Will Gamers Still Love Lara Croft? «

Forget Mario. Forget Sonic. Forget White Guy With Short Brown Hair and High-Tech Space Armor. Forget Pac-Man. The most beloved video game character ever just might be Lara Croft, the tough-talking heroine of Eidos’ Tomb Raider series. Boys mostly remember her for her habit of wearing impractical, revealing outfits and wiggling her hips as she explored ancient ruins; girls mostly remember her for being a non-nonsense heroine in a medium laden with princesses in need of rescue: A woman who could pump every bad guy in sight full of bullets all on her own, thank you very much, skimpy outfits and sexy wiggle be damned.

And, of course, there’s the matter of Lara’s silver screen depiction. No one really remembers the two Tomb Raider movies for the quality of their stories or filmmaking, but mention Lara Croft and millions of people instantly visualize Angelina Jolie kitted up for adventure in cargo shorts or a silver wetsuit. Lara was played by Jolie in her rising star days: The ascendent Hollywood glamorpuss of a decade ago, not the modern-day Jolie better known for creating genetically perfect babies with Brad Pitt and starring in artistic, non-commercial films well outside the Hollywood blockbuster mold. Jolie’s star power liberated Lara from the stigmatic shackles of association with mundane video games and transformed the character into a pop icon.

And Crystal Dynamics is about to tear her down.

The idea behind the upcoming Tomb Raider should be evident from its lack of numeration or subtitle: Lara Croft is about to experience a reboot. The goal is to take Lara back to the beginning of her career as an adventurer, when she was simply a young woman of no particular skill. She’s smart, sure. Wealthy, of course. But what we’ve seen of Tomb Raider gives every indication that the game begins by placing Lara among a handful of shipwrecked survivors struggling to survive the triple threat of weather, wildlife, and hostile natives on a mysterious island. She’s cold, she’s unarmed, and most of all she’s frightened half out of her mind — quite the change from the tough-talking, wise-cracking adventuress of games past.

The series has already made a few attempts to define Lara’s back story, but those efforts have felt shoehorned-in at best (Tomb Raider: Legend’s clumsy, not to mention never properly followed up on, B-plot and cliffhanger ending) and horrifying at worst (the creepy-looking school-age Lara from Tomb Raider Chronicles). The new game seems perfectly happy to pretend those flashbacks and callbacks never really happened. Instead, the plan is for bad luck and unfortunate circumstance to kick Lara’s ass until she starts kicking back.

Crystal Dynamics’ plan for Tomb Raider makes perfect sense in terms of revitalizing the franchise. At the same time, you can’t help but wonder which audience Crystal Dynamics is aiming for by hitting the reset button. Is Tomb Raider meant for core gamers, or is it being designed to lure the casual player who knows Lara primarily from outside the games? The two audiences are quite distinct from one another, and each has shared a very different relationship with Lara Croft.

The Tomb Raider brand has lived a tumultuous life. The game series made the journey from revolution to relic in just a few short years in the second half of the ’90s; by the time Douglas Coupland was throwing together his book about Lara as a pop culture phenomenon and U2 was making tongue-in-cheek use of her uncanny valley sex appeal as part of their satirical Popmart tour, gamers were already lamenting the sameness of the Tomb Raider games and complaining about how rapidly its engine and mechanics had begun to age. Jolie’s silver-screen turn as the heroine coincided with the series’ long-delayed yet nevertheless criminally unpolished PlayStation 2 debut, Angel of Darkness. Lara herself enjoyed her peak popularity as the games in which she starred hit their creative and critical nadir — a fact that rankled Paramount Pictures, which complained that Eidos had exhibited such poor stewardship of the franchise that it undermined the box office returns of Jolie’s second film, Cradle of Life. (Amusingly, Activision would turn the tables later that year by suing Paramount’s parent company Viacom for undermining the viability of Star Trek video games with its own poor handling of the Trek TV and film franchise.)

Is Tomb Raider’s reboot meant to appeal to lapsed fans? if so, we’ve been down this road together before; Crystal Dynamics’ first take on Lara was Legends, itself a partial reboot. Eidos trotted out original Tomb Raider co-creator Toby Gard to put his stamp of approval on the game and offer his assurances that, yes, this was Tomb Raider as you know it (yet it also was not your grandfather’s Tomb Raider!). But that relaunch of sorts quickly dead-ended, and Lara’s two subsequent adventures came and went with surprisingly little attention. Meanwhile, the Prince of Persia series — which spent the better part of a decade playing leapfrog with Tomb Raider — gave birth to the Assassin’s Creed games, streamlining the wall-scaling aspects of the Tomb Raider/Prince of Persia exploration titles and focusing more on environmental navigation in open spaces. Tomb Raider will have to fight its way to success against a looming sense of irrelevance and the fact that practically every entry in the series since Tomb Raider II has been pitched at one point or another as “a return to form” or “the game that will put the series back on track.”

But maybe Crystal Dynamics is after a different audience with Tomb Raider — less the core gaming demographic (who can be counted on to buy 10-12 million copies of a game in a best-case scenario) and more the world-at-large, who can move 25 million units of a Mario game. But that direction is fraught with uncertainty as well. Does the occasional game buyer, whose familiarity with Lara Croft could be deemed passing at best, care about her origins? Do they really need to see her beaten down and bloodied in order to relate to her? Most likely not.

The new Tomb Raider feels like an effort to balance the needs and expectations of each audience. It’s a tricky balancing act. Legends’ attempt to have it both ways — to be both new and old all at once — may have helped to undermine its appeal. If they’re aiming to cater to two different groups of consumers, Crystal Dynamics may be running a similar risk again. On the other hand, the actual game design feels far more committed than the philosophy shaping it. Tomb Raider definitely fits into the Lara Croft franchise in terms of mechanics, but the portions we’ve seen of the game to date haven’t seemed overly bogged down in legacy tropes. Lara’s traversal seems less about fussily finding precise handholds and more about a general understanding of the lay of the land — and though we don’t doubt the game will include some degree of precision climbing and puzzle-solving, the portions in between these spaces look less like simple filler and more an experience in their own right.

Like many long-time Tomb Raider fans, I’d like for Crystal Dynamics to get this one right. I’d argue that the series has never produced a bad entry, even Angel of Darkness. But the recent games have struggled for relevance, and in an industry where development costs have skyrocketed as consumers’ willingness to pay even the retail price that games cost a decade ago has plummeted, nothing is deadlier than a game that no one cares about. I want a good Tomb Raider game, but what Eidos probably needs even more than that is a Lara Croft that everyone — gamer or otherwise — see as Lara Croft, not as a dim memory of that one movie from 10 years ago where Angelina Jolie wore a smokin’ hot silver diving suit. Fortunately, these two ends aren’t so wildly different from one another, and with luck Eidos will show off a project that manages to accomplish both when the game resurfaces in a few weeks at E3 2012.

 

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