34D. That's the first thought out of the mouth of one gaming executive when asked to explain the story behind the highly successful Tomb Raider series. 34D, as in the bust line of Lara Croft, that action-adventure game's main character. Just another piggish male professing his own cheap thrills? Well, yeah, but that's not all. For breasts are in fact a very legitimate, if painfully obvious, starting point in discussing the phenomenon that is Lara Croft. And, no exaggeration, it is a phenomenon.

Croft (34D-24-35, 5'8″, 115 pounds, for the record) is the first of her kind in the world of PC and PlayStation games, where cartoonish characters like Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog and Crash Bandicoot have been among the few who have attained any hint of recognition outside of the hardcore gamer/user base. And here you have a woman – repeat: a woman – taking care of business and venturing into pop-icon status. Created by Toby Gard for the British gaming company Core Design, Croft is a badass – kind of a Rambo in a Teri Hatcher outer shell, exploring exotic lands and conquering treacherous geography and every beast and villain that crosses her path. “Equal parts Pamela Anderson and Indiana Jones with a dash of La Femme Nikita,” said Newsweek. “Bigger than Pammy, wiser than Yoda,” blurted British culture rag The Face.

“A game like this is clearly a groundbreaker,” says Dave Shaw, executive director of Worldwide Brand Marketing for 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. “It's definitely something that opens up a broader genre of games. Here's the first 3-D action-adventure game where you've got this fantastic character, and it has really good appeal from an overall adventure storyline. It's not just blast and kill, it requires you to think and explore and use more elements than just twitch and shoot.”

The world has taken notice. Not only has Tomb Raider and its sequel Tomb Raider II sold over 3 million copies, massive numbers for the still-infantile game industry, but Croft has crossed over into pop culture notoriety. And it's not just the Lara Croft action figures that can now be found in toy stores. The character has graced more than 40 magazine covers, has ventured into modeling (for the “photo shoot” that accompanied the article in The Face, the Uzi-flaunting Lara was all dolled up in a Gucci bikini and other designer wear) and was featured prominently as part of the massive animation screen that served as the backdrop for U2's recent Pop tour. While a pop music project with her name on it was recently shelved, a feature-length live-action film is slated to begin production some time this year. The prospect of a film is the hot topic among Croft devotees, especially on the 100-plus Web sites devoted to her. Who will star as Croft? Sandra Bullock? Xena's Lucy Lawless? Elizabeth Hurley? (In case you're wondering, the editors of the Ziff-Davis Ultimate Guide to Tomb Raider II stand behind Hurley. “She's almost an uncanny ringer for Lara, and she already has the accent nailed down,” they write.)

But back to the boob issue for a moment. “For the sequel, Core Design paid a lot of attention to her breasts and made them so they're rounder because that was one of the big complaints about the first one,” says Kraig Kujawa, Ultimate Guide editor-in-chief. “They were jagged because of the 3-D polygons, so they put a lot of attention into the second one to make sure they were bigger and more rounded.” In other words, Core Design knows who's buttering their bread – horny, pimply, adolescent staying-inside-when-the-sun-is-out boys, who make up an estimated 85 percent of the Tomb Raider audience. Some of these young 'uns are so excited by Lara that artwork, um, embellishing her assets has sprouted on the Web. It's called Nude Raider and, well, you can probably figure out the rest. (The curious can peek at https://www.infocalypse.demon.co.uk/x/laranude.html

Understandably, Tomb Raider has had its critics. After all, isn't this just another round of female objectification? Nikki Douglas doesn't buy that argument. “When I'm playing the game I don't think to myself, 'Oh, golly, my polygonal breasts are big,'”says the editor/publisher of grrlgamer.com, a Web zine devoted to gaming from a woman's perspective. “I'm playing the game and I'm thinking, 'Well, I've got to leap from this ledge to the other ledge and there's a bear down there that's gonna chew my leg off.' You're trying to stay alive.”

Douglas calls Tomb Raider “fantastic” and Lara Croft her “homegirl.” She also says that critics might consider the evils of real life before they worry about a video game. “The waifish, emaciated models that can't even walk down the catwalk because all they had to eat yesterday was a cracker – focus on that,” she snaps, half-laughing. “It's a game! Helloooo??? It's fun to play. Take your feminist ire and put it in a little box for a while, play this game and see what it's like to be the hero. Look up on the screen and see a female character being the hero, because it's really cool.”

LA Weekly