'Tomb Raider' Turns 20: The Complex Legacy of Lara Croft

Crystal Dynamics' Noah Hughes looks at the character's — and the industry's — evolution over the past two decades.
'Rise of the Tomb Raider' (Inset: Noah Hughes)

On this day 20 years ago, a new video game heroine named Lara Croft jumped, almost fell into a pit of spikes but caught a ledge with her hands, and pulled herself up into our hearts.

Released for the Sony PlayStation, Sega Saturn and PC in November 1996, the first Tomb Raider launched a franchise that over the past two decades has included 17 games — plus two films starring Angelina Jolie.

The game, which combined the intense platforming of Prince of Persia with the exploration and puzzle-solving of Legend of Zelda and the run-and-gun enemy onslaught of Doom, was an immediate hit, selling over 7.5 million copies worldwide and setting a new standard for third-person adventure games.

But Croft, the British aristocrat slash archaeologist who followed her father into the rarified world of tomb-raiding, was also a big part of the game's popularity. Just the fact that she was a she made her an outlier at the time, and many expressed hope that the game's success would lead to more female protagonists in an overwhelmingly male-dominated medium. But Lara's exaggerated proportions and attire some deemed inadequately protective for exploring ancient ruins also made her video games' first bona fide sex symbol, and as such she has been at the center of the discussion about female representation in video games ever since.

The latest entry in the franchise, Rise of the Tomb Raider, originally released in October 2015, was reissued for the PlayStation 4 last month as a special 20th anniversary edition with enhanced 4K graphics, tons of DLC content and a bunch of other bells and whistles. A new film starring another Oscar winner, Alicia Vikander, is schedule to hit theaters on March 16, 2018

Noah Hughes, the franchise creative director for Crystal Dynamics — the developer of the TR games since 2003 — spoke with THR about what it was like to take over such a huge franchise, Lara's legacy, and how the character has changed over the last two decades.

When the first Tomb Raider game came out in 1996, what was the media environment like at that time as far as video games?

At that time — and to maybe put it in the context of Tomb Raider a little bit — you had a fairly robust expression of video games as skill challenge, as platformers with some amount of abstraction and some amount of realism. You also had an influx of Hollywood at that time, and their intent was to take the potential of these great, gameplay-centric experiences but start to bring them to more of a mass-media–consuming audience. And I think in '96, Tomb Raider stepped into that and said, "We're going to give the same platforming promise of clambering across these vast landscapes as Mario does, but we're going to try to deliver that Hollywood aesthetic of an Indiana Jones movie and that high adventure and that fantasy fulfillment and we're going to do that in a way that's less abstract. And [TR had a very low polygon count], but at the time it almost felt real compared to the Marios of the world. So it was this shot across the bow in terms of unifying the very game-y early days with trying to bring some of those Hollywood aesthetics in ways that didn't contradict the values of the medium.

So how did you first get involved in the Tomb Raider series at Crystal Dynamics?

I worked on an Xbox launch title called Mad Dash Racing [2001], and then we released a platformer called Whiplash [2003]. We released a game called Project: Snowblind [2005], which I worked heavily on the multiplayer side, and essentially had moved into a studio-level role. My first experience [with TR] was having this great opportunity from [game publisher] Eidos, who said, "We've got this franchise that we could really use another developer taking a look at." And we had done some of the games I'd mentioned, but Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver [1999], being one of the most specific ones relevant to TR, was a very narrative-driven action-adventure combining elements of platforming and combat. And so I think that's why they were looking at us. But what's easy to overlook is that it was such a giant franchise with such a huge install base that we came at it with a certain sense of humility. So we were ultimately very anxious to learn from what [previous developer] Core had done. Also, the movies had gained some popularity at that point, so in terms of canon, there were some changes to Lara's backstory. And one of the goals there was to rationalize, "If an audience came to the TR experience from the movie or from the Core games, let's make sure that the canon is supportive."

So 2006, Lara Croft was at a nadir in her popularity. It had been three years since Angel of Darkness — the sixth game in the series, which was not well-received by fans. And Cradle of Life, the second and so-far final Tomb Raider film, also came out in '03, and Paramount blamed its poor performance on Angel. But then Legends comes out and enjoys a lot of critical acclaim. What is the impact that you guys at Crystal Dynamics felt from that game, the critical and consumer response to it?

Legends was exciting in that it wasn't clear that we were going to realize our vision until fairly late. We had taken on a lot of responsibility and a lot of ambition, and it was exciting to get that critical reinforcement of a lot of our choices. It also became very clear to me that we had some of those aspect of a storied franchise, that even as we invited a new audience into the experience we had people from nearly 10 years ago who had fallen in love with this game for all of the reasons that were very specific to that very first TR. So even though we weren't fully into the overnight, social media turnaround and dialogue stage, consumer response was very much a part of how we evolved the franchise and how we assessed and validated out choices.

So we're considered now in the "third era" of Lara Croft. Can you talk a bit about the evolution of the character since 2006? You basically undertook another reboot of the character and the franchise with the 2013 Tomb Raider game. What was the impetus for that?

There were a couple things leading up to the reboot that fueled our passion, one being Tomb Raider: Anniversary [2007]. That was the 10-year anniversary [of the franchise], and we wanted to do a remake of the first game, and we generally retold that story, and we did it with Toby Gard [who designed the original Tomb Raider characters, including Lara Croft]. So we had a great opportunity to take into account things that he wanted to realize in the original story that he may not have gotten to. But it also represented an opportunity for Crystal to go back and superanalyze what Core had done — and you've got to understand, once you have a game like TR with that much success, some of it is cultural, but a lot of it is really brilliant game design, and we really wanted to understand what Core had achieved, to dissect level design, enemy presentation and pacing and puzzle design and all of that. And then Underworld [2008] was more the linear sequel to Legends, and one of the things we took on with that was we were starting to see this moving-forward in platforms, and so we had decided to for example capture all of Lara's in-game animations and learned a lot of things that we started to apply to cinematics in the reboot era. But in [focusing on technology] we had in some ways not moved the gameplay experience forward enough and not moved Lara's character forward enough — and this started to show in feedback. One of the concerns with the first era was that it had become a bit repetitive, and we didn't want in the second era to fall into any sense of not being interesting and relevant and fresh to people. So we really took a long hard look at that question, specifically, and we had gameplay innovations we wanted to apply, but we realized the character herself was probably one of the things that was challenging a sense of innovation and freshness the most. And I don't think it has anything to do with Core's original vision, because I think at the time when we first saw Lara she was amazingly fresh and innovative. But in some ways she had become sort of an icon. She had been reduced to her physical characteristics, her proportions or her ponytail or her dual pistols. So I think we brought a greater focus on the character and saying, "What has Lara's relationship with her audience become, and how can we reinvigorate that?" And we ultimately clicked on the idea of an origin story, that the most dramatic way we can ask our audience to be reintroduced to this character is say, "We're going to go on her first journey. She's going to be like you or me. Instead of being Teflon and unflinching and just like it's another day at the office, we're going to be terrified."

Today, and since 2014 and Gamergate, the issue of female representation in video games has come to the fore even more. And Lara Croft has been at the center of a lot of those conversations, for good or ill. Was that something that you guys were responding to as early as 2010?

Yes and no. Our primary motivation for redesigning the character herself was trying to make her believable. As much as [her original appearance] was a more realistic character than Mario, she was still very stylized. Like, her proportions were extreme. Not just her figure, but her facial proportions. Her lips and her eyebrows were all pushed to the extreme of her expression. So one of the things that we progressively did as a studio and tried to fully understand with the reboot was, "How do we remove the stylization?" A lot of people jump to the conclusion that addressing sexualization or some of these aspects were the motivator, and it really wasn't. It was, "I just want to believe in Lara as a character." Now, once we start to make those choices, it's fair to say that we recognize, "Hey, we are changing the proportionality of a character whose proportions themselves have defined her. What will that do to the audience?" But our hope was that the things that people fell in love with her for — in terms of her brilliance, her athleticism, her ability, her determination — that these things actually start to become more dominant because we're not distracted by some of the more superficial and extreme choices in her characterization. So it was part of the conversation. But it wasn't the leading motivator to the design.

With the new look did you find that some of the people were, I don't know, I guess, angry at the fact that you guys decided to make her a more realistic, full person?

Yeah, I mean, again, it's not "real and good" versus "unreal and bad." But I think if someone were going to define her by her exact physical design, then, in some ways, we know that has to evolve. If you define your passion by something that is inherently defined by an era, then we are going to get some complaints about that. Having said that, I think the hope is to minimize that. To say: as long as you define your passion for Lara Croft and tomb-raiding in a way that can transcend era, I want to fulfill that expectation of that character and that fantasy fulfillment of tomb-raiding. But again, that's a balancing act. It's is difficult to provide a one-size-fits-all answer.

So, the 20th anniversary edition of Rise just came out. The new PS4 version is compatible with the PlayStation VR, is that correct?

Yeah, that was exciting.

Has your team had any specific reaction to the VR content? Is this the first time you guys have done anything with a VR system?

Yeah, this is the first time, as far as I know, that Crystal has created that as a consumer-facing product. For this third era, a lot of our strategy has evolved based on recognizing that we have a more immediate dialogue with our audience. And especially as it relates to the DLC content — which is in particular on display for the 20-year celebration edition — one of the things we leverage in that context is both providing more story and more tomb-raiding. We have a survival-endurance mode, which, in the release a year ago was a single-player proposition. But then, bringing that to a two-player experience and saying, "How do we both deliver this awesome, single-player narrative as well as this replayable, shared tomb-raiding experience." So, we're dabbling in the future of the franchise in a way that doesn't necessarily tell the audience, "This is the entirety of the next product," but saying, "Here's a taste of what this experience means to this franchise. You tell us what you're liking about it and what you're not." And I would say, with VR, it's kind of that same model of saying, "This is a really important platform going forward." It was to continue that dialogue of saying, "Hey, if we could immerse you into a narrative-driven experience of exploring Croft Manor in a way that you really felt you were there..." And, more importantly, delivering on some of our aesthetics that we really love, which is atmosphere and immersion and tension and pacing and things like that. We're like, "Yes. This is a great overlap between the platform and the game." And it may not be our final answer, but it's an important step forward.

Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration is available now for the PlayStation 4.

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