Are you a Lilith-a-like?

When Crystal Dynamics started feeding us information for the new Tomb Raider game, I applauded them for dropping the dated promotional campaign of hiring models to look like Lara Croft. For too long, most of the focus felt like it was directed towards the models instead of the game she was meant to be advertising.

Gearbox Software has announced a similar campaign for Borderlands 2 and are asking via their website (spotted by Kotaku) for any Lilith look-a-likes to step forward. Where this differs from what Eidos where doing up until only a few years ago is that whoever is picked to portray Lilith will actually become part of the game as an NPC that players (presumably) interact with. The request on Gearbox’s site is as follows:

Do you want to be a character in a video game? We’re looking for someone to become Lilith from Borderlands. If hired, you will appear in the game, Borderlands 2, as the live action version of the character. Additionally, you may be invited to participate in promotional events and trade shows.

It’s not a competition either, the developer will pay the live-action Lilith a thousand bucks per day and state this is a job opportunity for anyone – well, any lady – aged between 18 and 30. I fit within the latter category but certainly not the former. Not with this beard! My hope is that the chosen model will be able to properly represent Borderlands 2 and be a purposeful inclusion within the storyline, so any promotional material – and we’re bound to get plenty – this casting call produces will be relevant to the game instead of simply ‘some chick in tatty clothing with funky coloured hair’. I’ve always had a soft spot for Borderlands and indeed the character Lilith as I thought the way she spoke and laughed during combat added a real human quality to the character. This could certainly further that feeling. Then again, it could easily just become ‘some chick in tatty clothing with funky coloured hair’.

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Lara Croft’s perfect model is Lara Croft

I’ve been very vocal about my thoughts towards the redundant idea of using real life models to act as video game heroines in order to sell a product. I think it’s old, dumb and in the worst cases, the emphasis is put on the model and not the game itself. One series guilty of such promotion is Tomb Raider but along with seemingly everything else developers Crystal Dynamics is changing, the use of models portraying Ms Croft is a thing of the past.

Brian Crecente of Kotaku spoke with Karl Stewart of CD and before he could finish his question regarding look-a-like Crofts, Stewart interrupted with “That will never happen again. We want to create a visceral experience. We want people to look at Lara and see the psychological aspect of her character. Having a real Lara out there doing cartwheels kind of destroys that.” It most certainly does. The tone of the reboot is one more serious and sinister from other Tomb Raider games who, even in their darker moments, still remained fairly light-hearted. From the awesome video seen at Microsoft’s E3 press conference on Monday and from previous interview with Crystal Dynamics, it’s clear that Lara isn’t meant to be a pin-up but a fragile victim of circumstance. Someone you care for not lust after.

Crecente and Stewart also chatted about the new Tomb Raider movie set for a 2013 release and how it also follows the early years of Lara and her new persona. Children of Men and Ironman writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby are on board to pen the screenplay inspired by the new game rather than directly copy it. I’m not sure whether a movie is really necessary considering the caliber films based on games but Fergus and Ostby have written some decent flicks so you never know…

The beginning of an icon

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This video starts with a young lady plunging into the water, against her own accord. She wasn’t diving or enjoying a casual dip, she fell and that fall was the beginning of the end of her youth. She had to become a woman. She became Lara Croft.

Dramatic huh? Well, the debut trailer for Square Enix’s Tomb Raider reboot has drama by the barrel load. There’s not an ounce of in-game footage but in this instance, that doesn’t matter. This video is about setting the grand scene for Lara, a reboot after many previous reboots that failed to really take off due to overwhelming similarities and less than stellar experiences. But where once stood a real-life model dressed as a video game heroine, prancing around for uncomfortable dudes, now stands a trailer showing an anatomically proportioned girl thrown into a rather unpleasant situation.

The words ‘A survivor is born’ flashes up towards the end and if all the hype is to be believed about a dramatic shift in Tomb Raider, this could be the reboot which finally counts. You’re looking good Lara!…the video I mean… damnit, old habits die hard…!

The necessity of Lara’s reboot

When a franchise of any sort becomes a little stale, there are usually two choices. The first is to take the Activision route; cancel it or ‘put it on hold’. Another option is to wipe the slate clean and start again with a potentially life-saving reboot. For Crystal Dynamics, the only real decision for one of their biggest IPs was the latter and that’s why the next Tomb Raider is being receiving a complete overhaul of ideas rather than letting a once mighty star fall deeper into the bargain bin.

In a conversation with Edge magazine, CD studio head Darrell Gallagher spoke of the necessity to make a serious reboot: “Lara had hit her apex in how she was before, and we didn’t really feel we could take that any farther. It was a chance to look at everything again, bring new people in who had been interested in the franchise before but didn’t feel like Lara was modern enough.” It’s interesting that he suggested Lara wasn’t modern enough. The over-sexualised female lead is fast becoming a joke for games with more realistic characters like Faith from Mirror’s Edge and Portal‘s Chell being championed as the way forward. There’s a common debate over Bayonetta who is often portrayed as a sex object yet her dialog in-game alludes to her being the one in charge of her sexuality. Regardless of my obvious tangent, as a character and the incredibly dated use of look-a-like models, Lara is old and people are noticing.

That being said, changing her completely wouldn’t be right either and although all aspects of Ms Croft were analysed, the important thing for Gallagher was keeping the essential familiarities “We left no stones unturned as we were going through the concept, and then kept the right stones. The crucial thing is that it feels like her, even though it’s completely different.” I’m all for change and admit I came to the Tomb Raider series relatively late but if the new Lara was missing some of her attitude and spirit shall we say, the danger would be her loyal audience being alienated.

When Crystal Dynamics first was given the franchise in 2003, the games which followed were often thought of as reboots by the media yet the developer didn’t view them that way. They just put their own spin on it. But this spin received a lot of criticism for being too easy, neutering the exploration element and not pushing the boundaries enough compared to other similar franchises. Over the years the games got better but still lagged behind the new kings and queens of third-person action adventures. The hope of Crystal Dynamics and fans of tomb raiding is that making a prequel where a young Lara is shipwrecked on a Japanese island and must learn to survive, will not only be a great game but one that wins back come credit for the developers too.

Best of the best

Despite Super Mario Galaxy 2 being beaten in 2010 sales by New Super Mario Bros. Wii, the chubby plumber’s second trip into outer space has earned him five BAFTA nominations including Best Game and Best Gameplay. And if that wasn’t enough to celebrate a handyman who hasn’t actually done his job in 25 years, Mario has been voted the number one video game character of all time by readers of the Guinness World Records (via Official Nintendo Magazine). But the competition was tough featuring the likes of Link, Solid Snake and even Pac-Man.

The debate for the greatest character is always a tricky one due to a number of variables like age, gaming experience and genre preferences. In the past, the hirsute Italian lost out to Gordon Freeman in Gamespot’s search for the best character but in the Guinness World Record list, he came in a number 8. Though one could argue that Mr Freeman isn’t a character per se but a shell for gamers to climb into, seeing the world through his eyes with any form of personality driven by the players themselves. Mario is only marginally more fleshed out but is certainly more adaptable to situations and genres.

How about Link? Should he have been first? At number 2 Link shares Gordon Freeman’s attributes of being a silent protagonist and part of a greatly influential series. The pioneering mechanic of locking onto an enemy in Ocarina of Time has aided a vast number of games and gamers alike. But Mario staring appearance in Super Mario Bros. was one of the factors that saved the video game industry in the 80s when all seemed doomed.

Another name that often springs to mind is Lara Croft. If the questionnaire was asked in the mid nineties, maybe I’d agree with Ms Croft as a suitable opponent. But after too many attempts at reinvention that never quite managed to be what we all hoped they would plus how, as a character, she’s quite shallow, I think her place at number 7 is appropriate.

The list of 50 names also includes some newer personalities like Marcus Phoenix from Gears of War. As much as I love that franchise, Phoenix is more of a poster boy for testosterone than what can be considered number one material. He should definitely be on the list but probably as much as Soap MacTavish of CoD4 fame who was number 12 and equally not a top spot contender. Master Chief is slightly older and came third which to me is a little generous but understandable. Halo is huge and the honoured Spartan is one of the reasons why it grew so rapidly. However, Bungie deliberately kept Master Chief vague and mysterious, again allowing the player to feel more immersed in the role like Gordon Freeman.

My fanaticism with games began with Mario and his games be it platformer, racer, puzzler or party and looks to only continue into the future too. The fondness I have for Solid Snake and the impact his journey has had on my time as a gamer makes me want to argue a case for him being closer to or even number one but for what Mario has given the industry, I think being called the greatest video game character is a fitting accolade. Check out the full list over at the Official Nintendo Magazine site.

Screen Raider

Continuing with their exclusives of all things Tomb Raider, Game Informer bagged themselves various screenshots, renders and concept art for the ninth game in the illustrious series. It’s hard to tell between the renders and actual screenshots as they all look pretty damn good and show a new level of morbidity that I’ve not noticed in the previous games. Human sacrifices strung up in front of bizarre alters isn’t the usual imagery I’d expect for the franchise that has always had at least one boot firmly placed in the realms of whimsy. Even in death, Lara’s writhing and moaning had a certain comedic value to it but the pained expression of Ms Croft seen in the screenshot above is nothing but serious. Dark days are ahead for the original raider of tombs, I just hope the reboot can live up to the gargantuan amount of hype it is receiving.

For the full gallery over at Game Informer’s site, click here.

The real Lara Croft

How do you lead a legendary gaming character back to potential greatness after a spell of dodgy decisions? Make her real, make her believable. The unsurprising (but cool) announcement of a new Tomb Raider was met with a pleasing shock at just how much Lara Croft will change, not just in age but in appearance and personality too. The ongoing coverage over at Game Informer has unearthed some new information about the challenges Crystal Dynamics are going through by making their biggest star relevant for today’s market.

Global brand director, Karl Stewart, revealed that at the start of the project, Tomb Raider 9 was going to be a continuation of Underworld but thankfully realised that: “it was not the way we needed to go. We had to stop in our tracks and reevaluate everything in order to choose a new direction. The origin story came about through lots of research and deciding how to reposition Lara to get her where she needed to go. A reboot wasn’t at the top of the list to begin with, but it certainly shone through as the direction the franchise needed.” Amen to that. Art director, Brian Horton, spoke of the need to keep Lara recognisable but update her look to be relevant to an era where realism is highly important: “We want people to care for Lara at the end of the day. And if they can look at her and go “this is someone that I want to help through this survival journey,” then we have met our goal.” To do this, the team started not with character model but with a full understanding of who the new Lara is as a person, someone who is young and vulnerable that has a great deal of inner strength and hopefully admiration from the player. Everyone knows that Lara Croft is the busty treasure hunter but CD wants people to look beyond the guns, boobs and animated hair.

So much so, the swishing braided locks of many a Laras has been replaced with a simple ponytail, “We wanted to have the hair itself tell a bit of the story. So the hair moves and helps to sell the drama,” Said Horton. “The idea is to have it at the right length to give it some great secondary motion in action sequences.” It certainly didn’t hurt Bayonetta to have a head full of seemingly living hair. And notice how in the few promotional shots of Lara, her bust is more in keeping with real life, not unbelievably large for such an athletic lass. Upsetting for some I’m sure but Horton dashed hopes of any of the old school ‘bonuses’ of previous games: “There is a different tone we are going for across the board, and Lara Croft as a sex object isn’t our goal. No unlockable bikinis.” Faith from Mirror’s Edge has always been praised for her appearance and how she looks like a convincing game character. Crystal Dynamics want to recreate that idea for Croft.

Since it’s a story about the development of a hero, the emphasis of Lara learning from doing and growing in strength was also important to the team. As the game progresses, so do her animations, representing her growing in confidence to any given task. Stewart said: “For example, when she hears the scavenger for the first time, her natural reaction is to step back and ask “what the hell is that?” But as you progress she becomes stronger and her animations change, as does her character performance.” Nice huh? Underworld was particularly good at showing the subtle animations of Lara as she shielded her face from fire or walked through thick foliage. Expanding on that and making it something important throughout the game is awesome. It sounds like Crystal Dynamics has put a lot of work into all the areas where the franchise had gone astray over the years. I am indeed a happy boy. Now, about making a new Legacy of Kain game… anyone?