Lara Croft is a permanent fixture at the MCV offices.
Eidos had mocked up an image of her reading your favourite trade weekly to celebrate our first birthday (which was 1999). It still stands proud in our office today, reminding us of a time when the Britsoft pin-up was one of the biggest gaming icons in the world.
But time has not been kind to the Tomb Raider. A failed foray into cinema plus a handful of duff releases and Lara’s star has faded. The action adventure series was in desperate need of modernisation. So that’s exactly what Square Enix and developer Crystal Dynamics has done.
“She had become somewhat unrelatable,” admits Darrell Gallagher, studio head at Crystal Dynamics.
“She was obviously fully-formed; she was a confident, wisecracking adventurer and it was something that people weren’t necessarily connected to 15 years in. So we wanted to strip it down, give her a personality, make her feel more human, grounded and believable.
“The thing we want to do is make her a more modern version of a young British girl versus somebody that was so, I hate to use the word ‘posh’, but in a sphere where she had a butler. She wasn’t that relatable – almost like the niece of the queen or something. You look at some of the actresses that are popular at this point, someone like a Keira Knightley, she’s just a very likeable English girl and that’s the kind of person that you’d imagine Lara to be like. We really wanted to make her a little bit closer to somebody you could know.”
The new Tomb Raider takes Lara back to the start, to a time before she was the ‘wisecracking adventurer’. And Gallagher and his team have turned to the world of movies for inspiration.
“Not many game franchises have run as long as Tomb Raider,” he says. “And we were faced with a challenge that many more franchises will also have to face.
“So we looked at Batman Begins and Casino Royale and said, well how have they remained relevant over the years? What they’ve done is essentially had turns in their franchises that made it feel modern. So every generation has its version of Batman or Bond.
“What they’ve done with that franchise is make it relevant by reinventing it for modern times. In the video game industry, we haven’t really been faced with that. We were feeling like we were one of the first to really have to tackle that.”
Lara Croft has certainly made her way back into the headlines. Over the past few months the upcoming Tomb Raider has sparked media furore over rape and violence. It may not be the sort of press the Square Enix PR team was hoping for, but the franchise has certainly got the world's attention once again.
But it’s not been all negative, this new look Croft has generated a certain level of excitement, too.
Gallagher adds: “We have placed a big emphasis in putting some maturity into our storytelling, The drama and maturity of a character and what she’s going through.
“It’s something we’re actually treating with care. For us to tell a survival story, there is a harshness to that to deliver on. When we’re thinking about Tomb Raider and we thought about all these action adventure stories and you think about people who climb Everest or survive after a plane crash in the Andes,. It’s not actually about the destination but it’s the journey.
“We looked at these incredible stories and we felt that we hadn’t ever really delivered on that in Tomb Raider. We’d delivered on fantasy, we’d delivered on destination, we’d delivered on picture postcard vistas and all kinds of aspects on action, adventure and discovery. But that true story of actually achieving something and it being something that you talk about as being heroic. There’s a harshness to it that without that challenge, it wouldn’t be a heroic story. When you think about Aaron Ralston, 127 Hours, and he chopped off his arm, it’s incredible. We wanted to have that enthused into this game so when it comes to the violence or it being adult, it’s really to support our goal.”
Tomb Raider also returns to a world where action adventure games are suddenly popular once again. Sony’s Uncharted franchise has been a phenomenal critical and commercial success, and it's a series that’s clearly inspired by Lara’s past glories.
Crystal Dynamics is keen to stress that this Tomb Raider is not simply Uncharted with a female lead. But the commercial performance of Sony’s series has certainly made Tomb Raider a far more enticing option for the trade, and could even give it the edge in a surprisingly congested Q1 2013.
“When you look at Uncharted or some of the other big games out there, if they spring an appetite in the public and they want more, then we only benefit from that,” admits Gallagher.
“They make great games and I enjoy playing them. We were actually planning this before Uncharted 2, so Uncharted was still in its infancy. We knew at that point that we had to take this franchise in a different direction, not 1necessarily because of Uncharted, but because we knew we were facing a problem with a franchise that, at that point, had been around for almost 13 years.
“Regardless of what the competition were doing, we knew that to stay relevant we had to change. So as it happened, Uncharted came out and elevated action adventure and they did a great job and certainly took some inspiration from Tomb Raider but for us, we were actually travelling in a different path already.”
It’s a direction that appears to be working, at least so far. Early press previews have been positive. If the game lives up to its current demos, then it should certainly enjoy the backing of the games media.
“We’ve had great responses overall and I think there’s a lot of interest in this reinvention of Tomb Raider. For the most part, I feel there’s goodwill. People want it to come back. There’s been nominations on our booth wall at E3, we’ve been invited to do stage demos by Microsoft, and looking at not only just the media and journalist responses but also, more critically, gamer responses as well
“There’s tons of commentary that I see around the gaming public which is suggesting that there is a real will for Tomb Raider to be back on the map.”