is the latest thrilling instalment in the blockbusting video game series. Over the page, Generation X author Douglas

Coupland confesses to a Lara obsession, but others believe Ms Croft is spreading herself too thin. Have we over-estimated the Girl Power of

PlayStation? Words: Peter Ross

LARA CROFT. A SHAPELY COLLECTION OF POLYGONS. is probably the most recognizable woman in the world right now and certainly the most unlikely sex symbol of all time. The two Tomb Raider games in which she stars have sold 8 million copies worldwide since the 1996 launch, the same as Madonna's Ray Of Light album. Lara (she’s on first name terms with the world) is the female cultural icon of a generation for whom Marilyn Monroe means little more than a tacky poster. The people who were probably raiding tombs in a darkened bedroom while the less switched-on drowned in tears and flowers for Diana.

What’s more, she’s 100% pure, a heroine that won’t screw up. She'll never put her career on hold to have a baby and age will not wither her. We can trust her to stay the same.

And stay the same she largely has in Tomb Raider III: Adventures Of Lara Croft in which the society girl turned swashbuckling archaeologist, indulges in the running, jumping, fighting and, puzzle-solving which made her name. It is, of course, all very brilliant atmospheric, immersive, graphically superb but the differences are largely cosmetic. The whole game is more realistic than ever before, Lara has a number of new moves and fetishists ahoy! new costumes. Perhaps more significantly, the game is less linear and about three times the size of last year’s Tomb Raider ll.

But Tomb Raider is more than just a good game which a lot of people bought. It has crossed over into the cultural mainstream like the Spice Girls, like Leonardo DiCaprio, like Coca Cola. Since there is no real woman beyond the public face, Lara can be co- opted to whatever image you care to give her. She's a feminist, she’s an Internet porn star, she’s like a virgin. She has done stadium rock, starring in UZ’s PopMart tour, and is breaking into movies. Paramount Pictures' Tomb Raider film is scheduled for release in late 1999 with every likelihood that Tomb Raider IV will coincide.

Although the film is currently only at the scripting stage, the rumour mill is already in full effect with various actresses Liz Hurley, Neve Campbell, Catherine Zeta Jones being bandied


about as possible live-action Laras. What's certain is that the film represents a pinnacle of global popularity for Tomb Raider and the whole gaming industry. -

’Video games touch maybe 90% of all families in this country in one way or another,’ estimates Jeremy Smith, managing director of Core Design, who develop the Tomb Raider games. ’And for the first time, the media have been able to latch onto a character which actually means something. Sonic is fun, but at the end of the day it's a blue, spiky- haired hedgehog. Mario is an awesome character, but what mass appeal does a short, fat, Italian plumber have? I can't see Mario on the front of The Face like Lara was.’

But Tomb Raider may be heading for a fall. The new game is excellent and will be every bit as

successful as its predecessors, but swim too long in the mainstream and your credibility washes off. The games industry retains a left-field, subversive streak, while Core have been cosying up to the establishment of late. Marks and Spencer are launching a range of TOmb Raider III branded items, including socks and a tie, and even Peter Mandelson has come out in favour of the game, naming it a Millennium Product and contender for inclusion in the Dome. Commenting on the sale of the film rights, Charles Cornwall, chief executive of Tomb Raider publishers Eidos, doesn't exactly sound down with the kids.

’This agreement highlights our focus on creating interactive entertainment content that can be leveraged into other media through low risk ventures,’ he says. 'In securing this major distribution platform for our top-selling franchise, we have improved our long-term potential to generate value for our shareholder_s.’

Suit-talk like this begs the question: could Lara

Level headed: left to right, the five playing areas of Tomb Raider Ill - India, London, Nevada, South Pacific Island and Antarctica

Croft actually be The Man? Toby Gard, the lead artist on the original Tomb Raider game who left Core in February 97 to set up his own development studio, Confounding Factor regrets the over- exposure of his vision.

’There doesn’t seem to be anything unique about Lara now, no personality,’ says Gard. ’If she was a real person, she’d be someone who was willing to do as many photo-opportunities as possible. I can't really think of her as mine anymore. I’ve had nothing to do with her for the last two years and I don’t own the copyright. It’s like a lost creation.’

As gaming continues to expand, the equivalent of an indie scene is emerging developers who prioritise innovation and self-satisfaction over Tomb Raider-sized sales, but who are finding an audience

and having hits regardless. One such developer

is the Dundee-based firm DMA, creators of

experimental titles like last year's controversial Grand Theft Auto in which you gained points for running down cops.

’Lara Croft is a vacuous bitch with no more right to been a television screen than a weasel,’ says a not- entirely-serious Brian Baglow, a designer at DMA. However, the man has a genuine point to make.

’Give Tomb Raider a few'more years and it may well become an establishment game, a franchise where games are just pushed out purely to make money, with no technical or gameplay reasons for the new version,’ he says. ‘At DMA we think of ourselves as a virtual toy company who try to do things differently from everyone else. When Tomb Raider first came out, it was new and innovative, but it's been a victim of its own success. We are the Placebo to Core's Spice Girls.’

Continuing with the pop analogy, Tomb Raider is in a similar position to Oasis still enormously popular and producing high quality material but beginning to be identified as a bloated figurehead of the mainstream that it once shook up. With Tomb Raider Ill, Lara Croft is three times a lady, but how long can she stay Number One?

Tomb Raider III is released for PlayStation and PC on Friday 20 November.

19 Nov—3 Dec 1998 THE llST13