March 5, 2013 at 10:02 AM ET
There was a time when superheroes were, well, superheroes. That is, they were everything we mere mortals wished we could be ... but could never ever truly hope to be.
But that was then. And this is now. And these days we like our heroes decidedly more ... human. We like to see the chinks in their armor. We like to see the grime splattered on their capes. We like to see more of us in them.
One need only look at two recent cinematic hero reboots to see this trend in action — Batman in the gritty "Dark Knight" trilogy and James Bond since "Casino Royale." Two heroes. Two vulnerable humans beneath the heroic veneer.
And now the long-running leading lady of gaming has joined this reboot club. Lara Croft — who has fronted the Tomb Raider games for 16 years — has been given a decidedly unglamorous, gritty-as-hell makeover for a reboot of the franchise, which arrives in stores Tuesday.
In the new Tomb Raider game called, well, "Tomb Raider," the famed gun-slinging archaeologist gives up her unflappable daring (and her preposterous physical proportions — more on that here) to become a heroine who is a bit more like the people who actually play her games.
"We wanted to create a different kind of hero because it was a different time," Darrell Gallagher, head of development studio Crystal Dynamics, told NBC News in a recent interview. "We felt there was a need to make someone in Lara that was more relatable, that was more human, that was less superhero. We wanted to make a character that you have to get to know."
Bond, Batman and beyond
After coming off their earlier trio of Tomb Raider games ("Tomb Raider: Legend," "Anniversary" and "Underworld"), Crystal Dynamics was keen to do a new game for a new age.
"It wasn’t immediately clear that it was going to be a reboot," Gallagher says. But at some point, the team realized they couldn't achieve the lofty goals they had for Croft and Tomb Raider without "wiping the slate clean."
But how do you wipe the slate clean and yet remain true to what made that slate so popular in the first place? After all, Lara had been around since 1996 — people had expectations.
"I think we were facing challenges that many of the other game franchises will face, or may be facing at this point — where the question is: how do you cross the line and go from one generation to the new generation?" Gallagher says. "We really had to look outside games for inspiration, because nobody had really done it — nobody had really gone through (a reboot) on the scale that we needed to."
Looking outside of gaming meant looking to the Bond and Batman films. And those two successful franchise reboots helped give the team the confidence they needed to make major changes to Lara and her action-adventuring ways.
"Bond and Batman were two great examples for us — they've stood the test of time and they’ve been bold enough to make fairly dramatic changes," Gallagher said. "Obviously it’s still Bond and it’s still Batman, but they managed to keep the DNA and make it feel fresh and make it feel modern."
Rhianna Pratchett, the game's lead writer (and daughter of fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett), told NBC News that she and the team also looked to real-world stories of survival for inspiration. She studied the 1972 Andes flight disaster and Aron Ralston's story of surviving a climbing accident after being pinned under a massive boulder.
And it was, ultimately, through this lens of survival that they approached the Tomb Raider reboot.
Lara Croft, survivor
In the new game, we find Lara at the beginning of her story. She's a fresh-faced 21-year-old out on her first grand archaeology adventure — an adventure that goes horribly awry when the ship she's aboard wrecks off the coast of a mysterious island.
It is here that Lara faces a treacherous landscape, dangerous wildlife, physical injuries and, really, the worst that mankind has to offer. Of course, the old Lara would have swashbuckled her way through this situation with guns blazing and confidence to spare. But not so this new Lara.
"She hasn’t got the guns and the gadgets and the witty one-liners and the knowledge that she’s going to get herself out of this situation because, you know, she’s never been in it before," Pratchett explains.
Instead, in this new "Tomb Raider," Lara struggles and she suffers. And it's during this suffering that she does what humans do: She doubts herself. Challenged to get herself and her friends off the island alive, Lara whimpers when she's scared, she cries out in pain when she's hurt, she questions her abilities when faced with seemingly impossible tasks.
And when she kills her first animal — and then her first human — these actions don't come without an emotional cost.
"We knew it was a bit of a risk showing her being vulnerable at the start because you don’t associate that with Lara," Pratchett says. "Actually, you don’t associate that with any video game character, because we’re not used to seeing a character being scared or being unsure of themselves. But we felt it was important to show that, because there is no bravery without fear."
Indeed, make no mistake, this Lara Croft is, ultimately, a hero. Despite all the angst and trepidation, she pushes herself to keep going. And as time spent with this "Tomb Raider" game reveals — we find Lara all the more heroic for having these initial fears and misgivings ... and for continuing despite them. She is the kind of hero we would like to believe we could be if we were faced with with the same thing.
"We wanted to show that she didn't just sort of plop out a bad-ass. It was made — it was forged through her experiences and her actions and her reactions," Pratchett says. "You see her fear and you see her overcoming that fear. And that is very powerful when you’re on that journey with her."
Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.