As a late-millennial gamer, I spent a good portion of my childhood reclaiming lost, mostly subterranean spaces. With Lara Croft leading the charge, I've dived into pixelated crypts, ruins, tombs and caves. That, as players of the original Tomb Raider will know, also involved a surprising amount of strafing tigers, bat swatting, and dual pistols on trigger lock.
Over the past 20 years, we have been witness to the evolution of a franchise that has consistently managed to stay ahead of the times as it explored history. A franchise once comprised of linear games and puzzles has advanced to become a sprawling open-world adventure that forces us to adapt to new and mysterious locales by introducing crafting and survival mechanics to keep the series fresh.
Though Lara doesn't appear to have aged, she certainly has grown up. She's become a developed, fully fleshed-out character, and Tomb Raider games have gradually allowed us to explore different facets of the character as we explore new set-piece ruins. That act of discovery remains a core theme throughout Tomb Raider's history.
Lara Croft Helped the Game Industry Discover Some Things About Itself
It's not a secret. Outside of Tomb Raider, most female video game characters in the '80s, '90s, and '00s were more often victims in need of saving than heroic figures. The industry has struggled, and continues to struggle to give agency to female characters. At this point, that lack of agency is a tired trope that's difficult to ignore in gaming's history, and the "gruff male hero" is one of many tropes consistently challenged in the AAA space by the Tomb Raider franchise. With the exception of Metroid's Samus Aran, whose gender is well-hidden, there are no other popular, long-running female video game protagonists.
Lara Croft hasn't always been a perfect character, but she's evolved and developed over the years from a gender-bent Indiana Jones to a fully realized and unique character unto herself. She's gained serious depth in recent years, and I'd hazard a guess that she's one large reason why we now see so many more great female leads coming out of the gaming woodwork.
While we can't make the broad generalization that it was all thanks to Croft, there's no denying that the character's tenacity, agency and heroic resolve helped prove that the world is ready for female game protagonists like Dishonored's Emily Kaldwin, Assassin's Creed's Evie Frye, Halo's Cortana, Perfect Dark's Joanna Dark, Shantae's Shantae, Portal's Chell, ReCore's Joule, and Horizon Zero Dawn's Aloy.
Lara Croft has been a defining mainstay of the much-needed movement in gaming toward better female characters with stronger motivations.
The Evolution Of An Icon
Since 1996, Lara Croft has undergone more makeovers, reboots and remakes than Marvel's Spider-Man and DC's Batman. She remains the world's most recognizable female gaming icon.
2013 saw a dramatic reboot of the Tomb Raider series. Our hero is thrust into a world where hope is scarce and sacrifice is common. We're reintroduced to Lara as a survivor. She reacts to her surroundings, struggles to survive, and her scrappy resourcefulness helps her scrape by.
In 2015's Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara becomes more proactive. We see a renewed tenacity as Lara grows past simply reacting to the environment around her to eventually controlling and taking ownership of her surroundings.
In this new era of Croft, I really feel like I am pushing the boundaries of an individual human being. Even though I've fought dragons and saved the world in other games, I still feel like I am doing something new because I need to explore what Lara is actually capable of. The reboot allows me to to take part in this icon discovering herself as an adventurer.
It is a chronological line of discovery that is both physical and emotional. We explore Lara as Lara explores the tombs. This defines the new games. Exploration is integral to the world of Tomb Raider, it is in its DNA, so the ability to not only explore the new world but to venture into the depths of Lara's ever-evolving personality is something truly magical.
This is what gives the franchise that fresh, utterly unique approach that serves to secure the longevity of our beloved franchise. This new focus on Lara allows us to take that one step closer to our childhood hero — this video game icon has all of a sudden become accessible and more human.
With 20 years of tomb raiding under our belts, Tomb Raider has never felt more alive. Lara is very much at the center of a modern evolution. We are following a new path now. Not just Lara's path to a tomb, but her path to becoming a legendary adventurer.
There is something very special about Lara Croft, something very special about the internal and external exploration that Tomb Raider offers. I just hope that the younger generations of gamers get the chance to explore their love for the character and franchise the same way that I did 20 years ago.
Happy 20th birthday, Lara Croft!