Raiding the Paratexts of Lara Croft

Curator's Note

*/ Paratexts surround videogames and shape how we view, play, and understand them. Lara Croft is one of the most publicized videogame characters ever created, and certainly one of the most long-lived female game characters. When I began to play videogames again in 2000, I encountered Lara and the controversy surrounding her; all of which has re-appeared periodically with the release of each new iteration in the franchise. Lara has had films, novels and comics made about her; she was a spokes-avatar for Lucozade drink; she has appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines; and music groups have dedicated songs to her. And in her latest installment, Tomb Raider, Lara is rebooted and depicted as a younger woman who through circumstance is transformed into the tough adventurer that graces the earlier games.

This suggests that it is impossible to understand or interpret Lara apart from that context. We can only see Lara through our individual, experiential lenses. For me that means the first game I tried, and at which I repeatedly failed, the film starring Angelina Jolie, and one of the models impersonating Lara at E3. And just as players cannot escape paratexts neither can a game’s creators. Developer Crystal Dynamics cannot avoid what reviewers have said in the past, how fans comment on the series (such as in the mashup included here), and the place of Lara in the wider videogame universe.

 This discussion inevitably returns me to Espen Aarseth’s early writings about avatars and Lara in particular, where he argued “When I play, I don't even see her body, but see through it and past it.” Aarseth has already been critiqued for his position, but what I’d like to close with is to suggest that such a position is impossible given the contexts in which games now exist. And with Lara in particular, playing as Lara is as over-determined and complex an activity as one is likely to find in a contemporary videogame experience.


Thanks for the video, Mia. I’d never seen that pairing of British adventurers before! It’s true: there are few game personalities who have enjoyed as much trans-media commercial success and notoriety as Lara Croft. To willfully ignore or set aside the paratexts of a game is to ignore much (although not all) of its cultural meaningfulness. Aarseth’s point, which you rightly note has already been critiqued, is that none of that supposedly matters for understanding gameplay proper (analyzing games qua games). He goes on to say in the essay you cite: “It follows that games are not intertextual either; games are self-contained. You don't need to have played poker or ludo to understand chess, and knowledge of roulette will not help you to understand Russian roulette.” Okay, sure, you don’t need to be fluent with TOMB RAIDER’s previous iterations or related properties to play the reboot. But what exactly is the analytic advantage to limiting game studies thusly? Is the need to demarcate game studies so compelling that we need to – if you'll excuse the butchered expression – cut off our analytic noses to spite our ludological faces? p.s. Sweet dog pic.

Matt and Derek, Great points- thanks for the feedback. I'd actually even quibble further with Aarseth based on what you bring up. Some of my gameplay activity recently has me playing various games in a series, and also playing genres that I normally wouldn't. What I've found is that while it's definitely possible to play games 'on their own' its also much easier (and sometimes more enjoyable, but not always) to have either genre experience, or game franchise experience. While I am loving the current Tomb Raider, my lack of timing/jumping/acrobatic moves for this type of game is holding me back somewhat. So yes, the game is self-contained in the sense that I don't have to play the earlier tomb raiders in order to understand it, but it would definitely make it an easier game to play, performance-wise, if I had done so.

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