Tomb Raider Interview

By Richard Pilot

During Gamescom 2012, we got a chance to sit down with Karl Stewart, Global Brand Director for Crystal Dynamics. We got to chat all things Tomb Raider including how the upcoming game has parallels to Batman Begins, how he feels about Uncharted and Assassins Creed and what's at the heart of a Tomb Raider game.

AAG: So, Tomb Raider, could you maybe tell me a bit about it, how is it different from previous Tomb Raider games?

KS: The big difference with this Tomb Raider is that it's an origin story. It tells the story of a young girl on her first ever adventure. Its, sort of, day 1 , and its not the Lara Croft that we knew. Its the Lara Croft by name but not by nature. The idea is that through this game, we sort of bring you on that journey, to take you to the point where you feel like its a Lara Croft of today, a Tomb Raider of today.

AAG: Cool, so over its history Tomb Raider has had quite a few re-imagings and more recently a downloadable title, why is now the time for a change?

KS: We inherited Tomb Raider from Core Design, quite few years ago now and our first dabble in it was Tomb Raider: Legend, which was hugely successful, but we really just continued the cannon that was set before it. We built a whole new engine for the game at the time, and we re-imagined certain things like puzzles and stuff, but it wasn't truly a reboot, it was more of a refresh. We got to the point where we finished up the work; we had made the decision that, we wanted to put our mark on the franchise. As Crystal Dynamics, we wanted to show that we could do more that just taking an IP or a licence and continuing it but also at the same time we realised that Tomb Raider, in some places had lost relevance with it's audience. [Other games] had come along and kind of bettered it to the point where we felt it really is time for us to take it to a whole new level. We had actually begun the process of the re-imagining [Tomb Raider] and probably a year and a half into it, we started playing around the engine at the end and so Guardian of Light was almost a skunkworks project. We class [Guardian of Light] as the Pixar short. We were testing things and playing around with the engine and as we were doing it we came up with this cool thing, we felt it was just the right time. In this space things like Batman had come along, and James Bond had come along and had really shown that you can take an IP that has been around for years and re-imagine it in way where it is relevant for today's audience.

AAG: OK, so you made the decision to start afresh with the work, what were the implications of that? Did you just throw everything out the window?

KS: No, I think its actually the contrary, we had this mantra where we don't throw out the baby with the bath water; don't forget who you are. We began the research very early on to determine what makes Tomb Raider special. We asked the community, we got out and asked the territories, we did research in 6 or 7 different countries, tens of thousands of people. Awareness was 95% in most places.

AAG: Woah

KS: Yeah, we realised that Tomb Raider had been successful because it had formula. The puzzle solving and the exploration and the combat. Albeit had begun to lack a little bit, but they were the pillars, and when we started to look at re-imagining the game we said OK; we may want to bring a personality to Lara and bring deep aggressive narrative, but we can't forget what has made Tomb Raider very special and in the process of re-imagining her character, we basically said lets re-imagine those pillars, lets keep the heritage of what they are but lets look at how they work inside this new space. A great example is the dynamic traversal. In the past Tomb Raider's were all about jumping on a ledge and going from ledge to ledge, very specific binary movements and then we said, well, if you are an explorer you should have the freedom to explore and although we're not an open-world game we built a hub system that allows the player to to come into a space and feel like they have challenges but they have the freedom to move around this space with ease and move around in a way that you feel is human. It feels like I can jump from here to here and move around. So its a case of saying what has made Tomb Raider successful and lets not forget that and make sure that we actually build upon it if anything and make sure that when it is time for people to put the controllers down they feel like this is a Tomb Raider, Lara Croft of the ages. And of course we think we have and made people very happy.

AAG: So in your mind what are the pillars?

KS: So the pillars are really exploration, which is one, shes you know globe trotting, she's a Tomb Raider after all, you got to travel to be a tomb raider. Combat is another one. For combat, it was [in previous Tomb Raider games] very lock on, now it gives the player the freedom to be able to have many choices. And then the puzzle solving was the other one. And what we have done is, instead of saying puzzle, exploration, combat we have said smart resourceful Lara, dynamic traversal and improved combat. The smart resourceful Lara is a great example of where it used to be puzzles, you would come into a room and you'd go, I gotta figure this out and I gotta pull levers move rocks, and take rubbings, now its a case of, you are landing in a situation, we teach you about the cores parts of the world. Physics, buoyancy and how all these other things interact with each other and now we say, "here is a puzzle but it is an environmental puzzle", this has been here long before you and the guys on this island have been using this space for something else. You have now have got to try to figure it out so it is a very different type of puzzle it's more about the smarts of understanding the world and the smarts of thinking, right then, if I were in this situation myself what would I do with the fire and water etc. So we have kept the pillars strong and we just build upon them.

AAG: So in the trailers that you have shown so far you have much more of an emphasis on survival rather than exploration, is that the tone of the rest of the game?

KS: We have put survival as a wrapper around the entire game but we have been very clear in our communications to say that when we say survival its not simulation survial, its not people drinking their own pee type survival, its very much emotional survival and here she had been thrust into this situation which she is not accustomed to at all. You know, she was going out on her first adventure and things went horribly wrong and we go through the exploration of the character and how she finds herself and how she is motivated to save her friends and uncover the mystery of this island and get off. It is more about the survival of a human realising herself and what she needs to do, which in some cases is very uncomfortable. The things she is forced to do like the first kill that you'll see when you play tomorrow that we bring the player to a point where they almost feel like if that was as uncomfortable for her as it was for me! I am now watching her crying and nearly getting sick because it was a kill or be killed situation so its very emotionally driven.

AAG: So you want the gamer to experience this?

KS: Yeah we want the gamer to really feel the character and feel the emotion that they are going through, so you know, its the highs and lows. We didn't just want to start the game by saying, here's two guns and here's the Lara Croft and she's a bad ass. We wanted the player to feel like, I am going to go through the first hour of the game realising who she is and what she's going to have to do and understand her motivations and from that point in time onwards now I know what I am going to become. For reference in Batman Begins the first 30 or 40 minutes of that movie was more about the character. I am not comparing Lara Croft to Batman but when he dons the mask for the first time you are like "he's motivated". So for us we look at Lara and think, we don't just want to land her on an island and thrust her straight into a situation. We want to go through an expose of character development which was as important as any feature in the game. You have to feel for that character.

AAG: So in the same way as in Batman Begins you knew where it was heading, you eventually that he would become Batman. So in Tomb Raider do you see her becoming the Lara Croft of the previous games?

KS: What I have been saying about previous games is its a bit like Batman begins having Christian Bale then as soon as it finished going back to Michael Keaton. You push this little thing aside then you think when Lara finishes her journey on this island she has become the person who will move forward and her attributes, her personality, her character, her defining moments, we want the player to be there with her when she raids her first tomb or she wants to solve her first puzzle, they are the iconic moments that will go on forever where people will feel like there were there on day 1. Which I think is the bit they have never had before. You were never there when she got her guns for the first time. There are moments that we want people to experience.

AAG: So do you have a plan of what you need to do in the game to get to this emotional state?

KS: Yeah, it is very important to us that we want the player to feel like Lara is motivated and that she is not just a cold blooded killer, she's seen her friends being killed and being captured and she has to save them. You realised that it may have been her fault why this has all happened, so we really put the player in a position where they feel like, OK I understand why she is doing it. More so than just throwing here into this space and saying go kill a hundred people. We really want that emotional connection. Over the last few years we have seen that so much so in entertainment products you know Breaking Bad or James Bond, it's as much about character and understanding the character than it is about major plot lines.

AAG: So the previous "season" of Tomb raider was Legends and Underworld. Those had quite heavy magical overtones, do you see that continuing in this new game or is it going to be much more grounded in reality?

KS: No I think in order to show the side of her character that we want to portray and bring here personality to the forefront we keep that real sense of reality. None so much as when you see the first kill tomorrow. I don't want to spoil it for you! We look at that and say you couldn't put the other incarnations of Lara into that situation and bring that moment to life in the way in which we do. We really want that goosebumps, that moment where you feel like, OMG, have I just experienced that?! For us it is very important that this is an entirely new being that you are experiencing and its not the incarnation like you've played before.

AAG: Would you like to introduce that sort of magical element back into the story.

KS: No, for us its very much we want the player to feel connected to Lara croft and the world around her and so its important that we give the right tone so you feel like you can believe what is going on.

AAG: So you mentioned a few recent movies; there has also been quite a few recent games like Assassins Creed and Uncharted, have those influenced the design of Tomb Raider?

KS: I think it's great that in the time we have taken to re-imagine Tomb Raider from Underworld, games like Uncharted have come along and they have done a trilogy! Not only has the bar been raised, but it just goes to show that third person action adventures are going to continue. There is a market for it, people love it. We have been around for 16 years now, you know, we created the space really, and for us, we just believe now for Tomb Raider with this new incarnation, there is a facet to our game which we believe is going to be unique and that is really the character development, personality and emotion. And of course the cinematography; we have a very different vibe compared to Uncharted but in the same sense, we love the array of games that are out there and whether it be Uncharted or Assassins Creed now its been years and we looked at what makes them special and we've said right well people expect certain things. Dynamics traversal for us, albeit in something we felt passionate about and wanted to bring to the game. It's also an expectation, people don't expect to play a game any more and ledge jump, people expect to have freedom because, why not? You are an explorer and you are exploring, you should be able to come into a space and move around with ease. So I think that those types of games just show us that there is an expectation from the consumer but we didn't look at them and go we've got to do that. We just went, that is what people are playing and they expect.

AAG: My last question, if there is one feature that you don't think has been talked about enough, what would it be?

KS: Hah! That's a good question! I suppose the XP system because I think people have touched on it and scratched the surface on it but for us it is very important that the XP system is something where players are going on that journey with Lara. The narrative can only bring you so far and it can tell the story from start to finish but really we want the player to engage with the world, with the development of the character, giving you an element of choices, albeit a very light RPG system. To us it really is a way to involve the player more in the growth of her character. So it is an important thing to us that you are there, you are not just along for the ride but you are actually choosing to upgrade certain things or change skills and play the character in your personal way. So I think the XP system is something that people should see. When they play the demo, or when you play it tomorrow you will see it appear on the screen but it is only when you play the game as I have that you start to realise how important that is. How it really helps bring a unique tone to the entire game.

AAG: That is excellent, thank you very much.

KS: Thank you, its been a pleasure.

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