Tomb Raider Interview: Lara, Reboots, Uncharted & GTA 5
Tomb Raider's creative director, Noah Hughes, talks us through Lara's redesign, hunting and launching in the same year as GTA 5.
Published on Dec 3, 2012
Has it been tricky balancing gameplay, story and exploration in this new Tomb Raider template?
Noah Hughes: The hope is – and I see this play out when I watch people play the game – that we’re able to allow people to power through [the early] sequence in about an hour and a half, but I’ve also seen people play through it in about four hours. That range was one of our main goals, the idea that if you're a player that likes a new big thing happening every twenty minutes and then you’re on to the next thing, that is there for you. But it’s also the idea that you can explore and you can do things at your own pace and there is a little bit of getting used to that because the narrative does present a certain urgency.
There’s a slight suspension of disbelief that allows for exploring that space to align with the other the goals, but the sense there is that Lara is becoming more a powerful character and that is making her more capable and fulfilling that forward progress as well. It is related in a way.
Tomb Raider’s early hours really seem to force player’s through the narrative leaving little time for exploration and back-tracking, was that always the intention?
There are things with that; firstly it’s a technological consideration that the fast travel system was disabled in the preview build so normally when you discover a base camp you’ll be able to travel back to that camp. Similarly, any area that you find collectibles, challenges or secondary tombs in well, any place that has anything like that will have a base camp that you can travel back to.
The idea there is that if you feel pulled forward by the narrative you don’t have to feel compelled to clear it out now, you can always come back and explore at your own pace. The other thing that isn’t really visible [in this early build and isolated play] is that you do come back through hubs and with new gear.
Basically, in that first pass through there’s a good portion of it – in fact one of the side tombs you can’t even get until you have that new piece of gear – that you won’t see. Similarly, there little things that you won’t be able to interact with such as hanging lanterns or roped up doors and things like that so your gear becomes a key within the hub structure. And then you can often travel back to places with that new gear too, but we try to make sure even on the critical path players are exposed to that idea of Lara becoming more capable.
The idea when you first come into that hub, is that it’s almost daunting but by the time you come back to it, it’s day time and you have more gear and you should feel like you’re able to master that hub a bit more and then you’re on to the next one. And they get a bit bigger and obviously Tomb Raider isn’t open world by any means, but we do want the hubs to be big enough to explore and feel like you’re discovering things on your own.
Has the XP system been designed to allow players to approach the gameplay however they see fit?
Not necessarily, each thing we’ve done we thought was relevant to our goal. We talked about the exploration and the ‘gear gating’ and how that was important, not just for scale’s sake, but for really evoking some of those classic Tomb Raider feelings.
In terms of the XP system it was an origin story first and foremost for me. The central goal was to make a rich and interesting Lara Croft that people could relate to and go on that journey and feel like they saw her becoming the Lara Croft character. But for me, that needs to be reflected in gameplay and the XP system. And the Salvage system really allows you to become more powerful throughout the course of the game so you really feel that sense of progression as well as seeing it within the narrative.
But then within that obviously choice is really important to me. We’re really trying to balance this sense of a strong narrative but celebrate depth and player choice and with a system that we feel helps round that out. That was a really important goal for us, and you know there were plenty of things left on the cutting room floor. But having said that, it is an ambitious mix that I hope works together in concert well, but I do understand the challenges.
How important is the hunting aspect of Tomb Raider?
It’s always an opportunity to progress your experience and gain more skills more quickly, but we didn’t want a hunger system where you had to constantly worry about where you were going to get your next piece of food. That was really just our commitment to what we’re calling a ‘survival action’ approach.
We want it to be action orientated but again I want it to be gameplay relevant at the same time for Lara. While we really focus on survival at the beginning of the game (and it’s always relevant throughout the game) we sort of shift from pure survival at the beginning of the game to what is ultimately a Tomb Raider story at the end.
Hunting is always relevant, but it’s never as critical as it is in those first moments on the island.
Are you worried that some people might not understand that Tomb Raider is rebooting Lara and showing her grow into the character we all know?
My first impression when people say ‘this isn’t Lara’ is to say ‘of course it’s not the Lara you know… yet’. What’s fun about creating an origin story within the context of a reboot is that people do have that familiarity. It’s powerful as you see Lara start to flip those switches that allow her to become the tomb raider and for me it’s more exciting to have a place for her to go. When people just look at a slice they really aren’t going to get the full picture.
So while the first tidbits we showed were fairly linear, my hope is when [players] progress to hubs and things like that they realise that we really are delivering on exploration. Similarly with the character, the hope is that, even if they don’t realise it in the moment, once they progress through, they’ll enjoy being along for the ride with Lara as she takes those first steps.
Having said that we’re doing a lot to try and bring out a certain amount of depth to her character and a certain amount of humanity. As much as she’ll approach that Tomb Raider level, it’s not about lacking fear it’s about gaining confidence and the ability to overcome your fears. We want to make sure she doesn’t ever get to that pure unflinching and tough Lara, but at the same time I think people will be satisfied with that character arc.
Why was it important for Tomb Raider to have a combat focus?
One thing is we wanted each of the core gameplay types to be enough to base part of the experience on. We didn’t feel like we had to lean on traversal or lean purely on combat or puzzles. We wanted all of them to be modern satisfying incarnations of those gameplay types and combat is important, but we also put a lot of focus on trying to clarify the motivations of Lara’s actions. Her actions should really be a reflection of her character and not just our gameplay goals.
We’ve really tried to sell the motivation of Lara’s progression and that’s even with early things thatshe has to confront where she crosses a line she didn’t know she could cross. But killing things isn’t the only thing a tomb raider does. As the story progresses there are continual ways that we can challenge Lara to step beyond what she’s comfortable with both emotionally and even the game challenges her core belief system.
Was it important for you to reference the older Tomb Raider games?
That to me that is so powerful and for people to see that symbolism and some of it is very conscious, people will notice it, it’s very obvious, and there are others that are more just tributes and carrying forward some of those classic sensibilities. The wolves are a perfect example, they’ve had that classic role in the franchise and the hope is that along the way, for fans, there are extra little bits and echoes that they can recognise of the classic Tomb Raider.
What do you say to people that claim Tomb Raider looks a lot like the Uncharted series?
I may be wrong, but I think if we didn’t have such strong similarities in the subject matter – adventure and archaeology – I don’t think Tomb Raider would be tied directly to Uncharted. We felt probably system-wise combat was one of the things we really needed to evolve the most. That it had fallen behind the curve a little bit and really our goal was, more than anything, just to modernise that combat. Having said that, I hope players see that there are some key differences that we’ve tried to make sure were sufficiently Lara-like.
The idea the cover system is less ‘sticky’ than many modern shooters, we really wanted to urge people to keep moving between cover rather than hunkering down in one place. This was also true of the stealth, the pre-combat and the environmental combat opportunities, it was really just to realise that Lara isn’t just about having the biggest gun, but giving you opportunities to think a little and move a lot.
My hope is, as much as it has similarities with some of these other games, is that it really just feels like a modernisation and update of a Tomb Raider combat system.
Why are Lara’s enemies predominantly male?
The fiction of our world supports that and I won’t get into the details. The goal with any enemy type is to first give the island a story and bring the world to life. As much as I’ve mentioned the gameplay value of the combat, the other value is being able to overhear what’s going on and seeing them exist as characters in the world rather than just combatants. But, motivating them, like you said they’re bad people, and rather than just say they’re bad because they’re bad, we really try and tell a story.
The hope is that it’s a little mysterious at the beginning but we try to reveal their motivations in the same way that we want Lara to feel motivated with her actions. We wanted to sell the motivations for their actions as well.
Can we expect to see this new Lara in future instalments of the Tomb Raider series?
Yeah, definitely, the intent is to carry forward from here, this isn’t just a brief detour back in time that we really our trying to establish the Lara that we’ll carry forward through new adventures.
Are worried about releasing in a year when GTA 5 is coming out?
How hard is that! Launching in the shadow of GTA! [Laughs]. There are so many games these days; I think the [console] developers are really hitting their strides with the current consoles. It’s not just GTA, there are so many amazing games coming out I don’t know that there’s a safe place to come out. But I’m sure if GTA could just go away we’d be fine [laughs]. Just as long as I can play it as soon as possible.
Were you ever tempted to include multiplayer in Tomb Raider?
Well, yeah, we talked about all kinds of options. Such as should we go open world, should we go multiplayer, all of these things. But we filtered these things through what our goals really were. First and foremost we wanted to deliver a great single-player experience and I don’t think those are going away any time soon myself.
What work has been done to Tomb Raider’s engine?
It’s pretty much a complete overhaul of our existing tools. Obviously we carry technology forward especially a lot of tools people are comfortable with, but we’d worked with the hardware for long enough we felt that if we stripped it down and built it back up we could achieve much better results.
The core of our technology carried forward but we went through a massive overhaul.
Did you ever consider releasing a Wii U version of Tomb Raider?
We’re just focusing on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC right now and that’s all we really considered.