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From sex symbol to icon: How Crystal Dynamics saved Lara Croft

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Real characters aren't just good art, they're good business

Lara Croft faced one of her most deadly situations yet in 2008. Tomb Raider: Underworld, the eighth game of the series, had failed to meet sales expectations with just 1.5 million copies. After 12 years, it was uncertain if gamers were still interested in adventures from Lara.

Playboy - Lara Croft nude
underworld cover

From the beginning, Lara’s gamer reputation was heavily rooted in sex appeal aimed at male gamers. In 1998, headlines flew when Tomb Raider 2 featured impossibly huge breasts for Lara, which Eidos attributed to a coding error. In an era where cosplayers were more of a novelty, Eidos hired Lara Croft models to work trade shows, one of whom infamously posed for Playboy with the headline "Lara Croft nude!"

The box cover to Tomb Raider: Underworld didn’t even show Lara’s face, rather focusing on her breasts and bare midriff. By 2008, this formula seemed somewhat dated. And while Underworld featured gorgeous animations and groundbreaking physics-based gameplay, the idea of a sexy heroine wasn’t as novel as it was in 1996.

"After we got to Underworld, we felt like we had taken that character as far as we could," said Rich Briggs, the brand manager for Crystal Dynamics told me. "We had to imagine her in a whole new way."

Updating an icon

The Tomb Raider team changed absolutely everything in 2013, starting with the hiring of Rhianna Pratchett as the lead writer of the series. Gone were the skimpy wetsuits. Gone was the sexually suggestive marketing material.

Lara became one of the best-written, emotionally relatable women in gaming history. It helped that Pratchett had a long history of working on games with complex female protagonists, such as Heavenly Sword and Mirror’s Edge. While Pratchett is always generous in crediting the entire Crystal Dynamics team with the turnaround, long-time fans of her work can see her fingerprints all over the new Lara.

Pratchett went to work making the character universal. Croft's struggles became the focus, instead of her body.

"I think the essence of writing any character, no matter how seemingly fantastically or morally dubious they might be, is to find their truth," Pratchett explained. "Not just what makes them different to us, but what makes them the same — the commonality of mankind. It could be love, it could be loss, it could be the utter pain that only a family member can give you."

Those common things we all share, according to Pratchett, are the basis of all good stories. "With Lara I’ll admit that I absolutely understand what it’s like to follow in the footsteps of a parent, especially when they are quite large footsteps. I get the need to want to make your own mark. The bears I fight along the way are just a little more psychological."

Rhianna Pratchett's father was beloved author Terry Pratchett, who passed away earlier this year.

The father aspect of the storyline actually came from Crystal Dynamics, however. It took Pratchett a bit of time to feel comfortable with incorporating it into the story. "I wanted to make sure that even though they had been down similar paths, Lara was making it her own. It was being done her way, not his," she explained. "And through that I made peace with it. Even to the extent of immortalizing a riff on one of my own father’s memories, one he said he never wanted to lose, in Richard’s diaries."

These are the details and the work that went into making Lara less of a male fantasy and more of a living, breathing person.

Rather than sex appeal, the essence of the new Lara Croft became the struggle she felt within herself

"The first thing we talked about was how do we think about Lara differently?" said Briggs. "We wanted to rebuild her as one of the most believable women in video games." They rebooted the character, making the game an origin story. This version of Lara had her voice involuntarily tremble when she was forced to kill. You felt her agony as she reached inside herself for the courage to save her kidnapped friend.

At the center was Camilla Luddington’s performance as Lara. Rather than the comical quips of the earlier Lara Croft, Luddington perfectly projected a young girl often unsure of herself. Rather than sex appeal, the essence of the new Lara Croft became the struggle she felt within herself.

John Stafford is the lead narrative designer at Crystal Dynamics, and when he talks about the new Lara, his reserve breaks and his voice bubbles with pride. "The Tomb Raider reboot had a universally relatable theme: survival," said Stafford. "For this one, she’s pushing to become more. This time, she’s making a choice to put herself in harm’s way."

This version of Lara seems to strongly resonate with gamers. I interviewed Rhianna Pratchett and noted that Lara Croft cosplayers seem like they are everywhere at PAX these days. "It’s so wonderful to see," she agreed. "We even get a few male Lara cosplayers, who are known as ‘Tom Braiders.' They’re brilliant!"

Briggs also agreed. "We gained a lot of fans from Tomb Raider 2013. There were players that were unsure of what Tomb Raider was all about. They played the core of it and found a really fun game."

When I talked to the Tomb Raider team, I told them I was struck with how this rebooted version was always written as a person, and never as a sex object. "I would take it a step further and say, yes, it’s respect for Lara as a character," said Briggs. "But it’s also love for Lara as a person. We care deeply about how she’s treated. It goes beyond passion and it’s respect."

This was a good move, and not just creatively

Sales of the rebooted Tomb Raider were strong out of the gate, reaching 3.4 million copies by March of 2013. But questions rose about the success of the reboot when Square Enix announced that the game had missed sales forecasts. Crystal Dynamics and industry analysts defended the game's performance, pointing out that Tomb Raider had the highest sales of any other game in the series.

By the end of 2013, Tomb Raider reached profitability. It would go on to sell an additional 5.1 million copies by April of 2015, for a total of 8.5 million sales overall.

But Tomb Raider wasn’t just a financial success; more importantly, Lara Croft was back in the consciousness of gamers, and successfully rebooted the franchise for a new audience. Microsoft paid to make the sequel a timed Xbox exclusive. On a system known for testosterone-soaked franchises like Gears of War and Halo, Tomb Raider stands in stark contrast. It’s a game more about story than killing, a game that wouldn’t be fun to play if you didn’t care so much about the characters. It’s a reflection of a changing game market where women represent roughly half of the audience.

It’s impossible to attribute the success of a game to any single creative decision. But certainly, the new portrayal of Lara as a person instead of a sex object was a major factor in her success. A game like Call of Duty: Black Ops III succeeds due to gameplay and multiplayer systems and, while Rise of the Tomb Raider is a mechanically excellent game, it’s more successful at narrative than violence.

According to Stafford, the success of the new Lara hinges on making her emotional journey something anyone can relate to, male or female. "It’s all about the core emotional truth as a person," said Stafford. "What are their motivations, their needs and their desires? Everyone can relate to Lara’s desire to rise up and become more than she is." Gamers seem to agree. Coming into the release of Rise of the Tomb Raider, I’ve never seen this many women gamers looking forward to a launch day.

REVIEW
artwork from Rise of the Tomb Raider of Lara Croft holding a drawn bow as she walks down a snowy hill in a forest Image: Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix
Rise of the Tomb Raider review

I asked Pratchett if there were lessons for the rest of the industry to learn from Tomb Raider in how to write better women characters. "I’m sure me being female does help in some subtle way, especially given I’ve worked on other female protagonists before." But Pratchett is quick to point out that the men on her writing team also contributed to this new version of Lara. "It’s as much about dedication and narrative smarts as it is about gender. It’s about getting people involved who really care and know how to create good characters, regardless of their gender."

Cameron Suey is one of these men on the Crystal Dynamics narrative team. "Lara has a relatable drive," said Suey. "This is a version of Lara that’s trying to get better. She’s an aspirational character for the player."

When I told Suey how emotionally concerned I was for Lara after seeing an animation of her shivering in Rise of the Tomb Raider, he beamed with happiness. "Everything in the game is a chance for narrative." Suey and the rest of the team even wrote backstories for the enemies, passing their stories along to the animators.

The new Tomb Raider universe doesn’t just take pains to write women better. The reboot was notable for its cast of remarkably diverse characters. In an industry where black characters are all too often relegated to stereotypes, Reyes was an amazingly nuanced character. "We wanted to reflect the way the world really is," said Suey.

reyes

Briggs agreed. "When you do have that diverse cast of characters, they each come with their own background. By depicting reality you get different points of view in the story. Diversity makes a better conflict, which is the heart of narrative."

And that commitment to diversity continues in Rise of the Tomb Raider. Women over 40 are rarely represented in games as anything but stereotypes of wives and mothers. Shattering that mold is Ana, the breakout character of the new Tomb Raider — stealing every scene she’s in. She’s the former lover of Lara’s dead father. She’s a character filled with anger and desperation, but also radiating a deep sense of hurt. "Every character in Tomb Raider is the hero of their own story," said Stafford.

Stafford’s suggestion to write everyone as a hero is a lesson the rest of the industry could learn from. In thinking about the disastrous portrayal of Quiet in Metal Gear Solid V, it’s hard to imagine she thinks of herself as a hero. Rather, she is an object for you to leer at. It’s not the sexualized costume that’s the problem, it’s that there’s no real person wearing the costume.

All too often, asking for better representation of women falls into predictable right-versus-left bickering. But the beauty of the new Tomb Raider is that it isn’t particularly political. This version of Lara doesn’t talk about gender politics, she doesn’t gloat that she can do anything that a man can do, or slap someone that awkwardly comes on to her. She’s just presented to the player as a person. It’s sad that something so simple is such a rarity in the game industry.

The truth is, the industry has changed since Lara Croft debuted in 1996. The female protagonist as sex-object isn’t just a less effective way to market your game, it increasingly signals to the consumer that your assumptions are dated. When you talk to the Tomb Raider team, you sense an intense feeling of pride in the evolution of their series.

There’s much work to be done about the way we represent women. But it’s important to appreciate how far we’ve come. As a character remarks near the end of the game: "There’s plenty more out there to explore."

Polygon Video: How Lara Croft has changed