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When she first spelunked into the video game scene in 1996, Tomb Raider heroine Lara Croft quickly entered the ranks of pop-culture stardom as teen-boy fantasy. She was a classy, effortlessly cool 20-something slinging pistols like nobody’s business and trotting through the Arctic in a tank top and hot pants. What more could you want?
Well, as a young gamer swept up in the Tomb Raider craze, writer Rhianna Pratchett found herself at odds with the game series’ conflicted message: She adored the inherently feminist power of Croft’s ruthless intuition, physical prowess, and brainy puzzle-solving skills being highlighted in an industry dominated by men, but she took issue with the cyber-bimbo image marketed to fans. So she took matters into her own hands when Crystal Dynamics picked up the reins from Core Design for a massive franchise reboot, and rewrote the Croft legacy on her own.
“Classic Lara had been a playgirl with the money, gadgets, and guns to deal with any situation, jetting around the world and having these big adventures, and being very James Bond-y,” says Pratchett, who scripted the series overhaul, simply titled Tomb Raider, in 2013. “That’s not quite as relatable in this day and age of economic strife as maybe she once was. It was great escapism, but we’ve seen a lot of characters like this, living in fantasies. With this Lara, I wanted to bring her down to earth a little bit more, and think about her as an average London student just out of university who paid her way through and worked bar jobs — someone more in line with young women in London today. … A bit more relatable [but also able to] explore that conflict you get with being human and a superhero.”
Thus, Lara found herself back at square one on her first big adventure, searching the fictional Japanese island of Yamatai for a mythical sun queen while armed with little more than beginners’ luck, practical attire (cargo pants this time), and her signature ferocious spirit. But Pratchett wanted both diehard fans and the wealth of young women flocking to video games in recent years to find something they liked in this version of Lara.
“She’s got some great traits that we drew upon for new Lara,” Pratchett says. “She’s brave, she’s curious; those were qualities we wanted to keep. But we got to a point where they were bubbling to the surface and being truly tested for the first time. We wanted to show her when she was younger … as she has a realization that she’s the one who has to be the hero, she’s the one who has to save herself, no one else is going to do it for her.”
Pratchett adds, “We wanted to explore that kind of growing with the character. The classic games are great; she’s self-assured, quippy, confident, and she’s got everything she needs to solve whatever problems were thrown at her — but we wanted to explore the vulnerability and fear behind the great bravery … on the road toward becoming a tomb raider.”
The approach worked, as the game went on to sell more than 11 million units worldwide and provided the foundation for Warner Bros.’ upcoming cinematic revamp (opening March 16) — proof enough for Pratchett that Croft is still capable of influencing culture the way she did in the late ’90s, and without the use of “archaic” sexualization that felt “out of step with who Lara was as a character.”
“She was obviously a mostly mute protagonist at the start, so I think culture influenced how she was marketed, and maybe that’s all flowed back into the game, and she’s influenced female protagonists a little bit, but I actually think new Lara has helped quite a bit over the last five years,” Pratchett says. “Before 2013, we were still hearing news stories about publishers who wouldn’t publish games because they had female protagonists, and that seems almost unthinkable now. We have great female protagonists coming out, like Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn, and great secondary characters, like Ellie from The Last of Us, who looks like she’s going to take the lead in the next game. It helps strengthen publishers’ and developers’ views that it’s absolutely fine to have a female protagonist in your game, and in fact you may find new audience members as a result.”
In the 22 years since Lara Croft raided her first tomb, women have fronted more games than ever before, but Pratchett thinks racial and age-based diversity are the next big frontiers for polygonal progress.
“We do ourselves a disservice when we say, ‘This is how women should be to do this.’ It narrows down our choices,” Pratchett says when asked about feminist critiques that point to Croft’s idealized looks. “Beautiful women should be allowed to be capable and brave and fearless and psychopathic. Ideally, we want every type of woman, no matter what she looks like, to be able to do anything she wants. I agree that there is not enough diversity in character in general in the games industry. If you just keep it to women, we don’t get too many characters of color, female characters of color. … Ethnicity will hopefully enter the conversation more.”
Having exited the franchise after penning the 2015 sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider, Pratchett no longer controls Croft’s destiny, but she’s optimistic about covering new ground in the future.
“I’d love to write an older Lara in her 50s, who’s grizzled and war-torn, because we get that with male protagonists,” Pratchett says. “Snake [from Metal Gear] has evolved over the years, and so has Sam Fisher from Splinter Cell: He’s been allowed to get older, and I’d love to see that with a character like Lara, as older and battle-hardened. And maybe she has to take another character under her wing, which is often done with dad figures in games — it’s the ‘dad-ification’ of games, like Joel in The Last of Us or Booker in BioShock Infinite.”
Pratchett adds, “I’d also be interested in seeing Lara as a mother. How would that work? How would she even have time? I’d love to see more action moms in games. There’s so much we can do, so many stories we can tell, it feels like we’re just scratching the surface.
“The baby could have a tiny bow and arrow,” she says, sitting with the idea a bit longer. “It’d be so cute!”