She is perhaps one of the most recognizable characters in all of pop culture, with nearly a dozen game titles selling millions of copies, two record-breaking box office movies, several printed adaptations, action figures, various merchandise and six entries in the 2010 Guinness Book of World Records to prove it.
Lara Croft, our (formerly) pixelated queen of action-adventure games, was recognized as the most successful video game heroine; most recognizable female in a video game; most detailed game character; most real-life stand-ins; highest grossing game spin-off and most successful live-action transfer—beating out rivals Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog for the distinction.
Like many other fan boys, however, I’ve sort of had a love-hate relationship with Lara through the years—at one point using “Croft” as one of my pen name in honor of her influence, but cursing her repeatedly every time I see my copy of Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness.
And though she often kept me wandering around vast empty caves and firing an infinite number of bullets on those walls for hours, I still feel guilty every time I make her do the swan dive of death in frustration.
But all that’s in the past, as Crystal Dynamics presents a fresh new take on the revered franchise, by incorporating exciting new gameplay elements and exploring the origin story of Lara Croft and her ascent from being a frightened young woman to a hardened survivor.
The Manila Times recently flew to Hong Kong to join representatives from other Southeast Asian countries for an exclusive hands-on demo of the upcoming Tomb Raider on the Xbox 360 and interview the game’s Art Director Brian Horton.
Gametime (GT): Tell us about this new take on Tomb Raider.
Brian Horton (BH): This game takes us back to when Lara Croft was just 21 years old and fresh out of college. She joins this expedition on board the ship Endurance, in search for the Lost Fleet of Kublai Khan in the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, they encounter a storm and gets shipwrecked on a not-so friendly island. This is where Lara learns how to survive and fight for her life.
|Art Director Brian Horton|
Gametime (GT): Is this the first Tomb Raider game you’ve been involved with?
Brian Horton: Yes, it is my first time to be part of Tomb Raider, but I’ve been a fan of the franchise since Tomb Raider 1 on the original Playstation. But before working on TR, I’ve been making action adventure games my entire career, about 17 years. I’ve worked on Indiana Jones, Silent Hill: Homecoming, Marc Ecko’s Getting Up, as well as several side scrollers from way back during the [Sega] Genesis. I’ve had a history with this genre and I loved it.
GT: What was the biggest challenge of taking on such a popular franchise?
BH: I think the biggest challenge was how to bring something new to the franchise yet still make it feel like a Tomb Raider game.
GT: Is there anyone in particular that served as the inspiration for Lara’s younger look?
BH: There is actually no one person that we could look at and say “That is Lara Croft.” She is an amalgamation of influences from models and actresses and our own inventions. But what we always did was went back to Lara Croft and said “if we were to make her real, what would we do?”
I know that we’ve seen many interpretations of her character, such as Angelina Jolie— but she
was not one of our influences.
We wanted to make sure that when you saw the first image of the new Lara, it would still feel like the original one—but new. That to me is the razor’s edge in how far is “too far” and how far is “not far enough.”
We wanted her to be younger, more youthful and more inexperienced. What you see now is a combination of multiple influences, interpretations and iterations to get to what we currently have on screen, and I think we struck just the right balance to try and bring a younger Lara that’s just a little bit more emotionally-rich and has room to grow into the hero that we want her to be.
GT: You’ve probably received a lot of suggestions from fans, what did they want and what was their biggest concern about this new reboot?
BH: I think what they wanted was mixed. Some people wanted her to go back to her original, original roots and they wanted her to look like how she did back then with the original outfit, the dual pistols, and the braid. But what we realized was in order to make her as relevant for this modern age we had to change that. We couldn’t just stick to what we knew. We had to make a choice and push beyond that. But the thing that stood out most from fans was they just wanted a great game. Just give us a great game something that we’d love to play and that’s why we spent so much time not only on how it looked . . . This is a whole new game style . . . every single pillar we have on the game has been reworked. So what we wanted to do was to give the fans the best possible Tomb Raider game we could create.
GT: Does it mean that you took out all the best elements of past TR games and put it together?
BH: I would say no. What we did was took the influence from past Tomb Raider games . . . Look at it like this . . . When I first played TR, it opened my eyes to what third person action adventure games should be. At that time it was very realistic—but not anymore. It was such a realistic world that we wanted to bring that forward to this current generation and say “this is the most realistic game we can make in this generation.” So that’s what I drew inspiration from.
If you think about it that first TR game was a very mature game. It had a very serious theme and it was actually quite scary too. So those are things that we looked at. What can we do to make action adventure a little more real, a bit more intense and that survival theme came forward.
GT: Tomb Raider was one of those games where you often needed to consult a walkthrough? Is it easy to get lost in this game as well?’
BH: We believe this is a more intuitive take on a TR game. We tried to “tutorialize” the game in such a way that you would understand the concepts clearly per section and we paced that in the first two hours of gameplay. We’ve done it in such a way that you’ll learn and master the controls of the game so that when you reach the next stages, you won’t be clueless on what to do. We give players information in bite sized chunks that will teach them the basics like ‘how do I jump or how to I light that torch. All those things are taught in the early parts of the game in a way that is very unobstrusive.
GT: What about those button prompts?
BH: Button press prompts appear only when you are in proximity. So it encourages you to look around if and explore if you see something interesting from a distance. We also used what we called a Visual language to make an organic environment easy to understand and know what you could navigate or interact with. We had to create rules for that. So for instance, anytime you see ledges areas you can climb on we put white specks of paint just to make the player notice it.
Sometimes that causes concern with the fans because they think it’s making the game too easy. But we believe as long as it feels real to the environment and believable then its just another tool for the player to use. Something else we’ve introduced in the game is the Map. It’s the first time we’ve ever had a map for Tomb Raider. But the map is not there to make things easy rather it gives you the ability to mark certain points of interests that you can unlock once you’ve upgraded your abilities or weapons. It tells you there are other things on this map that you could collect, but like I said you have to unlock or upgrade a certain ability first.
GT: Ability and weapon upgrades? So does it mean this game will also incorporate role playing game elements?
BH: I call it RPG lite and it’s not something that you have to grind out. This is not a game that holds you back. If you are playing normally you’ll gain enough experience points and you’ll find enough salvage chests without having to grind it out. So if I have a gear gate and I have to upgrade my Pry Axe, I only have to crack open four or five salvage crates, which I could find mostly along my path. But if you do want to get everything in the game you could upgrade even further so that you could unlock and reach secret areas. We try to make sure that the RPG elements are there but not so much of an encumbrance that the players would feel like they are grinding.
Forward momentum is one of our major focuses in this game. You can either just go for the action route but for those who want to explore the island more there’s a wealth of things to find such as hidden relics, paths, journals, more maps, and if you persevere enough you can even get everything in one go. Believe me we have a very interesting island for you to explore.
GT: You mentioned the Pry Axe, what was your inspiration for equipping Lara with that tool/weapon and the Bow?
BH: We got a lot of questions about that asking if we were inspired by the Hunger Games, the TV show Arrow, or even Brave. The answer is No.
You know how trends sort of just appear? We’ve been working on this for almost four years now before the awareness of all those movies and shows. The Pry tool just felt so natural to us and the Bow made sense because it is a primal tool. It’s a tool that you think of when you think of survival.
The Bow is something you could even make from the pieces of a shipwreck. All these things you see are natural for the theme of survival plus it gives us a new weapon in our arsenal that we’ve never had before. Lara will still use a gun, but now with these two new items…trust me the bow itself has a huge upgrade path that gives players a lot more to do.
GT: In one of the trailers, we see Lara hunt and kill a deer. Will there be a component of hunting for food to regain health in the game?
BH: No. We don’t see her eat the deer, but that is one of our story fiction points that teaches you how to hunt. You see, she was injured very early on and what the campsite represents to us is a place of healing. So people ask us “Wow she had that bar go through her side how does she get better from that?” We suggest that every time Lara sets up camp, there is a passage of time and she’s had a moment to heal. Hunting is the same way she takes it back to campsite to help fictionalize how she heals herself. It is not a system. It’s not much of survival mechanics as survival tone. Mechanics are geared around the action game while survival comes more through tone.
GT: Compared to the previous demos what new elements can we see from this hands-on preview?
BH: What we have here is a two-hour demo that showcases the full power of our combat system and the fluid cover system. Lara will automatically duck down or hide when she finds cover so you could focus on your aim and shoot. You’ll also notice the regenerative new health system where Lara can regain her health by finding a safe place and resting. Another big thing we’ve revealed here is the new AI of the enemies. We’ve spent a lot of time on our enemies so not only do they look natural in the world and behave as you think, but they will also hunt you down no matter where you go once they see you.
GT: During the presentation you mentioned Rambo + Ripley (from Aliens) + Lost as inspirations for Lara and the game, could you explain this?
BH: With Rambo, I prefer to look at him from his first movie First Blood, which is a more “survivor-esque” version not the over the top action version. But what’s great about the characters of both Rambo and Ripley is that they will do everything they have in order to survive. They may be tough but they are real people too. John Rambo had all kinds of emotional depth just like Ripley and both were thrust into situations that they had to react to it.
Lost is a touchstone because it is an ensemble cast of characters set against this mysterious island that has a presence of its own. In the game, the island itself is the second most important character of the story. It is based on an old Japan society called Yamatai so it adds a lot of mysterious elements to the game.
GT: Any messages you’d like to tell the Filipino gamers who are eagerly anticipating this game?
BH: We are very excited about this game as we want the Tomb Raider fan to fall in love with Tomb Raider all over again. This is going to be a new take that hopefully will give you the feeling you had when you first played a TR game. This is something new, fresh and exciting. It’s a Lara Croft that I know you’re all going to love.
As you play the game we want you to feel like you’re the one helping her survive, forging her to be that hero. So if you’ve ever wanted to feel that fantasy of what it is like to be Lara Croft and to watch her grow into the hero we all know—you are going to feel that in this game.
Update: MULTIPLAYER MODE REVEALED!
Tomb Raider is scheduled for release on March 5.
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Special thanks to Brian Horton, Crystal Dynamics and the Namco Bandai team (Kelvin Seah, Luna Huang and Hamid Rahman for the chance to learn more about one of 2013’s most anticipated games!