The mediascape’s been undergoing some major transformation as of late. We’ve seen words thrown around like Web3 and Metaverse. NFTs were met with a wide embrace in 2021 and have suddenly seen a 92% sales plummet this year.

I held off addressing these topics simply because it continues to be a volatile space for the time being. There may still be potential there, but between this and both Meta/Facebook and Netflix’s sudden shock stock drops, I hesitate to make any bold predictions about that media space.

But there is one area I’m deeply interested in, and one I’m investing a lot of time looking into – Virtual Influencers.

Initially, the concept of Virtual Influencers seems like it could be a buzzword like any other. But I believe it’s got infinitely more potential than that – and could impact the broader media landscape in ways that terms like “NFTs” simply can’t. Namely, they exist not only as influencers but as IP.

For this post, I want to use the case study of Tomb Raider’s own Lara Croft and relate it to the modern social media landscape. Why? Because the technology may be different, but IP lasts forever.

But first we must address the technological breakthroughs of the time.

Understanding the 90’s Mediascape

The year is 1996 and technology’s advancing rapidly across media. This decade saw CGI incorporated regularly in film: being instrumental in the visuals of 1993’s Jurassic Park and 1994’s The Mask. But more importantly, this is the decade we saw Pixar make its historic film debut with 1995’s Toy Story – the first entirely computer-animated film, transforming the industry overnight.

CGI was also an important era in video game development. This was the start of the 5th Generation of Consoles, with the most notable of the era being the Nintendo 64 and the original Playstation. Both of these consoles marked a shift in the industry, utilising 3D polygon graphics over traditional 16 or 32-bit pixel graphics – just about every kid knew about Super Mario 64‘s 3D landscape at the time of release.

This technology was a gamechanger (pun intended) across media, and changed the perceptions of general audiences. But most importantly, it set the stage for Lara Croft to rise to pop-culture prominence.

Lara Croft showcasing the cutting edge graphics of 1998 for Tomb Raider III

Who is Lara Croft, and Why Should I Care?

One of the reasons I wanted to analyse Lara Croft is because she was simultaneously a product of her time, and far ahead of her time. Created by game designer Toby Gard, Tomb Raider launched in 1996 to wide critical acclaim.

As a game, Tomb Raider was renowned for its innovative graphics, 360-degree freedom, platforming, and puzzle solving – the closest thing you could get at the time for a “Super Mario 64 Killer.”

Of course, many of these elements can be seen as somewhat dated now, but at the time it was revolutionary. You didn’t have to be a video game aficionado to understand its appeal. In fact, it was Lara Croft herself that would dominate the pop culture debate far beyond the limitations of her video game world, even securing herself a Guinness World Record for the “most successful human video game heroine.”

Of course, to this day there’s still debate to this day about whether Croft should be seen as an oversexualised fembot or a feminist icon. There’s certainly no denying her look – the cartoonish eyes and lips, the hour-glass physique mixed with an Indiana Jones adventure vibe – certainly had a hand in her appeal, but I want to focus more on her proto-influencer status.

Lara Croft on the covers of Loaded (Jan, 2000), The Face (June, 1997), and in a Lucozade magazine ad.

Prior to Lara Croft, video game characters (or cartoon characters in general) existed to sell games and products. This was nothing new – Sonic the Hedgehog teamed up with Honey Nut Cheerios, Legend of Zelda’s Link sold Mirinda (a Spanish soft drink,) and even Mario starred in one of the 90’s countless “Got Milk” commercials.

But what sets Lara Croft apart was the market – Croft sold to adults: SEAT Auto, Lucozade, and Visa; all sold on her “coolness” factor. She wasn’t just a video game character or kid’s cartoon – she appeared on the covers of Time, The Face, and Newsweek. For all intents and purposes, she was a celebrity.

Lara Croft Commercial Compilation

I find it interesting then that she’s no longer as influential as she once was. Tomb Raider games are still around, but as the technology advanced it wasn’t that difficult to make her (and other game characters) more “realistic.” Croft may have been a celebrity, but the peak of her success was during her first games – when she had a relatively more cartoony look and grounded in otherworldly treasure hunting.

This is best examined through the movies – an early-2000s Angelina Jolie film that celebrates the heightened reality of the character vs. a late-2010’s film that grounds itself more in the “real world.” Perhaps there was something about the fantastical people responded to more.

Considering she secured a series of movies with solid enough box office returns, suggests that the character has some kind of staying power. But how does she stack up to the influencers of today?

The Modern Reality of the Virtual Influencer

I started this post wanting to use Croft as a springboard for our current fascination with virtual influencers.

For those uninitiated, virtual influencers have grown in popularity with the advent of Instagram and now TikTok. Brud’s Lil Miquela began as the most notable of these characters back in 2016 – with something slightly uncanny about them – and used to partner predominantly with fashion and tech brands for online representation. Essentially, they fulfilled the same role as a typical influencer, albeit with modern computer graphics.

Current Virtual Influencers, left to right: @shudu.gram, @lilmiquela, and @imma.gram

But as time went on virtual influencers (and what could be considered an influencer) evolved – now, they can be anything: a dancing sausage called nobodysausage, a grungy cat and rabbit in the form of Superplastic’s Janky and Guggimon, and cyberpunks like FNMeka.

Some current virtual influencers, left to right: @nobodysausage, @janky and @guggimon, and @FNMeka

It was only when Superplastic’s Guggimon debuted in Fortnite that I really began to consider what the term meant – with cartoony characters transitioning effortlessly from social media celebrity a video game format, they not only serve as virtual celebrity, but also an IP for a multimedia landscape.

Unsurprisingly the media landscape has changed substantially from the 90s. With the advent of social media – and most recently TikTok – its a more competitive landscape for likes and follows. Unlike Lara, who achieved an iconic status off of a single video game, modern influencers need to be able to engage their audiences directly – respond to comments, be more emotionally accessible, and build up community.

It’s with this mix of community and IP that there could be real potential to develop in this space.

Like Lara Croft decades prior, these digital characters can build real world fanbases. But whereas character’s like nobodysausage excel in growing their fanbases to millions of online followers, one must consider what they can do beyond social media? Could they make magazine covers or star in an ad?

This is why Lara feels like the definitive virtual influencer archetype, because she showed that you can have a digital celebrity whilst also creating compelling stories and games. For creators, having a character able to transition between mediums is vital for monetisation and growth, and I question whether our current influencers like Guggimon, Lil Miquela and nobodysausage can thrive beyond merchandise and brand partnerships – though, as with any IP, there’s certainly potential!

Lara Croft has been on the cover of magazines, partnered with notable brands, was the star in two live-action Hollywood films, featured in over 20 games, and transitions effortlessly across media. She has staying power, defined a media landscape, and serves as an example of what our modern day virtual influencers could achieve.