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EGM Interview:
Tomb Raider

Posted on December 29, 2011 AT 09:05am

With 2012 upon us, we look ahead to one of our most highly anticipated titles of the coming year in Tomb Raider. EGM had a chance to speak with Crystal Dynamics’ Global Brand Director, Karl Stewart, and the head of Crystal Dynamics, Darrell Gallagher.

EGM:  When did you guys decide to reboot the series? Was it after Underworld, or as you were finishing it up? Was there an impetus for it—a moment of clarity or realization that you needed to change something?

Darrell Gallagher: For us, it was kind of a natural thing to do after Underworld, because we’d planned those three games to be a trilogy that was fairly self-contained. Legend to Anniversary to Underworld was sort of part of a package, and they sit well together. We knew at the end of that, there’d be something different because we roughly mapped that out over those three games. Getting to the end of that, we knew that it was going to be different at some point—we just didn’t know what or how. Getting to the end of Underworld, 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 that it was time to take it in a new direction. And it was kind of a natural break for us to say, “OK, done with that. What’s next?”

And we had goals for the character that came out of that, goals for the franchise that came out of that period of thinking about “what next?” A big emphasis for us was about making it a more modern character, kind of a more relevant character. We felt that people had kind of gotten used to what Lara was, and they either loved it or hated it. There were a lot of fans and nonfans, so how about we look for a way for people to reset their expectations and say, “OK, it isn’t exactly the same as the first one”? And even Underworld wasn’t, but there was sometimes that perception.

Karl Stewart: She had become a caricature of her former self.

Gallagher: Yeah, I mean, a little bit. She had become, like, 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, right? And we thought it’d be interesting for us to explore a different take on this character that’s unexpected in some ways.

EGM:What have been some of the major challenges as you’ve been through this rebuilding and revisualization process? You said “caricature.” What is it about old Tomb Raider, about old Lara Croft, that you decided you either couldn’t modernize or shouldn’t modernize?

Gallagher: What did we drop, is that another way of saying it?

EGM: Yeah.

Gallagher: Well, I guess the biggest thing we dropped is that she was a superhero, like I said. That was probably the most major thing—there was no character arc in the old series. The motivations were even unclear, as in, “Why is she doing this? Why does she care about it? Why is it important to her? Why is it sort of personal to her?” It wasn’t really fleshed out: She was a superhero game character that went after treasure, and the rest was sort of blurry. So we really wanted to drop those two things.

Stewart: I think the challenge, then, was in trying to make her real. So, have her real in unreal situations, but then not forget, ultimately, who she was or the heritage that we had. And when we started the process way back when, you almost throw everything out and go, “Let’s redefine her; let’s create something new,” and then all of a sudden, you become a caricature of some other franchise. And keeping the foundation, but saying that the old Lara and the old Tomb Raider had certain pillars that people loved and there was attraction to, but they just weren’t relevant. So the idea of not forgetting who you were, but then building the foundation of a real character and then laying those back on top of it.

EGM:You guys did a lot of soul searching internally about Lara and Tomb Raider. Did you look externally at the action-adventure genre, like what Uncharted’s been doing?

Gallagher: Obviously, we looked at the competitive landscape, sure. With developers, we do that. We also look at our consumers and ask them questions, so we can use our audience and focus-test that type of stuff, sort of dip the toe in and poll the reaction in terms of how they feel about the franchise and the character. From all those sources, you sort of look at the landscape, you look at where you stand in the landscape, you look at what other people are doing, and you say “OK, where do we go next?” How do we make sure that we’re on the front end and leading rather than following?

Stewart: I think it’s also stepping outside of our own space and looking at other entertainment properties that have gone through similar cycles and learning from that. Because, ultimately, what you’ve seen in the demo is the redefining of an experience in a character. And that’s been done in so many other areas as well, whether it’s James Bond or Batman. So there’s been loads of material out there to kind of go, “OK, yes, there is a competitive benchmark that we all play against right now, but we’ve got to step outside and look at the bigger picture.” People interact with movies and TV and loads of different mediums that it’s not just about our space. It’s about how people understand what we’re trying to achieve, and how do we get it right?

Gallagher: And also, how do we build something that’s more flexible as well? So without moving on to other products, Guardian of Light was kind of a reflection of that, too. Where it was like, we have to recognize that as a brand, we might want to do something in the digital space, and something like the Tomb Raider that you’ve seen today wouldn’t work in that space. So, looking at all these other kind of areas and mediums that we want to kind of play with in some way, and how do we achieve that goal? So there were those types of goals as well.

And as Karl said, looking at the movie side, Lara was one of the few characters that have been going for a decade-plus in games, because games are a relatively new space for characters. And not many other people have been faced with the same challenges of having a long-running character. So, we looked at the movies and comic books and other mediums that have been around a lot longer. What have they done when they’ve been over like 10 years, 15 years, or 20 years, in some cases, and they’ve had to realign around major shifts in their franchise or their characters to bring it line with modern times? So, they were good touch points for us as well and even more relevant than the game space in some ways.

Stewart: I think, what it did teach us, in all of the properties we looked at and all of the franchises, it was ultimately making your property culturally relevant. That people had an affinity to that character or an interest in what you’re trying to achieve. Because so many games can reinvent themselves, but they just become a shadow of their former selves. It was making our character culturally relevant with those other pillars of what it is to be Tomb Raider and Lara Croft.

EGM:So, talking specifically about the reboot, we saw some of the concept art upstairs. It takes place on an island, and you get to explore the whole thing. What were some of your specific influences for the new setting and story?

Gallagher: I think a lot of the original influences, I guess, we were looking at the human qualities that we were trying to get out of the character. You start going down the path of action-adventure, you want it to be more human, and we start seeing these stories of real action-adventurers that have gone and done these almost superhero-type things…

Stewart: Aron Ralston from 127 Hours, Touching the Void… People going to extraordinary lengths.

Gallagher: You see that stuff, and you’re like, that’s the stuff that’s a superhero, right? It’s not really running around doing backflips and shooting all sorts of weapons all the time. So, those stories were ones we felt were really interesting, and those types of things were big influences in terms of that human drama and that almost superhuman quality that comes through when faced against Mother Nature. That became quite fitting for our character; we looked at that and we were like, “that works.” That’s where it all started from, is trying to ground the character and really make it more relatable, and this feeling of survival coming through, which is something you and I and everyone can relate to.

Stewart: And from that came the location of having it on an island. One of our goals was to make sure that character and story arcs started and ended at low and high. We go through this whole experience of this Lara Croft, this reinvention of her character, and to do that in the way in which we would’ve told other Tomb Raider stories, by her going around the world and stopping in different places, you couldn’t do because there’s no emotion, there’s no real sense of attachment to that situation. And when we looked at all those real experiences, those real people in unreal situations, you couldn’t do that and then have her get in a plane and go somewhere else. So the idea of having it in one place, and having the island become almost a character in the game to be able to help epitomize all of those individual stories was a key as well.

EGM:So you guys are probably going to get this a lot going forward, and I just see it because I’m a huge Lost fan, and the vibe is definitely there. You guys are focusing on the grounded, human element. But with stuff like Lost, or in games like Assassin’s Creed or Dead Space, there’s this mythos to it, where you’re not quite sure what’s going on. And you hinted at that at the end of the demo where you see all those wrecked ships. Is there going to be a balance of that? Lost had this human drama, but also all this crazy time-traveling stuff.

Gallagher: [Laughs] On an island that disappears…

Stewart: [Laughs] I don’t think the island’s going to disappear. Not that I know of, anyway…

EGM: Was there a temptation to throw that kind of stuff in?

Gallagher: I mean, obviously, any Tomb Raider, the mystery behind the situation you’re in or unraveling a mystery is part of it, and that’s one of the staples that hasn’t gone away. I think the form it’s taken and how it’s presented and the type of mystery is quite different than before. So it’s less about going to find a trophy and much more about how to survive the situation. But within that situation, there’s still an unraveling of a mystery and a story, and those things are important.

Stewart: And you see when she stepped out on that cliff, shipwrecks from the different periods of history…

Gallagher: And you want people to be like…

EGM: “Why are all these ships here?”

Gallagher: And 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, and it’s clearly not a place where you’re going to sit around and feel at home at. Sort of that unsettling feeling for the character as well as the player. Like, “Well, OK, what’s going on here?”

EGM:Let’s switch over to Lara the character. You said in the demo that she doesn’t kill for sport, and in the demo, any sort of danger was very situational, whether you call it a “quick-time event” or a Heavy Rainstyle “shake yourself free from the wolf.” But we didn’t see any traditional combat. Can you talk about your approach on that?

Gallagher: We’re not going to talk deeply about combat, because we’d rather show you than talk about it, and that’s a good general rule. But what we can say at this stage is that there is combat, and that’s one of our pillars. Without going too deeply into it, just in the same way as you see major changes to other parts of what would be “traditional” Tomb Raider, the same goes for combat as well. In simple terms, it can be something as simple as going from locked-on to free-range. The other thing we can say is that combat represents a similar tonal quality to what you’ve seen already.

Stewart: It’s heavily competitive. The key thing you’ve seen is that we’re reevaluating each of our pillars, but we’re putting that filter of survival over it. So when you look at that “smart, resourceful” Lara, and you think of pulling levers, moving boulders, and lifting yourself up, and then thrusting her into that situation, that’s how much we’ve come with trying to make her a real character. 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.

EGM:Like when she said after the wolf attack, “It’s either you or me.” It made me think of a game like Uncharted, where Nathan Drake is a badass, but he’s also this human being, but he’s killing hundreds of people, and he doesn’t stop to think about it. It seems like you guys are thinking more of, Lara’s 21 years old—

Gallagher: She’s definitely not comfortable.

Stewart: Yeah, she’s not. And that’s why everything gets put through this survival filter. Every situation, no matter what it is, has to go through it, and that’s ultimately the foundation for the entire story arc.

Gallagher: Yeah, and I think that runs the course through every part of the game. We can’t show combat, as we’ve said, but that’s sort of the filter we apply to combat as a whole.

EGM:Do you guys have a primary writer for the game, or is it a collaborative effort?

Stewart: It’s collaborative, but internal/external. We’re not going to announce that just yet, but I think people will be very happy, because it’ll bring a lot of trust to a lot of people when they hear it. The story is a very, very important part of the entire game, because it’s not just about character arc, but story arc. You have to feel like this character is—and this island is a character—these are the people you’re trapped with. All these systems are all intrinsically linked.

EGM:Circling back to Lara as a caricature, writing for a female character in a videogame can be fairly tricky. What’s been the approach for that? The “first” Lara was this digital sex symbol, or whatever you want to call it, and now we’re in different times, and the industry has advanced a bit. How are you looking at that?

Stewart: I think I’ll jump on that and say that is kind of linked to getting back to “who” is writing. When we make that announcement, that’ll all come together and become much clearer. That’s an extremely important factor to us, but it’s down the line. [Laughs] But that’s the type of thing we take very seriously, to make sure there’s a balance. When we get to the point in time in talking about that person, both internally and externally, you’ll be pleased.

EGM:You said it wasn’t an open world, but there’s freedom to explore where you are. With a lot of games that give you that freedom, sometimes you don’t have a good reason. What’s your reason to explore?

Gallagher: To survive.

Stewart: Again, with the mystery, there are layers. There’s always the sense and feeling of, “I want to push the boundaries here and understand a little bit more.” I think, when we get to that next phase where we talking about those layers, that’ll become clearer as to why you’d want to go back and why you’d reexplore. But we’ve only just showed a very small sliver of that hub. Once you start maneuvering around and start seeing things you want to come back to and get to, that’s why gear-gating plays a huge role. She only has the ability to do so much right now, and that’s natural ability; you will want to come back, and you’ll want to come back for a very good reason. That’s why we brought the base-camp system in.

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