You can read more of my writing over at the Meeple Like Us blog, or the Textual Intercourse blog over at Epitaph Online. You can some information about my research interests over at my personal homepage, or on my profile at Robert Gordon University.
One of the more dramatic evolutions of tone and sensibility in video game history has been that of Tomb Raider, and of the character Lara Croft. It is striking to consider the original representations of Lara with her over-exaggerated physical attributes and compare these to the modern iteration of the character. From adolescent roots, the franchise has evolved into something more like a complex representation of adult sensuality and empowerment than sexual objectification.
While it is often difficult to look beyond the central importance of the character herself, we can see much of intrinsic worth in the Tomb Raider franchise. It would be wrong to suggest all of Tomb Raider’s success is due to Lara’s attributes, but even contemporary accounts, working without the benefit of hindsight, inextricably link Lara’s erotic appeal to the game’s success and transmedial reach. We should not lose sight of the fact though that Tomb Raider itself was a fun, exciting action adventure going head to head with titles such as Super Mario 64 and acquitting itself with aplomb. We must consider the context of the time – games such as Diablo, Quake and Civilization II were offering experiences that were heavy on gameplay and light on meaningful characterization. Tomb Raider arrived and instantly offered an almost cinematic experience within a narrative desert. It’s not that a focus on story-telling was unknown at the time, but writing was certainly something that played second fiddle to game mechanics. Tomb Raider, unusually, treated the story and its protagonist as something integral to the title’s very DNA. It is also charmingly self-aware - in Tomb Raider, we find a fascinating subversion and reinvention of the action hero clichés of the early 30s. We find a game series which embraces the atavistic and bombastic while giving its own subversive postfeminist spin on the genre with a nod and a wink. Tomb Raider offered an engaging modern take on the overblown kitsch of the Saturday morning matinee movies. Tomb Raider was an interactive Indiana Jones for the millennials. Lara’s sexuality enhanced the appeal, but it did not exclusively define the title or the franchise that followed.
The experience of play in Tomb Raider is one of almost effortless agency. Progress is experienced as a kind of virtual parkour within which increased fluidity of movement yields tactical advantages within the game combat. All of the games, to a greater or lesser extent, embrace the theme of motion – where innovations are present within particular titles, it is primarily in the development of a toolbox of effective acrobatic agency. Few would argue though that the Tomb Raider franchise, beyond its own original entry, has been particularly revolutionary in terms of design. A conveyer belt of merely functional evolutionary sequels resulted in a significant cooling of attitudes towards Lara and her adventures. That which was fresh and original in 1996 had become decidedly workaday by the time Angel of Darkness was released in 2003. By then, the contemporary landscape had undergone something of a narrative revolution – games such as Knights of the Old Republic and Grand Theft Auto had significantly raised the bar for cinematic gameplay. The growth of multiplayer and open-world titles made Lara’s tightly scripted, relatively linear adventures seem almost quaint. Despite its seminal role in influencing the third person perspective action adventure, the Tomb Raider games came increasingly to feel hackneyed and derivative.
There remained an appetite for a slick, sexy archaeologist but increasingly Tomb Raider was unable to sate it. Games became known for their lackluster levels and trite storytelling. Bugs, shoddy camera angles and clumsy controls too had a powerfully depressive effect in the franchise’s commercial success and its critical reception.
In 2006, the chalice for development was passed and with a new team came an invigoration of the mechanics. Within Tomb Raider: Legend (2006) Lara was once again a joy to control, with her fluidity of motion offering an almost hypnotic immersion to those that played. The level design improved considerably, and the globe-trotting enticement of exploring far off mysterious locales was back in spades. It became possible once more to enjoy Tomb Raider as a form of vicarious spectacle tourism in additional to an adventure. However, sequels followed the same general trajectory that had plagued later instalments in the original era – that of strictly evolutionary design within a gaming landscape that almost obsessively craves novelty. Issues with camera angles and clumsy combat mechanics had been present in Legend, but in many respects everyone was just happy to have Lara back. People were willing to, at least temporarily, turn a blind eye to the implementation issues. As Tomb Raider became once again a feature in the gaming release schedule, those flaws which had been quirks in Legend became sins in Underworld. Review scores were correspondingly disappointing. New franchises, such as Uncharted, began to seriously challenge Tomb Raider not only mechanically, but also thematically. Unfortunately, Tomb Raider as a franchise once again showed itself resistant to genuine innovation and was overtaken by more energetic game franchises unencumbered by the conspicuous cultural baggage that Lara shouldered.
In 2013, Tomb Raider was rebooted once more. This Tomb Raider was a more mature offering, with a darker storyline of abandonment and alienation that eventually progressed into an inspiring story of overcoming and eventually mastering adversity. The franchise had always oscillated wildly between light and shadow, but this reboot was the darkest tonally by far. This thematic shift did not come without its controversy, including as it did for the first time within the franchise what seems to be a scene of attempted sexual violence. This is indicative of an entry where much of the early whimsy of the franchise has been chipped away by an appetite for grimmer narrative.
The story of Tomb Raider has been one of energetic invention followed by creative inertia, but while its successors may have explored further into more innovative territory, they only did so by following the footsteps that Lara left before them.