Network: Why Lara Croft is too hot for the world to handle

You thought a game was the same the world over? Think again. The Germans can't stand gore and Americans don't like anything difficult
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The Independent Culture
Fever pitch anticipation of a new sighting of Lara Croft has become as much a seasonal indicator as falling leaves and Christmas adverts on TV. When Tomb Raider IV: The Last Revelation is finally released this month after the usual big media build-up, another annual tradition will also be set in motion: the scramble to be the first to finish the game.

Fans of the gun-toting heroine will be playing night and day to work their way through the numerous puzzles of the adventure, which is set in Egypt with a plot which revolves around mythology and an unusual alignment of stars at the millennium. Those first to the finishing line go straight to the Net to post a walkthrough and the locations of secrets.

Here's a tip for UK players: if you want to win the game's equivalent of a gold medal in the Tomb Raider Open, get hold of the American version - it's easier. The news is certain to surprise players who believe the same version of a game is released all over the globe, as is the case with music and - barring the odd bit of local censorship - movies. But the truth is that games studios are increasingly having to create fundamentally different versions of the same game to appease local tastes.

"Research has shown that in America people mainly sit in front of a game for short periods, sometimes only 10 minutes. Then they go off and watch the TV," explains Adrian Smith, operations director at Core Design, the company behind Tomb Raider. "For that reason we make the games a little bit easier for that market. If a problem is particularly difficult it could take longer than 10 minutes to solve, which would prove pretty frustrating and the players could lose interest.

"The UK and European markets are very similar. Here game nutters play games for 12 hours straight so the gameplay can be more complex."

Despite Tomb Raider's near-global domination of the games market, Japan, with its massive games culture, is one territory which has proved particularly troublesome. "Lara is just not a very appealing character to the Japanese. She's too tall, too British," says Mr Smith. "We have had to make some significant changes for that market. The Japanese don't ever want to die in a game so we're having to introduce things like penalties where Lara loses weapons if she takes a bone-crunching fall. They don't like stopping and restarting again. They want the game to just carry on.

"Having said that, there are games in Japan which are million-sellers that would shift about four units if they were put on sale over here. It really is very different."

Cultural differences aren't as easy to read as the marketing men claim, however. Guy Miller, creative director for Acclaim, which has just released its highly praised voodoo thriller Shadow Man, says the Japanese haven't taken to Tomb Raider for reasons which go beyond simple likes and dislikes. "Tomb Raider apparently died a death in Japan, because the violence was not `honourable' or `justifiable'," he says.

Many changes which only appear to be local censorship actually affect the gameplay so significantly that drastic changes have to be made to structure and design. Quake and its sequel, two of the more gory games released, had serious problems in parts of Europe where the violence was deemed unacceptable. The Germans in particular take a very dim view of too much slaughter and insisted on all blood being removed from Quake and replaced by green slime. The same approach was taken with Shadow Man.

German players also lost out on the "Wolfenstein" secret levels in Doom II. Among the various demons were displayed swastikas and other Nazi iconography which are outlawed throughout Germany.

"In the US we had more of a problem with the in-game nudity - to the extent that we had to clothe the naked zombies and the naked versions of the voodoo priestess, Nettie," says Mr Miller. "In the UK we didn't have a problem with either the blood or the nudity because we're sensible like that."

Despite the gripes of the industry, for the consumer it's heart-warming to know that there are limitations on the growth of global homogeneous culture. If even the relentless tramp of Lara Croft's boots can't convince the Japanese to embrace Westernisation, we won't have to surrender to the blandness of a corporate world anytime soon.