Crystal Dynamics recently released Lara Croft’s latest adventure for Xbox One and Xbox 360, which ramps up the high action and has the reboots’ biggest world to date. (You can read our review of the stellar game here)  We spoke with franchise creative director Noah Hughes about what went into its creation.

What were some of Crystal Dynamics' main goals for Rise of the Tomb Raider?
From the story perspective, we really wanted to continue forward from where we left off [in the original reboot] and try to tell the next chapter in Lara’s story in her movement toward who she would eventually become as a character. Part of the gameplay promise of that was not only to see Lara step toward her role as a tomb raider more formally, but to deliver that fantasy fulfillment of tomb-raiding more aggressively. Whether that be our commitment to some of the ancient themes or scale within in the tombs or with Lara’s language system, just trying to cater to the gameplay expression of her unique facets as a brilliant archaeological explorer. 

If I could sprinkle a second one on top it was to take some of the survival themes we introduced in the first game and start to give more gameplay meaning to them. You actually have to hunt in order to get stronger and use your environment against your enemies. Even the ability to heal is based on resourcefulness and what you’ve collected. 

The world was much larger this time around with different hubs.  Would you consider going even bigger in the future, maybe even more open-world?
Yeah, I think what I would say is that I was really excited about the step that we were able to take this time. They feel roughly two to three times bigger, and for us that was not just a back of the box feature. There’s a threshold that you cross in a gameplay place that you feel you can get lost and you feel that there’s corners that not everyone finds. One of the things that was exciting about the scale that we were able to bring this time is I felt we were starting to cross that threshold and really creating a greater sense of discovery and a greater sense of player-driven exploration. 

I don’t know if an equivalent scale in the next game is necessarily the right answer, though. What we always want to maintain is a sense of density and a sense of a unique crafting experience, so as much as scale was the right step this time, going forward we want to make sure we’re continuing to create worlds that are meaningful, well-crafted, and rich. It’s not about scale for scale’s sake.

You focused on having more tombs this entry. Is there a reason why it was decide to make a chunk optional instead of weaving more in with the main story?
To me, it makes a lot of sense to have main story tombs because these really do intersect with the progression of the main conflict and making sure Lara’s unique ability to tomb raid helps resolve the main story conflicts and then we can push scale. These are experiences that everyone has, so we can really double down as a team and make them as great as possible, but also challenge tombs are awesome because we can do a few things. We can put more puzzles in the game than some of our action gamers may want and ultimately they become an opt-in experience for people. And our commitment there is to always make them well rewarded. Probably what I like most as a game designer is this concept of discovery. One of the things that’s tough with the main tombs is everyone experiences them; one of the things I love about our challenge tombs is you get this sense that not everyone found this place. Maybe some people that found it didn’t solve it, and so you get more of a sense of personal satisfaction.

There were some hints of Lara having post-traumatic stress disorder, especially with that trailer in the therapist’s office. Why did you peel back from that in the actual game?
Lara certainly had traumatic experiences on the island and experienced great loss and that took her some time to get over as it would any of us. But part of the subtext of the therapist scene is that [no one] believes what she’s saying is true. I would characterize part of the problem that’s being characterized there isn’t PTSD, but being disbelieved by the society she came back to. She glimpsed something on this island that she can’t explain, but she knows it was real. We were trying to create the sense that her knowledge became almost a burden of her destiny. If it is real and no one believes her - then it almost falls on her to prove it. More importantly, we really wanted to wrap you up in Lara’s plight as an individual facing overwhelming adversity and her need to believe in herself and pursue her own journey. 

Expedition mode, where you can compete with friends’ scores on tombs, was introduced in this entry. What was the the thought-process behind having that mode?
The point of our departure was continuing to explore what the right answer was for connected gameplay experiences for our audience and our game. We had done a directly competitive mode last time, which I thought was awesome and I personally had a lot of fun with, but we also felt we got enough feedback in terms of what else we could do with the technology that we wanted to explore that a bit. So, in some ways, I would characterize expedition mode as an answer to that ‘what if’ of saying, ‘What if we took the fact that you’re connected as players and used that to extend the single player experience? What if you want to be Lara and continue to tomb raid? How can we make that interesting?’

Ultimately, I’m excited about it. I think a lot of things are super promising, but what’s most exciting to me is to just create that dialogue with the audience, just like between Tomb Raider 9 and Tomb Raider 10.  I think we’ll get great learning experiences from Expedition mode in terms of what people want to see. For me, it’s a little premature to come to conclusions, but hopefully you can get a sense of the creative vision behind that direction. 

Tomb Raider is so much about survival and a lot of gruesome violence plays into it. How does that help create the tone you want for the series?
For us, any of the violent outcomes for failure for the player are just meant to frame the stakes that Lara has in this situation. There are gameplay repercussions to dying that you restart at the checkpoint, but there are also narrative repercussions, which is that this is a hostile world and if Lara falls victim to its traps in a tomb – this is the gruesome end to her story. The same is true for the victories. When you find one of the codex and you celebrate Lara’s ability to find new, ancient knowledge we really want you to be a part of that. We try to represent the high and low points of Lara’s journey in an impactful and honest way on screen, and death is a part of that when you’re dealing with high-stakes survival situations. 

Click on page two to find out what feature almost got cut and when Crystal Dynamics decides to revisit characters...