Not gonna lie, when I first entered the Tomb Raider universe, way back in 1997, I cheated like a motherfucker. Well, cheated a little bit. Way before the internet became my second best friend (after a bottle of Pinot), I bought one of those walkthrough guides from GAME that showed you – image by image – how to get Lara Croft from A to B, via lots of dog slaughtering and questionable grunting.
Knowing how the adventure would pan out, rather than wading in (literally) all guns blazing was comforting. I’d sit in my bedroom for several hours a day, leave the gay slurs outside, and escape.
Before Tomb Raider, gaming had never been so immersive, commanding, or freeing. Sure, Core Design created a game that was ground-breaking in many ways, but for people who struggled – for whatever reason – to belong in the real world, it was so much more than that.
The original Tomb Raider was released 25 years ago this month, and the series now boasts 15 games (more if you count spinoffs like 2010’s Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, which was the first in the series to involve 2-player co-operative play), and I’m always very curious to see which are the more popular in the series. From other people’s perspectives.
Lockdown’s been a bit of a bore for everyone, including me, so I took it upon myself to become obsessed with YouTube’s lovely Tomb Raider community. Fans like Raidercast and Steve of Warr do an amazing job of passionately advocating for Lara’s standing as a figure that should be enjoyed by anyone, anytime, whether you slipped on that little backpack two and a half decades ago or yesterday. The nostalgia and passion are truly remarkable, especially when Raidercast played the lost demo from 1995. OMG.
During those lost hours in YouTube oblivion, I found that Tomb Raider’s ‘classic era’ – that is the original game through to Angel of Darkness (AOD) – is not necessarily at the top of many gamers’ all-time favourite lists. Instead, there’s often an emphasis on Anniversary onwards, or what fans deem the ‘Legend’ and ‘Reboot’ eras – culminating in 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
Tomb Raider has come a long way since Lara stared back at us from shiny PS1 cases, looking all cheeky and square-shaped. Her character has been developed and she’s had to survive in the wilderness without any sass or bitchy comebacks to keep her going. This, however, isn’t the heroine I fell in love with as an eleven-year-old queer kid growing up in Hull.
I can’t imagine many bullied kids being mesmerised by Lara in 2013’s Tomb Raider as she battles the elements and has a really, really bad time of it. I can’t imagine playing as this character and wanting to be them so much it feels like your heart is being pulverised. So much it hurts.
I can’t imagine even wanting to be Lara in 2006, when she appeared in Legend. Here, she still retained some of what made me originally fall in love and connect with her, but missing was the unapologetic give-no-shits attitude that gave me a power I’d never known before.
It’s as though Crystal Dynamics – who took over as the new developers post-AOD – found this side of Lara too hard and unrelatable. As the world of gaming became more akin to something we’d watch at the cinema, characters had to follow suit and become more fleshed out with backstories involving a mum lost in a plane crash, I guess.
Tomb Raider II was the first video game I experienced and since using my pocket money to buy that and the corresponding walkthrough guide, it has remained a solid favourite ever since. On the surface, the sequel didn’t contrast too much with 1996’s original, instead relying on what made Lara’s original adventure such a humongous success. Both have impressive scores on Metacritic with 85% and 91% respectively.
Look a little below the surface, however, and the updates – especially for a young player – were significant. An inventory system that allowed players to replenish health using small or large medpacks, and the ability to change weapons, as well as select various keys and artefacts, were still there.
But this time around, you could kill yetis with a previously absent grenade launcher and – if you enjoyed the feeling of intense anger and frustration – harpoon a diver whilst underwater. But best of all was the updated save system, less clunky and more fluid movements, and all those gorgeous new locations.
Having to wait to save your game after completing some mammoth task was not one of the better parts of Tomb Raider. Being able to save immediately after killing a spider in The Great Wall or a rat in Venice made the experience much easier and, ultimately, more enjoyable. Yes, even when I had the walkthrough and knew what was going to happen.
Nostalgia for me is accidentally dropping off that ledge at the end of Opera House and being blasted away by a shotgun-wielding psychopath and his two Dobermans; it’s hearing (but not seeing!) the flame-thrower as he creeps around the corner in the opening moments of The Deck; it’s being confronted for the first time, by those terrifying warriors in Floating Islands and the shock of it almost bringing you to tears; it’s the race against time to defend Lara’s home against the last of Bartoli’s henchmen before she strips down for a shower.
Tomb Raider II and the series’ ‘classic era’ are original and cutting edge, sure, but that isn’t what appealed to eleven-year-old me: it was the ability to escape, to be horrified and filled with brimming joy for the first time, ever. I had the opportunity to finally be in control and become somebody else, even for a short while. During that time, I didn’t feel scared about looking people in the eye for fear of being called “a queer”.
I revisited the first four games during lockdown and once again that feeling – albeit in a different way – returned. I’m no longer that shy boy who was instructed on how to act or think, but like the vast majority of living, breathing humans, I needed some downtime: an escape. Lara gave me that again, restoring my health to fully green.
Lara Croft has been horribly objectified – especially at the beginning of her reign – but in a way, she is a figure that transcends gender: her actions are not simplified as being so because she is a cis-woman. She’s just a badass who wants an ancient dagger (etc) for her trophy room.
Classic Tomb Raider will always be a core part of my queer identity, and I doubt I’m alone in this. As a young, queer kid, Lara and her world were the escape I so desperately needed from a stifling, heteronormative everyday existence.
It was a portal to the fantastical, but also to possibility. It suggested that, in the future, I could be just as fierce, empowered, and apathetic to the exploits of all of those run-of-the-mill villains that seem to occupy both virtual and real worlds.