Tomb Raider: Ideological Perspectives & Transmedia Narratives.
The Tomb Raider franchise is arguably one of the most significant bodies of cross-platform media created to date; spanning over two decades (1996-present) with an impressive array of video games starring the iconic British archaeologist Lara Croft. The concept was created originally by the British gaming company Core Design and then passed on to be developed by Eidos Interactive and Square Enix. Over the years, Lara has traversed her way through exotic locations - raiding tombs, obtaining artefacts and fighting everything from the supernatural to armed mercenaries. This essay is going to focus on the ideological perspectives behind Lara as one of the first successful and mainstream female protagonists, studying the psychoanalytic context of her coded representation and how the ideology behind her image has shaped her, and changed over time. Also, the relevance of the context of society, and how embedded ideology affects representation in gender, analysing this concept through the perspectives of Slavoj Žižek, Laura Mulvey, Helen W. Kennedy and various others. This leads onward into the investigation of transmedia narratives, and the ways in which they can enrich a huge franchise such as Tomb Raider, where this essay will indulge in the exploration of each media artefact that Lara has to offer, looking through the eyes of theorists such as Henry Jenkins, Drew Davidson and Max Giovagnoli.
The outstanding success of the first Tomb Raider game released in 1996 triggered a chain reaction at Core Design, as they proceeded to release the next four games annually, leading to 58 million copies of the game being sold worldwide.
“When Tomb Raider hit the games market, it did so with a good degree of corporate muscle behind it: indeed the game was launched as a significant part of the Sony Playstation offensive. It was a game which deployed the latest in technical advances in games design. Featuring a navigable three-dimensional game space, a simple but atmospheric soundtrack and a level of cinematic realism previously unattainable” (Kennedy. H, 2002)
Lara had swiftly become a worldwide star in one of the best-selling video game franchises of all time, setting the tone for action-adventure games to come in the future such as the popular franchise ‘Uncharted’ starring male explorer Nathan Drake. Advertisers caught on very quickly to Lara’s rise to fame, and took advantage of her sex appeal and ‘badass’ image in order to mould her into a virtual commodity. She sold everything from the energy drink Lucozade,to SEAT cars in France, and even VISA credit cards in Japan. Her worldwide appeal was extremely captivating, and the synergistic relationships created between the Tomb Raider brand and the companies of the products provided even more invaluable exposure for young Lara Croft.
In order to keep her character fresh and unique, Lara has undergone a series of changes in storyline, character design, personality traits and environments, as demonstrated in the ‘Tomb Raider — Evolution’ YouTube link, which has enchanted a mass media audience all over the world for decades. So what determines her success? When it comes to representation, how is Lara viewed by society? Is she a feminist icon or merely just eye candy and a virtual commodity for the male demographic?
“It’s not only our reality that enslaves us; the tragedy of our predicament when we are within ideology is that when we think we escape it into our dreams. At that point we are within ideology.” (Žižek.S, 2012)
The opening scene to “The Perverts Guide To Ideology” provides a thought provoking statement from Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, suggesting that our society is so blindly immersed within ideology that we simply have no idea that we are actually within it.
Using the case study ‘They Live’ (1988) a satirical science fiction horror directed by John Carpenter, Žižek analyses the fight scene between characters ‘John Nada’ and ‘Frank Armitage’ in which he expresses that “Ideology is not simply imposed on ourselves. Ideology is our spontaneous relationship to our social world, how we perceive its meaning. To step out of ideology, it hurts. It’s a painful experience. You must force yourself to do it.” The intense violence within this scene is a manifestation of the idea that society finds comfort in the fact that we are aware of the confines of ideology. Yet we are not willing enough to be liberated by shattering the mirror of illusion.
The gaming market has ‘traditionally been very explicit in their exclusive address to a male audience’ (Kennedy. H, 2002) and so the spectacular arrival of Lara Croft broke the mould of rigid gender roles and ideology behind gaming in popular culture in the eyes of some. Many female gamers rejoiced at the arrival of Lara, her presence being a welcome novelty which created a sense of inclusiveness and diversity, therefore reducing the alienation they may have felt when actively participating in the gaming boom of the 1980s and 1990s.
“There was something refreshing about looking at the screen and seeing myself as a woman. Even if I was performing tasks that were a bit unrealistic… I still felt like, Hey, this is a representation of me, as myself, as a woman. In a game. How long have we waited for that?” (Nikki Douglas in Cassell and Jenkins 1999) (Kennedy.H, 2002)
Despite the hysteria around a mainstream action/adventure game representing a leading lady, the concept of the female protagonist operating in a male-dominated media landscape provokes some extremely ambiguous viewpoints in ideology. The idea of ‘repressive tolerance’ theorised by Herbert Marcuse (1965) can be applied to this case study in the way that the presence of a active female produces a faux challenge to the patriarchy, enough to convince the masses that the movement of feminism is reaching upwards, yet it can be argued that the subtleties of the codes and symbolism that Lara represents completely dismembers this belief. For example, one can lightly assume that the producers of Tomb Raider at Core Design disguised Lara’s active role within the gameplay and storyline as a breath of feminist, fresh air in order to align well with the ideology of ‘1990’s girl power’. Even with the new concept of ‘bimodal’ marketing in gaming, utilised by Sony PlayStation, many oppositional readings of Lara Croft did not agree that this game was truthfully targeted at a youth demographic of boys and girls. This is reinforced by a statement made in the late 1980’s and 1990’s in which ‘both Nintendo and SEGA made it very clear that to attempt to market games for girls would threaten their real market — boys and men’ (Kennedy. H, 2002).
This point feeds back into Žižek’s ponderings about the enslavement of ideology; did Sony consciously want to make a breakthrough with the representation of women, or is the ‘tragedy’ of it all just an unknowing façade in order to keep the subconscious, ideological peace? Is female representation really changing? Or just on surface level? Just because a woman is taking on the role of the male hero and wielding guns, does this completely dissipate the passivity of the woman in media? So many questions, so little time.
Laura Mulvey’s iconic essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975) provides some psychoanalytic insight into the subconscious nature of patriarchal ideology in society, in which she states that the ‘woman stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other’ (Mulvey. L, 1975). This reiterates the viewpoint that ‘within this narrative [Tomb Raider], the female body is a castrated body and as such it represents the threat of castration itself. This threat, it is argued, is disavowed or rendered safe by the phallicization of the female body.’ (Kennedy.H, 2002) So when one analyses Lara Croft closely, it is true that she conforms highly to the aspects of Mulvey’s theory that sexualise her, which can be argued to be the masking of the threat of castration embedded in her image subconsciously. Helen W. Kennedy affirms through her analysis of Mulvey that ‘active or strong female characters signify a potential threat to the masculine order’. Lara Croft embodies all of the qualities in which a male action hero would have; her athletic prowess, her intellect, and her ability to perform ‘extraordinary feats, undermining conventional understandings of the female body’ (Russo. M, 1994).
So from a feminist perspective, Lara can be seen as the ‘transgressive stunting body of the action heroine’ (Russo.M, 1994) as she ‘rejects patriarchal values and norms of femininity’ and ‘the physical spaces that she traverses are all in direct contradiction of the typical location of femininity within the private or domestic space’ (Kennedy. H, 2002). It is commonplace for women that appear in a masculine environment, in no matter what medium, conform to the classic stereotypes of the ‘love interest’ or the ‘damsel in distress’. Lara’s dominance of her game world without conformity to any of these stereotypes effectively allows her to ‘disturb the natural symbolism of masculine culture’. (Kennedy. H, 2012) In doing so, this completely emphasises the otherness of Lara’s femininity, thus transforming the natural ideology of gender. One may ask themselves, why is this a problem? Perhaps the game developers have no idea they are imposing this, as the implantation of ideology surrounding women as the ‘other’ has been so deeply internalised in our culture; perhaps it is really is painful to step out of subconsciously; but they do not even realise this.
Lara Croft is overtly eroticised as an object of the ‘male gaze’ in terms of her appearance; she is a spectacle to be looked at. She has often been described as a cultural sex symbol as she provides fetishistic and scopophillic pleasures, with her exaggerated breasts, big eyes, large lips and extremely small waist.
This also presents the idea of voyeurism; which is interestingly eluded by Lara, as the empowerment of voyeuristic pleasure is to ‘look without being seen’. However according to Mike Ward, he asserts that ‘ if Lara never returns the present look, she demonstrates her awareness of the player at an impasse, there seems to be a frustrated potentiality in the way she stands and breathes, the users ineptitude holding all her agility and lethality at bay’ (Ward, 2000). In simplistic terms, Ward is talking about when one stops moving the controls on the handset, it is clear to see that Lara is not abruptly passive, even thought she is being controlled by another subject (i.e. the player). She proceeds to look around impatiently and may stretch occasionally, which connotes an air of frustration in the fact that the player is holding her back from her full potential. She knows that the subject in control of herself and the game is looking at her. Thus, this could suggest a possible post-feminist reading of Lara. While the ‘threat of castration’ that she poses to patriarchy is evaded through the ‘heavy layering of fetishistic signifiers such as her glasses, her guns, the holsters/garter belts and her long swinging hair, worn in a ponytail’ (Kennedy. H, 2002), she may have the upper hand in the way that she controls the male gaze, by knowingly acknowledging the presence of the subject in the real world.
In contrast, through the rebooting of the Tomb Raider series (2013-present) we can observe a newly reborn version of Lara Croft, liberated from the confines of the ‘male gaze’ that was imposed on her from the beginning. She retains her phallic, ponytail hairstyle, but gone are the days of crazy body proportions, huge breasts and teeny tiny outfits; her athletic build is much more emphasised. This version of Lara can indeed be said to be the true feminist icon that female gamers needed, the acute focus on her survival and skill rather than on her sensuality and body is the catalyst for the shift in ideology behind strong female protagonists.
The new Lara, along with other lead female characters such as ‘Ellie’ from The Last of Us (2013) are re-writing the ideological perceptions of femininity within modern gaming. The depth of emotion and complexity of their stories in tandem with their lack of passivity in the game space truly make them characters that are easy to relate to for women worldwide. ‘Ellie’ is not sexualised in any way, yet there is still a hint of phallicization in her similar ponytail hairstyle and wielding of guns. She speaks up for herself, and uses explicit language in order to assert dominance in different scenarios; this is demonstrated in the clip below. This signifies how we may be making a movement into a post-feminist era of intricacy and honestly in representation, yet there is still a little way to go in order to achieve a newly reformed ideology.
“In the West, the term ‘transmedia’ was first coined by the American researcher Marsha Kinder, who wrote in her first 1991 book ‘Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles about ‘commercial transmedia supersystems’. She was referring to the publishing products of some globally important franchises distributed on multiple media” (Giovagnoli. M, 2011)
As a particularly new phenomenon, transmedia has grown in conjunction with the idea of media convergence, an ongoing process which is said to be the catalyst for ‘transforming our culture as profoundly as the Renaissance did’ (Jenkins. H, 2001) Each of the five processes of convergence combined (technological, economic, social/organic, cultural and global) have created a new media ecosystem which has allowed the concept of transmedia storytelling to evolve and flourish. ‘If the creators of large global franchises are even more engaged in the development of a transmedia universe of their projects, then there is an increase of spaces in which the audience can reinterpret the imagery of the story.’ (Giovagnoli. M, 2011)
The narrative threads of Tomb Raider have been manipulated and regenerated time after time. Originally, in Tomb Raider I (1996) on the way home from a skiing trip with her parents, their private jet plane tragically crashed into the Himalayas, with Lara as the only remaining survivor. Brought up as an aristocrat, Lara had to fend for herself and learn to stay alive; which left a lasting effect on her. This alienated her from the upper class culture, and so began her journey of archaeology, inspired by her love for travel and adventure. This canon narrative continues onward through Tomb Raider II (1997), Tomb Raider III (1998) etc; up until Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness (2003) where a three year gap brings about a new reboot of the series; Tomb Raider Legend (2006) and then once again for the complete reboot Tomb Raider (2013). During this time, two live-action Tomb Raider films ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ (2001) and ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider — The Cradle of Life’ (2003) were released, starring Angelina Jolie. It went on to become the highest-grossing film adaptation of a videogame ever released in the USA, and third highest-grossing in the world. “Movies are still one of the best ways to create a tentpole experience that can support a cross-media campaign. The attention that movies are still able to generate can open up cross-media possibilities as fans go online to learn more and find books, games, toys and other tie-ins that may be available. Movies open the door into their worlds, and the other media enable us to explore even further.” (Davidson.D, 2010)
Even though both movies did not contribute anything to the original narrative thread of the Tomb Raider games, they served as a welcome expansion of Lara’s universe, opening a new door for a wider target audience to become immersed in the Tomb Raider world. Similarly, a series of comic books based on the Tomb Raider franchise ran from 1999 to 2005 (in which the fiftieth and final edition was released) published by ‘Top Cow’. Again this encapsulated another audience through hybrid works with established comic book characters such as ‘Sara Pezzini’ of ‘Witchblade’, where Lara made her debut into the world of print in ‘Tomb Raider/Witchblade #1’ (December 1997). Another hybrid ‘The Darkness’ a masculine spirit of chaos, who teamed up with Lara in ‘Tomb Raider/The Darkness Special’ (April 2001). Furthermore the expansion of Lara’s transmedia universe goes even deeper into the rabbit hole, as two series of novels are also a connective narrative thread in the spiderweb of Tomb Raider. The first series concentrates on the classic Tomb Raider timeline, taking place after the affairs of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (1999), whereas the second series is established within the new reboot, following on from Lara’s return from Yamatai in Tomb Raider (2013). A book can be used as a reference point that helps us follow the experience from medium to medium. “Books can also become canonical and be used to verify and validate the story as it moves across media. Books are still one of our most well-developed media to use for relating stories.” (Davidson.D, 2010)
“Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. So, for example, in The Matrix franchise, key bits of information are conveyed through three live action films, a series of animated shorts, two collections of comic book stories, and several video games. There is no one single source or ur-text where one can turn to gain all of the information needed to comprehend the Matrix universe..” (Jenkins. H, 2007)
According to Max Giovagnoli, ‘maybe it’s because of a need for higher autonomy with the stories and characters they create, but today directors and authors who have contributed to the creation of the collective imagination are now choosing to create their own transmedia transpositions of their work.’ The use of social media and the internet also play a part in transmedia culture, allowing Lara’s global reach to become more interactive and for developers to learn from the ideas and thoughts of fans. So each piece of the jigsaw puzzle within the Tomb Raider transmedia universe combines together to give Lara’s fans the experience of intricate immersion, which is the key to a successful franchise.
Through the process of analysing Tomb Raider, it has become clear that every big franchise that has ever broken through in all aspects of culture, media texts and beyond utilises every form of the media landscape, in order to build a labyrinthine world of influence and exposure for the text. Synergy through advertisement in tandem with new and exciting ways of using technology in the game itself, but also outside of it, birth the creation of a groundbreaking web of cross-platform media. The importance of ideology, culture and society is understood to also shape the reception of a media text, and through this it has become mandatory in my mind to study the way it can affect audience perception, and to be mindful of being truly accurate in the way that characters are represented. Creating verisimilitude and complexity in characters is what is needed in order to break down certain ideologies that remain deeply rooted in the subconscious, especially when it comes to sexualisation of women in the media and patriarchy, which still needs working on in my own opinion in some areas. Although saying this, there is a promising change that has been formulating within recent years, especially in the most recent Lara Croft and ‘Ellie’ from The Last of Us (2013).
In conclusion, although Lara Croft has been sexualised heavily through the years through the ‘fear of castration’ in the subconscious mind of patriarchal culture, it is clear to see that change is in fact happening, reiterated by the recent reboot of Lara Croft and other female protagonists mentioned earlier (Ellie, The Last of Us). The concept of unknowingly being enslaved within ideology still rings true in some ways, through the phallicization of these protagonists in a very subtle manner. It is extremely difficult to escape such well established ideologies in such a short amount of time, and the media industry is slowly working it’s way to carving out a new, more realistic gender ideology for future generations. In regards to transmedia narratives, each separate narrative on a different platform for Tomb Raider interweaves into the other to create a super-universe of amalgamated adventures. This expands the audience reach and appeal in new and innovative ways, making Tomb Raider a truly incredible body of cross-platform work.
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