Crystal Dynamics are hard at work creating a very different kind of Tomb Raider: one that attempts to humanise the implacable Lara Croft and ground her as a vulnerable, relateable person in an impossible situation. To discover more about rebooting an icon after enjoying a Tomb Raider developer walkthrough, I sat down with Senior Art Director Brian Horton behind the closed doors of the Square Enix E3 paddock.
Jonathan Lester (Dealspwn): Thanks for talking to us, Brian. First things first: rebooting a classic gaming icon like Lara Croft couldn't have been easy. How do you feel about it?
Brian Horton (Crystal Dynamics): I'm honoured! I've been a Tomb Raider fan since [the first] one, right, it was the beginning of what 3D gaming was to me: that Mario. So to have the opportunity to bring her forward into a new age has been a rewarding experience.
Dealspwn: Any pressure there?
Brian Horton: Of course! A lot of it is self-imposed. The team is very hard on themselves. We always strive for perfection, and when we put it out there for the first time, we weren't sure how people were going to react. So far it's been very positive.
Dealspwn: For sure. It seems to me that Lara's vulnerability and humanity is a real focus in the new Tomb Raider. How did you set about making Lara a real, relateable person?
Brian Horton: We did a lot of steps. The first thing was to make sure it felt like Lara Croft, but at the same time younger, more realistic in terms of proportion and clothes. We put a lot of time and attention on to her face, her eyes, we want to feel empathy when we look at her. In fact, in our concept art pieces, people were spending... we have a technology that can track eye movement, and they were focused on the face and they were more invested in the face than ever before. That was a big win for us.
So that was a big part of it. How can we make her feel like someone you might know? Someone you could care for? That was the angle we went for and it gave us a great foundation to build from.
Dealspwn: Was it difficult to balance vulnerability with the action we expect from the series (and we saw at the Microsoft presser)?
Brian Horton: This is a journey that she's on, right, it's about going from zero to hero. So we have to establish where she starts before we get her to that action hero status. We showed some of our code at the Microsoft conference that gave you a glimpse into what she might look like [in the late game]: it's going to be a lot more visceral, a lot more action-oriented. This is a survival action game, but we wanted to make sure that the initial impression you have of Lara is someone that you can care about, someone who's believable, and who would justify doing the kind of action you have to do later on with the game.
You got to see a glimpse of the future, but you haven't seen the dots connecting them. So the two pieces of content are happening in a very different timespace, so there's going to be a nice curve that we're going to build up to get her to that place, so it feels justified and it all makes sense, but our main focus at E3 is to build her up and take her from reaction to action.
Dealspwn: Brilliant. Right, down to gameplay specifics. We saw some of the "exploration spaces" in the E3 demo that you describe as "non-linear"... so just how non-linear is Tomb Raider?
Brian Horton: It is not an open world game; we have to be very clear about that. But it is a hub-based game, if you think about Zelda or other games like that where you can come back and revisit a location. So revisiting our exploration spaces is a big part of our model. The gear that you will aqcuire will allow you to unlock new parts, as you grow your gear, you upgrade it, you'll be able to revisit those spaces and go to new places that you couldn't go before. So it's a super-important part of our game to revisit locations through the Base Camp system.
Dealspwn: Is that something players will be required to do, or is it an added extra?
Brian Horton: It's an added extra. It's something for the explorer player who wants it, that depth is going to be there. For those who don't, the first straight-through play will get you all the way through the adventure.
Dealspwn: Can you tell us about the experience and upgrade system?
Brian Horton: Yeah. So our Base Camps are designed around upgrading Lara through XP and gear through salvage. So the salvage is stuff you collect and find all throughout the environment, while XP are things you do, like I can hunt animals to gain XP. If I kill an enemy I can gain XP. So these are the currencies we play with, and players will be able to choose how to spend that currency through different abilities they can purchase.
For example, one of may favourite things to do - it sounds simple - I love salvaging for arrow retrieval. Arrows are a currency in the game, and can use in the tool system. So I can buy a skill that allows me, once I've killed an animal or a person, to acquire that arrow back. So now I've gained a resource back. These are the things I personally like, so I can customise my version of Lara Croft.
Dealspwn: Will we be able to customise her visually as well as through the skill system?
Brian Horton: At this stage we're letting the evolution of the character, her clothes and wardrobe, happen naturally throughout the story. More on that later on, about what the players can do. There's no plans for any specific customisation, but I just want to let you know that there will be an arc to the character that's not only defines her character but also her look.
Dealspwn: I'd like to briefly talk about the art, since that's your area of expertise. What inspiration and influences did you have when designing Tomb Raider and the island environment?
Brian Horton: I'm very much inspired by paintings and film. I'm a huge fan of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, and the Hudson River School painters who painted the West to get people to come and visit in these beautiful apocalyptic landscapes. We wanted the island to feel beautiful yet dangerous at the same time, so I look at film-makers who create beauty and danger and drama.
Dealspwn: How important will Lara's fellow castaways be to the story and gameplay?
Brian Horton: The castaways are sort of reflections of Lara. Those companion characters have different aspects of her personality baked into them. They will have integral missions surrounding them, there will be missions where you interact with them, but this is a solo adventure. Lara is the hero, so expect these characters to be companions only in story fiction and motivation, not so much as in-game followers.
Dealspwn: Will they be giving out optional subquests?
Brian Horton: We're not going into detail about exactly how they work, but the survivors are very important to the narrative and how players will experience the game.
Dealspwn: Interesting. We've seen some intriguing story-driven stuff from the demo walkthrough and some gung-ho action from the Microsoft briefing, but little in the way of traditional Tomb Raider puzzle-platforming. Will we be seeing the big jumping-centric 'adventure playgrounds' make a return?
Brian Horton: We have things in our hub spaces that are large playgrounds. They're a great opportunity for people who love traversal, who love to traverse and use it to get Lara from here to there. But what we've done is put fluidity into that movement. Before, in Tomb Raider, it was a lot more like a puzzle - very linear - we're letting you use analogue stick control to carve your own path. That is going to be the differentiation factor and what makes our game stand out from our competition.
Dealspwn: Finally, we have a go-to question that we love to ask developers. What, that you can tell us about (or better yet, that you shouldn't tell us about) is the most awesome, badass thing that players can do in Tomb Raider?
Brian Horton: My favourite thing about Tomb Raider has to be that mix of traversal and gaining ground to then have a vantage point to either solve a puzzle or engage in combat. You saw at the Microsoft presser that she's able to get ahead or above enemies, so as a player, I love to be able to get to those vantage points and have the opportunity to get the drop on someone. That's my favourite thing.
Dealspwn: Awesome, so acrobatics and stealth leading up to the perfect kill?
Brian Horton: Well, it's more like a sneak. It's not hiding in shadow, it's using my navigation abilities to get to an awesome place that gives me an advantage over people.
Dealspwn: Sounds like Lara could teach Agent 47 a thing or two...
Brian Horton: Haha, we love Hitman!
You can read more about Tomb Raider in our in-depth E3 preview.