Lara Croft, the Bit Girl: How a Game Star Became a '90S Icon

Article excerpt

How a game star became a '90s icon.

IT'S NOT EASY BEING Lara Croft. After the British aristocrat and adventure-seeking archeologist starred in last year's hit Tomb Raider, she appeared on the cover of 40 magazines, toured with U2, modeled Gucci fashions and recorded a single with ex-Eurythmics guitarist Dave Stewart. All the while, she's been in China, Tibet and Venice working on the sequel. But you won't hear Lara whine about her hectic schedule. When you're a woman made of more than 540 polygons, part of your job is making it all look easy.

Equal parts Pamela Andemon and Indiana Jones with a dash of La Femme Nikita, Lara Croft is the computer-generated action heroine at the center of one of the hottest PC and console videogames on the market. To date nearly 8 million copies have been sold worldwide, putting it in the same company as the best-selling adventure game, Myst.

Along the way, Lara became an icon as recognizable to gamers as Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog. U2 got the game makers at Core Design in England to create custom footage of Lara for the video wall in its current PopMart world tour. Some fans, convinced (or praying) that she's real, have bombarded Core with e-mail requesting info on her boyfriends and favorite pop bands. There are more than 100 Web sites devoted to her glory, ranging from nice, like the well-written Croft Times newsletter (www.cubeit.com/ctimes), to naughty, like Nude Raider, for fans who think Lara's a bit overdressed in her skintight vest and Daisy Duke shorts.

Like Lara, the folks at Core haven't had much time to enjoy their success; plans for a sequel were underway two months before the first game came out. Since then it's been nothing but takeout food and catnaps (on inflatable beds at the company's funky offices in a converted mansion on the outskirts of the northern English town of Derby) for the designers as they scramble to get Tomb Raider 2 in stores by mid-November.

The folks at Core are still a bit surprised at the Tomb Raider phenomenon. "Lara has had an awful lot more media attention than the game itself because people like to lead on the sex angle, the size of her chest and whether she takes her clothes off," says Core managing director Jeremy Smith. Yet he's shocked, shocked, to hear that U.S. parent company Eidos is pushing the pinup angle by listing her measurements as 88-24-84. (Core insists that, in Lara's native England at least, she is a more modest $4D.) "We have never really got hung up on that sort of thing," Smith sniffs. "When people ask what she would be like if you took her clothes off, the team simply says she would be a wire mesh. I am sure a lot of people enjoy ogling her, but she was never designed with the marketing in mind."

J. C. Herz, the author of "Joystick Nation," a book on the history of videogames, isn't buying it. "Female characters are the rage because boys like to look at them. They're the pinup girls of the 21st century." But she thinks it was smart of Eidos to build the game around Lara. "If you can create a great character, what you've got is a franchise. It's like making a blockbuster movie and knowing that before anyone says a word you can make $100 million."

There's so much software on store shelves these days that simply creating a good game isn't enough to break out of the pack. With Lara, Eidos has created a star. "And the character belongs to you," Herz adds. "It doesn't pout in a trailer or ask you for $20 million for its next videogame. You own it. It's like minting money."

It seems obvious now that Tomb Raider would go over big with lads of all ages, but when Core prodigy Toby Gard (who later left to start his own company) created a game around his vision of the perfect woman, he was violating several unspoken rules of 8-D gaming. Unlike with popular first-person-perspective games like Doom and Duke Nukem, players see the action over Lara's shoulder, like a movie. …