A Story About Lara Croft's Development History
Nowadays, it’s really easy to forget how great we have it in the videogaming world, with gameplay that really engages the player be it through relaxing means, or an adrenaline-fueled primal instinct that urges players to hover towards more murder and destruction, it truly is safe to say that there is at least something for everyone, from esports to Candy Crush (hi Grandma!).
Looking at how things were back when gaming was in its early days, however, paints a different story.
I stumbled upon a question as I played the original Tomb Raider in honour of its 25th anniversary. I truly looked at Lara in all of her… ahem, glory, and it made me wonder: Why was Tomb Raider’s protagonist a female?
It’s not that I dislike the idea, quite the contrary, I am an absolute fan of any game that allows me to play as a female lead. At any given point when there is a female lead, I will be up for the task of playing the game and I will devour any form of media that empowers women. Quite frankly, the fact that I get to play as an empowering woman in any form of videogame gives me a feeling of euphoria that I couldn’t put into words.
The question began around The Lost Valley, right around when I was looking at Lara’s character model and noticed her abs, and was downright pestering my every thought by St. Francis’ Folly. Why did a game from 1996 choose a female lead? Unable to resist my curiosity devouring me any longer, I had to quit my run of Tomb Raider and jump into the internet for answers.
The first thing I searched for was actually “Female representation in early gaming” because I really needed to know who pioneered it, and why it even began. After all, I figured Lara couldn’t be our first female protagonist. And, lo and behold, my guesses were correct. In fact, female protagonists began when developers decided that they wanted young girls to get into gaming - specifically, arcade gaming. The first female protagonist was none other than Ms. Pac-Man, and wouldn’t you know it, their plan worked; she eventually brought in a large female following for the Pac-Man franchise.
Most of the controversies surrounding female protagonists were the fact that they were being invented by male developers. And of course, we know how the story continues there, with over-sexualisation of them that made seemingly impossible examples for younger girls. Lara Croft was one such controversy because of her particularly triangular honkers. But that’s for later.
In the early development stages of Tomb Raider, the lead graphic artist, Toby Gard, wanted a male protagonist for the game. He suspiciously envisioned a whip and a hat. It was then that Core Design co-founder Jeremy Smith mentioned the similarity to Indiana Jones, and demanded more originality. Toby Gard had gone through five different designs for our beloved Lara before he decided that a female character might work better.
Part of the inspiration came from the fact that he noticed that in Virtua Fighter players tended to select one of two female characters available in almost every match. This seemed to inspire within him a desire to counter what was common of female characters, with Toby Gard mentioning that he disliked the over-sexualisation and overall stereotypical female representation in gaming.
Jeremy Smith wasn’t fond of the idea at first, noting that there were very few games featuring female protagonists. Eventually, however, he came around, giving Toby Gard freedom to pursue the idea.
Playing around with several ideas—including, but not limited to, a Nazi militant sort of design—Toby Gard drew inspiration from several very different sources—including a pop star named Neneh Cherry and a comic book character named Tank Girl—before he found what he wanted the protagonist of the game to be: a braided (yes, the braid was important) South American woman named Laura Cruz. I will add that I—as a Latina myself—would have absolutely adored for her to continue down this road.
Alas, as we all know, Eidos Interactive decided that they wanted something more “UK friendly” and decided against pursuing Laura Cruz. Instead, they took the initiative and decided to change her name and make her more British. As such, it is claimed that “Lara Croft” was selected because of similar-sounding British names found in a directory. An alternate explanation that has been given for the name was that it was used to pay homage to an accountant named Laura Croft. Of course, along with ridding her of her Latina heritage, they needed to change her story too, incorporating things that would make more sense for a British origin.
Toby Gard spent a significant amount of time giving Lara more realistic animations, often favouring more fluidity in her movement. This was because he believed that if Lara moved more realistically, players would empathise with her with more ease. Not only that, but he also wanted to make a difference in comparison to the industry standard at the time.
Although the original Laura Cruz was depicted as having a braid, it was completely scrapped for the first game. The programmer for the first two games, Gavin Rummery, explained that the braid wasn’t working quite well with the acrobatics they had Lara doing. He mentioned that it looked more like an electric eel was attached to her head and had a life of its own, which was what led to its removal in the first instalment; a way was later found to bring it back in for Tomb Raider II.
It is reported that while adjusting the character model, Toby Gard accidentally gave Lara tig ol’ bitties, increasing their dimensions by an approximate 150%. It was then that the rest of the creative team decided to keep it the way it was, completely shattering Toby Gard’s original plan to stop the over-sexualisation. It was due to this that Toby Gard left Core Design when the game entered its beta phase of development, voicing his frustration at the lack of freedom and control given to him over the ideas he developed - namely, Lara Croft.
Lara Croft will forever have a place in my heart for being a female protagonist, and specifically now that I’ve learned that she was supposed to be South American. Although it saddens me to see the change, I am deeply grateful for all of the great stories that I’ve shared with Lara.