Tom Clement gets to the bottom of the rumours and speculations surrounding one of gaming’s greatest characters.
Lara Croft is one of the world’s most recognisable video game characters, and 2016 marks her twentieth birthday. She holds six Guinness World Records, successfully transferred from the game screen to the big screen and was hailed as a great achievement of British tech industry by Lord Salisbury in the House of Lords. Yes, the House of Lords; I’d like to see Mario or Sonic do that. Lara’s been promoted as a feminist icon and has been criticised as an unrealistic male fantasy. And if new reports are to be believed, gay as well.
It’s interesting that a lone female game character who solves ancient puzzles and grave-robs her way across the world has to have her sexuality questioned. It’s 2016, why is this a thing?
In her early days, Lara was sold as a hetero-normative sex symbol. She had Playboy front covers, real human models posed as her at trade show conventions and there was even an infamous ‘topless photo’ with Duke Nukem. Stella Lune, creator of the gaming advice site tombraiders.net, told me that if she had seen any of this sexualised advertising at the time, ‘I wouldn’t have bought it. I would have said, that’s not for me.’
Crystal Dynamics’ 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider presented Lara’s origin story. The programmers said that from the outset they wanted to get away from the iconic boobs/braid/backpack look of the mid- to late-1990s. The new story had a much deeper focus on character, making Lara more empathetic and emotional. She starts out as a student, quietly listening to her mp3 player or her head buried in books. She then metamorphoses into the ass-kicking, gun-toting gal that we’re all familiar with.
As she becomes battered and bruised throughout the story arc, she takes on the qualities that made her stand out back in the ’90s and, during the finale, carries her best friend (and now possible love interest) Sam (isn’t it interesting how the love interest has a gender neutral name?) down from a mountain of certain doom in her arms, almost like a newly-wed carrying their spouse across the threshold of their new house. This fact wasn’t lost on head writer Rihanna Pratchett who, in an informative interview with Kill Screen, discussed the idea of Lara being gay: ‘I’ve seen a number of threads about Lara’s relationship with Sam that suspect there’s something more going under the surface.’ Pratchett later goes on to admit, ‘There’s part of me that would have loved to make Lara gay. I’m not sure Crystal would be ready for it! But we’ve not spoken about it directly, either.’ So, already there is a ‘will they/won’t they’ situation building up. But how did it get to this situation in the first place?
When Lara Croft was introduced in 1996, the opening cinematic of the game has her fending off male advances. Larson, very much the typical player-character in most games up to that point, throws a news-clipping of our heroine, one foot on top of a defeated Bigfoot, under her nose, remarking, ‘Now what’s a man got to do to get that sort of attention from you?’ Lara raises her eyebrow and hits back. ‘It’s hard to say really, but you seem to be doing it just fine.’ She dodges the question and gives a thinly disguised threat of violence if he tries anything on with her. When they meet in a later entry, she does just that, when Larson moves in to disarm Lara, she kicks him in his private parts and punches his friend Pierre in the face when he tries to kiss her hand.
Toby Gard, Lara’s creator, said in the commentary for Tomb Raider Anniversary (a reimagining of the first game), ‘Lara has no interest’ in romance with men. And feminist writer Germaine Greer, in her 1999 book, The Whole Woman noted Lara was ‘sexually ambiguous’.
Even looking at some of the earlier intertextual material of the series indicates that Lara doesn’t have a yearning for love. The manual for the first Tomb Raider reveals that Lara was once engaged to the Earl of Farringdon, but the wedding was called off when Lara turned her back on high society to pursue her adventures. Could this be another indicator that there is something else that drove Miss Croft away to the far corners of the earth other than to find treasure?
Lara’s lack of interest in men is emphasised in the 2013 reboot. One of the side characters, Alex, is set up as a possible love interest for Lara. He sees Lara as his ‘hero’ and in his diary you see that he has a crush on her. Is Lara interested? Not in the slightest. And when he does finally confess his love to Miss Croft, what happens then? He gets a small peck on the cheek, before she leaves him to die on a sinking ship.
However, Camilla Luddington, who does the voice and motion capture for Lara Croft, takes a different view; that Lara might have a boyfriend on the horizon. In an interview with Maxim, the actress said that she felt there was something between her and another crew member, the Maori man-bear Jonah: ‘Any time they’re [Lara and Jonah] on screen together or interacting together there is such a love between them.’ Jonah also affectionately calls Lara ‘little bird’; she’s the only character he has a nickname for. Could this mean something more? And, in the preview of the new game Rise of the Tomb Raider, Jonah appears to be keeping Lara warm in the harsh Siberian winter. The fans I talked to are sceptical. Stella and Noelle Adams, authors of the incredibly detailed four-part essay, Lara Croft and the Queer Icon believe it’s platonic. (Note: this article was written before Rise of the Tomb Raider came out, hence why it refers to the E3 2015 demo).
But just because she has an almost confrontational approach to romance with the opposite gender (at least in the original series), doesn’t automatically mean Lara’s attracted to the same sex. Rihanna Pratchett agrees: ‘I think in games we don’t really stray too much outside of girl-boy.’ Although, she continues, ‘It was interesting that with a female like Lara rescuing a female, people sort of projected that there was more going on to that relationship.’
It seems that the fan-base around Tomb Raider has really picked up and run with the fact that Lara might be a lesbian. Tribute videos to her and Sam litter YouTube, fan-created art of the two getting married is on Google and literary types have written thousands of pages of fan-fiction. I read some in preparation for this feature and it’s remarkable of how fitting and adult (in its themes, not its content; get your mind out of the gutter) it all is, dealing with complex issues that many people in the LGBT community face today. It’s not shameful titillation like the games industry has provided over the years, but rather it creates a well-rounded character who can be a role model to younger audiences going through the same emotions. Dr Mark Griffith of Nottingham Trent University claims Lara is ‘psychological tabula rasa.’ Could this be a reason why the fans have jumped to it, wanting to plant their own agenda onto the character? Adams agrees: ‘You keep her blank, the audience can project whatever they want onto them. She’s definitely been picked up as a gay icon for both genders.’
In the end, I don’t really care whether Lara is gay or not. As Stella Lune told me, ‘If it comes out one way or another then somebody’s going to be disappointed.’ Adams was more concrete, labelling Lara as asexual, someone so invested in their job that there is no time for romance, no time for ‘do you want to get a coffee?’ in between jumping over spike-traps and murdering endangered species.
Either way, even people who don’t play video games have an idea of who Lara Croft is. Even if it is the outdated boobs/braid/backpack from twenty years ago, she’s the prominent female face of an entire industry. So it does matter how she is portrayed, and how the character is shown now in the 21st century. Ambiguity means everyone can have their version of Lara, and I think that’s what matters.