Lara Croft: from shy girl to Tomb Raider

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The latest Tomb Raider game is an origins story. Rebecca Armstrong meets games scriptwriter Rhianna Pratchett, who had the task of bringing a vulnerable 21-year-old Lara Croft to the masses

How do you tackle a national treasure? When it comes to reimagining Lara Croft, the answer is: carefully.

Click here to view the picture gallery of Lara Croft: then and now.

When archaeologist and action heroine Croft appeared in 1996's Tomb Raider, she caught the imagination of gamers, who got behind this fearless female protagonist (not least, I'm afraid to say, to look at her bum) as she swung, swum and fought her way to finding an Atlanean artefact.

Long hair, short shorts, sharp moves – it was a killer combination, and one that saw Lara shift games ( Tomb Raiders II, III, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, Curse of the Sword, The Prophecy, The Angel of Darkness, Legend, Anniversary, Underworld and – deep breath – The Guardian of Light), become a cover girl (notably on now-defunct British style bible The Face) and inspire two Hollywood films starring Angelina Jolie.

She's tracked down daggers, done battle with cults, found bits of meteorite with supernatural powers, looked for both Excalibur and her old mum and got into bother with crocodiles, giant spiders and dinosaurs. Posh, plucky and pretty, she's taken everything thrown at her with good grace, if diminishing profits. Is there anywhere left for her to go? Games publisher Square Enix thinks so, which bought Eidos Interactive, the company that created Lara, in 2009. It will be releasing the first Tomb Raider title since 2010 next month, which will delve into her past.

Rhianna Pratchett, award-winning video games scriptwriter and narrative designer, was the woman tasked, along with developers Crystal Dynamics, with bringing a new Lara to a new audience – as well as to the masses who have got to know her over the past 17 years. "I think everyone's aware of Lara, in the same way that everyone's aware of Beyoncé or the Queen - even my mum knows who Lara Croft is, although predominantly because my dad played the first three Tomb Raiders - he spent many happy hours following Lara Croft's bottom around," she says. (See what I mean about her bum?)

That Lara was a celebrity, albeit a virtual one, was something that hit Rhianna towards the end of the creative process. "I felt the weight of Lara bearing down on me. I'd been working on Tomb Raider for two and a half years and then, oh God, suddenly people had expectations and it all became very real."

In the Tomb Raider reboot, as it's described by its makers, Lara is a teenager, who, along with some of the crew of the ship Endurance, is shipwrecked on a tropical island that is packed to the palm trees with violent peril. She has yet to become the hardy heroine of earlier games – which, says Rhianna, is the whole point. "We took a bit of a risk in showing her being uncertain, being scared, and looking to others for help, which isn't normally what you'd expect from Lara Croft. We tried to look at all the traits that people associate with her – bravery, tenacity, resourcefulness – and rewind. Those traits are still there but they're buried below the surface so they come out during the game. Even she's not aware of them and she wrestles with what she discovers about the world and what she discovers about herself. She's not always comfortable with it."

Certainly, there were uncomfortable moments last summer when, during the games industry's largest event, E3, the trailer for Tomb Raider was shown and one producer was said to have referred to a scene in it, where Lara is threatened by a mercenary on the island, as being an "attempted rape". The media, both games and mainstream, exploded, with "video game hell" headlines, as well as more considered articles lamenting the fact that a female character was being defined by a sexual assault in her past.  Studio head Darrell Gallagher swiftly put out the following statement: "One of the character-defining moments for Lara in the game, which has been incorrectly referred to as an 'attempted rape scene', is the content we showed at this year's E3 where Lara is forced to kill another human being for the first time. In this particular section, while there is a threatening undertone in the sequence and surrounding drama, it never goes any further than the scenes that we have already shown publicly."

"I was really surprised at the reaction. I could understand why people were upset by what they thought they saw, but it wasn't [seen] in context," explains Rhianna. "While I'd rather things hadn't come out in the way they had, I think it created a valuable debate about the relationship between player and character, how we speak about our characters, how we speak about our female characters in particular, and I just hope it's not coloured people's perceptions too much, and that they try the game for themselves. It's so important to see that scene in context, it does have a power to it."

She believes that Lara’s vulnerability as a teenage girl makes her later evolution more impressive, even if creating a back-story that went against the existing Tomb Raider mythology was daunting. "There's been a few reactions along the lines of "how dare you do this to her?". Yes, she's vulnerable, but not because she's female but because she's human. We would all be vulnerable in those circumstances. She turns to the people she thinks are more capable with dealing with it and she realises that, actually, no-one is going to save her but herself... That's the arc that she goes through, from not thinking she's confident, turning to others, to realising that she's the only one with the information and know-how to save them all."

OK, so perhaps shipwrecking your national treasure and putting her through a media scandal doesn't sound as though it's a careful treatment, but when it comes to Lara Croft, both the character and the brand, it seems she's nothing if not a survivor.

Tomb Raider (PC, PS3, Xbox 360) is released on 5 March

Price: £49.99
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Release Date: 5th March 2013
Age Rating: 18

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