Lara Croft is one of the most recognisable protagonists in computer games. Her agility and confidence offered a counter representation to the passive female characters that were found in most other titles, but some critics believed she was a negative role model for young people because her ridiculous body shape reduced her to an object that appealed to male gaze.
Based on the original game, “Tomb Raider: Anniversary” was released in 2007 and went on to sell 1.3 million copies worldwide. Appearing in three feature films, toys, advertisements, animated shorts and on plenty of merchandise, Lara Croft remains a significant icon of popular culture.
To help you prepare for the AQA exam, this article explores “Tomb Raider: Anniversary” in terms of representations, media form, genre, industry and audience.
Gender and Identity
When David Gauntlett first published “Media, Gender, and Identity: An Introduction” in 2002, he suggested the representation of the Spice Girls and their “Girl Power” was a terrific example of how gender identities were more complex than the binary definitions which reduced women to passive housewives. It is important to note the first Tomb Raider game was released just after the Spice Girls topped the UK music charts with their single “Wannabe” so the representation of Lara Croft fits in with that new wave of female empowerment.
…watching Tomb Raider… might encourage girls to become somewhat more independent and feisty, without them needing to directly copy an extensive fight sequence, embark on a perilous quest for ancient artifacts…David Gauntlett
In our introduction to Liesbet van Zoonen, we referred to her description of a combative and aggressive representation of traditional masculinity. Since Lara Croft is always depicted posing with her weapons, including on the box art for “Tomb Raider: Anniversary”, it is clear the character transgresses the binary representation of gender because she is active and adventurous. In this way, the protagonist seems to validate Gauntlett’s fluidity of identity concept.
Of course, bell hooks might point to the fact Lara Croft comes from an aristocratic family so she can afford to be independent and traipse around the world in search of lost civilisations and ancient artifacts. Not everyone has he money to be so independent.
It is also important note Larson’s sexist language during several of the cutscenes. Reinforcing the imbalance of power between femininity and masculinity, he refers to Lara Croft as “darlin'” and “kitten”. Is he simply performing his gender role?
Is Lara Croft a fembot or a feminist icon? For most of the earlier games in the franchise, the protagonist wears boots, light-brown shorts, turquoise tops, and fingerless gloves. You can see this representation in the following screenshot from the first cutscene in Peru:
It should be immediately obvious her outfit is not suitable for an adventure in the snow-cold mountains. This ludicrous representation suggests the character is there to be objectified by the audience because the male designers are emphasising her athletic physique to satisfy the male gaze.
Since the gameplay is from the third-person perspective, the camera is often positioned in a way that draws attention to her long legs and chest. Many critics argue the exaggeration of her body proportions is salacious. Aja Romano offers a good summary of Lara Croft’s graphic design in her discussion of the character’s appeal. The Vox article is certainly worth reading.
The original PlayStation artwork for “Tomb Raider” (1996) had “featuring Lara Croft” written at the bottom of the front cover. She was the star of the game and its unique selling point (USP). The producers behind the first live action adaption of the game were fully aware of her status in popular culture so they named the film “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (2001).
The box art for “Tomb Raider: Anniversary” places her name above the title like she was the leading actress in this drama.
The character’s femininity is encoded through her revealing costume, but also her seductive over the shoulder pose. A ponytail is another sign which connotes femininity. The lighting effects give her skin an angelic glow and emphasise the contours of her body. The direct address also grabs the audience’s attention.
Genre and Gameplay
“Tomb Raider: Anniversary” is an action-adventure game which follows many of the genre’s codes and conventions. Working through a series of challenges to reach the next level, you need to run along narrow passageways, roll under shooting arrows, jump across deadly traps, latch onto rings with your grabbling hook, climb steep ledges, and swim across rough rivers. There is also plenty of fierce combat, especially against the tough bosses at the end of each location. The Tyrannosaurus Rex in The Lost World is great fun to defeat.
The exotic geography of the game provides the backdrop to the adventure as Lara Croft goes in search of the magical “Scion of Atlantis”.
The third-person perspective allows the player to rotate the camera and view their surroundings without having to move the character. This gives a better sense of the 3-D space and discover solutions to the puzzles. For instance, when you first enter the Tomb of Qualopec and the main passage becomes blocked, you can use the camera to look around the chamber and try to work out which path to follow to get past the metal gates.
Like most platform games, “Tomb Raider: Anniversary” is organised into linear levels, so you need to complete one stage before you can access the next. There is also the element of the shooter genre because you have to kill enemies on sight in order to survive.
“Tomb Raider: Anniversary” contains lots of cutscenes that help drive the story. The dialogue is full of action codes rather than any attempt to develop the complexity of the characters. After the opening set piece featuring the nuclear test in New Mexico, a mercenary introduces Lara Croft to Jacqueline Natla. In less than a minute, the story cuts to the icy mountains of Peru and the player gets to control the avatar for the first time.
The game borrows lots of its conventions from action-adventure films, most notably, the Indiana Jones franchise. In both stories, there are chase sequences, fight scenes, dramatic set pieces and the tremendous threat posed by an occult power. In this media text, Lara Croft is the hero with a clear objective who needs to put herself at great physical risk to defeat the villain.
Watch the the trailer for “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) and try to identify any codes which are typical of the action-adventure genre.
You should read our analysis of “Metroid Prime 2: Echoes” because your might have to compare and contrast the two games for the AQA A Level exam. Read the section on genre because it will help develop your understanding of the different types of computer games.
Deconstructing the Narrative
Roland Barthes suggested stories consisted of five narrative codes. Unsurprisingly, “Tomb Raider: Anniversary” is full of action and enigma codes. The opening set piece is a great example of an enigma code. After the fantastical creature disappears from the screen, the audience is left to guess about its identity until its origins are revealed later in the game.
As you progress through the levels, you learn more about the Scion of Atlantis. At the end of the expedition to Peru, for example, you discover there are actually three pieces to the ancient artifact.
Plot twists are another important convention of action-adventure stories. When the three pieces of the Scion are reunited, Lara realises Jacqueline Natla is the winged Queen of Atlantis who is seeking “all the knowledge of the Ancients”.
This reveal sets up the final conflict where our hero has to defeat the villain to save mankind.
In terms of action codes, the cutscene with Lara Croft on her motorbike is one of the most exciting and spectacular. There is an exhilarating sequence of quick cuts used to emphasise her speed. The long shots reinforce the dangerous environment, the close ups focus our attention on the character’s bravery, and the point of view shots position the audience into the middle of the chase. After hitting a ramp, she jumps from her motorbike in mid-air and, using her grappling hook, reaches Natla’s yacht. It is an incredibly cinematic sequence with a dramatic orchestral score heightening the tension.
Perhaps the most poignant action code is the fatal battle between Lara and Larson. In this quick time event, the player takes limited control of the character and follows the on-screen prompts to shoot Larson. Each button press seems more intimate than the last. It’s clear from the softer music and Lara’s facial expressions that she regrets having to kill the henchman.
While these hermeneutic and proairetic codes provide the internal chronology of the narrative, the representation of the hero and villain is the most obvious example of Barthes’ definition of a symbolic code. Of course, Natla is dressed in a black suit – the colour code connoting her evil intent – and Lara is in her blue top. This simple binary opposition is also established by their different hair colour and accents.
Finally, the game designers made sure the animals were represented as very threatening and scary so the player would have no qualms about shooting sharp-toothed wolves and vicious gorillas.
The narrative concept of causality refers to the link between two beats of the story. Put simply, there should be a logical progression so the audience can easily make sense of what is happening. However, puzzle-solving adventures are often criticised for their confusing gameplay because players stumble across a solution rather than being able to figure out the problem for themselves. Although causality in the cutscenes is mostly straightforward and obvious, the gameplay “Tomb Raider: Anniversary” can be disorientating.
Disequilibrium and Repair
At the start of the story, Lara’s world is in a state of equilibrium. The revelation of the location of Qualopec’s Tomb could be considered the disruption. Therefore, when the player takes control of the avatar, the story is in its disequilibrium phase.
You have to overcome obstacles, solve puzzles and fight terrible beasts on your journey to repair the disequilibrium and create a new equilibrium. In this way, “Tomb Raider: Anniversary” satisfies each aspect of Tzvetan Todorov’s narrative theory.
In his study of Russian folktales, Vladimir Propp identified seven character types by their spheres of action in the narrative. Lara Croft is obviously the hero because she goes on a quest to defeat the villain, the Queen of Atlantis, who wants to remake the world in her evil image. Natla could also be considered a dispatcher because she sends Lara to Peru in search of the first Scion of Atlantis.
Quest or Adventure Plot?
In terms of master plots, we could define the computer game as an adventure plot because the protagonist is not dynamic. For Ronald Tobias, the character in an adventure plot should change by the end of the narrative. Lara Croft may defeat the villain, but she does not learn anything about herself.
Alternatively, when she is about to attack Larson, she says, “I’m not who you think I am”. This crossing of a moral boundary could be considered a change in character, making “Tomb Raider: Anniversary” a quest narrative in Tobias’ list of master plots.
- Describe the demographics of the game’s target audience.
- In terms of genre, explain why “Tomb Raider: Anniversary” can be considered a hybrid text.
- Comment on how the different levels, quick time events and cutscenes combine to engage the audience.
- Suggest why the game designers opted for a third-person perspective for most of the gameplay. For instance, how does it help players interact with the environment?
- Explain how values and ideologies are communicated by media language used the Close Study Product Tomb Raider: Anniversary.
- David Gauntlett suggests media texts help audiences construct their identities. Explore this idea in relation to the Close Study Product Tomb Raider: Anniversary.
- Explore how the representation of gender has been constructed in the Close Study Product Tomb Raider: Anniversary.
- How do representations of gender reflect their social and historical context. Refer to the Close Study Product Tomb Raider: Anniversary.
- Stuart Hall argued audiences decoded media products according to their frameworks of knowledge. Use your knowledge of Hall’s reception theory to analyse the Close Study Product Tomb Raider: Anniversary.
- How valid are Judith Butler’s ideas of gender trouble and performativity to understanding media texts? Refer to the Close Study Product Tomb Raider: Anniversary to support your answer.
- To what extent does the Close Study Product Tomb Raider: Anniversary demonstrate the target audience for video games continues to change.