When Shelley Blond first stepped into a recording studio in 1996, she had no idea her performance would become a foundational element in the legacy of one of gaming’s most iconic female characters. Lara Croft is one of the most glamorous video game leads of all time. But Blond, the first voice actor to play Croft, remembers the role as anything but.
“I remember going into a London studio for five hours and recording all the lines and sound effects like grunts, dying and fighting noises,” Blond told The Washington Post via email. “These days, it’s all a much lengthier process with mo-cap [motion-capture] and all the physicalities that go with that. For me it was just go in, read the lines as directed and leave. I didn’t think about it again until I saw the game advertised and her image on the front of the Face magazine.”
In the ’90s, Croft’s face was everywhere. Arguably the most iconic gaming character to come out of the decade, Croft frequently appeared in magazines and on television commercials, “modeling” for clients ranging from credit card companies to soft drinks. She became a figure bigger than gaming, pushing into the mainstream. Within the games industry, her impact was crucial: Croft, portrayed as tall and athletic and often adorned in revealing outfits, helped establish female protagonists in the medium and the action-adventure genre as a whole. These days, her presence can be felt in the likes of “Horizon Zero Dawn’s” Aloy and Ellie from “The Last of Us” — even if Croft herself has stepped out of the zeitgeist, to a degree.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Blond learned just how big the Tomb Raider fan base has remained — even now, 25 years after the launch of the first game.
“I didn’t know until I joined Twitter five or six years ago just how much she is still adored,” Blond said. “Who knew she would still be relevant all these years later?”
“I’ve had the privilege of hearing the fans’ stories about their love for Lara, or how playing the game helped them through difficult times in their childhood, or how playing the game as a child with a parent who is no longer with us is a wonderful memory of them to cherish,” she continued. “It’s been an honor to share their stories and to hear how my voice and my interpretation of the game is so special to so many people.”
Blond only played Croft in the character’s very first outing, Tomb Raider, which released on Oct. 25, 1996. However, bits of her original recordings — the grunts and sound bites players hear as they explore and solve puzzles as Croft — also featured in Tomb Raiders II and III (released in 1997 and 1998 respectively) alongside the dialogue of Judith Gibbins. Much like Blond, Gibbins had no real sense of Croft’s legacy at the time. When she went to audition, Gibbins didn’t even know what Croft looked like. She only tried out because the studio was based in her hometown of Derby, England.
“In 1997 my brother, Martin, was working as a programmer at Core Design [the original studio behind Tomb Raider]. He told me they were holding auditions for a voice over for Lara Croft,” Gibbins said. “At the time, I had no idea who this character was or even what the games were all about.”
At the time, the identity of Croft was kept secret to maintain the character’s mystique. While Gibbins was credited in the games as “Voice of Lara,” she said her appearances at conventions were restricted. For a brief time in the ’90s, Croft was an icon on par with Mickey Mouse. And like Disney Park employees who must never break character or be spotted removing their costume, Croft, as if by magic, simply existed. During convention appearances, Gibbins remained hidden while a digital Croft appeared on a screen in her stead, taking answers from the audience. Gibbins heard them through an earpiece and answered in character.
She attended E3 in Atlanta in 1998 this way to promote Tomb Raider III. This, to her, was one of the most enjoyable parts of the role – and is the resounding memory of her time as Croft.
“I called it my time in a cupboard,” Gibbins said. “I have to say, a lot of the time I had silly questions, for example, ‘What size are your breasts?’ “
Gibbins recalls dispatching such questions with ease. “I would reply, ‘Don’t you know it’s rude to ask a lady such a question?’ “
It’s this side of Croft that made her so endearing to many fans. Gibbins’s comment was an off-the-cuff reaction, but one that also reflected Croft’s character: She was always shown as a woman of confidence and agency. Though her design was sexualized, Croft was a powerful, glamorous woman to be feared and admired. It’s this sense of agency that made Croft so relevant, giving girls and women a character made for them, and not just for men to gawk at.
After Gibbins came Jonell Elliott, who voiced the character from 1999 to 2003. She voiced Croft through the character’s most divergent iterations. She continued the characterization put in place by Blond and Gibbins in Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation — commonly known as Tomb Raider IV – as well as in the soft reboot Chronicles and the hard, gothic reboot The Angel of Darkness.
“I played her with that strong, gregarious and tough attitude [in Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation],” Elliott said. “Bold and adventurous as ever, and then later introducing young Lara — sweet and sassy but totally fearless. It was a dream come true to play the two parts of her character.”
These first six games, generally referred to as the “first series,” are by far the most varied in the Tomb Raider canon and show the most growth and development between entries. Croft’s performances in particular grew more complex, moving from brief, stilted exchanges between bouts of gameplay, to full-motion video cutscenes, and then to full in-engine cutscenes as game technology developed alongside the franchise. The voice actors saw this growth manifest in their performances as they worked to portray Croft’s development as a character.
“Jonell’s Lara was very different to mine, as the game was more developed aesthetically, and of course now the current games look like actual movies,” said Blond, who prefers the older, less realistic-looking titles, despite not being a gamer. “I am an old-fashioned gal who doesn’t like change much.”
After Chronicles, Elliott remained in the role for The Angel of Darkness. Croft’s basic personality and backstory remained in place, but it had a darker, more brooding overtone. Croft was given a gothic look, trading out her classic wardrobe of tank tops and khaki shorts for denim, leather and sunglasses. After the cliffhanger ending of Chronicles, The Angel of Darkness moved from the forests, jungles and temples of Croft’s original outings to the urban center of Paris where the heroine, falsely accused of murder, investigates a black magic cult. It was supposed to bring Croft into the modern age, taking inspiration from the action-adventure titles Tomb Raider itself had inspired.
“She had been through a transition which called for her to be mistrustful, edgier, colder and more detached. It was an exciting time for me to play her as she took on a new facade,” Elliott said. “I think as an actor it’s really interesting to play the more complex characters and it added a new depth to Lara.”
There’s a serendipity to Elliott picking up the role. She shared a dressing room with Blond on the West End in London as part of the cast of “Elvis: The Musical” while the latter auditioned for the character.
“Funnily enough I had heard of Lara Croft before the very first game had even been released in 1996,” Elliott said. “Who would have known I would be playing the role myself a few years later? Small world.”
Blond recalled their shared time on the musical as well.
“We had an absolute ball for the six months we worked together on [the musical],” Blond said. “We shared a dressing room and did not stop giggling for the whole time our contract lasted. We’ve sung in bands together since and we always bump into each other at voice-over sessions. She’s a very dear friend.”
It was while Elliott was embodying the role that the Lara Croft brand began partnering with the popular British energy drink company Lucozade, a promotion that has continued all the way up to the most recent “Shadow of the Tomb Raider” game, and covers all three Hollywood movies. For Elliott, Croft’s rise to mainstream stardom came as no surprise.
“I think as Tomb Raider soared in popularity, it was inevitable that the Lara Croft character was going to make that leap from game to media platform,” Elliott said. “She became this real icon that appealed to both sexes. There wasn’t a character like her at the time, and everybody wanted a piece of her. I started getting more calls to my agent with various requests from companies, which wanted Lara’s persona to endorse their products.”
Tomb Raider is no longer the titan it was in the late ’90s. Still, the franchise has endured; it has a Hollywood movie and a Netflix anime currently in production. Its most recent game, 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider, sold over four million copies. The popular Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed franchises borrow heavily from Tomb Raider’s foundations. And while other strong female characters have followed in Croft’s footsteps, few are as recognizably iconic in the medium. Those who have extended their legacy beyond games and into pop culture follow a path first charted by Croft.
“Happy anniversary, Lara,” Blond said. “You’ve still got it, babe.”