Catching Up With Tomb Raider Developer Crystal Dynamics
The new Tomb Raider isn’t just another Tomb Raider game. It’s a concerted effort to restart the aging franchise and return it to the forefront of modern day action-adventure games. It might be developer Crystal Dynamics’ fifth Tomb Raider game, and the fourteenth Tomb Raider overall, but beyond ancient ruins and an archaeologist named Lara Croft the new game doesn’t feel or look that much like a traditional Tomb Raider. (For a deeper look at how the new game stacks up against its predecessors, go ready the Paste review from Maddy Myers.)
Paste recently spoke to Darrell Gallagher, the head of Crystal Dynamics, and Noah Hughes, the creative director of Tomb Raider, about the new game and why it was the right time to reboot the series.
Paste: So this is Crystal Dynamics’ second time rebooting Tomb Raider
Darrell Gallagher: Almost. The way we look at it this is the second time we’ve done something different with it. The first time we’d class as more of a retake versus a reboot. For us each one’s a little bit different. Tomb Raider: Legend is more of a retake from our standpoint because it was building on the classic design principles of old, of what Core Design did, rather than wiping the slate clean and starting over again. It was really trying to get back to what Tomb Raider was and reclaim that essence as it felt like the series had lost that along the way. It is slightly different this time around. I can see why it’s classified sometimes as a double reboot, but for us this one’s the reboot and the other one was a retake.
Noah Hughes: Following one of the most concrete things related to that is sort of restarting the character arc and the canon of the universe. As much as Legend made some adjustments to resolve some of the movie elements and some of Core’s elements when we took over the series, it was still a continuation of that story arc and that universe, but done through our sensibilities. This is the first time we’re really starting that story from scratch and starting to rebuild the universe from that point forward.
Paste: Why was this a good time to restart the franchise?
Hughes: It started with just a commitment to keeping the franchise fresh. Before we were ever talking about a reboot or an origin story we were really talking about making sure that we didn’t fall behind the curve, that we were doing everything to keep Lara Croft relevant and competitive in the modern gaming landscape. It really just started with that sense of franchises that are around for as long as Tomb Raider has been, and we see it more often in the movie industry with franchises like Bond, but there really is a need to continually invigorate a franchise. As shepherds of the franchise we were obligated to make sure we were doing that along the way.
Paste: You mention Bond. Do you think Croft as a character could have that kind of longevity?
Hughes: We hope so. Croft has a degree of resonance already within pop culture and gaming specifically. But even generally, beyond gaming, our moms know who Lara Croft is, and that’s amazing. She’s a fundamentally interesting and recognizable character, and an expression of adventure. You look at Lara and it promises adventure, especially in the gaming sense—great action-adventure games. For me there’s a certain amount of fundamental appeal to it as a franchise, but I think you also still have to do things to keep it relevant, to make sure that you’re telling the core values of that franchise through the lens of modern taste, and that goes from a gameplay perspective as well as a storytelling perspective.
Paste: When you make a game as story heavy as Tomb Raider, what comes first, the mechanics or the narrative?
Hughes: Neither is dominant. In a lot of cases story framework comes first but is molded by design considerations. We knew this is an origin story from very early on, and as we put Lara on the island, there’s an implied arc and implied narrative conflict there. But it’s important that it doesn’t overshadow gameplay considerations. We really did see this as not a gameplay driven game or story driven game but as a holistic experience-driven game, so regardless of which comes first it’s kind of a chicken and an egg thing. What’s more important as you iterate is finding the best resolution between these various considerations. We’ve found ourselves at times compromising on one side for the sake of the other. For example, pacing is extremely important in this game, and making sure the pace at which we take you through the story is appropriate for a gameplay experience rather than, say, a book version of the story. But similarly gameplay elements might have to get cut because they don’t necessarily fit in the world. Ultimately we felt we were able to leverage the strength of both so that you are getting an emotional investment in Lara as a character but also getting an emotional investment in your state of upgrades and aptitude within the gameplay systems, and feeling powerful within traversal and combat and puzzle solving.
Paste: What is more difficult for a developer: launching a new IP or rebooting one without alienating its current fans?
Gallagher: You definitely worry about that. The obvious answer is to say it’s easier to work with a franchise but the real answer is it’s actually probably easier to do a new IP. There are swings and roundabouts with both. What we found with this and with any reboot is that you think you have a bright canvas and an open set of possibilities when you go into it but the reality is it’s a very fine line you have to walk, one that is potentially perilous on either side. If you stay too close to the existing roots it’s not really a refresh or reboot and feels like more of the same. If you go too far away it maybe doesn’t feel like it is Tomb Raider or the franchise you’re working on. The actual answer is a very narrow path between the middle and trying to straddle that path and find the right answers where it feels unique, feels fresh but also feels like it has the right DNA and heritage. It’s a difficult line to walk.
Paste: Speaking of new IPs, Crystal Dynamics has been working on Tomb Raider game for a decade. Are you itching to work on something new?
Gallagher: We are working on a new IP. We’re building another team with an eye for doing something new. That’s something we have been working on as background. At the same time for us Tomb Raider is something that’s been part of our fabric for quite some time now. In a weird way making it fresh for our audience is as important for us as to feel like we’re doing something fresh and challenging ourselves to do something new. It’s not just giving the franchise a new lease on life but also giving the studio a new lease on life around the franchise. We haven’t run out of fertile ground with Tomb Raider.
Paste: This is a pretty grisly game. Lara’s death scenes seem especially long, the camera often lingering on her body as she dies, and it’s a little uncomfortable sometimes. Why is that?
Hughes: Part of the goal of the dark side of the game, of the gruesome side, is to reflect the high stakes and lethal situations that Lara is in. We wanted to put Lara in a survival situation that would change her fundamentally as a character, to believe that she would go to extents that she never thought she would, whether it’s physical human endurance or taking a life or believing in things she didn’t think she could believe in. That required an extreme catalyst for that change in character. For me part of that was the lethality of this island. Survival situations are defined by being life and death and part of that is to make that feel as real as possible. In the same way that we want the genuine sense of discovery or awe-inspiring beauty to feel real, we want the repercussions for failure and death to feel visceral and affect you in some way. By presenting a real threat to this character we can feel that much more invested in her success when she does succeed. At no point are we trying to be gratuitous.