Thinking about Sarah Harris using “gaming heroine” to define to aesthetic spirit of the decade in British Vogue’s centenary edition—a Royal on the cover, input from seasoned industry greats, and women of the moment throughout, a real authoritative environment, if Harris’ name alone isn’t enough to convince you of the scale of this proclamation—I came around to asking myself an unanswerable question. What did I feel my style was, how did I define parts of it and parts of me, what I wanted and needed to wear before Lara Croft?
When Lara debuted, I was nine. I think I was twelve before I controlled her movements for three minutes (died a lot; spikes) and twenty-eight before I did again, owning the game this time, investing my own adult time. I read her comics as a teenager and none of them satisfied me, none of them gave me what I wanted from a Lara Croft comic (I’m saying Lara Croft because Tomb Raider is not a mantle; it’s just the title of the stories Lara Croft is in) but they carried the scent. A sort of Pepsi Cola sweat smell, probably. Vital and dusty.
Lara Croft delivered a lot of dissonance for me as an adolescent, in a way I hadn’t felt before, but grew to know like the taste of bile: A thing, a template, a person I like. A story I want to enjoy. But a deathly aversion to the lens through which I access it. I had an allergy to whatever herb you have to snuff before you can reach the dimension where Lara skips through the tombs so fancy-free. The herb smells like ass crack and beer breath; it smells like Lynx body spray and shirt starch. It smells like men taking charge of women’s image and a sacrifice of my own uninterrupted perspective. I’ve written about that before.
Lara Croft naked on a beach towel—you could get it if you drank enough Lucozade, and my fourteen-year-old classmate (friend) Becky was collecting the can tabs so she could give one to her fourteen year old boyfriend. Lara Croft was the subject of the first magazine letter I ever dwelt in for being written by someone being purposefully obtuse. A man saying there was nothing wrong—I suppose a boy, possibly, but talking with the authority of assumed manhood—with Lara Croft, no innate seductive capacity to her design (so, the implication was, feminists should give it a rest critiquing game industry approaches to designing women), because while [male, read: straight] gamers do watch her ass running around while they play, so do they watch a fat moustachioed plummer run about when they play Mario–and Mario’s so popular! I still want to pinch that man, for building such a wicker man and not even climbing inside of it to burn. I didn’t have the rhetorical skills to explain the false equivalence then, and I don’t have the patience now.
But Lara Croft was Indiana Jones Lady, and I didn’t like Indiana Jones Man, because he was unpleasant. But I did like his leather belts and his practical gear, and I did like the places he got to go and the death traps he’d escape and the autonomy he clearly enjoyed. I liked the history and culture he got to look at, and I didn’t like that he destroyed it rather often. But I never asked my heroines to be perfect. Lara Croft is appealing to me because of the ways she is imagined to live, but—much like Mario, indeed—she is also appealing to me because of how she looks.
I don’t know if I liked the gist of her style already, aged eight, if I’d have liked anyone with a similar wardrobe. I was very taken with the woman from Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, who certainly looked ready and joyful and a little rough. I don’t know if Lara, the main character of her property, epitomised chain needs and wants in me so well that her appearance crystallised as the ultimate form of the appropriate aesthetic for the sort of life I want to (the sort of life I do) live. We only see “gaming heroine” in Vogue now because video game-era children are now adults, and they write for Vogue, and make clothing, and are influential buyers. They’re fashion bloggers and fashion-nobodies who find themselves street-snapped and inspo-pinned. How many of us were burned and changed by Lara Croft, specifically? How many women who care about clothes and aesthetic look at a blue sleeveless top and think, “I can stand atop the world in this,” not recognising (or just recognising, fleetingly, and forgetting) Lady Croft as she flicks across their internal projector, linking “success” with “blue-green vest”?
None of the resent able aspects of masculine expectation that are cellophane across the bowl of chilled Lara in our charged cultural fridge really fade for me, but none of them ruin the taste of the dish, because I sit expecting them anyway. Beer is bitter, but people drink it. I don’t want short-shorts to mean men will look at thighs and then rub their own so loudly that it dominates the discourse, but I do know it may be so. It doesn’t turn me off of Lara. It turns me off of them and off those who say nothing in response and off the enforced narratives that make Lara, instead of Tomb Raider, the product.
Lechers are the meteors raining down as I run the walkway to the mech suit. Lechers are the meteors that might destroy it while I’m in it, might slip through defense systems despite this thick armour, but which can’t make the fact that I revel in the strength that suit lends me unhappen. Lara solves nothing, isn’t a switch or a bargain, but she is fun and she lends me dynamism. She reflects my feelings of capability when I wear clothes that makes me feel practical, graphic, well designed, hard wearing. Playing Lara Croft Relic Run, the game keeps suggesting I upgrade my outfit, buy a biker outfit, a stealth outfit complete with Matrix pastiche animations. No? Why? Do you even know what Lara Croft is? She’s brown, white, black, brown, gold-bronze on brown, teal, sunglasses. Don’t mess with the best. This woman travels light.
Of course, I am thinking of platonic Lara, a vision of my own, my ur-Lara. Those are what illustration and character design are supposed to enable. Imaginative response! Interactive experience! Role play. “Pretend.” Dressing up. It’s all games.
I don’t travel internationally a heck of a lot anymore, and it’s been an age since I crawled through an unlit cave. I have never stolen a ruby from an undead queen. Nevertheless, the greatest Tomb Raider game—my favourite Tomb Raider game—is my own life. I wear Lara Croft like I wore transfer tattoos when I was twelve: To know I’m tough and free and exciting, without actually wanting the thing I wear to become me.
That’s the power of strong design.