The Lara Croft of Legend

Note: This is one of a series of articles examining the entire Tomb Raider series. If you want to read the other articles, the main hub can be found here.

 

2006’s Tomb Raider Legend holds a unique place in Tomb Raider history for a number of reasons. After eight games released annually of diminishing quality and sales, the Tomb Raider franchise had been on a three year hiatus. During that time, Publisher Eidos Interactive had changed developers from Core Design to Crystal Dynamics, and Crystal Dynamics was clearly keen to be more intentional with how Lara Croft’s character was presented. Lara Croft creator Toby Gard returned to the franchise after leaving in 1997, and Tomb Raider Legend was the first game in the series to focus on Lara’s relationship with her mother Amelia… or, more specifically, her lack of a relationship with her mother… on top of her attempts to salvage her father’s reputation.

Using a rebooted timeline because Core had killed off most of the series’ characters, Crystal Dynamics kept Lara’s original plane crash origin story, but added a twist. Amelia hadn’t died in the plane crash itself. She vanished through a magical portal that a young Lara had opened. This allowed players to see Lara’s treasure hunting in a new, deeply personal light: she’s motivated by a need to understand, and even try to reverse, her mother’s fate. With this addition to Lara’s backstory, Lara shifted from a stereotypical 1980s action movie “bad bitch” to a more human, complex character. She doesn’t work alone just because that’s the trope. She works alone because people she cares about tend to disappear.

The game subtitle “Legend” has two meanings: one is a play on Lara’s iconic status, which was a blessing and a curse for the character. Far more people in the mid 2000s knew of Lara Croft than actually knew her. Angelina Jolie had even played her in a mediocre 2001 film, and she’d become a sex symbol… or sex object… depending on who you asked.

But who WAS Lara Croft? What motivated her, other than treasure? That was much harder to get a read on. By Tomb Raider III, developer Core was starting to seem like they were out of ideas, and critics were starting to note a sameness from game to game. But the business strategy was still annual game releases, and that caused the game franchise to flail just as the brand was hitting peak awareness. Core stalled for a year with Tomb Raider III: Lost Artefact, which was essentially an expansion of Tomb Raider III. Then, suffering from creative fatigue, Core killed Lara Croft.

They rapidly discovered that you can’t kill Lara Croft. Lara was bigger than her creators, bigger than the people making her games. Lara was a Legend.
You can’t just kill a Legend.

Core continued to stall for two solid years, putting out Tomb Raider Chronicles featuring mourners telling Lara’s previously untold adventures. Then Core killed itself, with the lazy, rushed, buggy, Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness.

To pay proper respect to a video game legend, Lara had to be handed off to a new team. But she also needed Toby Gard, the guy who understood her better than anyone, to come back and fix the mess.

Lara Croft Creator Toby Gard

The second reference in the Legend title is the Arthurian legend and the search for Arthur sword, Excalibur, which made up the spine of Tomb Raider: Legend’s plot. Like Lara, the story of King Arthur had been told and retold, and it was one of those retellings, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of The Kings of Britain, that became the definitive version of King Arthur and his knights. People had been telling tales of King Arthur for over three hundred years, but Monmouth gave Arthur’s story solid thematic foundations that stuck with readers. Still, some elements continued to be added by later writers, including the character of Lancelot, the Round Table, and the Isle of Avalon, where Arthur went to rest instead of dying as he originally had at Mordred’s hand. I don’t think it’s an accident that Tomb Raider’s new developer, Crystal Dynamics, decided that this story was going to serve as the launching pad for Lara’s real resurrection.

Much like Monmouth, and Sir Thomas Malory after him, Crystal Dynamics decided to retell Lara’s story from the beginning, keeping most of the basics the same, while adding flourishes and details. The intent wasn’t to change Lara. It was to bring out nuances of her personality and motivations, and establish consistent themes. Legend created the definitive Lara Croft story structure: morality plays wherein she finds the treasure she seeks, but fails to satisfy the larger emotional need that the treasure represents. In creating a hunger for answer within Lara Croft that mere treasure cannot sate, Toby Gard and Crystal Dynamics introduced the keystone at the center of the crystallization of Lara Croft’s character: she’s a Bryonic Heroine, and Byronic Heroes and Heroines need something they’re running from, and something they’re obsessed with running toward… and those are often the same thing.

The intelligence, ruthlessness, arrogance, violence, and sex appeal of Byronic heroes had been in Lara from the start, but she lacked the inner turmoil and self-torture that makes these reckless, manipulative, self-destructive characters so magnetic. So Crystal Dynamics gave her exactly that turmoil: they made her blame herself for her mother’s disappearance after the plane crash that has always been the center of Lara’s childhood backstory.

Crystal Dynamics also recognized that Lara behaved much more like the male antiheroes than the women of Romantic period epics, and they put the player on notice that this was intentional by telling stories that had Lara wielding objects associated with legendary men. Excalibur suits that purpose well.

Of course, Lara’s hunt for Excalibur leads her back to the only man who ever really matters for Lara: her father, and his tarnished legacy. The key to reforging the sword is an artefact called the Ghalali key… better known to Lara as the pendant her mother was wearing when that plane went down.
This plot twist forces Lara to confront the only thing she’s ever really been afraid of: her own past and her related guilt. The themes of Legend are similar to those of Malory’s take on Arthur: trust and betrayal, love and loss, dark secrets and their consequences, and a distinct sense of isolation, despite the legendary figure having people around them. The big twist is that while Arthur’s story is driven by heavy doses of fate and prophecy, Lara’s legend is made up of her own choices and actions. In a profoundly feminist twist, Lara’s destiny isn’t handed to her by some lady of the lake. The hand of destiny reaching out to her turns out to be her own. Just before her mother disappears, Lara hears female voices. One of those voices it Lara herself, in the future, thanks to a time rift that Lara opened both in the past and the future. The Legends development team brilliantly flips over the rock of female empowerment to reveal the consequences of big choices that people often don’t want to see.

Unlike the modern reboot, which attempts to make Lara conventionally “likeable”, the Crystal Dynamics reimagining strives to make Lara knowable, even when she’s selfish, rash, and frustrating. Lara, like Lord Byron himself, is mad, bad, and dangerous to know. The amazing thing is that she always had been. Legend just finally got a grasp on why. Legend didn’t feel foreign to fans of previous Tomb Raider games. Instead, it felt like a return to what made Tomb Raider and Tomb Raider II great, while taking advantage of enhanced technology to make everything look and sound better, and play more intuitively.

It’s a given that gameplay and story need to interweave in 2018, but in 2005, game developers were still in the early stages of figuring out how that worked. Legend is well ahead of its time in that regard in that both the narrative and the gameplay are puzzles to solve and fights to survive, but the fights are secondary to, and in service of, the solving of puzzles. The mystery is what drives Lara forward. The fighting is what she has to do to get to the solution. Because of this, she kills without mercy, and without regret. People die. She learned that young.

The ability to connect with Lara on a deeper level is reflected in Gard’s redesign of the character, though Lara’s exaggerated curves became retroactively controversial. In the early games, characters couldn’t have many facial expressions, so creating a steely, aloof, perpetually distant heroine made sense. But now Lara could show feeling, and her realistic bone and muscle structure, coupled with cartoonishly large eyes and lips, allows the player to see every subtle wince when Lara does something bad for what she perceives as the greater good.

Furthermore sexual attractiveness and dominance, often to a degree that doesn’t exist in reality, are essential Byronic qualities that aren’t questioned when the character is male. What’s interesting about Lara is that she’s dressed in a hypersexualized way despite spending large quantities of time alone. Some gender critics would claim this is an example of “the male gaze” at work, but I think it says something deeper about Lara’s character: she has internalized a “siren” sense of self as a way of coping with her past. And that’s believable, seeing as her mother was a helpless victim and her father died as an academic pariah. Lara seeks to right both of these wrongs, but she can’t do that as a good girl. By combining masculine imagery through historical artefacts and the visual language of pulp era femme fatales, Legend Lara reminds us that when a woman acts like a great man, she’s seen as a bad girl.

And Lara is best when that inner bad girl shines, which is why her best antagonists are other women who serve as foils for both Lara’s best and worst instincts. Legend’s Amanda Evert, who starts as Lara’s friend and ends up as her opponent, is the best Tomb Raider antagonist since Jacqueline Natla. Amanda and Lara have a lot in common, but Amanda bleaches her hair. This may seem like a superficial symbol, but while Lara is, at critical moments an inherently good person who projects an external bad girl image, Amanda is rotten at her core and knows “gentlemen” prefer blondes.

Lara and Amanda in better times.

At the end of Legend, Amanda tells Lara that Lara’s mother is in Avalon. This, like everything else Amanda does, is a deception, but we’re not sure if it’s of Amanda’s making, or another more nefarious villain’s. But I don’t think it’s an accident that Legend reforges Arthur’s sword to lead Lara to the realm of Morgan Le Fay. Lara’s story lines up well in the history of vilified women, and Lara’s character, so elegantly depicted in the Legend timeline, challenges the player to solve the puzzle of Lara Croft, to look past the surface, and find the treasures hidden in her darkest corners.
Due to its solid narrative structure, nuance, and sheer self-awareness, the Legend trilogy (Tomb Raider Legend, Anniversary, and Underworld) is, combined, the best Lara Croft story ever told. These games don’t have the realistic graphics of the modern games, nor the raw newness of the original two Tomb Raiders, but they understand Lara Croft, and allow the player to understand her, flaws and all, better than anything made before or since, in universal, timeless stories about a flawed but inherently good woman doing the right thing when it matters. The games that Core made before Legend had treated Lara like a business commodity. Crystal Dynamics’ fresh eyes treated Lara, rightly, as a modern legend.

Note: This is one of a series of articles examining the entire Tomb Raider series. If you want to read the other articles, the main hub can be found here: [Link]

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