Tomb Raider: Where Gameplay And Narrative Are One And The Same

David Howard

David Howard


on October 9, 2012 at 4:30 PM

“If you want to play a game where go on a journey with the character, where the gameplay is 100% connected to the character growth, where you feel like you’re going on that journey with them, Tomb Raider is that game for you.” Crystal Dynamic’s Brian Horton is the Art Director for the upcoming reboot for Tomb Raider and he couldn’t be more right about it. Within just a 45 minute demo it was clear that Tomb Raider will be no ordinary game. “This is a game that I think for those that have never played a Tomb Raider game before, it will be the one they remember as the first Tomb Raider game they ever played,” Horton added. “Whilst those that have played a Tomb Raider game, this will make them feel like the first time they played Tomb Raider.”

Rebooting a franchise, let alone one as big as Tomb Raider is always a huge risk. There’s often backlash from hardcore fans of the series and there’s a vast wealth of comparisons that can be drawn. However, with a franchise as big as Tomb Raider, how could you say no to getting the chance to stamp your own brand onto a world-renowned character.

“It’s a huge honour,” admitted Horton. “I’m personally a huge Tomb Raider fan; when the first one came out it opened me up to what gaming could really be – 3D exploration, a character that was truly compelling. So when I had the opportunity to join Crystal Dynamic [in August 2009] and work on a reimagining of Tomb Raider it was a real honour. It’s been a very challenging but at the same time very rewarding. It’s been a group effort and we wanted to tell an origins story and we wanted for it to be more believable so we put a lot of time and attention into her proportions, her clothes, her attitude – making her feel like a girl you’d know, and we wanted her to grow. Throughout the narrative she goes through this adventure, this survival experience where it’s a struggle to get through, so these trials shape and make her into the Lara that we know and love.”

Ever since the fantastic CG reveal the refreshed outing for Lara has been firmly on my radar. There was a sense of something new, something bold and brave; almost all first-look CG trailers set the tone for their game and whatever that tone is is what people will take on from there, so it’s vitally important that it sets the correct one.

“It was essential [to get right],” agreed Horton. “Our partners at Visual Works were tremendous. We influenced each other as well; we were still building the early stages of the game and trying to figure it all out. We had our foundations understood, but even the way they rendered Lara, we had our versions of Lara and they had theirs, then we influenced one-another. I had the chance to go to Japan and work with them, which was amazing. But you’re right, the tone that we set was super important that it was right as we introduce this new vision of Lara. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

Returning to the roots

It’s not hard to see why either, there’s a charming and loveable personality that seeps through and makes this raw version of an industry heroine all the more special. This is Lara’s origins story, her opening night, her chance to tread new ground; and it looks like Crystal Dynamics are onto a platinum selling winner here. Tomb Raider takes you back to the very roots of videogames, restructuring the basic mechanics to inject a brutality and fierceness into proceedings. Even a short snippet of Tomb Raider was emotionally draining, creating an almost unparalleled connection between you and Lara.

There’s a believability in almost every aspect; in the way she jumps, the way she falls, even mechanics such as needing to stay out of the rain. They’re all standard gameplay mechanics that we take for granted these days. A perfect example is early in the demo Lara crosses a log over a towering ravine and you’re really scared, however, in most games it’s just a textured beam, it’s a gameplay element yet tied to the narrative.

This was an aspect that Horton was very passionate about when he spoke. “What we did is try to say what would we do? We’re not the hero in a situation like this, what would we do and what would we go through? We all thought that if I was crossing a log that was unstable over a huge drop it would scare the crap out of me. Like you said, it’s a gameplay mechanic and we wanted the introduction of every gameplay mechanic to feel unique.

“We wanted players to remember it and think “wow, that was impactful”. That also goes for the first kill of an animal; it’s something that she has an emotional reaction to and then when she ultimately has to kill the first person, all of these things build up to things we take for granted within videogames. We want to make each one of these landmarks special for her, an important part of the narrative, and also the gameplay experience.”

It was apparent too. Lara’s struggle was evident and you went through it with her, and even within a short demo, it was obvious how she evolved and improved. The first time she crosses the log over the ravine it was terrifying, but later on there’s a log that’s only over a drop six-or-so foot and Lara makes relative ease of this. Similarly the first time you hunt an animal she hates it, she does it because she has to; however, further down the line she’s trying to scare off the wolves, as though she’s had enough of them by this point. It was all just a small snapshot of the game as a whole.

“The demo was a microcosm of some of the narrative growth I was talking about,” said Horton. “We had to start at the basement, before you go up to the top floor. Everything that we do when we introduce something usually starts with something that is truly an obstacle and then it becomes a true mechanic. It becomes something that we can capitalise on and grow. When it escalates you realise that “oh I can do this, or do that, or get something new” and with it is a new challenge. It’s got this pace that continually challenges both the player and Lara throughout the experience.”

Powerful and emotional but also enjoyable

Creating such a raw and potentially draining experience was not at the cost of enjoyment though. “We wanted it to have the fun factor of Mario but with more weight and gravity,” mentioned Horton. “There’s a couple of things that I’m really proud of in regards to the game’s mechanics but the jump is one of them,” Horton replied when I quizzed him about his favourite gameplay mechanic. “It’s simple. The analogue feel of it feels very like Mario.”

“It was a challenge to get the right mix, so when you’re doing the air steer with the analogue stick it doesn’t feel artificial, it feels natural. I think we struck that right balance, and it took a while for us to iterate to get there, but, man, I can’t play a game anymore with air steer, it just feels wrong to me as I’m so used to Tomb Raider. I think it’s one of those things that I’m really, really proud of and the team’s done an amazing job. The other thing I’m really proud of the team is Lara’s connectivity to the world; she always has contact with the world and it’s very reactive. Brandon Fernandez our lead animator has done an amazing job building our layered animation system to make Lara perform as she does in gameplay. I think it’s pretty stunning.”

“Lara’s in for one hell of a ride and she’s taking us on it – and I for one, cannot wait.”

It certainly helps that the game looks fantastic, whether it’s the animation, the facial features, the way that rain affects the environment, or the particle effects for the fire – which are particularly impressive. The environments are stunning, with vistas unlike any other – and the game’s not even finished yet.

“We made a conscious decision to move from baked lighting, where the lighting is static in the world, to having a fully dynamic lighting engine,” said Horton. “At the time it was ‘hey, I’m not sure if we should do this, although it’s really beautiful when we do it this way’, but we were adamant as a team that we needed to make this game as unified as possible as we want it to be dynamic. We need things to change. So when we embraced this lighting model it really offered us the ability to do a lot of rapid iteration and I still think it’s extremely competitive with the landscape out there.

Developing a game with such a vast and broad landscape can never be easy, and it certainly wasn’t.

“In Tomb Raider, we’ve always seen beautiful vistas and they tend to be this very small active playspace that you then play within,” Horton discussed. “In this vista you might see something that you eventually circle around and get to, but in this game it’s like ‘it’s over there, and it may be miles away but I’m going to go from here to there and it all happens at one time’. We had to keep the fidelity of the game up, but also render these really huge spaces. As you travel across them you’re like “I travelled them and I see how I got there.” We want players to look back and think, ‘Wow, I was over there’. This was one of the biggest challenges for us, being able to render the huge spaces that we have over such a distance. The team has done an amazing job trying to bring that together.”

Technical challenges

One thing I’ve noticed a lot recently is the integration of menu systems within worlds – something that was very noticeable during the demo. In the opening scene there’s a giant logo across the vista, something that reminded me a little of Splinter Cell: Conviction. There’s no HUD whatsoever; no mini-map, health bars, ammo counters, but there’s no need for it. You get notifications when they’re needed – such as picking up ammo – but not having it all there helps unclutter the screen. It was a very important aspect to keep the interface within the game and thus maintain a sense of immersion for the player.

“I’ve always been a fan of 3D rendered elements, I feel as much as you can render in the game engine, the much more you feel as though you’re in one world and therefore the more immersed the player will feel. I feel like there’s always an artifice to user interface, it’s a menu, it’s not natural to the world. We tried our best to make everything as three-dimensional as we possibly could. There are some flat interfaces, but in general the scene and the camera are clutter free and when we do bring those elements in we try to make it as natural as possible.

“There are so many things that we iterated on. Iteration has been the key to our success. Everything from the way we built our tools – which were built to give the designer more control, so we have a more creative authored game than a programmer authored game. We spend a lot of our pre-production time just making tools that allowed us to make mistakes, quickly. The things that ended up on the cutting room floor needed to hit the cutting room floor. There are of course things that you’ll be like, “argh, we could’ve done this but we just don’t have time”. There are a couple of these in the game, but really everything that we put on-screen is everything that we wanted. It’s a really nice thing to get to a place where you have the tools to make what’s in your head and our designers can really capitalise on the tools.”

Taking back the mantle

Tomb Raider was the pinnacle for that exploration, puzzle and action adventure game, however, Uncharted then really took over that mantle during this generation. Crystal Dynamics aren’t too worried about the competition though due to the contrasting style and tone.

“Our goal is to try to make the best Tomb Raider game we possibly can,” Horton admitted. “Uncharted is an amazing game, I’m a huge fan as are a lot of us in the studio. However, we knew that the decisions we made for Tomb Raider were going to be about what are the things we’re going to accomplish. I think with our survival tone, our more open navigation spaces – it’s not an open-world game but there are possibilities for navigation and exploration, the way that you can level up Lara is unique and it’s unique to the Tomb Raider franchise as well.”

Something that Uncharted did incorporate down the line was multiplayer, however, as a traditionally single player game was there ever a time that the studio thought about introducing it to Tomb Raider? Thankfully not.

“The focus of our studio’s always been single player,” Horton revealed. “We wanted to make sure that this reimagining of the Tomb Raider franchise had the utmost attention, so Crystal Dynamics is 100% committed to creating the best single player experience possible.

“I think we all wanted to make a game that would be our favourite game of the year. I’m not trying to say that with any sense of arrogance, we just love games and we love making fun experiences. We’re really proud of what we’re putting on the screen now.”

Not set for release until March 2013, a 45 minutes session with Tomb Raider has been one of the highlights of the year and cements my belief that it will be a strong contender next year, regardless of the competition. We’ve been calling out for more mature titles that push the boundaries of videogames – Tomb Raider looks set to be just that game. Lara’s in for one hell of a ride and she’s taking us on it – and I for one, cannot wait.