C'mere Lara, it's time for more plastic surgery! B-But I'm only a B-cup now! Why do I have to go through this again? Those bitchy female gamers won't be happy until you look like Gilda Radner in a training bra, so c'mere and stop complaining!
I wasn't going to write another Tomb Raider related blog so soon, but this month's Game Informer had an interesting sidebar on the series. Apparently sales of TR: Underworld have been below expectations, and Eidos is pondering what to do about it. From the article "Lara Croft's Makeover: Eidos Mulls Series Changes":
Eidos is reportedly considering changing Lara's curvaceous look to apparently make her more friendly to female gamers, as well as changing the gameplay.
This tidbit confused me for multiple reasons.
First of all, they already did it. The original PSX series, as much as I love it, was often advertised with rather embarrassing rendered images of Lara where she appeared to be packing a couple of watermelons under her shirt; The in-game FMV's always used a similarly exaggerated character model. To their credit, when Crystal Dynamics took over the franchise, they went with a much more streamlined, athletic character model, and Underworld continued that trend.
Since Lara's gravity-defying double-D chest is a thing of the past, what is it about Lara that's supposed to be unfriendly to female gamers? Is the very fact that she's portrayed as an attractive woman supposed to be just too much for our delicate egos or something? "Oh noes, this game character is just TOO ATTRACTIVE, I can't stand the idea that a fictional character has a better body than me! Burn the game!"
Female gamers are not delicate woodland creatures who spook easily and run back into the woods, okay? We see Ayumi from X-Blades and those Bikini Samurai Slayers or whatever running around in their unmentionables every single day: We don't even fucking notice
anymore. If you're going to try to cater to a certain audience, it helps to know the first thing about it. Many female gamers are long-time fans of the TR franchise, and those that are not probably aren't being held back by Lara's hot bod-- they probably just have no interest in the gameplay. Which brings me to the next problem.
Whatever problems exist for Tomb Raider as a franchise, they have very little to do with Lara, or at least her appearance: I would argue that taking away the mystery of the character with ridiculous stories about her parents and whatnot was a misstep, but that's not a major issue either; You don't play TR for the story. The problem is that the defining feature of the franchise, when it was at it's most successful, was beautiful environments that the player could explore. In the Playstation/N64 era, that was a big deal. Nowadays, we're drowning in beautiful environments. Devil May Cry 4 astounds me with the beauty of some of it's locales, and that game didn't even really need them since the screen is covered in demon blood half the time.
In short, plenty of other games have gorgeous environments, and a lot of them bring more to the table than TR does these days. The recent games have tried to add more depth to the combat, but the fact is that Tomb Raider is outclassed in that department by many other franchises, and probably always will be.
In my opinion, the series needs to focus on what it does really well and stop trying to be be everything to all gamers. Sure, the beautiful environments aren't unique anymore, but they can still be worth experiencing if they make good use of historical references while maintaining beautiful art direction, not something every series can do. Take out a lot of the half-assed combat, and put in more clever puzzles-- that will attract many of the more cerebral gamers who have dismissed TR as purely mainstream fodder. Sure it takes lots of clever design, but if there's one thing TR could potentially offer that's rare in games these days, it's that kind of slower, meticulous, elegant gameplay.
Of course, what I'm suggesting might make TR less attractive to the mainstream gamer, but I would argue that's happening anyway; Eidos admits elsewhere in the article that interest in the franchise is waning. Why not give old-school TR fans like me and other more patient gamers the kind of game that we've been asking for, and survive as a series that caters to a certain audience rather than fizzling out entirely? Cerebral gamers of all stripes would respond, and TR would still have a place in an increasingly crowded marketplace, albeit not the place Eidos is currently aiming for.
What I'm afraid of is that Eidos would sooner let the series die entirely than change their mass-market plan. Sure, triple-A titles with lots of action make more money than niche titles-- but that's only when they're successful. Let the series age gracefully Eidos, and there will always be a place for it. Keep competing on the heavily-trodden path, and poor Lara will be all alone-- no matter how hot she is.