Noah Hughes, franchise creative director at Crystal Dynamics, believes that Lara Croft’s story is just getting started. The Tomb Raider franchise is turning 20 years old, but the reboot of the famous adventure character is still barely tapping into the stories about the formative years of the swaggering Tomb Raider, Hughes said in an interview with GamesBeat.
The Tomb Raider franchise has sold over 46 million copies worldwide and inspired one of the most successful video game film adaptations in history, with a trio of Angelina Jolie films grossing over $300 million at the global box office. Now Square Enix is celebrating 20 years of the icon, with the release of Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration on October 11 on the PlayStation 4 and PC. It will come with a new downloadable content mission, Blood Ties, where you can explore Croft manor.
The action-adventure game has DLC from the past years, as well as numerous extras that go beyond last year’s Xbox exclusive, which earned numerous awards. It includes a new Lara’s Nightmare zombie combat mode, an “extreme survivor” difficulty level, and five classic Lara skins. These are all nice things for PlayStation 4 fans, but you shouldn’t miss the point about Lara’s story of female empowerment, self-reliance, and determination. Rise of the Tomb Raider is yet another example of how story takes center stage in the best blockbuster games.
Here’s an edited transcript of our talk. Check out our previous interview with Hughes here.
GamesBeat: Tell us what you’re doing for the 20th anniversary of Lara Croft?
Noah Hughes: With the opportunity to release something like a definitive edition of Rise of the Tomb Raider, we wanted to include all the DLC, everything you could have gotten up until this point. But we also wanted to make sure to cater to that theme of 20 years of tomb raiding, bringing in some nostalgic elements and classic elements.
One thing people often ask for is story DLC. We decided to do an hour-plus story chapter. With the inspiration of both the origin story and nostalgia, we decided to set it in Croft Manor. It appeared in the cinematics from Rise, but it was never playable. We envisioned it as part of Lara’s character, almost like Batman finding the cave. We see Lara coming home to the manor and ultimately inheriting her birthright. It’s part of her growth as a character.
Her ownership of the manor is contested in this story chapter. Her uncle claims that he’s the rightful heir, essentially, that he should retain ownership because her mother’s disappeared. You end up exploring the manor in search of anything that might prove that you’re the rightful heir. But also, in doing that, you get to see aspects of Lara’s childhood. Again, revealing a bit of what makes her tick. In flashbacks you experience some of the memories that come back to her as she explores her home.
As much as it’s a classic element, we do bring the manor into a sort of post-reboot lens. It’s in a state of disrepair. It hasn’t been lived in for many years. This is Lara’s first return home after a long time, and it’s almost a tomb raid in her own home. She has to explore these spaces and unravel a bit of her own history.
GamesBeat: What else is coming?
We also have Lara’s Nightmare, one of our replayable expedition modes. It’s the psychological version of reclaiming the manor. As Lara deals with the legal battles by day, she struggles with a different conflict at night, with zombies taking over the manor. She has to fight them off. It plays differently every time you go through it.
It’s similar to endurance mode, which we had already, but we’ve added co-op to endurance mode when you’re out in the Siberian wilderness. Likewise, that’s different every time you’ve played it. It’s like a survival experience, in that you have to deal with hunger and cold and you’ll die if you don’t find resources to help with those things. But the ultimate goal to get artifacts. You find tombs in this wilderness, and they’re in different places every time. You have this risk-reward proposition where you have to call for help and extract before you die. Each day that goes by it gets a little harder, and you have to decide how far down the road you want to go.
It’s a fun context for playing co-op. At Crystal we had a lot of fun making Guardian of Light and Temple of Osiris. Being able to bring some of that co-op gameplay into the Tomb Raider franchise was exciting.
Another small addition is the Extreme Survivor mode. As before, we have the Survivor mode, where you have harder enemies and greater resource scarcity, but in Extreme mode you can only save at campsites. It becomes very nerve-wracking to go down into tombs knowing that if you die, you have go all the way back to the campsite. It’s for hardcore players, but that’s one of the requests we get from a small percentage of our audience. Once you get good at the core campaign, you can continue to challenge yourself.
GamesBeat: Do we find out who fired that last shot in Rise of the Tomb Raider?
Hughes: [laughs] Ah…we do not yet.
GamesBeat: We’ll have to wait for another chapter for that one
Hughes: There you go.
GamesBeat: When you think about 20 years, what comes to mind as far as what’s important, what you want to preserve out of Lara’s history?
Hughes: The manor was a big part of it. That felt like something from the past that we could bring into the current timeline. We also wanted to add some other stuff, though. Lara herself, we remember her throughout the years. We did a new high-fidelity outfit — one of the many outfits you get with all the DLC — inspired by Tomb Raider III. It’s the Antarctic outfit with the orange jacket. We added the Uzi weapon, a throwback to one of my favorite classic Tomb Raider weapons. We took some inspiration from Lara’s past and re-envisioned a piece of it in a modern context.
We’ve included the low-poly Lara skins in addition to the new outfits. You get a number of Laras that are intended to look as much like the original incarnation as possible. You see things like the Angel of Darkness Lara in her sunglasses acting in her dramatic scenes from Rise of the Tomb Raider. Those are usable in the replay modes, or you can change into them once you beat the game.
We tried to do a lot in the way of adding new story content, new replayable modes, enhancing some of the modes we had before. We wanted to do even more than we had for the definitive edition, just as a sort of love letter to tomb-raiding.
GamesBeat: Did you ever have the thought of revisiting multiplayer?
Hughes: We talk about both competitive and cooperative experiences, definitely. This time around we wanted to play with replayable single-player experiences as well. Through our additional modes, we’ve really been exploring all the different ways we can bring tomb-raiding into a social space. I’m excited to hear people’s feedback. A lot of what we do each time—we hear what resonates with people, what they like and dislike, and going forward we channel some of those learnings into new steps for the franchise.
I’m excited to see what people think of co-op. We see all kinds of opportunities, so it’ll be fun to get some new data on how players respond to what we have to offer.
GamesBeat: We heard recently from the CEO of Electronic Arts about — at first they were saying they weren’t sure if people liked reboots or not. More recently he said they’ve discovered that at this point in the industry, fans are enjoying them more and more. It seems like you guys have one of the proof points in that shift. Consumers appreciate seeing things starting over and being reintroduced.
Hughes: For us, the important sentiment is always freshness in general. That can happen with or without a reboot. You can infuse new gameplay and take bold story choices and offer players sequels that continue to surprise them and offer them new experiences. But sometimes the reboot is another way to add a very noticeable air of freshness.
It’s also an opportunity to make missteps, though. Ultimately, although people like to refresh what they love, there’s a certain point where it goes so far from what they recognize that the freshness comes at too high a cost, if you depart too far from what people see as the core of a franchise or a character. In that context, it’s essential to thread this needle between what made it great in the first place and bringing that layer of freshness as part of a reboot. People like to be surprised.
My take is, I don’t chase reboots for reboots’ sake. But in our case, this was a great opportunity to add that air of freshness. People got to see something they hadn’t seen before.
GamesBeat: Reboots introduce that opportunity for the generational shift. Parents who played the original game can introduce it to their kids, after enough passage of time. It’s almost like the Disney effect, where multiple generations enjoy the same characters.
Hughes: That was less obvious to me at the outset, but it was a nice realization to see different generations enjoying the game together and having that conversation about what they loved about both the classic games and the new ones. It’s neat to see that bridge across generations, in some ways. To be honest, that wasn’t a goal, but it was an exciting thing to see. It’s one of the values of having a 20-year franchise. When people are still engaged you get a whole new level of — it’s a shared piece of the collective culture.
GamesBeat: I played through Rise of the Tomb Raider with my 16-year-old daughter. That was the first Tomb Raider game she’d played. The way I convinced her to play it, I said, “Hey, look at this old photo of the way Lara Croft used to look, and look at this one from the reboot. What do you notice?” She says, “Wow, she’s a real character. She’s a regular person.”
Hughes: We did want to re-establish our relationship with the fans, and part of that was trying to expose Lara’s humanity, to introducing them to someone who had more dimensionality and more depth than they may have realized. We came to recognize that she was so often described by her physical attributes, things like that. One of our goals was to have people start to describe her through her personality — what they can and can’t relate to about her as a character. As much as freshness in general was a goal, humanizing Lara and creating or re-creating that connection with our audience was a primary inspiration.
GamesBeat: When you think about 20 more years, what do you see ahead?
Hughes: The thing that’s made Tomb Raider stick around this long is Lara. At the heart of that is a promise of action, adventure, everything that’s great about action-adventure gaming. Platforming, puzzles, combat, exploration, all these things that are baked in to Lara as a character. It’s the promise of adventure and the sense of universality that represents. The promise of discovery at the end of the adventure, this idea that there are hidden secrets in the world and you’re the only person who can unlock them. It has a great resonance. On top of that, though, I think Lara is unique in how recognizable she is as a character. Even in silhouette, people can pick out Lara.
It’s that combination of universality with a unique and distinct identity that makes her such a resonant character. As long as we continue to modernize that construct, we can continue to have a relationship with Lara, and then we get to deal with the fun question — what adventure should we go on next? How do we challenge Lara in ways she’s never faced before? My hope is that, through continually modernizing the character and the gameplay experience, we can continue to have the opportunity to take players on these journeys.
GamesBeat: Given the feedback from not just the reboot, but Rise specifically, do you feel like you get a lot of momentum from the notion of Lara as an empowered woman?
Hughes: In general, one of the more common pieces of feedback I get is a respect for Lara’s determination and resilience as a character. Occasionally I get feedback expressing that she was more confident and more powerful, like the old Lara. I think there’s still a desire to see her fully realize her destiny. The fact that she’s not there yet, in some cases, bothers some people. They want her to get back to that point.
That tends to be the exception to the rule, though. Much more often you see people who are excited to see Lara challenged in the story. She has to grow in order to succeed, and through that process we get a better understanding of her as a character. We see that aspirational piece of someone who can accomplish almost anything through force of will and perseverance and resourcefulness. That theme continues to resonate.
Having said that, talking about those who are hungry to see Lara grow, that’s also exciting. With each chapter that goes by, Lara becomes more confident and more competent. That’s also fulfilling some of those promises for those who are looking forward to see that happen.
GamesBeat: Do you still see a lot of space there, between the Lara you have at the end of Rise of the Tomb Raider and the fully mature Lara we saw in the old games?
Hughes: Definitely. We’ve left Lara room to grow. We’re trying to make sure that she’s much more accomplished, that finding her confidence and competence isn’t necessarily the challenge. But as you know, as humans we’re constantly challenged in life. It becomes the recognition that we can continue to challenge Lara, but ultimately it’s less about her being inexperienced now and more about throwing things at her that will force her to grow in new ways.