One of the most recognisable characters in gaming is having a facelift. A character that has steadily evolved from her boxy origins on the Sega Saturn and PlayStation in 1995, the upper-crust adventurer Lara Croft has been given a 21st century makeover by developer Crystal Dynamics.
And just as Casino Royale took James Bond back to his Ian deadly roots, and attempted to make the secret agent relevant again in a post-Jason Bourne movie world, so Tomb Raider will, it’s hoped, breathe new vitality into an ageing videogame franchise.
While the most recent Tomb Raider games – Underworld, and the download-only spin-off Lara Croft And The Guardian Of Light – haven’t been bad, by any means, the series’ financial success has dwindled in popularity in recent years, with Underworld selling a comparatively meagre 1.5 million copies in its first few weeks of release.
Few would argue with the suggestion that the Tomb Raider series desperately needs a re-think. As the success of the Uncharted series has proved, Tomb Raider’s core gameplay (leaping, puzzle-solving, shooting) can still be entertaining and relevant if balanced correctly – the series’ most archaic element, perhaps, is Lara Croft herself.
Created in an era where it was difficult to imbue a videogame character with any great depth of personality, Croft’s persona failed to evolve with the series itself. Lara’s curves became more curvy and less angular, of course, but as her physique became more rounded, her character failed to develop at the same pace.
Aside from her physique and penchant for tight shorts, Lara Croft is largely anonymous – her sketched-in history, related via instruction manuals or cut-scenes, tells us about her parents’ death, and how a plane crash in the Himalayas sparked her interest in globe trotting adventures, but little else.
It’s worth comparing Lara Croft with the Uncharted games’ protagonist, Nathan Drake. Both have a penchant for solving mysteries in dusty, forgotten ruins, and both spend considerable amounts of time either dangling over a precipice or firing guns at villains. In theory, Nathan Drake should be just as two-dimensional as Croft – a square-jawed hero in the mould of Indiana Jones.
Yet while Drake is cut from the very thinnest of cloth, his character manages to come across – in videogame terms, at least – as surprisingly nuanced. Perfectly voiced by Nolan North, it’s Drake’s sarcastic comments and weary groans that make him something more than just another broad-shouldered protagonist.
Uncharted’s developers should also be commended for continually reminding players just how human, and sometimes frail, Drake is. When he makes a death-defying leap across a ledge, Naughty Dog makes it clear that the character’s operating at the limit of his physical capabilities. He makes the jump, but only just.
In Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, in particular, we see this touchingly fallible side to the character at its most pronounced. Barely surviving a momentous train crash, the player guides Drake out of a series of dangling carriages, only for him to collapse in the snow, exhausted and bloodied.
It’s this aspect of Nathan Drake that has, I suspect, hastened the forthcoming reboot of Tomb Raider. The first image of the updated Lara Croft, which shows the heroine dishevelled and vulnerable, has the same hyper-real quality to it as Drake, the same weariness around the eyes.
And while it’s a little ironic that the Uncharted series, which owes such a debt to Tomb Raider in terms of gameplay and subject matter, should in turn hasten this updating of Lara Croft, the change looks like a positive one.
The word is that the new Tomb Raider will be more open-ended, with an entire island to explore, rather than a series of puzzle or enemy-infested chambers. It’s also thought that the game will take a more adult, gritty turn, with players’ mistakes leading to a swift and grizzly end for Croft.
Whatever the changes Crystal Dynamics has for the gameplay – and it looks as though they could be quite drastic – the change to Lara Croft’s persona is, for me, the most welcome one. Like Nathan Drake, she now looks more human, and less like a flat, digital fantasy aimed at teenage boys.
There are too few female protagonists in videogames, and fewer still that truly come to life as engaging, memorable characters. Crystal Dynamics’ new direction for Croft hints at a more nuanced, vulnerable, yet still resourceful heroine. If the writing behind Croft’s facelift is as strong as its character design, one of the medium’s most recognisable protagonists may about to become something more than just a pretty face.
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