Page 30, press hold, and reveal. Digitiser's founder speaks out
Isn't it about time Lara Croft was sacked as a videogame figurehead?
Edge #130, December 2003
Here's a funny thing; I've not seen either of the 'Tomb Raider' films, or the 'Resident Evil' movie. Or any game-related movie tie-in since the risible 'Super Mario Bros'. In fact, I haven't left my living room for four years, except once when I was chased down the street by what I thought was the ghost of a bear, but it turned out to be nothing more than my own shadow. Oh, how foolish I felt when I turned a corner only for the ghost bear to have somehow got ahead of me, and then... then a cloud passed across the sun.
That aside, chances are I won't go and see 'Resident Evil 2', or 'The House of the Dead' movies either. Or 'Crazy Taxi', or any other game-related movie at all, for the rest of my life. Why? Because, aside from the fact I've been banned from my local Cineplex for drawing walnuts on the screen with a marker pen, I just don't want to, man! However, although I've not seen any of the aforementioned films, lots of people have, and consequently the Tomb Raider pretend woman has become even more firmly engrained as an ambassador of modern gaming. The ambassador of modern gaming. And Lucozade.
During a recent family gathering I cracked what I considered to be a nerdy fanboy joke, when I suggested that an overweight relation attend a forthcoming fancy dress gala as Lara Croft. The moment the words left my mouth I expected to be confronted with blank faces, and questions such as "Who is Lara Croft?" and "Why did you take your trousers off when you mentioned her?"
Instead - doubtless to the distress of said overweight relation - I was confronted with a barrage of hearty laughter, my cross-generational family members then taking turns to heap misery upon the poor girl by speculating that she would need a "pair of hotpants made out of a blimp", and have to be prised out of them at the end of the day by "four burly men working an oar".
This demonstrated to me not only that I hail from a family of merciless bastards, who care naught for the feelings of their overweight and insecure kin, but how I disappointed I was that Lara Croft is still the sole recognisable figurehead for the entire gaming medium. Oh sure, stop an old woman in the street and she may know who Pac-Man is. Mario, Sonic - both also have a fair chance of being identified by passers-by. Admittedly, my special ladyfriend can pick out Ty the Tasmanian tiger from an identity parade (even if I couldn't), but only because her son has it on his GameCube. Show her a picture of Solid Snake, or Max Payne, or Master Chief, or Gordon Freeman - characters from some of the best games of the last few years - and you draw a blank. But in terms of additions to the gaming pantheon, Lara Croft remains the most recent and recognisable.
In the immediate aftermath of Tomb Raider's initial success there was the inevitable tidal wave of Croft-a-likes - some with swords, others in even smaller hotpants - none of whom was ever going to make a dent in the public consciousness. But since then, aside from the usual, tedious, carnival procession of sub-Sonic animal characters, it's as if the industry has given up on trying to find a new, and marketable, figurehead. Ironically, now that Microsoft is firmly ingrained with its Xbox, about the closest we get to a recognisable figure is Bill Gates. If this was the music industry, and we were at the height of Britpop, every band in the charts would be Shed 7.
Fair enough, it's not always easy to create an iconic character. Just ask George Lucas, who after 20 years and two tedious films has yet to imagine a 'Star Wars' villain to match Darth Vader. And in game terms, that character is ideally matched to a great game. The key to creating an enduring icon, and a game that can be played across the board, is simplicity on both counts. 'Simpsons' creator Matt Groening once remarked that when designing his character he took a lead out of Walt Disney's book and reduced them to basic shapes, which could be recognised in silhouette form.
Let's look at Blinx: The Time Sweeper. A clever game admittedly, if about as much fun to play as having your buttocks filled with concrete. But it was a complicated concept. Forward, and reverse, and sucking stuff up, and... y'know, okay. Not that complicated. But to anyone with only a cursory interest in games it was all a bit fiddly.
To go back to 'Star Wars' again for a minute, the original movies were more accessible, because they were simpler. 'The Phantom Menace' and 'Attack of the Clones' have been obsessed with the tedious minutiae of politics, and plot non-twists that only George Lucas gives a fig about. Or understands. Yeah, 'Attack of the Clones' looks pretty, but what the hell is going on?!
It's like Tetris or EyeToy - they're just what they are. You don't need an instruction manual, or anything. This isn't to say every game should be simple - but why bother trying to create a recognisable and interesting character if you're going to give up halfway through the process, and opt for some bland and unappealing cat with a magic hoover? Marketing and PR will only get you so far.
It wouldn't be such a problem that Crofty is up there alone were it not for the fact that the Tomb Raider games are such flaccid sacks of hopelessness. Because of Lara, Tomb Raider is the first port of call for many casuals and newcomers, and when they get here they're confronted with unfinished, cynical dross like Angel of Darkness.
Yeah, it's hard to force a cult, or shoehorn an enduring icon, into the pop culture psyche-bowl. But much as music always needs a Beatles or a Stones, or a Blur or an Oasis, gaming is long overdue for a new equivalent. Games are better and more exciting than they've possibly ever been, but if you think Gordon Freeman, with his orange jumpsuit and glasses, or the spikey-haired but generic Jak (Daxter's mate), are ever going to make it onto the cover of 'Time' magazine, you're sadly deluded.
It's a sorry state of affairs when a seven-year-old, slightly whiffy digital Indiana Jonesette and the CEO of Microsoft are the public face of the games industry. Here's my suggestion; what about a game starring a Christmas tree with massive breasts? It's identifiable as a silhouette, and the pendulous baps will keep the 14-year-old boys happy, and give girls something to aspire to. And just to make sure all bases are covered, it can be the billionaire head of an evil multinational corporation. And it's mysterious, and smokes cigarettes, and does good stealth. There you go; games industry saved.
Mr Biffo is a semi-retired videogame journalist. His views do not necessarily coincide with Edge's
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