Lara Croft is one of the world’s most recognisable video game characters, with 2016 being her twentieth birthday. She has the largest collection of Guinness World Records (six of them), transferred from the game screen to the big screen and was hailed as an example of British tech industry by Lord Salisbury in the House of Lords. Yes, the House of Lords, I’d like to see Mario or Sonic do that. She’s been promoted as a feminist icon and has been criticised as an unrealistic expectation of male fantasy. And if new reports are to be believed, gay as well.
It’s quite fascinating that a game primarily about a lone woman who solves ancient puzzles and grave-robs her way across the world has to have her sexuality questioned. It’s 2016, why is this a thing?
In her early days, Lara was sold as hetero-normative, the ultimate male fantasy. Playboy front covers, models to pose as Lara at trade show conventions, even an infamous topless photo with 80s parody character Duke Nukem, Lara has always had sexuality thrust upon her. I talked to Stella, creator of tombraiders.net, who said that if she had seen all of the advertisement focusing on her sexuality, “I wouldn’t have bought it. If I had seen them I would have said, that’s not for me.” So, what’s changed?
After the fantastic reboot trilogy by Crystal Dynamics, Tomb Raider was rebooted again in 2013, with the game being a sort of origin story for Lara. A Tomb Raider Begins(since every reboot now is compared to Batman) so to say. Crystal Dynamics said from the start that they wanted to get away from the iconic boobs/braid/backpack look of the mid to late nineties, with the new story to have a much deeper focus on character, making Lara much more empathetic and emotional. While she starts off as a normal university graduate, her head buried in books or sitting in her room quietly listening to her mp3 player, Tomb Raider 2013 showed her change into the ass-kicking, gun-toting lady that popular culture knows her as.
As she becomes battered and bruised, she takes on the qualities that made her stand out back in the 90s and during the finale, carries her best friend (and now possible love interest) Sam (short for Samantha, but isn’t it interesting how the love interest has a gender neutral name?) down from a mountain of certain doom in her arms, almost like a newly-wed carrying their spouse across the threshold of their new house. This fact wasn’t lost on head writer Rhianna Pratchett, who in a very informative interview with Kill Screen discussed the idea of Lara being gay, “I’ve seen a number of threads about Lara’s relationship with Sam that suspect there’s something more going under the surface.” Pratchett later goes on to outright say, “There’s part of me that would have loved to make Lara gay. I’m not sure Crystal would be ready for it! But we’ve not spoken about it directly, either.” So, already there is a “will they/won’t they” situation building up in the wings. But how did it get to this situation in the first place?
When Lara Croft was first introduced in 1996, in the opening cinematic she’s already fending off male advances. Larson, very much the typical player character in most games up to that point, throws a news-clipping of our heroine, one foot on top of a defeated Bigfoot, under her nose, remarking, “Now what’s a man got to do to get that sort of attention from you?” Lara raises her eyebrow and hits back. “It’s hard to say really, but you seem to be doing it just fine.” She dodges the question and gives a thinly disguised threat of violence if he tries anything on with her. When they meet in a later entry, she does just that, when Larson moves in to disarm Lara, she kicks him in his private parts and punches his friend Pierre in the face when he tries to kiss her hand.
Even looking at some of the earlier intertextual material of the series indicates that Lara doesn’t have a yearning for love. In the manual for the first Tomb Raider it was revealed that Lara was once engaged to the Earl of Farringdon, but the wedding was called off when Lara turned her back on high society to pursue her adventures. Could this be another indicator that there is something else that drove Miss Croft away to the far corners of the earth other than to find treasure? The manual also brings up Lara’s schooling, with her attending several exclusive boarding schools for GIRLS (come on, I shouldn’t have to spell it out). It’s just another piece of the mounting evidence that Lara Croft, if she isn’t gay, at least doesn’t fall into traditional romantic stereotypes.
The disinterest in men continues in the 2013 reboot. One of the side characters, Alex, is set up as a possible love interest to Lara. He sees Lara as his “hero” and through his diary you see that he has a crush on her. Is Lara interested? Not in the slightest. And when he does finally confess his love to Miss Croft, what happens then? He gets a small peck on the cheek, before she leaves him to die on a sinking ship. However, voice and motion capture for Lara Croft, Camilla Luddington thinks opposite to the mounting evidence, that Lara might have a boyfriend on the horizon. In an interview with Maxim, the actress said that she felt there was something between her and another crewmember, the Maori man-bear Jonah, “Any time they’re [Lara and Jonah] are on screen together or interacting together there is such a love between them.” Jonah also affectionately calls Lara “little bird”, with her being the only character he has a nickname for. Could this mean something more? And with Jonah turning up in the first hints of gameplay of the new game Rise of the Tomb Raider, is he keeping Lara warm in the harsh Siberian winters? The fans I talked to are sceptical. Stella and Noelle Adams, author of the incredibly detailed four-part essay, Lara Croft And Queer Icon believe it’s platonic, both saying “I don’t see that.” (Edit: this article was written before Rise of the Tomb Raider came out, hence why it’s frame of reference is the E3 2015 demo.)
But just because she has an almost confrontational approach to romance with the opposite gender (at least in the original series), doesn’t automatically mean Lara’s attracted to the same sex. Pratchett agrees with this, saying, “…I think in games we don’t really stray too much outside of girl-boy.” Although Pratchett continues, “It was interesting that with a female like Lara rescuing a female, people sort of projected that there was more going on to that relationship because of that.” And it seems that the fan-base around Tomb Raider has really picked up and ran with the fact that Lara might be a lesbian. Tribute videos to her and Sam litter YouTube, fan-created art of the two getting married is on Google and the literary types have written thousands of pages of fan-fiction.
I read some in preparation for this feature and it’s remarkable of how fitting and adult (in its themes, not its content, get your mind out of the gutter) it all is, dealing with complex issues that many people in the LGBT community face today. It’s not shameful titillation like the games industry has provided over the years, but rather it creates a well-rounded character who can be a role model to younger audiences going through the same emotions. Dr Mark Griffith of Nottingham Trent University claimed Lara is “psychological tabula rasa.” Could this be a reason why the fans have jumped to it, wanting to plant their own agenda to the character? Adams agrees, “You keep her blank, the audience can project whatever they want onto them. She’s definitely been picked up as a gay icon for both genders.”
In the end, I don’t really care whether Lara is gay or not. As Stella said in our interview, “If it comes out one way or another then somebody’s going to be disappointed.” Adams was more concrete, labelling Lara as asexual, someone so invested in their job that there is no time for romance, no time for “do you want to get a coffee” in between jumping over spike-traps and murdering endangered species. Either way, even people who don’t play video games have an idea of who Lara Croft is. Even if it is the outdated boobs/braid/backpack from twenty years ago, she’s the prominent female face of an entire industry. So it does matter how she is portrayed, and how the character is shown now in the 21st Century. Ambiguity means everyone can have their version of Lara, and I think that’s what matters.
Origins of The First Lady of Gaming
Sugar, spice and everything nice. The supposed three ingredients that women are made of. But for dear Miss Croft, there might be some other ingredients there. A slice of Indiana Jones. A pinch of James Bond. And according to original creator Toby Gard, the two main inspirations were singer/songwriter/rapper Neneh Cherry and comic book feminist Tank Girl. But before she was a woman, Lara Croft started as a man.
In the beginning, when asked to create a character for what would eventually become Tomb Raider, Gard designed what was basically an Indiana Jones ripoff named Rick Dangerous. Worried that they would be sued by Lucasfilm if they used the original design, the producers told Gard to change it. Less than a week later, he brought forward the idea of a female character, which despite not having faith from producers in the beginning was eventually allowed through. Switching between several ideas, including at one point a Nazi-style militant, the creators eventually settled on a South American woman by the name of Laura Cruz. But after realising that her name would cause pronunciation troubles in North America, her first name was changed to Lara. The developers eventually changed her nationality to British and then went to the phone book to find a name that sound regal enough for their character. And so, the character was christened Lara Croft, and the rest is gaming history.
Her measurements, an always contentious view whenever the character is brought up in popular media, were created by a happy accident. When adjusting the slider for the size of her chest, Gard accidently upped the proportions to 150% (making her measurements 34/24/35…I love how the internet knows these things!). When the creative team saw the design, the argued to keep it in the finished product (gee, I wonder why?) Originally though, Gard was hesitant over her being portrayed as a sex symbol. He wanted to get away from the depictions of women in games at that time, which had been either dominating sadists or damsels in distress. Gard said her sexiness came from her “power” and when he found his creation was being flouted as merely a pin-up for the digital generation, he resigned from Core Design.
LGBT Representation in the Games Industry
“How can you have a medium that denies sexuality? We’d lose everything from American Beauty to The Graduate, from Elvis to Nirvana, from Picasso to Degat.” – James Portnow.
The games industry has sometimes drawn up some great straight relationships in games; the simple hand-holding of Yorda and Ico in Ico, or the barely concealed flirting of Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher in the Uncharted series. But where are the non-straight relationships?
Tomb Raider isn’t the only series that has tried to tackle LGBT issues in games. Several high profile games, such as Mass Effect, where you can “romance” anyone, including aliens (some characters who will only date you if your character is of the same sex) or titles like The Last Of Us, where the main female character shares a kiss with her female friend, are showing an increased awareness of marginalised groups. But Lara is different to these two examples. Mass Effect is driven by the player’s choice, they can be straight, bi or gay, there is no singular path. And with The Last Of Us, that scene was hidden in additional content, not found in the original game. These moments are hidden to players, by their actions or by not wanting to fork out extra money. By having Lara’s sexuality be in the original retail experience, it brings ideas about the LGBT community into the forefront. Yes, I know about Life Is Strange and Gone Home. But those are some incredibly niche games that you wouldn’t even know about if you didn’t have a certain console in your house or wide knowledge of the games industry.
However, there is a distinction between representation and tokenism and in my opinion there has been a concerning push in the latter. Characters like Kung Jin from every moral guardian’s favourite punching bag, Mortal Kombat X, who was revealed to be gay in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cutscene (and since he has no other personality traits, is just known as “the gay one”). Or another controversy-creator, Rockstar, who includes gay characters in their smash-hits Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV/V, with those characters either being the bad guys or are the targets of jokes. And for an encore, the original himself, Duke Nukem Forever, a game that has lesbians EVERYWHERE. Adams suggests that creating a good character takes focus, “It can become unfocused. If you try to represent everything, she’s a woman, she’s bi and she’s this and she’s that, you don’t want to overburden a character.” Hopefully Crystal Dynamics take this approach when creating Lara’s next outing.