Lara Croft, The Bit Girl

IT'S NOT EASY BEING Lara Croft. After the British aristocrat and adventure-seeking archeologist starred in last year's hit Tomb Raider, she appeared on the cover of 40 magazines, toured with U2, modeled Gucci fashions and recorded a single with ex-Eurythmics guitarist Dave Stewart. All the while, she's been in China, Tibet and Venice working on the sequel. But you won't hear Lara whine about her hectic schedule. When you're a woman made of more than 540 polygons, part of your job is making it all look easy.

Equal parts Pamela Anderson and Indiana Jones with a dash of La Femme Nikita, Lara Croft is the computer-generated action heroine at the center of one of the hottest PC and console videogames on the market. To date nearly 3 million copies have been sold worldwide, putting it in the same company as the best-selling adventure game, Myst.

Along the way, Lara became an icon as recognizable to gamers as Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog. U2 got the game makers at Core Design in England to create custom footage of Lara for the video wall in its current PopMart world tour. Some fans, convinced (or praying) that she's real, have bombarded Core with e-mail requesting info on her boyfriends and favorite pop bands. There are more than 100 Web sites devoted to her glory, ranging from nice, like the well-written Croft Times newsletter (, to naughty, like Nude Raider, for fans who think Lara's a bit overdressed in her skintight vest and Daisy Duke shorts.

Like Lara, the folks at Core haven't had much time to enjoy their success; plans for a sequel were underway two months before the first game came out. Since then it's been nothing but takeout food and catnaps (on inflatable beds at the company's funky offices in a converted mansion on the outskirts of the northern English town of Derby) for the designers as they scramble to get Tomb Raider 2 in stores by mid-November.

The folks at Core are still a bit surprised at the Tomb Raider phenomenon. ""Lara has had an awful lot more media attention than the game itself because people like to lead on the sex angle, the size of her chest and whether she takes her clothes off,'' says Core managing director Jeremy Smith. Yet he's shocked, shocked, to hear that U.S. parent company Eidos is pushing the pinup angle by listing her measurements as 38-24-34. (Core insists that, in Lara's native England at least, she is a more modest 34D.) ""We have never really got hung up on that sort of thing,'' Smith sniffs. ""When people ask what she would be like if you took her clothes off, the team simply says she would be a wire mesh. I am sure a lot of people enjoy ogling her, but she was never designed with the market- ing in mind.''

J. C. Herz, the author of ""Joystick Nation,'' a book on the history of videogames, isn't buying it. ""Female characters are the rage because boys like to look at them. They're the pinup girls of the 21st century.'' But she thinks it was smart of Eidos to build the game around Lara. ""If you can create a great character, what you've got is a franchise. It's like making a blockbuster movie and knowing that before anyone says a word you can make $100 million.''

There's so much software on store shelves these days that simply creating a good game isn't enough to break out of the pack. With Lara, Eidos has created a star. ""And the character belongs to you,'' Herz adds. ""It doesn't pout in a trailer or ask you for $20 million for its next videogame. You own it. It's like minting money.''

It seems obvious now that Tomb Raider would go over big with lads of all ages, but when Core prodigy Toby Gard (who later left to start his own company) created a game around his vision of the perfect woman, he was violating several unspoken rules of 3-D gaming. Unlike with popular first-person-perspective games like Doom and Duke Nukem, players see the action over Lara's shoulder, like a movie. It's a single-player game with no options for Internet play. And, as Core's reps in France and Germany warned, who's going to play a game where the hero is a girl?

They shouldn't have worried. When the first version hit the stores in November 1996, it sold 500,000 copies in two months. Any good videogame is as much about the experience of watching as it is playing, and it was quite a corneal treat for players to see Lara run fluidly through caves and tunnels, turning cartwheels like Dominique Dawes and diving off ledges like Fu Mingxia. But unlike most action games, TR balances shooting and butt-kicking with exploration and puzzle-solving. So a female character--smart, strong and supa- dupa fly--fit in perfectly with Core's vision for the game.

""A man,'' says designer Adrian Smith, ""would have changed what the game's about. But it wouldn't have mattered how gorgeous Lara was if the game itself wasn't any good.'' When Lara caps her foes, both guns blazing like Chow-Yun Fat in a John Woo action flick, Lara takes the slogan ""Girl Power'' to the next level. Call her Shotgun Spice; right in front of you, yet always just out of reach, she's the perfect fantasy girl for the digital generation.

Tomb Raider 2 ($50-$55; 415-547-1200) is more ambitious and complex than its predecessor, so there are also more opportunities for error. At Core HQ, six testers play the game over and over--each run-through takes about 11 hours--hunting down stray bugs. Smith was playing the game an hour before the PlayStation version went to Sony, when Lara fell off a ledge and he couldn't get her back up. ""If Sony found a bug it would be nuclear here, but we're almost there.'' Then they found that they'd sent out thousands of demo CD-ROMs with the copy-protection timers already expired, making them unplayable. Then they went nuclear. Fortunately, someone came up with a patch, and they recalled the discs to make the fix. That's par for the course in the high-stakes world of game design, says Adrian's brother and managing director Jeremy Smith. ""You're working under pressure to meet deadlines, and somehow you forget to take out one line of code. Still, it could have been worse. It could have gone out to the whole game,'' he laughs.

Core hasn't changed the formula much for the sequel, but the team of four artists and three programmers have crammed in a bunch of ideas that they didn't have time to put in the original. Gameplay is smoother and more detailed, with impressive lighting effects, such as flares illuminating a corridor as they fly through the air. Where the first game had mostly animal opponents, the sequel has several human villains as well as new beasties. There are new puzzles, new locations (outdoor as well as indoor), new weapons, new moves (See Lara climb! See Lara drive!). And Lara herself has had a digital makeover to give her what Eidos calls ""a more shapely and lifelike look,'' including 46 polygons alone for her fully animated ponytail. But what fans really want are new form- fitting outfits, and Core has obliged with a wet suit, a flight jacket and, for those who finish the game, a nightie.

How long Tomb Raider will be able to preserve its unique qualities remains to be seen. Eidos CEO Mike McGarvey acknowledges that there's tremendous pressure to bring multiplayer and Internet play to the Tomb Raider franchise. The designers at Core aren't convinced that they should go that route. ""We know from the success of Tomb Raider that the combination of dif- ferent elements--exploration, puzzles and combat--works really well as it stands,'' says Adrian Smith. ""The interaction is between the player and Lara; it's a very personal ex- perience. Having seven or eight Laras running around on screen would detract from the whole atmosphere of the game.''

Eidos is now the house that Lara built; sales of Tomb Raider helped turn a 1996 pretax loss of $2.6 million into a $14.5 million profit. So the company is proceeding aggressively in its efforts to leverage her appeal into other areas. The action figure is already in stores, and you can order jackets at the Web site ( The single performed by Rhona Mitra, who serves as Lara's flesh- and-flesh incarnation at trade shows, has been postponed so it won't interfere with the movie deal that Eidos hopes to finalize by the end of the year. The designers--and most fans--hope that it will be a computer-animated movie, but McGarvey says it will probably be live action. For now, fans will have to content themselves with the ad blitz on MTV, ESPN and the syndicated show ""Xena: Warrior Princess.'' The tag line? ""Lara's Back. Where the Boys Are.''