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Lara Croft has been gone a while.
Games have changed during her hiatus, along with the way
they’re looked at. New concepts, new gameplay standards, new ideals and values
have slowly filled the video game melting pot to its brim. The end of a console
generation is approaching; Lara needed to be its tipping point.
A reinvention of Lara’s character seemed almost necessary
given the new landscape she emerged onto with her newest release, in which
developer Crystal Dynamics sought to tell an origin story worthy of both the
Tomb Raider name and the upper echelons of today’s titles.
To do this, Darrell Gallagher and Noah Hughes needed to join
Lara in her reinvention, and reexamine their own approaches as well.
Woman vs. Nature
In the past, Lara has been larger than life, more of an icon
than a human character. Her invariable victory had a few bumps and bruises
along the way, sure, but it was all in good fun. There was always a light at
the end of the bullet-ridden tunnel that suggested a satisfying end was within
Crystal Dynamics doesn’t want to reassure you this time
around. They want you to root for Lara. They don’t want it to be clear whether
she is going to succeed or not.
“Survival is that fight to live, in the face of death,”
Hughes, creative director at Crystal Dynamics, said. “… Sort of a ‘man versus
wild’ theme to our story. We didn’t want to sanitize that.
“We wanted to create an experience where the island really
did feel lethal. When you succeeded, you felt that great sense of success because
you earned a new upgrade. But if you failed, you also felt, ‘Ouch, that hurt.
This is not just a vacation on a tropical island.”
Once that life-or-death scenario set the stage, Lara was
ready to step into the limelight as a dynamic character. A young, ambitious
archaeologist turned hardened survivor; an inquisitive woman turned aggressive
killer. Crystal Dynamics wasn’t just creating her, they were directing the play
from the opening scene, marching her toward the Tomb Raider we’re all familiar
“Life and death survival [was] the catalyst within which we
would forge Lara Croft,” Hughes said.
If that scenario was Lara’s forge, then the 2012 video game
industry was Crystal Dynamics’.
The developer released Tomb Raider: Underworld in 2008,
marking their last pure entry in their previous Tomb Raider trilogy. Darrell
Gallagher, the studio head at Crystal, didn’t want another iteration on the
series this time around; he wanted something fresh.
“Sticking to the same formula was going to have diminishing
returns,” he said. “It was really a requirement for us to change.
“There have been numerous sequels of Tomb Raider over the
years. They stuck to a fairly classical formula. Even though there was
evolution, it still was the same footprint.”
Gallagher mentioned the James Bond films in reference to
Tomb Raider. The film franchise evolved with media and consumers alike, not
afraid to modernize when needed, or change when its current state wasn’t good
enough for modern palates. Gallagher, along with the rest of his team, needed
to do something similar. They needed to make Tomb Raider relevant again. They
needed a modern contender.
Woman vs. Man
“The development landscape has changed,” Hughes said. “You
see that from a performance perspective: physics-based puzzles, the scale we’re
able to achieve … these are things which weren’t possible back then.”
Hughes emphasized the dynamic between Lara and the gameplay,
mentioning a “give and take” relationship that balances character and control.
The leap to exceptional mechanics and modern design were just as important as
the one to a new setting.
“For us, it was a matter of creating an experience that
celebrated both [gameplay and story]” he said. “At times we had to make the
story adjust to the gameplay experience that needed to be there. It went both
ways, but the idea was to take both of those ambitions into it and do the best
The consumer landscape has changed as well. Female sex
symbols are no longer elevated among the ranks of characters in media, with
none other than Lara Croft herself coming quickly to mind on the subject.
It wasn’t a chief concern on the development team’s mind,
though. Gallagher and Hughes considered it a human story, one where they wanted
to make a more grounded, personal journey to bring about a character. The
gender issues that older Tomb Raider titles raise were never a concern.
“It was much more about making a believable human, somebody
you could relate to,” Gallagher said. “We have a character that is a female,
who is an icon in the industry. That’s a great place to be, but it didn’t
really drive decision making.”
Lara gets beat up in the new Tomb Raider. A lot. Her death
scenes, should the player fail, range anywhere from a quick fade to black, to
an extended shot of a wooden pike impaling the protagonist as she careens down
“Sometimes, there is certainly, what I feel, a double
standard in the way people perceive games,” Hughes said. “I won’t make any
comments on specific things, but for the most part, we approached it in a way
that felt genuine to the story we were telling; we’re always surprised when
people call us out for being not genuine.”
Woman vs. Self
The weight that accompanies development on a new title is
enough pressure for any developer, but throw in the aforementioned promises
that accompany a reboot and the demands of a new industry landscape, and
Crystal Dynamics had a lot to deliver.
Any pressure the studio felt was internal, though. Even with
the game’s delay from 2012 until 2013, Gallagher and Hughes were the team’s
“Honestly, the highest expectations were us on ourselves,”
Gallagher said. “Even though they were extremely high externally, as a team, I
think we held ourselves to extremely high standards.”
Hughes is quick to point out the difference between what
they were making and what everyone else makes: Everyone else makes games, but
Crystal Dynamics was making Tomb Raider game.
“In some ways, we didn’t feel any real pressure,” Hughes
said. “We were very sheltered from it in the development process and were able
to pursue what we felt was the right answer creatively.
“But it’s also such a well-known franchise. Not only are you
trying to make a great game, but a great Tomb Raider. In some ways … there were
a lot of expectations we had to fulfill while doing something no one had ever
seen before. It was definitely a challenge in our heads.”
Anticipation was the first emotion accompanying release,
Gallagher recalled; Then, anxiety. And then?
“You think you’ve made all of the right choices, or as many
as you can,” he said. “We felt good about where this game was at the end of
development. We felt good about our choices.
“But then it’s really up to other people to judge that …
thankfully, we’ve had overwhelmingly good support for the choices we have
And how does that feel?
Gallagher laughed, more of a content sigh than one of
amusement. “That feels … great.”