It didn’t start as a reboot. That was one of the interesting revelations during last night’s Tomb Raider event at Bafta. Crystal Dynamics, the California-based studio, which has been in charge of the iconic series since 2003, originally envisaged the latest title as a sequel to 2008’s, Tomb Raider Underworld. But then along came Casino Royale and Batman Begins and the whole concept of an origins story started taking shape.
“Bond and Batman faced the same challenges as us,” explained studio head Darrell Gallagher, who – joined by creative director Noah Hughes – gave a talk about the development of Tomb Raider. “They were iconic characters who had to be refreshed and modernised for a new generation. These stories were a reaffirmation to us, that we could do this.”
It turns out the idea of re-inventing Tomb Raider went back further than that, however. Crystal Dynamics took on the franchise when original developer Core Design fumbled the poorly received sixth instalment, Angel of Darkness. After completing a trilogy of fairly traditional sequels, Crystal decided to strike out, producing the downloadable spin-off title, Tomb Raider: Guardian of Light. “We took some really odd steps with it,” explained Gallagher. “It still had the Tomb Raider DNA, but it was a top-down dual-stick shooter. We loved working on it and the reaction of fans showed us that people were ready for something new. That was very encouraging.”
Soon after development of the current Tomb Raider began in 2009, the decision was made to scrap work on the Underworld sequel, to effectively wipe the slate clean with an origins story. “We wanted to take bold steps,” said Gallagher. “There were big questions – what goes, what stays? Do we keep the backpack, do we keep the shorts, the pony tail? Is she still British? All of these were asked. Internally, there was huge debate.”
He was also keen to stress that Crystal Dynamics had creative control; that the process of re-booting the series was governed by them. “You don’t make decisions based on group consensus when you’re trying to create something,” he said. “Group feedback is great, but consensus can spin you in all sorts of directions. I hear people say this was a game built in a focus testing lab, but that’s not the case. This wasn’t a game overseen by a bunch of suits at Square Enix who came in with clipboards and said, ‘this is what you’re going to do’. It didn’t happen like that. We stuck to our guns, we believed in what we were doing.”
Indeed, according to Gallagher, it was year before the project was shown to Square Enix executives. He took an early trailer of the game to the company’s office in London and showed it off. It reveals a very different version of the young Lara on an island setting – all with a voice over introducing the origins concept: “I’m not perfect, I’m not bullet-proof. I bleed…”. When the video ends, Gallagher says, “I think we nailed it”. The project was instantly green lit.
In 2011, Crystal Dynamics released the first teaser trailer for the game, produced by Square Enix Japan’s in-house CG agency, VisualWorks. It showed Lara, freshly graduated from university, on a ship bound for the South Pacific – her first expedition as a budding archeologist. The vessel is wrecked in a storm and we see Lara struggling onto the shore of an island, wounded, scared and alone. The trailer set in place the mood of the game, something Crystal Dynamics characterised within the studio during the early stages of development as ‘a survivor is born’ – a phrase that would go on to become the tagline.
According to Gallagher, the designers then started to draw inspiration from real-life survival stories. They read Alive, Piers Paul Read’s famous account of a plane crash in the Andes, and studied interviews with Aron Ralston, the climber forced to cut off his own arm when trapped by a falling boulder in Utah. The ambition was to create more of a human hero, rather than the “ice queen” portrayed in some of the earlier games – and the risible movies. “We needed to take Lara from the beginning of her story, with big ambitions but without experience, and put her in a situation where she would be forced to grow,” said Hughes. “The survival theme really became the crucible in which we would forge the heroine.”
From here, the development team had to work out how to craft a game from survival – “as a creative director, you can’t walk up to someone and say ‘make it more survivally’,” said Hughes. So they broke the concept down into different areas: ‘survival action’, brutal, raw action sequences; ‘fight to survive’, the idea of endurance and determination in a hostile environment; and ‘survival instinct’, the ability to adapt and use resources. What they wanted to achieve with Tomb Raider was a gritty story of guts and human instinct, a cross between Rambo in First Blood and Ripley in Aliens.
The company started experimenting with game mechanics, pitching Lara against the environment. During his talk, Gallagher showed a very early prototype video (at a time when the game was still going by its working title Ascension), of Lara leaping between grey-scale rock faces – at one point carrying a child on her back – and strafing flat-shaded polygon enemies; she’s also seen riding a horse across a beach. “We were forging the identity,” says Gallagher. “A lot of those ideas were cast aside, but the themes were bubbling away already.”
The aim was to retain the classic elements of the Tomb raider games – traversal, combat and puzzle-solving – but to modernise them and infuse them with the survival theme. They pushed the idea of dynamic traversal, the ability of players to control Lara even while jumping, the ability to pick your own path through the world. The designers came up with the idea of the island’s gear boxes, which provide Lara with new equipment, thereby increasing her exploration abilities and opening up new channels of exploration from the key hubs. With combat, they moved from a lock-on based system to a free-aim third-person shooter mechanic, but to reflect the survival theme, the odds were stacked against Croft – apparently, it’s not about dominating opponents any more, it’s about desperate fights for life.
As for the puzzles, physics has become a central component. “This is partly because technology allows us to do that now, through simulation,” says Hughes. “But also, it allows players to explore elements such as water, fire, buoyancy, mass and pulleys, and how they react together – it’s an understanding of how things work.” The idea was to weave together the components – the inexperienced Lara, the hostile setting, the more frenzied combat – into a different sort of gameplay experience for the series. “You sometimes hear discussions about whether something is a design-driven game or a story-driven game,” says Hughes. “For us this was neither, it was an experience-driven game. We wanted to bring to bear the emotional power of story and the engagement and emotional investment of gameplay – we wanted you to feel like you were on this journey with Lara.”
A key element of the design process seems to have been visual story-telling – a desire to express the themes and the narrative, not just in the cinematic sequences, but within the gameplay and the environment. The team based the island setting on the Dragons Triangle, an area of the Pacific ocean synonymous with lost and wrecked craft, and it is filled with messaging. Those dilapidated galleons on the shoreline, aren’t just there for visual effect, they symbolise the idea that nothing escapes this place. “We wanted a raw, hostile environment,” says Gallagher. “The second most important character in the game is the island, every part of it supports this idea of a perilous journey, the forging of a hero.”
The choice of weapons plays into this. The shiny, showy twin pistols are gone, replaced by scavenged shotguns, a climbing axe and, of course the bow. “It’s this raw primal tool,” says Gallagher. “It’s more than just a function, it’s part of the new iconography of Lara.”
For the story, Crystal Dynamics started with a short story arc which was then taken on by Rhianna Pratchett, the experienced video game writer whose previous work includes Mirror’s Edge and Heavenly Sword. Pratchett then fleshed this out into a longer treatment, and finally a script – a process that took months of iteration. The designers then created a spreadsheet aligning key story beats with puzzles, combat encounters and equipment pick-ups, eventually producing a colour-coded timeline of the game, showing the prevailing emotion of each sequence. This provided artists with a handy reference point when actually building the game: for example, if the location fell in a blue/downbeat area of the production document they knew to create an overbearing, gloomy environment to reflect the action. “The character arc was also extremely important to us,” explains Hughes. “So we even tracked where each of the key evolution points takes place for Lara. We wanted to make sure it was all paced correctly through the duration of the game. Once we had the blueprint we could make sure the whole team worked to the same framework.”
It was, then, an interesting insight into the development process at Crystal Dynamics. It’ll be fascinating to see how this determination to deliver a story about self-discovery translates into actual gameplay. After effectively four years in development – a process that involved not just Crystal Dyamics but also the Square Enix facility in Montreal and other studios around the globe – the world is curious about this return of a nineties icon, but it is also skeptical. Lara has a lot to prove, not only in the game, with its hostile island filled with murderous mercenaries, but in an industry where the notion of narrative gaming has moved on. And let’s face it: for traditional publishers these days, all game releases are about survival.
• Tomb Raider is released on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 5 March