had allowed an image to interrupt its red masthead. Inside, journalist Miranda Sawyer revealed herself to be a fan of the game, and Lara posed in an evening gown, provocatively brandishing an Uzi sub-machinegun. American magazines Newsweek, Rolling Stone and Time soon followed suit, and a video for German pop outfit Die Artze, featuring Lara fighting with members of the band, went heavy-rotation on MTV.

Marks & Spencer produced a range of Tomb Raider III merchandise. Generation X author Douglas Coupland contributed to a fey devotional tome entitled Lara’s Book. In November 1998, Tomb Raider and its first sequel were awarded Millennium Product status by the British Design Council. Then Lord Sainsbury, minister for science at the time, said he wanted Tomb Raider games to become “ambassadors for British scientific excellence”. In 1999, Core Design won a Bafta for their “outstanding contribution to the interactive industry”. In 2000, filming began in England on the imminent Tomb Raider feature film, budgeted at $100m and starring Angelina Jolie. You can now, if you wish, clothe your children in nattily miniature Tomb Raider threads. It is hard to avoid the word “phenomenon”.

Having remained blissfully ignorant to all the media fuss, Lara eventually took time out between adventuring, writing, and (we are told) stitching an enormous Bayeux-style tapestry of her travels in her manor house to endorse one product personally. Perhaps she needed seed money for some new adventure that was especially close to her heart. At any rate, Lara Croft declared to the world that she drinks Lucozade.

The first television and cinema advertising campaigns in 1999 featured Lara chased by a pack of rabid dog-monsters, and stopping for a swig of the fizzy orange stuff in order to get the energy she needed to leap a chasm and escape. The newest advert has Lara pausing for a friendly Lucozade with her enemies while the player’s back is turned. This summer, in order to tie in with the feature film, Lucozade will actually be labelled “Larazade”.

Probably they call it “synergy” – but it works because Lucozade is a product one can imagine Lara actually using (even if it is unclear where she might find a bottle in a dusty tomb). As Jeremy Heath-Smith, MD of Core Design and Head of Global Development at Eidos – who, despite Eidos’s financial difficulties, was last year paid £2.5m thanks to a long-standing royalty agreement – says: “The fact that it’s a health-giving energy drink matched Lara’s profile exactly. I’m not sure Irn-Bru could have the same effect, as nice as Irn-Bru is.”

Lara is careful about who she’s seen with, for obvious reasons. We can be confident that she would never endorse fruit-flavoured alcopops, or depilatory creams. But the Lucozade partnership is a marvel of mutual reinforcement: association with Tomb Raider and Lara helps sell Lucozade; while sales of Lucozade help sell the Tomb Raider games and movie. Lara is not just an imaginary woman any more; she’s also a brand.

In his novel Idoru, cyberpunk writer William Gibson imagines a Japanese-engineered virtual celebrity, Rei Toei, an artificial consciousness who rebels against her makers and plots to find herself a physical body. In fact, the Japanese did have a virtual media star back in 1997. Software programmers collaborating with Japan’s leading modelling agency, Horipro, created the world’s first thoroughly digital pop singer, Kyoko Date. But sales of her debut CD did not live up to expectations. Why? Her face was a combination of features mapped from photographs of famous models; her singing voice was taken from one woman, her speaking voice from another; and her dance moves were digitised from the performances of real dancers. She was far more detailed and “realistic” than Lara Croft was at the time – but in a sense, Kyoko Date looked too real.

Our very own idoru does not fall into this trap. Lara Croft is attractive because of, not despite of, her glossy blankness – that hyper-perfect, shiny computer look. She is an abstraction, an animated conglomeration of sexual and attitudinal signs – breasts, hotpants, shades, thigh holsters – whose very blankness encourages the viewer’s psychological projection. There are the bare facts of her biography to go on, and it certainly helps that she’s a class rebel who abandoned her privileged background. That makes her a guilt-free bit of posh. But beyond that, her perfect vacuity means we can make Lara Croft into whomever we want her to be. If the computer-generated Lara Croft ever became too photorealistic, too much like an individual woman, says Jeremy Heath-Smith, “you’d lose some of that feel for her”. The plans to finesse the character design for the next-generation Tomb Raider game, coming to Sony’s far more visually powerful PlayStation2 some time next year, are “to smooth her off, without changing the aesthetics that work”.

But will these aesthetics be influenced by the performance of Angelina Jolie in the Tomb Raider film? Lara’s creator, Toby Gard, rather approves of the casting. “Yeah, Angelina Jolie certainly looks the part,” he says. “She has that certain wild quality which is important – that’s what I had in mind.” Jolie talks about her preparation for the role in a recent webcast interview: “It was interesting working out a style for her that was a mix of martial arts, ballet, boxing and streetfighting,” she says. There’s a little wince on the word “interesting” – not surprisingly. A gruelling period of physical training had preceded filming, and then Jolie performed most of her own stunts: emulating the acrobatic, gravity-defying grace of her digital counterpart in the unforgiving real world resulted in injuries to her knee and shoulder, and torn ligaments in her foot. Still, Jolie speaks affectionately of the character. “I don’t feel far from her,” she says of Lara, “in the sense of wanting to do everything that men can do…”

Bear in mind that Lara has already been impersonated by several flesh-and-blood women without danger to her virtual hegemony – models-stroke-actresses Rhona Mitra, Nell McAndrew, Lara Weller, Lucy Clarkson and Vanessa Demouy have all stepped into the boots and hotpants for promotional appearances over the course of Lara’s career. Lara Croft the virtual character is the Platonic ideal: a human actress can give a better or worse account of that ideal, but she can never embody it fully, still less outstrip it. In that sense Croft is more like a creature of time-fogged legend – Cleopatra, say, who has been played by various actresses through cinematic history without having her infinite variety telescoped into the form of one modern woman – than a contemporary “personality”.

The rise to omnipresence of Lara Croft came as a surprise to her digital dad. “I never expected to have that happen,” Toby Gard says. “You know, as a designer, I’d gone through my life making sketches for these characters, and you think they’re yours – then you realise they’re not yours at all.” It was the massive success of Lara, in fact, that prompted Gard to leave Core Design and set up his own company, Confounding Factor, before the second Tomb Raider game appeared. “Other people were just doing things with her I didn’t agree with,” he says now, guardedly. He is currently working on a game, Galleon, that he promises “will have the same effect as Tomb Raider had, in terms of how far ahead of everything else it’s going to be”. But Lara, for Gard, is history. Once she had become public property, he had to abandon her to her fate.

It will be interesting to observe how Lara Croft ages. If the franchise is still going in 2020, will she be raiding tombs at the age of 42? There seems no reason why not. What allowed Lara’s extraordinary success, after all, was the fact that Toby Gard had created not a singular female character but a new archetype: an image so fluid and malleable that she can cross media barriers without appearing to whore herself.

Odd as it may seem, Lara has in fact never been a primarily sexual being. In the immature world of games Lara was a revelation on her first appearance. In contrast to the standard, near-pornographic portrayal of helpless woman characters, Lara was a veritable Germaine Greer of videogames. Sure, she showed some skin, but her wardrobe was all pretty practical, rock-climbing, tomb-raiding stuff: shorts, hiking boots, vest, backpack. Gard says this was a deliberate reaction to the digital representations of women around him at the time, and which still persist today – spangly thongs, S&M corsets, strange spirally metal bras. “I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t the thigh-length boot style stuff,” he says. “You can’t get emotionally involved with a character like that because it’s been objectified. Lara, I felt, had more dignity.”

It wouldn’t make any sense, you understand, to describe the dignified Lara Croft as a “sex symbol”. Because “sex symbol”, if that overused phrase means anything at all, must mean a person with whom you can actually imagine having sex – however improbable that may be in real life. Angelina Jolie may be a sex symbol. But Lara can’t be. It is in principle impossible to have sex with Lara Croft: she is always and forever unattainable. She’s no more of a sex symbol than Jessica Rabbit. And, as we have seen, there are far more overtly sexual depictions of women in other videogames. So all the prurient fans’ artwork – the notorious “Nude Raider” images created by boys disturbingly skilled in computer-aided masturbation (sorry, imaging) and posted on the net, and all the leering over Croft’s breasts in the chatrooms – these are rather incidental, a predictably perverse sub-culture of the fanbase, not its raison d’être.

It seems probable that men who like Lara don’t want to have her; they want to be her. That’s why they play the game. Lara is a symbol, if anything, of aspirational gender reassignment. In both directions. Men who like trying on a female persona, or women, such as Angelina Jolie, who like doing what is usually thought to be men’s stuff. To paraphrase Damon Albarn, Lara works for boys who do girls, or boys who like girls who do boys, or girls who do boys.

And perhaps it is this all-things-to-all-people, don’t-you-dare-try-to-pin-me-down quality that has ensured her longevity to date. For it is paradigmatic that the jumping, rolling, sprinting Lara Croft is inexhaustible physically – what is surprising is that over the five years of her career so far, she has also proven inexhaustible as an icon.