[27 August 2003]
On those occasions when a beautiful young celebrity dies in pointless circumstances, a glib but nonetheless intriguing observation often surfaces regarding the nature of fame and mortality. The cliché goes as follows: Marilyn/Kurt/Diana will never grow old because the overdose/gunshot wound/concrete wall has immortalised them. They are caught in a temporal snapshot, forever to be remembered as youthful, beautiful and tragically unlucky. They are frozen, if you will, in time.
Which I guess is fair enough. What, though, if your image and persona had indeed become frozen but you hadn’t in fact died, since you were never alive in the first place. What would that do to you?
Such is the lot of Lara Croft, one of only a handful of video game characters to have impacted on the wider cultural consciousness. She stands now alongside Pacman, Mario and Sonic as an icon everyone knows the name and image of, even if the memory is sometimes traumatic (especially in the case of Sega’s thoroughly irritating blue hedgehog). Lara, feisty female emblem or polygon-based wet dream, depending upon your perspective, garbed in fetching shorts, skin-tight top and hiking boots, and sporting a waistline and bosom normally associated with Jane Austen adaptations. She’s a modern gal for a modern age, or an anachronistic image of womanhood. Contradictions have characterised Lara from the off, but only of late has it started to become a major problem.
The star of the Tomb Raider games first appeared in 1996. In fact, that year was somewhat of an annus mirablis for feisty female heroes since it also saw the reincarnation of Lara’s sister-in-arms, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as a mighty TV star. Interestingly, Buffy seems to be charting the opposite path to Lara: beginning life in a fairly dismal film, transforming into a superlative television star, and transferring to a lacklustre video game outing (though apparently there’s another, more promising one on its way). Lara has so far avoided television except when she’s advertising something and skipped straight to the cinema.
The streets of London are currently festooned with Angelina Jolie’s catsuited incarnation of Lara in a promotion for the new Tomb Raider flick, Cradle of Life. Tellingly, in this marketing campaign mixed messages are a-go-go. The pose makes her look worryingly like a cross between the 1950s British space hero Dan Dare, and the kind of redoubtable female that used to appear on propaganda posters beloved of the Supreme Soviet.
As a consequence of the proliferation of interesting female heroes in popular culture, it’s easy now to underestimate how important Lara’s gender was in her evolution. How many other female video game avatars had there been prior to the original Tomb Raider? Ms Pacman, while enormously successful, didn’t really represent a major step forward in female emancipation, unless you perceive wearing a jaunty red bow on your head as some indicator of radical empowerment. Female characters were generally limited to NPCs (Non-Playable Characters), that being people or creatures who inhabit the environment you’re exploring but over whom you have no agency. (Actually, that isn’t strictly true, it just depends how you define “agency”: some games enable you to perhaps pay a character money to do something for you, or simply to beat NPCs into submission, as in the Grand Theft Auto series. Which I guess is agency of a kind).
In games of yore the player was often given the role of the muscle-bound hero tasked with saving the damsel in distress; and that was about as sophisticated as it got. Though that particular scenario hasn’t entirely vanished, these days, certain genres particularly survival horror, a type exemplified by Capcom’s recently resurrected Resident Evil for Nintendo’s GameCube employ female avatars to good effect. The influence of Lara in her role as turn-of-the century running, jumping, and shooting virtual suffragette is palpable. The form this influence continues to take rests with what the culture does and does not do with the character from hereon in.
Lara used to be what French philosopher and cultural critic Gilles Deleuze termed “smooth”. These are the sort of characters which occur in Kerouac’s On the Road and which Deleuze, in reference to Melville’s eponymous Bartleby the Scrivener, describes as “the man without references, without possessions, without properties, without qualities, without particularities: he is too smooth for anyone to be able to hang any particularity on” (from Essays Critical and Clinical by Gilles Deleuze, published by Verso, 1998). Our knowledge about Lara from the first Tomb Raider game went pretty much as follows: beyond the running, jumping, etc., we knew she was posh (aristocracy, no less) and we knew her chartered plane had crashed deep in the Andes when she was only 21, and that she’d had to stay alive in the jungle on her own for two weeks. We knew that she’d then rejected the cosy life of upper-class British society, been rejected by her family in turn. and chose a life of derring-do seeking out archaeological sites of interest (i.e., tombs). What we weren’t provided with was a great deal else concerning say, her choice in partners or penchant for exploring catacombs in fetishwear.
Gradually, through further exploits, she gained more backstory, but in short supply to retain her tantalising mystique. In 1998 the sublime Douglas Coupland contributed a substantial proportion to Lara’s Book: Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider Phenomenon (Prima Publishing). Lara’s smoothness enabled Coupland to speculate, to have fun with her. The smoothness also enabled everyone to play the games on equal terms, regardless of age, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class or gender. The downside, of course, is that perhaps she was little more than an animated Barbie. Which is like, y’know, kinda shallow. Isn’t it?
Certainly Hollywood perceived it as shallowness. The movie industry, despite all signs to the contrary, needs to generate characters with some level of depth. Even the worst, most schlocky films often feature characterisation of a kind video games can only dream of (though it must be said there’s precious little evidence that they do in fact dream of it). Ironically, Lara is probably much more like Barbie now that she’s been given so much backstory. Lara’s accessorised with a family, an education, even relationships, in the same way that Barbie is accessorised with ballet dresses, a pony, and a boyfriend made of extruded plastic.
The ongoing construction of Lara as a sophisticated commodity has done nothing for her. Successful commodities, really successful ones, somehow stop being commodities they rise above it. For a while this was true of Lara, precisely because though she appeared fairly complex compared to Pacman’s munching yellow disc or Sonic’s cutesy blue rodent she was in fact utterly unsophisticated in comparison with most other literary or filmic heroines. Somehow Lara exceeded the boundaries placed upon her by dumb marketing types and the sheer class the smoothness of the original creation shone through.
The poor response to the latest Tomb Raider game has led Eidos, the publisher of the franchise, to announce its intention to give Lara to the American developer, Crystal Dynamics. It may well prove a poisoned chalice as the rot almost certainly set in much earlier. The game, which has been roundly criticised for shoddy workmanship, is a symptom of a general malaise rather than its cause. Once again there is a confusion of messages. Lara’s videogame physique has been remodelled to make her more Joliesque but elements of the game still look heartwrenchingly familiar. The truth is, Lara doesn’t know who she is anymore, and neither does anyone else. Is she a film star, a role model, a video game avatar or all three?
Maybe it’s that video game avatars have to be fundamentally superficial. Isn’t it that when we play a video game character we become them? Certainly our bodily responses would indicate so. Perhaps we want to be able to impose our own personality without it clashing to too great an extent with an already constructed personality. This isn’t to say that video game avatars can’t necessarily provide the level of empathy characteristic of literature and drama. As numerous writers have demonstrated, Kerouac among them, meaning can arise experientially, as we go about exploring 1950s America, the castle, or the tomb, with our smooth character to guide us. Smooth characters, smooth stories don’t necessarily mean superficial.
Lara had intensity; but not anymore. As soon as the Tomb Raider turned into the beautiful Angelina Jolie and her poshness was writ large, her looks and class were suddenly issues. Further backstory, further attempts at giving her depth will only now alienate her more. The problem with role models, at least in terms of video games, is that the more we learn about them the less likely we are to necessarily want to be them. It’ll be intriguing to see whether Buffy, whose complexity is folded in from the TV series, can ever make a good video game avatar.
Lara’s problem is that she’s a role model that tried to grow up. She stands now like Banquo’s ghost at the video gamers’ banquet. A once proud, important figure, she’s now reduced to substandard Indiana Jones cinema outings and rubbishy video game expeditions that feel like the programmers expired halfway through coding crucial bits of the experience. If we’re not careful, Lara will be forever remembered as youthful, beautiful and tragically unlucky neither real enough or dead enough but frozen and forced to change at the same time.
And of course the trouble is, the more we continue to play with her, the more likely she is to melt away completely.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/harvey030827/