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Tomb Raider Interview: Balancing Story And Gameplay


Crystal Dynamics’ new Tomb Raider reboot, slated for release next month, isn’t being shy about doing things differently from the older games. Puzzles are designed differently and are now physics-based, and the mysterious island Lara is stranded on is designed with certain areas inter-connected, and others only accessible after you acquire the appropriate tools, similar to a Metroid game.


Lara herself handles differently as well, no longer capable of hand-springs, swan dives, and gunning down tigers with twin Uzis while doing back-flips. Meanwhile, an experience and skill system allows you to upgrade her skill-set with new abilities and scavenging for parts allows you to upgrade her weapons.


We spoke with Crystal Dynamics’ creative director, Noah Hughes, to ask what the development team wanted to preserve from the older games, what they wanted to do differently, and just what the island you’re stranded on is going to be like and how it ties into the overall story of Lara’s growth.


You’ve said that pre-production was very long and this is one of the longest-tested games that Crystal have ever done. What did you cut out, that you found didn’t fit from testing?


Noah Hughes, Creative Director: It’s less like we did a bunch and took more things out, and more like we did a ton of things and kept just a few of them. And that’s just to say we started really broad in pre-production. We threw away all the assumptions and we intentionally tried a bunch of different directions. So rather than knowing what direction we wanted to go, we explored a breadth of directions.


Some of the things people have seen early on was a little girl on the island with Lara. That was going to be a major part of the story and game mechanics, and we played with that a bit in pre-production. Another thing was a horse as a character. At one point, we had Lara riding on a horse around the island. Some screenshots people are familiar with from an early leak are the horror-inspired enemy set that we played with.


So, it’s not like any of these were the one vision for the game. We sampled a lot of the directions that we could go, so as we narrowed in on the direction we did want to go, we could go in with confidence, knowing that we had explored other directions we could take this franchise.


I do remember the early leaks. People described it as—not to compare, but—as a survival horror game with Metroid elements to it. In the sense that all of the areas were connected to one another.


Yeah. You can see that we’ve somewhat kept the Metroid-esque game structure, and we’ve kept areas of tension—almost horror-inspired areas—as part of our broader “experience suite”. So, that’s just an example of how we didn’t throw all of these elements out in pre-production. We didn’t keep things wholesale or not. We took flavours that we liked.


Even though those examples were different from the game we ultimately made, in a lot of ways, there’s flavours from each of those that inform the game.


To my knowledge, at some point around the time of World War II, there was Japanese occupation of the island. How did you come up with the island and the cultures and architecture you’d have on there?


Yeah. One of the things we wanted to explore early on was where we could set this story. We wanted to ground it in a real-world myth but we’d decided that it didn’t necessarily need to be as well known a myth as the ones we’d explored in the past, like Excalibur or something. We wanted a myth that not everybody knows, but to use it as a real-world point of departure for our story.


But we also wanted an interesting region. When we were auditioning places that would be interesting for our story, we looked at all of the slices of time. Our goal was to have layers of history. As you’re on the island, you get the sense that it has a very old story. It has a current story that you’re experiencing, but also any number of states in between.


World War  II is an example of that, and where we ended up was in the Dragon’s Triangle, exploring the myth of [the island] Yamatai. So, we wanted a myth we could expand on, and layers of history we could explore. Because that’s who Lara is. Let’s make sure that the archaeology aspect of her character can be challenged and celebrated in whatever we do.


The other thing that was interesting about it for me is that the Dragon’s Triangle presented a “real-world mystery” as a point of attachment. Meaning that, there’s this area off the coast of Japan that’s like the Bermuda Triangle and is actually responsible for more lost vessels possibly than even the Bermuda Triangle itself. You Google that and read about it, and you’re like, “Wow, that’s kind of crazy. Where did all these ships go?” [laughs]


So, I liked that there was a mysterious backdrop that didn’t require an understanding of the background mythology but had parallels that people were familiar with in the context of the Bermuda Triangle. But as you start to dig deeper, you start to discover rich layers of history between modern day and that core myth that we’re going to explore.


How do you start out designing something like the island? Do you come up with a prototype for Lara’s abilities and design areas around that, or did you come up with story first and design the island to suit it?


It really isn’t a single one and then the other. It’s a constant evolution between all of those considerations. Some of the most early explorations we did were just dramatic coastlines inspired by the region, geographically. Because those could tell the story in a single shot. You could see the idea of shipwrecks on a coastline, and because it was a coastline, you get the sense that it’s an island and not in the middle of a continent.


But then, you start to try to evolve that into a series of environments for the player to explore, and from a level design perspective, you want those to be different and interesting. We really liked the idea that you could immerse yourself in one place in a Tomb Raider game, and learn more and more about it, instead of hopping from place to place. But again, it meant that we needed to provide different spaces to explore, because we didn’t want it to feel like you were in the same “level” for the whole game, so to speak.


So, we looked at all the environments. You could be down by the coast. You could be at the top of a mountain. There are going to be inhabitants on the island. What is their housing going to look like? Let’s have an inhabited area.


So, think about the types of places you want to feature, but at the same time, you have Lara’s story. She’s going to crash on this island. How’s that going to progress and take you from one place to another? That was a pattern that was important to the development of this game. Rather than, say, banging out a story and shoe-horning some gameplay into it, or coming up with beautiful game systems and then letting the writers figure out how to explain it all, we stayed away from either of those extremes. We really said, we’re going to create an experience and that experience is only going to succeed if it caters to the story needs and gameplay needs.


So, you start to mold it like clay. If there’s an inhabited area, you need to come up with a reason for Lara to go there. If there’s a beach area, let’s probably start there, because she’s going to be shipwrecked. You kick around back and forth between what would be neat places to turn into levels and what would be fun adventures for Lara to have. And you start to  gel that into a sequence of story beats, and on the level design side, you start to gel it into a map.


In our case, we wanted to build the map in a somewhat gear-gated way. It’s difficult to draw too many parallels with a Zelda or a Metroid, but we did try to create a situation where you could come into a space—the hub areas—and your progression as a character would let you get to one area from that hub, and later get to a different area from that hub. In that way, we were able to create a non-linear island and have Lara’s progression through that, and have the narrative be fairly linear.


The game has a fast-travel system. Do you use that to revisit older areas, or can you make you way back on foot, since areas are connected?


Fast-travel allows you to travel to previous Base Camps that you’ve unlocked. In a lot of cases, you can travel back to an area, but in other cases—especially travelling between hubs—there isn’t always a foot-based path back, so you have to rely on fast-travel. So, the answer is both.


How many civilizations are represented on the island? Is each hub representative of a different civilization or is it set up a different way?


Those are all questions we ask, right, as we kick around how we’re going to organize the story on the island. One of the choices we made was that we might feature each layer in each area, but in a lot of cases, a given area would emphasize a certain layer. So, you may be in a scavenger area but you might find a World War II bunker that was built before they were ever here.


And there’s more than just the major layers, but the major ones we explore are the ancient layers, which are the backdrop for the island’s mythology. And then we have the World War II layer, and then the more modern scavenger layer. And then we kind of sprinkled things in between, so there’s an implication of explorers that were here before World War II and an implication of survivors  that didn’t make it before Lara, that were here between her and World War II.


Obviously, there’s a bigger emphasis on story this time around, but in the past, Tomb Raider used to be a very “gamey” game, with things like block puzzles and spike traps. Have you had to tone that down in the new game for storytelling purposes?


I think that speaks to the same trade-off we were talking about between the story arc and the island design. The same thing happens throughout. A game mechanic might be fun and rich in one direction, but not really be very plausible.


But games aren’t pure simulations of reality. We inherently accept game-isms like health packs and inventory. That’s why, as much as we try to bring up story this time around, it isn’t that fiction always wins. We did want to celebrate game-isms—it just becomes a question of how to celebrate them in a way that plays most nicely within the narrative context.


An example of something that was fun mechanically but that we didn’t keep fictionally was bungie rope mechanics, which we played around with in pre-production. But they were very over-the-top and cartoony in the way they played out.  But similarly, there were places where the story wanted something to happen—a dramatic moment, for example—and we thought, “The player wouldn’t want to do that.”


So, we had to make sure that Lara and the story arc were synchronized with the player, so they don’t sit around thinking, “Why are these people doing this?” So, we’ve had both cases where a mechanic was reigned in by fiction or fiction reigned in by playability. It came from a place of us saying we want to create a rich experience. We don’t want to create a story without gameplay or a gameplay without story.


Bungie-jumping is just the kind of thing you’d see in the old PSOne Tomb Raider games. So, not to compare, but those actually gave you a lot of control over your character. You could do backflips, you could do handstands, turn around while shooting in mid-air. It was very athletic. Some of the moves you had, you would never realistically find a practical use for, but you could use them anyway, just to play stylishly. You carried those over into your previous Tomb Raider games as well.


We carried those over into the last round of games. We used to use the term “flair,” because in the cases where they didn’t have mechanical significance, they were more about expressing your movements the way you wanted to. And that’s a neat part of Tomb Raider history, yeah.


Right. So, was that something you were worried about? Lara’s starting out at a younger age and this is an origin story, so she isn’t fully developed. Were you worried about taking control away from the player or that they’d miss those things?


Well, the answer is kind of yes and no. We still have our version of player expression, so you do still have a fair amount of stylistic choice. Having said that, we also had a fair amount of confidence in our creative lens of needing Lara to be familiar, but also needing it to be fresh. And anything that would move her character towards who she would’ve been before she was, was a creative consideration.


And similarly, survival was the other lens. We’re going to humanize Lara and take her away from everything she can depend on, and pit her against this island, and she must  grow as a character. All of those we had confidence in.


So, when you look at flair moves, there’s two pieces to it. She’s not a world-class gymnast and we were confident that that was an okay thing to roll back and say she’s going to be rougher. She’s not going to be flipping around, she’s going to be scrambling around. And the second thing is, it is a survival situation, so we’re going to avoid being illusion-spoilingly non-practical. She is in a life or death situation, so we wanted most of the abilities you have as a player to surround her survival.


So, we knew we needed to change  some things coming into this, and we built a clear vision for what the nature of that change would be. With any of these decisions, it was pretty clear where it was the right percent of change for the right reasons.


How does the player do that, expressing their play-style?


In a few different ways. One is outside the moment-to-moment, which is the progression system. Your gear and abilities that you choose at the campsites. As Lara progresses as a character, you can add moves you choose to do. You can build moves that aren’t part of the core moveset. If you prefer close combat, you can add close combat moves. If you prefer ranged combat, you have skills associated with that.


In the moment-to-moment, you have non-critical moves like scrambling and rolling, so while those aren’t acrobatic and gymnastic in their expression, they are fun ways to move around in the playspace. So, when you’re in combat and you’re scrambling or rolling, you’ve got this rhythm that you can kind of click on the buttons that feels like you have an active participation in the way you’re moving around the playspace, which is what a lot of that flair was about.


On a broader scale, we really did build hub spaces that have more pockets of non-linearity than we’ve created in the past. These open areas where you’ll see a village of rooftops or something, and you can kind of skip your way from rooftop to rooftop, swinging on horizontal beams. Again, trying to make sure that it’s always a rougher, earlier expression of her movement styles, but we wanted them to be playgrounds, a little bit. So, you have the rhythm on the buttons still, and coming into open spaces as traversal playgrounds.


So, I think we kind of tried to cater to what [flair] was delivering to the player, and just ran it through these lenses that we talked about.


I haven’t seen any spike traps or levers, so how are you approaching puzzles and survival this time around?


I think the closest parallel in our game ended up being our physics system. Our environmental puzzles and challenges. We did want to celebrate puzzles and deliver them in new and fresh ways.


In some cases, that was just modernizing the system. In the case of combat, going away from a lock-based combat system to a free-aim combat system, but also pushing it forward in ways that were Lara-like. So, instead of button-based “sticky” cover, we wanted Lara to be able to flow through the environment but still make use of cover, so we have a “soft” cover or “fluid” cover system.


In the case of puzzles, physics was really one of the things we infused our classic puzzle designs with this time around. So players are still stuck in a space. You need to get from here to there and don’t know how to progress. But instead of switches and arbitrary connections, we tried to leverage fire and buoyancy and water and mass. More fundamental “the way the world works” things.


But I did want to make sure that that’s taken in the broader picture of the story arc, too. We don’t want to spoil the story, but it’s important to realize that, over the course of the game, it’s both a survival story and a Tomb Raider story. At the beginning, just surviving the night is your highest priority, but by the end, getting off the island involves unravelling mysteries.


In case you missed it, you can catch the previous part of this interview here. It deals in the changes to Lara’s character and the origins of the reboot idea.


Ishaan Sahdev
Ishaan specializes in game design/sales analysis. He's the former managing editor of Siliconera and wrote the book "The Legend of Zelda - A Complete Development History". He also used to moonlight as a professional manga editor. These days, his day job has nothing to do with games, but the two inform each other nonetheless.