In order to survive, one must adapt. Whether you’re talking about natural selection, being stranded in the wilderness, or re-evaluating the viability of a 15-year-old videogame franchise, when the environment changes, so must you. This is where Crystal Dynamics found themselves while finishing up Tomb Raider: Underworld. As head of studio Darrell Gallagher explains, “We started to look at where we wanted to take it next, and some of our goals were looking at where the franchise and the character was currently and where it sits, what we wanted to do with it moving forward, and realizing it was time to take it in a new direction.”
That new direction is actually back to the beginning. Crystal’s new Tomb Raider pushes the reset button on 15 years of history: 15 years of Lara Croft. “We felt people had kind of gotten used to what Lara was,” Gallagher explains, “so how about we look for a way for people to sort of reset their expectations and say okay, it isn’t exactly the same as the first one.” But if familiarity breeds comfort, why the need to reset?
As Crystal global brand manager Karl Stewart succinctly puts it, “She had become a caricature of her former self.” Fifteen years of sequels, spin-offs, and movies can do that to a girl, Gallagher agrees. “She had become, we felt like, almost superhuman. She had become kind of Teflon, and people expected her to go in and do the things that Lara did, and therefore it became less interesting.”
Tomb Raider discards these expectations of Lara by focusing on her first adventure: a survival situation after being shipwrecked on an unknown island. Still from a background of privilege, but now lacking the confidence that only comes through experience, young Lara makes mistakes, gets gruesomely injured, and battles self-doubt. Which is not to say Crystal has pulled a Metroid: Other M and reduced Lara to the stereotype of the weak, insecure girl in a boy adventurer’s world; how she survives the island lays the foundation for what she’ll eventually become. “I think the challenge then was in trying to make her real,” Stewart explains. “So, have her real in unreal situations, but then not forget ultimately who she was or the heritage that we had.”
The game presents a glimpse of her path in an early-game exchange with friend of the family, mentor, and fellow shipwreckee Conrad Roth.
“I don’t think I’m that kind of Croft.”
“Sure you are, you just don’t know it yet.”
This is the Lara Croft that must survive on this mysterious island, and as we go back in time with her character, Tomb Raider‘s game concepts move forward. At a recent event at Crystal’s studio in Redwood Shores, California, a demo of the game began with Lara awakening to find she’s hanging upside-down in a cave, confined by ropes and dangling dangerously high above the ground. Swinging side to side, she manages to get close enough to a nearby torch, which ignites the ropes, releasing her to the cave floor…and the mangled rebar which impales her side on impact. Wounded and disoriented, she stumbles around in search of an escape before drawing the attention of what are presumed to be island natives, crazed and definitely hostile. The old Tomb Raider expectations kick in with anticipation of an acrobatic gunfight, but instead, it’s a Heavy Rain-style button-based escape that Lara just barely accomplishes. In fact, in the two slices of the game that Crystal showed, traditional combat was not featured. Another encounter pits Lara against an aggressive wolf, which she eventually dispatches with a grisly knife to the neck, followed by an apologetic, “It was either you or me.”
“We’re not going to talk deeply about combat, because we’d rather show you than talk about it,” Gallagher explains. “Without going too deeply into it, just in the same way as you see quite major changes to other parts of what would be ‘traditional’ Tomb Raider, the same goes for combat as well.”
The apology to the wolf, the severe injuries Lara inflicts and sustains, and the emphasis on situations all speak to the sense of human fragility and theme of survival Crystal is trying to convey. “The key thing you saw today is that we’re re-evaluating each of our pillars, but we’re putting that filter of survival over it,” Stewart explains. “So when we say she doesn’t kill for sport, the situations she’s thrust into feel real. If you have to kill, you’re killing to survive.”
The same goes for Tomb Raider’s exploration and puzzle pillars, the latter Stewart wanted to redefine as “situational analysis.” This is where Lara’s new “survival instinct” ability takes effect. Akin to Batman’s “detective mode” in Arkham Asylum, “survival instinct” changes Lara’s perspective and highlights key objects and locations as she analyzes her current predicament. One demonstration of these situational puzzles required her to use fire and manipulate buoyancy in order to move explosive debris to a weakened cave wall. The explosion opened up a new path as intended, but also triggered a large collapse that Lara had to quickly stumble through.
Island exploration is also governed by the situation, be it through Lara’s equipment or where the story wants to take you next. There are multiple base camps located on the island that serve as hubs. While Lara’s natural explorer ability remains intact, she can still only go where her equipment can take her, and Stewart says there will be a “very good reason” for traveling back to previous hubs and areas when she finds the proper gear.
And as far as mystery goes? The demo concluded with Lara overlooking a shoreline littered with shipwrecked vessels, all from different eras of history. Before you can say “polar bear,” though, Gallagher reaffirms the team’s grounded approach. “Obviously [with] any Tomb Raider…the mystery behind the situation you’re in or unraveling a mystery is part of it. Part of it is to reinforce the fact that you’re trapped and you don’t want to be here, and there’s something quite off about this place.”
So no time travel? “I don’t think the island is going to disappear,” Stewart says. “Not that I know of, anyway…”
Then it’s only Lara’s past that’s being re-written.
PARTING SHOT: Sony’s Uncharted may have snuck in and snatched the crown from our favorite femme fatale, but the latest chapter in the Tomb Raider story just might have the chops to put Lara and the crew at Crystal Dynamics back on top.
Source: EGM, Vol. 249