Afterwords – Rise of the Tomb Raider
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...
Lara is often isolated. How do you decide when to break away from gameplay and give the player an idea of what’s going through her mind?
As authors, one of the things that’s important for us is to deliver vicariously that experience of tomb-raiding and there’s a part to that that’s very isolated. This sense that you’re alone, you’re in a place that no one’s been, and it’s just you and this place. There’s a magical relationship between an "alone Lara" and the discovery of a tomb or these other important movements in the game. For us, it was important to write a story that had those moments for solitary discovery and also express her independence as a character. Having said that, some of the things we’re always committed to doing is bringing out so of her humanity and one of the best ways to do that is interaction with other characters. We tried to do that with the inclusion of some of her friends in the story, as well as trying to make the enemies more relatable in a way that we start to understand Lara’s fight as a set of complicated questions – not just a singular pursuit of goodness. But really what we start to understand is that she’s herself is trying to find her own identity in the story and trying to understand herself what the right answer that she should be fighting for is and a lot of that can only come through other characters. We essentially try to balance moments of important relationships in the story as well as moments of important independence and solitude.
When do you decide to revisit characters and what do you hope new ones bring out of her?
One of the things that we try to do with the cast is that we don’t want people to have to play the previous game in order to understand the current game. Having said that, we love having the experience that if you are a fan and have followed the story that you have a greater sense of attachment to these characters and a greater understanding of the relationships and the backstory. We try to strike a balance of bringing some [past] characters forward and introducing new players to who they are and their relationship with Lara as well as adding new characters to the mix that can flesh out the world. And we [do] look to the future about what characters should be included in Lara’s story, but it should be sort of a balance of leveraging the existing cast and building a world of believable characters we can take forward in the universe.
The action in this game is its strongest asset. How do you determine when to have those big scenes and keep the momentum moving forward?
If we gave you action upon action, it would get old and redundant. Part of what we really celebrate in our design asthetic is pacing and the variation of pacing. This is where I feel blessed working with a character like Lara and a franchise like Tomb Raider, because we have all these different facets of traversal, platforming, combat, puzzle-solving, and resourcefulness that we can essentially commit to always giving you something fresh before you’re bored of what you’re doing now. So instead of hitting you with just one note, we’re really trying to play this, or for lack of a better word "score" this experience for you and have these high highs and these intimate lows. For us, it really is that variety and breadth of experience that really gets us fired up every day.
What was the most challenging part of creating Rise of the Tomb Raider?
Picking the right battles. We can’t do everything, so one of the things that’s tough as a designer is recognizing that. One of the fun examples this time around of picking the wrong thing and correcting it late in the game was we actually had sprint as a feature, and we didn’t have it in the last game. We actually cut that feature and that was super painful, but we recognized in our play throughs and playtesting experiences that we missed it too much. That’s just an example of how we’re always trying to pick our battles, and in that case we had to be agile enough to realize we picked the wrong battle, and we had to fix it. I was excited we got sprint this time and that actually makes the game more fun to play.
What are you most proud of and hope continues from the series?
The characterization of Lara as a person is something I’m probably most proud of and most excited to continue forward. There’s always exciting adventures to take Lara on and exciting myths to explore and secrets to unlock and regions of the world to travel to. What I’m excited to do is pair those great journeys with a continued exploration of Lara as a character and revealing different facets of her. Part of it is putting us in those shoes of what it would be like to be a tomb raider and go on these adventures.