After inheriting the series from original developer, Core Design, and working it for half a decade, Crystal Dynamics have rebooted Tomb Raider and the character of the Lara Croft, providing her with a new origin story in their latest game, which is slated for release in March.
The new game, simply titled “Tomb Raider,” begins with Lara shipwrecked on an island in the Dragon’s Triangle, off the coast of Japan. Lara and the rest of the ship’s crew, who are all scattered about various areas of the island, need to find a way to survive the island’s threats, and make their way off it.
We had a chance to speak with Crystal Dynamics creative director, Noah Hughes, about the new game, how it’s different from the old ones, how it’s similar, and also the subject of Lara herself. In this first part of our interview, Hughes shares us why Lara was rebooted, and just what kind of character the new Lara Croft is going to be by the end of the game.
Crystal Dynamics had already worked on rebooting Tomb Raider once before, when you received the series from Core Design. When did the idea for a second reboot come about?
Noah Hughes, Creative Director: When we received it from Core Design, there were some natural changes that just came from the change of hands. We had our own sensibilities as a developer, we had our own engine and technology that we’d been developing for character-action games. But our goal was really to maintain a certain amount of continuity through all of that.
This really was the first time that we took a step back and said, “Let’s clear the slate. Let’s tell [Lara’s] story from the beginning.” And that was something we did having lived with the franchise for a few games.
It didn’t start as a reboot, necessarily. It started, even partway through [Tomb Raider] Underworld, with us realizing that we wanted to do something with a bigger difference in the next game, than we’d been able to do with the previous games. So, we just started with the general idea of, “Now that we’ve worked on this franchise for year and immersed ourselves in it, let’s do something fresh, but that still remains true to a Tomb Raider game.” So that started during Underworld as a high-level concept.
How does that process begin?
A lot of it is trying to get our collective heads around where we were as a franchise. Part of it is more intuitive but we also did a number of explorations of how our audience perceived the games.
What we found was, Tomb Raider had a tremendously high “awareness,” meaning most people recognize the series and Lara Croft. But it didn’t have as high an “affinity” as we wanted, meaning that, although people recognized it, it wasn’t their top franchise for action-adventure games. They didn’t rank it as highly as we would’ve liked. So, we had this well-known brand, but with some sense that people weren’t attaching to it the way they were earlier on.
So, you naturally come at from the standpoint of, how do we create that attachment between our audience and our franchise, and most importantly, our character Lara Croft.
In a lot of ways we realized that, for better or worse, Lara was an absolute icon. For better, because of recognizability. You could tell who she was from a silhouette. You didn’t even need to see her face. But she didn’t have details beyond that, for a lot of people. She was sort of the braid and dual pistols, and she was just that. She was just that powerful icon. In her adventures, she was almost untouchable. She was unflinching and immortal, almost. There was a sense that she wasn’t going to fail. She was Lara Croft; of course she wasn’t going to fail.
And that had moved away from the initial vision for the character. As a character, Lara is supposed to be an improbable hero of sorts. She doesn’t have the largest stature and she has to make up for that with her ability and her brain, and that’s one of the things that’s great about her. But we needed to put her back in a situation where you saw her as the underdog. It wasn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion that Lara was going to “win” this story without a scratch.
That was the abstract backdrop that led to us saying that us deciding that if we wanted to expose the humanity underneath the icon, we’d need to start from scratch. Let’s start her at a point where she’s closest to you or I. That’s where the origin story part came in—a transition from a gut desire to make something fresh, and then ultimately that an origin story and reboot was the right way to do that.
Another goal was also to make her more culturally relevant. What do you think is culturally relevant today?
I think on some level, at her core, she was [already] culturally relevant and we wanted to remove anything that got in the way of that. I would more characterize it as, she almost embodies adventure. If you think about an action-adventure game, it’s about traversing and exploring and discovering things. All of this was embodied in the original design of the character, and they’re all such universal sensibilities.
It was more that we didn’t need to make her relevant from scratch again, but that we had to show her in a way that nothing got in the way of the core values of that character. That was defined primarily by the idea of making her human again.
So, we kept Lara as the anchor when we looked at rebooting and said, forget everything you know about Tomb Raider. But at some level, you still need to anchor it to what is Tomb Raider at its core, and Lara is at the centre of that. She’s still going to be this brilliant, athletic, driven archaeologist, but we’re going to introduce her in a new way.
One of the largest choices we made was to make her not in control of her family’s wealth. So, she still comes from money, but she’s made a choice after the death of her parents to not touch that money yet. That was a conscious decision to put her starting point closer to you or I. She didn’t have everything at her disposal. And not only does she not have access to the seemingly infinite wealth of the Crofts, but is in a story situation where she’s isolated from anything she can depend on for help, outside of herself. The island was one of the early creative seeds that started this story.
As far as Lara’s growth and change goes, one of the aspects of that might be a willingness to be more brutal or violent as she goes along. To pick up a gun and shoot someone. But since this is a game and players are desensitized to violence, that doesn’t really surprise anybody any more. So, how else does Lara grow? What have you done to make her growth visible to the player?
It can get a little bit spoilery, so I have to be careful talking about it. But, for example, Lara’s independence… in the beginning, she’s very dependent on others. And later on, she really has to learn to rely on herself. And that’s more of a “maturation arc” component to Lara’s story. That she’s naive early on and has to become much more practical.
She’s also highly-analytical—maybe to a fault. But she can’t yet be a tomb raider until she’s willing to open up her belief structure.
So, we have all kinds of things challenged. Her ability to not curl up in a ball and give up. The willingness to kill a deer to eat. The willingness to kill a man in order to not be killed herself. And the willingness to believe in something that she didn’t think was possible.
[laughs, frustrated] Again, I can’t get too detailed, but you can see how we’ve created a number of ways for Lara to become the character she would eventually be.
So… how close would you say Lara, at the end of this game, gets to what she used to be like? And is she done growing at the end of the game or is there room for more?
This one’s really tough. I want you to experience the end. But… kind of like we talked about with the balancing of fresh versus familiar, the answer isn’t either extreme.
This story concludes itself. This isn’t the first chapter of an incomplete story. Sometimes, when I talk about Lara still having room to grow, it makes people feel like we’re not going to finish this story.
Having said that, as much as we’re creating closure at the end of this story, Lara will be much more confident and much more competent, but she won’t be the Lara exactly as you knew her in the previous Tomb Raiders, mainly because she will still be human. We will maintain humanity even in the face of her progression as a character. So, it’s not that she’ll have a ton more room to grow, but she’ll have a ton more things to deal with. [laughs]
And there’s still a lot of world outside. In this story, we’re working on re-imagining and re-architecting Lara’s character first and foremost, but then we bring her off of the island and back out into the world, and we get to resolve more things beyond the island as it relates to Lara’s backstory and things like that.
So, there’s naturally room to go… and it’s important that we keep her human at the end of the story. But it’s also important that you feel that you’ve transitioned from not-a-tomb-raider to a tomb raider.
So, this game ends with her getting off the island. There’s no area other than the island itself.
What we’ve said is, we’ve focused this story in a single location. A story that opens with shipwrecking and becoming stranded on an island has a natural narrative conflict built into it. So, we definitely live primarily within that framework.
Right, but you said future growth would happen off the island. But this story concludes with the island itself.
I’d hate to tell people how the story ends…
I’m not asking how the story ends! [laughs]
If we stayed on this island at the end, it would feel like we didn’t end the story. It would feel like we did the first chapter in a shipwreck survival story, right? So, it is to say we will have satisfying closure at the end, but I’d hate to tell people where Lara is at the end of the story. [laughs]
I mean, that’s kind of the inherent, you know… go ahead and assume one way or another. But it’s important we don’t frame that, exactly, for people. What I’m saying is, she’ll move on to new adventures, but she’ll maintain some of her humanity as a character.
There’s been mention of DLC multiplayer maps. Is DLC something you’re interested in exploring from a single-player story standpoint?
Umm… I can’t answer that from a “what we will do as a studio” perspective. Creatively, one of the reasons we build in the capacity for DLC and multiplayer and things is because we love the idea of supporting a community beyond launch in whatever ways make sense. So, creatively I’m always motivated to figure out how we can do that. Practically speaking, we have to figure out what we can and will do and we have to announce that with other considerations than just creatively speaking. [laughs]
Reboots are particularly hard to do in videogames because they’re more expensive and more complex than, say, comics. How do you choose to express what the game is about to the audience? Since you’re the director and you know the game best, is there anything in particular that you ask the marketing team to focus on?
PR Manager: That might actually be a better question for Karl Stewart, our global brand director.
Noah Hughes: We work in collaboration, but what I focus on is the experience the player is going to have when they fire up the game, and what Karl focuses on is how we’re going to communicate to people what we’ve made. Why we work closely together, Karl and I, is because at no point along the way do we want to sell people a game that we’re not making.
On the team side of it, we’re making the best Lara origin story we can make. And on Karl’s side of it, he’s trying to communicate most effectively to people the game that we’ve made. We work a lot together, but we each drive each side of that.
There’s never any point where the marketing team chooses to emphasize an aspect of the game that you may not necessarily want emphasized as much, and would rather they focus any other given aspect of it instead?
No, we have those discussions together. What we’ve done differently this time around maybe, than some of the other times, is that at every step, we all know what code we have and what game we’re making, and what we can show if there’s an E3 coming up, for example. So it really starts as a discussion from the very start.
But you’ll find that the roles are just as often reversed. I might suggest something and Karl would say, “That might be too much of a spoiler” or Karl might suggest something else. So, it’s not that we really take up very different roles in this. We just each represent our side of it. It’s been great having the brand and the development this time around. It really is more about, “Hey, we all know the game we have. How are we going to share it with people?”
Part 2 of our Tomb Raider interview will focus on the design of the new game, and the ways in which it’s similar and different from the previous Tomb Raiders. We’ll discuss Lara’s athletic abilities, the Metroid-esque design of the island she’s stranded on, and other aspects of the game as well. It’ll go up early next week.