1996: the year of Independence Day, Trainspotting and Britpop. It was also the year that new standards were set for console game immersiveness in the form of the trendsetting Tomb Raider.
In anticipation of Tomb Raider: Live In Concert at London’s Eventim Apollo this December, here’s how both the game, and its soon-to-be-iconic central character Lara Croft, emerged from out of nowhere to spawn an enormous franchise that made video gaming not just addictive, but also seriously stylish and cool.
Step aside, boys
With her unyielding bravado, resourcefulness, sharp wit and good looks, British adventurer Lara Croft expertly cut her way through the boys-own landscape of console gaming, until that point dominated by the likes of Sonic on the Sega Mega Drive and Super Mario Bros on the SNES.
Designed by Toby Gard, there’s no getting around the explicitly buxom, sexualised nature of her character, but here was also a video game creation who could take her male competition on at their own game – and win. The female Indiana Jones had arrived and was here to stay.
Reinventing the Raider
Inaugurated by Core Design under the ownership of Eidos Interactive, the original series ran for five games (I, II, III, The Last Revelation and Chronicles) from 1996 to 2001, defining new standards in adventure gaming for both PlayStation and PC (the first game also on Sega Saturn). However come 2003 Lara’s new-fangled upgrade The Angel of Darkness, her first PS2 appearance, was a flop.
On its 10-year anniversary newly employed designers Crystal Dynamics reinvigorated the flagging series with Legend being released onto a host of platforms, PS2, PS3, Xbox 360 and PSP among them. A 2007 remake of the original game, Anniversary, was followed by 2008’s Underword.
Following the ways of the movie industry Lara inevitably got her own glossy reboot, with 2013’s Tomb Raider and 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider being made available for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 (the latter also on Xbox One). More than most other video game characters, Lara has endured multiple reinventions to stay relevant to generations of new gamers.
Worlds of wonder
Put simply, in the mid-nineties no-one had seen anything like the original Tomb Raider, one that blasted twee 2D visuals out of the water with its eerie and interactive 3D landscape and dynamic camerawork, paving the way for the games to come.
From raptor-filled valleys to Venetian canals, meteorite caverns to Egyptian tombs and more, the series put the player firmly in charge, tasking them with Lara’s very own survival as cerebral, often infuriating puzzles and deadly enemies dictated the outcome of every level.
Some of the sights, especially in the earlier games, continue to take the breath away, the reveal of the underground Sphinx in the first Tomb Raider’s ‘Sanctuary of the Scion’ offering the sort of spine-tingling wonder usually reserved for blockbuster cinema.
Defining a generation
Amidst an era defined by laddy bravado in the form of such bands as Oasis (brilliantly explored in recent documentary Supersonic), there was also gender revolution spearheaded by the likes of the Spice Girls, who courted headlines not only with chart-friendly pop hits but their femme-centric appeal.
Ms. Croft was therefore an unlikely but perfect soul-mate for Baby, Posh, Ginger, Scary and Sporty, a reaction to male chauvinism (although many have argued her image plays up to it) who, like her real-life counterparts, emerged as a pop culture icon blending sexuality with a no-nonsense, fiercely individualistic persona.
With its key character having been embodied by a series of real-life models, Rhona Mitra and Nell McAndrew among them, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling. It fell to Angelina Jolie, then in the throes of a megastar career and with an Oscar to her name for Girl Interrupted, to bring Lara to life in 2001’s feature film Tomb Raider.
Blending her A-list beauty with a physical desire to perform most of her own stunts, the dedicated Jolie was arguably the best aspect of the misfiring movie and its 2003 sequel The Cradle of Life, both of which failed to capture the spirit of the games.
Not only revolutionary in terms of its character, graphics and marketing, the sonic landscape of the Tomb Raider series immediately identified it as a more sophisticated property than its largely synth-led console predecessors.
The sound of the series was defined by Nathan McCree in the first three games, who utilised orchestral keyboard samples to craft an engrossing sense of classical atmosphere by turns beautiful and terrifying, and whose tender, oboe-led main theme is arguably one of the most graceful of any video game.
Peter Connelly took over for games IV, V and The Angel of Darkness (co-written with Martin Iveson), the latter of which offered a richly melodic powerhouse from the London Symphony Orchestra that brought Lara into a new age.
Lara Croft: icon
Many video game characters are attributed with breaking the mold, but Lara was the real deal. Marketed, controversially, not just as a graphical interface but a living, breathing creation capable of taking on a life beyond our screens, she broke down the polygonal barriers between player and game.
Added to this the richly interactive world of the games themselves, in which the player was all that stood between Lara and a potentially grisly death, and it’s little wonder consumers started to respond to her less as an object and more a vivid character whose journey was to be nurtured throughout.
Lara wasn’t just made in a computer: both sexually charged and slyly intelligent, she had an actual personality fostered both inside and outside the games themselves. It laid down the template for the future of gaming, but rarely did such an approach prove this effective again.
Tomb Raider: Live in Concert is on the 18th of December at the Evertim Hammersmith Apollo – find out more here.