News, Views, and Reviews
Lara Croft is the Wonder Woman of video games. Since her debut in 1996, Lara has become the “Most Successful Human Virtual Game Heroine” as recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records. Her adventures have spilled out of video games and into books, comic books, movies, and even theme park rides. The original developers have admitted that, as they were developing the first Tomb Raider game, they changed their protagonist from male to female so the game wouldn’t seem like an “Indiana Jones” rip-off. Years later, Lara’s appearance – her long brown hair, tank top and khaki short-shorts, dual holsters, boots, and sunglasses – can easily be recognized, even by non-gamers. Similarly, most people would recognize the red and blue underoos, bracelets, and golden lasso of Wonder Woman. Beyond those iconic images, though, how many people actually KNOW something about those characters? I would argue that “recognizing” someone is not the same as “knowing” someone. I would also argue that a hero – even a super hero – is someone that does amazing things, but we can still identify with them. Lara Croft and Wonder Woman are icons, easily identifiable, but hard to identify with.
Wonder Woman’s origins were a little more deliberate. William Moulton Marston and his wife, Elizabeth, debuted a new type of super-hero in All Star Comics #8, December, 1941, one “who would triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love.” Marston was already famous for developing the polygraph or “lie detector” and Wonder Woman’s magic lasso reflects his passion for truth. At first, Wonder Woman’s lasso was really the only supernatural thing about her. Her other “powers” were merely extreme athleticism: strength, agility, and speed that, in theory, ‘normal’ humans could achieve if they trained hard enough. Deflecting bullets with her bracelets simultaneously demonstrates her ability and vulnerability. She’s not bullet proof herself, she’s just fast enough to predict where her enemies were aiming their guns. As is often the case with comic book heroes, Wonder Woman’s origin and powers changed over the years, as she was passed from writer to writer. Her most memorable appearance is definitely her TV show, starring Lynda Carter, from 1975-1979. Remarkably, the TV version is very similar to her comic book origins. But, those familiar with the TV show would barely recognize the super hero Wonder Woman has become. In 1943, Marston wrote: “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” Perhaps, then, it’s no accident that Wonder Woman’s powers now rival Superman. Gone are the ‘normal’ levels of strength and speed, she’s now just as god-like as the Man of Steel himself. Unfortunately, this also robs her of her identity, as she’s become more or less a female version of Superman – just as Lara Croft was once conceived as a female version of Indiana Jones.
Lara has also been passed around different creative teams, resulting in practically three different versions: the first six games developed by the original Core Design studio, the movie version starring Angelina Jolie, and the final four games developed by Crystal Dynamics. The original Tomb Raider game manual explained that Lara survived a plane crash in the Himalayas, and her survival in those mountains changed her from a pampered, billionaire’s daughter, to a hearty adventurer. Her parents disowned her and she made her own fortune and fame as a “tomb raider” or archeologist of sorts. Lara’s abilities and enemy encounters escalated quickly from shooting rival tomb raiders to fighting dinosaurs and aliens, from perilous cliff climbing to making inhuman leaps and acrobatic gunplay. These changes kept things interesting from a gameplay point of view, but it further distanced Lara as someone anyone could identify with. The sixth game in the series, Angel of Darkness, tried to humanize Lara by making her a victim of corporate espionage, and introduced the then-popular “stealth” game play elements. It was a big failure. The series was passed to a new studio, Crystal Dynamics, but they brought character designer Toby Gard back on board to revitalize the character. Toby expanded on Lara’s origins in the next three games, Anniversary, Legend, and Underworld, which formed a loose trilogy that contained a more satisfying beginning and end to Lara’s story. Here, Lara’s mother was also on that plane that crashed in the Himalayas, but they encountered a strange artifact that whisked Lara’s mother away to another dimension. Lara’s father died years later, leaving a trail of clues and artifacts for Lara to follow on her own, in an attempt to rescue her mother. This gave meaning to Lara’s ‘tomb raiding’ obsession and made her easier to relate with. After all, she’s lost her parents and wants them back, who can’t relate with that? Unfortunately, she also had to deal with things found in British mythology like Excalibur and Avalon, supernatural powers and other dimensions. That’s a little harder to identify with.
On Tuesday, Lara Croft will undergo a series “reboot” when the simply-titled “Tomb Raider” game is released. In this version, young college-grad Lara Croft sets off on her first voyage as an archaeologist, but gets shipwrecked on an uncharted island. She’ll have to learn how to survive in the wilderness and protect her friends from dangerous animals – and the island’s evil inhabitants. The “Tomb Raider” formula is there, but it’s in a more believable setting. As an inexperienced adventurer, more grounded in reality, Lara will be easier to relate to AND identify with. If the glowering reviews are any indication, the strongest aspect of this reboot IS the Lara Croft character. She’s tough but vulnerable, afraid but heroic. Hopefully, this will begin a new era for Lara Croft – and perhaps other female characters – allowing her to be both recognized AND known, identifiable AND identified with. An Icon and a Hero.