Lara Croft has been gone awhile.
Games have changed during her hiatus, along with the way they’re looked at. New concepts, new gameplay standards, new ideals and values have slowly filled the video game melting pot to its brim. The end of a console generation is approaching; Lara needed to be its tipping point.
A reinvention of Lara’s character seemed almost necessary given the new landscape she emerged onto with her newest release, in which developer Crystal Dynamics sought to tell an origin story worthy of both the Tomb Raider name and the upper echelons of today’s titles.
To do this, Darrell Gallagher and Noah Hughes needed to join Lara in her reinvention, and reexamine their own approaches as well.
Woman vs. Nature
In the past, Lara has been larger than life; more of an icon than a human character. Her invariable victory had a few bumps and bruises along the way, sure, but it was all in good fun. There was always a light at the end of the bullet-ridden tunnel that suggested a satisfying end was within reach.
Crystal Dynamics doesn’t want to reassure you this time around. They want you to root for Lara. They don’t want it to be clear whether she is going to succeed or not.
“Survival is that fight to live, in the face of death,” Hughes, creative director at Crystal Dynamics, said. "Sort of a ‘man versus wild’ theme to our story. We didn’t want to sanitize that.
“We wanted to create an experience where the island really did feel lethal. When you succeeded, you felt that great sense of success because you earned a new upgrade. But if you failed, you also felt, ‘Ouch, that hurt. This is not just a vacation on a tropical island.'”
Once that life-or-death scenario set the stage, Lara was ready to step into the limelight as a dynamic character. A young, ambitious archaeologist turned hardened survivor; an inquisitive woman turned aggressive killer. Crystal Dynamics wasn’t just creating her, they were directing the play from the opening scene, marching her toward the Tomb Raider we’re all familiar with.
“Life and death survival [was] the catalyst within which we would forge Lara Croft,” Hughes said.
If that scenario was Lara’s forge, then the 2012 video game industry was Crystal Dynamics’.
The developer released Tomb Raider: Underworld in 2008, marking their last pure entry in their previous Tomb Raider trilogy. Darrell Gallagher, the studio head at Crystal, didn’t want another iteration on the series this time around; he wanted something fresh.
“Sticking to the same formula was going to have diminishing returns,” he said. “It was really a requirement for us to change.
“There have been numerous sequels of Tomb Raider over the years. They stuck to a fairly classical formula. Even though there was evolution, it still was the same footprint.”
Gallagher mentioned the James Bond films in reference to Tomb Raider. The film franchise evolved with media and consumers alike, not afraid to modernize when needed, or change when its current state wasn’t good enough for modern palates. Gallagher, along with the rest of his team, needed to do something similar. They needed to make Tomb Raider relevant again. They needed a modern contender.
Woman vs. Man
“The development landscape has changed,” Hughes said. “You see that from a performance perspective: physics-based puzzles, the scale we’re able to achieve…these are things which weren’t possible back then.”
Hughes emphasized the dynamic between Lara and the gameplay, mentioning a “give and take” relationship that balances character and control. The leap to exceptional mechanics and modern design were just as important as the one to a new setting.
“For us, it was a matter of creating an experience that celebrated both [gameplay and story],” he said. “At times we had to make the story adjust to the gameplay experience that needed to be there. It went both ways, but the idea was to take both of those ambitions into it and do the best we could.”
The consumer landscape has changed as well. Female sex symbols are no longer elevated among the ranks of characters in media, with none other than Lara Croft herself coming quickly to mind on the subject.
It wasn’t a chief concern on the development team’s mind, though. Gallagher and Hughes considered it a human story, one where they wanted to make a more grounded, personal journey to bring about a character. The gender issues that older Tomb Raider titles raise were never a concern.
“It was much more about making a believable human, somebody you could relate to,” Gallagher said. “We have a character that is a female, who is an icon in the industry. That’s a great place to be, but it didn’t really drive decision making.”
Lara gets beat up in the new Tomb Raider. A lot. Her death scenes, should the player fail, range anywhere from a quick fade to black, to an extended shot of a wooden pike impaling the protagonist as she careens down a riverbed.
“Sometimes, there is certainly, what I feel, a double standard in the way people perceive games,” Hughes said. “I won’t make any comments on specific things, but for the most part, we approached it in a way that felt genuine to the story we were telling; we’re always surprised when people call us out for being not genuine.”
Woman vs. Self
The weight that accompanies development on a new title is enough pressure for any developer, but throw in the aforementioned promises that accompany a reboot and the demands of a new industry landscape, and Crystal Dynamics had a lot to deliver.
Any pressure the studio felt was internal, though. Even with the game’s delay from 2012 until 2013, Gallagher and Hughes were the team’s biggest critics.
“Honestly, the highest expectations were us on ourselves,” Gallagher said. “Even though they were extremely high externally, as a team, I think we held ourselves to extremely high standards.”
Hughes is quick to point out the difference between what they were making and what everyone else makes: Everyone else makes games, but Crystal Dynamics was making Tomb Raider games.
“In some ways, we didn’t feel any real pressure,” Hughes said. “We were very sheltered from it in the development process and were able to pursue what we felt was the right answer creatively.
“But it’s also such a well-known franchise. Not only are you trying to make a great game, but a great Tomb Raider. In some ways…there were a lot of expectations we had to fulfill while doing something no one had ever seen before. It was definitely a challenge in our heads.”
Anticipation was the first emotion accompanying release, Gallagher recalled; Then, anxiety. And then?
“You think you’ve made all of the right choices, or as many as you can,” he said. “We felt good about where this game was at the end of development. We felt good about our choices.
“But then it’s really up to other people to judge that…thankfully, we’ve had overwhelmingly good support for the choices we have made.”
And how does that feel?
Gallagher laughed, more of a content sigh than one of amusement. “That feels…great.”