When Square-Enix and Crystal Dynamics rebooted the Tomb Raider universe in 2013, they introduced a whole new audience to Lara Croft - a character who revolutionised the video game industry in 1996. This reboot, titled ‘Tomb Raider’, sold more than one million copies within 48 hours of launch, a number that recently hit 8.5 million to become the best-selling game in the franchise, ahead of the original.
Since the much awaited sequel to Lara’s Yamatai adventure, ‘Rise of the Tomb Raider’, is arriving in four months today, we thought we’d take a look back at Lara’s origins and the history of the franchise.
Symbolising a new origin for the great British archeologist, the 2013 reboot shared its title with the starting point of the franchise. ‘Tomb Raider’ was published in 1996 for DOS, PlayStation, and the SEGA Saturn by Eidos Interactive. Initial development took place in 1993 by Derby-based studio CORE Design, previously known for ‘ThunderHawk’, ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus: The Computer Game’, and ‘Impossamole’.
In total, the development process took the six-person team around 18 months. The world of Lara Croft came to life by the hands of many including Jason Gosling (currently programmer at Sumo Digital), Paul Douglas, Gavin Rummery (co-founder of Legendary Games Ltd), Vicky Arnold, Phillip Campbell (creative director at Zynga), and Toby Gard (co-creative director at Tangentlemen) with the latter two credited prominently as Lara’s creators.
Our heroine herself was originally a male placeholder for an undecided character but, when the development team decided to steer away from an action-orientated platformer and focus more on puzzle solving and stealth, CORE Design figured a female character would be more suited as opposed to an all-brawn, no-brain male action hero of tradition.
As Lara continued to wade through her developmental stages, she was South American explorer ‘Laura Cruz’ but Toby Gard wanted to toy with Eidos Interactive’s target audience. In an interview, Gard said “[Lara] was made to be as quintessentially British as possible. It’s generally held that unless you have an American hero you won’t be able to sell a game in America,” “…by deliberately reversing as many rules as possible: a female… A British-not-American lead character and American-not-British villains, we’d make something that was unusual and fresh.”
This deliberate choice to exaggerate the ‘proper English lady’ character type brought along a new name: ‘Lara Croft’ and a new personality, built to fit the widowed fiancée of the Earl of Farringdon. Lara became softer than originally imagined as she strayed away from her cold-blooded, militant personality but still, she was tough and instinctive, able to take on any challenge thrown at her whether vicious animal or supernatural.
Lara was always intended to be taken seriously as a female protagonist, created with the potential to be a strong female role model in comparison to the distressed damsels or “dominatrix style vixens whose sole purpose was to be a tease.” Her original concept art (pictured above) shows her as a powerful and aggressive character who acts on her survival instincts, she didn’t have an overly sexualised or weakened design from the get-go.
This concept art also shows off Lara’s origin as a munitions expert. If CORE Design’s ambition and the technical limitations of the fifth generation of consoles had coincided, Lara would’ve begun her first adventure packing explosive damage with a handful of grenades and a rocket launcher.
Despite her obvious feminist origins, Tomb Raider inevitably succumbed to the perils of marketing. The title became a sexual and objectified icon in order to sell the game to a male-orientated audience. As discovered in the nine-part documentary “Ten Years of Tomb Raider” released in 2007, Gard left CORE Design after the release of the original Tomb Raider due to the objectified nature of the Tomb Raider marketing strategy, examples of which you can see above and below.
The sexualisation of Lara, however, began in the development studio as an accident on Gard’s part. As he found himself tinkering with Lara’s 400 polygon model in his office, Gard accidentally enlarged Lara’s chest 150% larger than he had intended. Despite attempts to shrink the proportions back to their intended size, the other designers at the company decided the character’s enlarged bust should remain.
Gar was famously upset about the overt sexualisation of his creation and took to comedically poking fun at the situation during interviews for the product. In an example of his wit, it’s often reported that Gard claimed his reasoning behind a female protagonist was due to the play-testing process; if he was going to sit and stare at a character’s behind for hours on end, it might as well be a nice one. The original source for this quote, however, has been lost on the Internet due to the original interview returning a 404 result.
Despite departing from CORE Design around 1996, Gard returned to his creation in 2004 to work on ‘Tomb Raider: Legend’. Eidos Interactive had chosen to swapped the development team for the Tomb Raider series after the poor performance from ‘Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness’ in 2003. After CORE Design hit the ‘Angel of Darkness’ iceberg, three key members fled the sinking ship to form their own company: ‘Circle Studio’.
Crystal Dynamics got hold of the series having previously worked on the Xbox launch title ‘Mad Dash Racing’, amongst other titles. Since ‘Tomb Raider: Legend’, Crystal Dynamics have continued to produce Tomb Raider titles despite the purchasing of Eidos Interactive by Square-Enix. The choice to reboot the franchise was made by Crystal Dynamics after the development of ‘Tomb Raider: Underworld’ after the company was split into two teams; one focused on ’Tomb Raider’ whilst the other focussed on the spin-off, ‘Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light’.
In May 2006, the studio which birthed Lara Croft was liquidated and its assets and staff were sold on to Rebellion Developments, the company behind the Sniper Elite series. One year post-purchase, Circle Studio fell to its knees; the team had one console game under their belt - the mediocre ‘Without Warning’ - before they gave up video game production entirely to specialise in DVD games such as ‘The Price is Right’, ‘Shrek: Totally Tangled Tales’, and ‘Now That’s What I Call A Music Quiz’.
Now, as Crystal Dynamics leads Lara Croft onwards into the future, she remains one of the most influential characters in the industry; holding world records, numerous awards, and a strong following of fans who can’t wait to get their hands on the next adventure.