One of the big games of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) next week will be the new Lara Croft adventure, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, which debuts on September 14 on the PC and the consoles.
Lara Croft is in a world of trouble in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the third installment in the rebooted Tomb Raider series from Square Enix. She is in a race to beat Trinity, the organization that killed her father, in a race to uncover a Mayan secret. In her ambition to beat them, she causes what could be a world-ending catastrophe. Rather than stay and help those who are immediately suffering, as her friend Jonah does, Lara wants to set out in pursuit of Trinity and to fix her mistake. That causes a rift with Jonah, and it sets up Lara’s interesting clash with light and darkness in Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
I had a chance to play an extended demo of the game in advance of E3, and I liked this little thing that Eidos Montreal has remembered in crafting this tale: Character development. It matters, and so does a good story. I talked about that with Jill Murray, lead writer for the game at Eidos Montreal, and Chris Johnston, brand manager at Crystal Dynamics.
As I played through a stealth jungle level and then survived a cataclysmic flood that Lara had apparently caused, I started wondering about Lara. Was she the vulnerable young woman from the 2013 reboot, the more confident warrior in Rise of the Tomb Raider, or was she evolving into an overly confident scoundrel with too much swagger? Hopefully we’re not at that latter part yet, and Lara still has a thing or two to learn. One thing is for sure though. Murray says it’s quite humbling for Lara to make a mistake that causes the world to end.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: One thing that’s interesting to me — the rebooted Lara in Tomb Raider was much more vulnerable, less cocky, I guess more likable? Where she winds up in things like the movies is pretty cocky and maybe less likable. Is there a transition here, where we get from one to the other? Whereabouts are we in that transition?
Chris Johnston: There are two very different canons we’re talking about. What’s important to recognize is this is our modern, relatable origin story that we started with Tomb Raider 2013. We can expect a similar style of finish with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, where she’ll become a
modern, relatable version of what the Tomb Raider is. That’s part of what this game is all about. “Tomb Raider” is kind of an abstract term. We’re going to show players, through Lara’s eyes, what it means to become the Tomb Raider.
GamesBeat: What are some words you’d use to describe her now, in the third game, versus where she’s been?
Johnston: She’s definitely less vulnerable than she’s ever been. In Tomb Raider 2013 she was thrown into this situation where she was being very reactive. In Rise of the Tomb Raider she became more proactive. She went on her first expedition. In this game, this is the most capable and calculating Lara players have ever seen in the modern version of the series. Other words like “obsessed” and “driven” are ones we use quite frequently. She’s wanting to stop Trinity, the organization responsible for killing her father, as well as this world-ending apocalypse she kicked off.
Jill Murray: For this game specifically, I’d say “conflicted.” We also see her at the end of this trilogy, at the height of her power, realizing that she’s just at the beginning of her journey as far as what she can learn.
GamesBeat: In playing through this episode here, it reminded me of the old Spider-Man line about power and responsibility. She just screwed up the world.
Johnston: That’s what she’s beginning to understand. With the more power that she has, she’s more capable now. Her decisions have much greater impact, and this time, a world-ending impact.
GamesBeat: Is there a particular direction you wanted to take her in the writing this time? The first game could be described as a coming-of-age story. I don’t know how far along in this change or transition she is now.
Murray: This being the third game, there’s already a very solid foundation established. We have a lot of freedom to look at what’s already been done and take on maybe some of the kind of storytelling that wasn’t available in previous games, where they were trying to set everything up. We have a more emotional story. It’s more character-driven. Obviously we still have the big set-piece moments, but the way the characters arrive at them is true to their relationships and their motivations, waxing and waning and everything that happens between them.
GamesBeat: Even though she’s at the peak of her abilities, she’s not necessarily the swaggering type.
Murray: No. Very early in the game, she’s brought to confront the reality that she may have personally set off a world-ending apocalypse.
GamesBeat: That’s kind of humbling.
Murray: A little bit!
GamesBeat: Are there other reasons you didn’t want to go that route? You seem to have set it up with some deliberate intent that she doesn’t become that sort of character here.
Murray: One of the things that we’re playing with in that moment—her self-centeredness, which obviously mirrors the player’s self-centeredness—it’s hard to get inside our own point of view. Is she the center of everything? Does everything depend on her? It’s a double-edged sword, because maybe everything isn’t her fault. Maybe she doesn’t have the power to fix everything. Which would be worse? Would it be worse if it was her fault, or if she wasn’t that powerful? She’s struggling to see, am I on the road to becoming more like the enemy I hate? Am I going to be able to figure out what to do with this, how to work with these people and find another way forward?
GamesBeat: You’ve talked about how this is perhaps darker, more serious. Things that are happening in the game—it’s not much of a comedy.
Johnston: We’re seeing some particular parts of the game in what you’ve seen so far. You’re experiencing Lara’s lowest lows, and ultimately allowing you to appreciate more of the highest highs. But there are sections of the game where we allow players to explore this huge living
world, take on a bunch of side missions, side content. There’s a lot of stuff to do in these spaces. It’s also a chance for us to show players the character that Lara is as she interacts with this world.
GamesBeat: As far as the gameplay, did you feel like you wanted to change things quite a bit from game to game?
Johnston: We’re always looking at evolving. The core pillars that we looked at evolving—you can start with combat. In this jungle environment, Lara has to become an apex predator, and really use the jungle to her advantage in order to take out Trinity. She’s outgunned. She’s outnumbered. She’s not made of Teflon. You’ll see her use new stealth mechanics. For example, she can cover herself in mud as camouflage. Once you engage in combat, Lara and the player are able to retreat and wait for things to reset, and then re-engage, which is new to the franchise.
We’re also looking at how we’ve evolved traversal. The area we looked at is underwater exploration. In the demo you played, you see there are lots of areas to experience. There are claustrophobic areas. We like exploring the idea of risk versus reward. How far are players willing to go to find artifacts and items they’re looking for? They don’t know where the next populated area is going to be.
Last, there’s how we express tombs. In Rise we had these very Biblical-style tombs. In Shadow, we’re taking players to the very opposite, the subterranean, these deep, terrifying places. These tombs were built by a culture that worshipped fear and human sacrifice. The puzzles are
going to be bigger and deadlier than ever.
GamesBeat: The leaves that were part of that wall, you could blend into them. That seems like a new addition. The jungle affords more positions where you can hide and be stealthy.
Johnston: Yeah, Lara will be able to cover herself in mud as well. That’s another tool she can use. You didn’t get to play this scene, but you saw it today, where you press X and she covers herself in that mud patch. It allows her to move through the world without being detected
easily. Also, there’s a lot more verticality to the jungle. Lara’s up in the canopy, off the ground.
She’s moving all over the place in the most strategic way in order to take out the Trinity soldiers.
GamesBeat: It looks like you still have a lot of gunfighting, though.
Johnston: As far as the gameplay pillar balance, it’s comparable to the previous games. We try to find the right match of puzzles, exploration, discovery, and combat situations. You can expect a similar experience to what you had in Rise of the Tomb Raider and Tomb Raider 2013.
GamesBeat: What sort of impression would you like gamers to have of Lara at this point?
Murray: I hope they come away understanding her as a complete person. They’ve shared some of her journey, experienced some of her conflicts. They’ve had a chance to think through some things and consider how they would handle those themselves.
Johnston: One thing I like about Lara is that she’s a relatable character. Many different players can find many different ways to attach themselves to Lara. Ultimately, they’re going to see themselves that Lara isn’t a perfect person. She makes mistakes. That makes her a more
GamesBeat: The fight she had with Jonah at the end of this episode here, it seemed to draw out a conflict. She wants to save the world and he wants to help individual people.
Murray: He wants to save the world in a different way, yeah.
Johnston: It’s exploring Lara, too. You’re seeing that obsession in her. She thinks she’s the only one that can stop this. She’s the only one who can save us. But at the same time, she doesn’t take a second to reflect on what she just did. Jonah’s that moral compass. He helps Lara realize that there are things bigger than her that she needs to acknowledge. Because they’re best friends, he can speak to her in a way that no one else really can.
Murray: In this game we see her find her way from that hardcore, athletic perseverance – I can do anything, climb anything, go anywhere – toward a kind of emotional perseverance. She can have this big collective goal and figure out a way through to that.
GamesBeat: Were there any particular inspirations for how you wanted to portray that?
Murray: We draw a lot of elements from life. Often, when you look around at the world through a character’s eyes, you discover different things.
GamesBeat: It reminded me a little of Schindler’s List, the very beginning of that movie. The quote about “whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”
Murray: That would be well aligned with Jonah’s perspective, yes.
Johnston: It’s not just Lara and Jonah, too, but also the antagonist in this game, Dr. Dominguez. He isn’t the typical Tomb Raider antagonist. Usually Lara needs to the artifact first before some other guy and it’s a race against time. This time she does just that, and she kicks off the
apocalypse. Dr. Dominguez comes in and he’s not the typical twirling-his-moustache kind of villain. He’s the hero of his own story, if you think about it from his own perspective.
GamesBeat: He has to fix what she just did.
Johnston: Right. Understanding that these decisions she makes have world-ending implications, because she’s so powerful now.
GamesBeat: That conflict with Jonah seems like it reinforces the sensation that you want to have a conflicted Lara.
Murray: It’s not that we’ve been trying to add conflict, exactly? We just looked at all of these ingredients that came out of the previous games. Jonah has always been there backing her up.
He’s also the one person that’s able to call her out. Here we have this situation where she’s just done something, and we had him react to it honestly. This is what comes out of it.
GamesBeat: The flood scene was a lot of fun.
Johnston: We call those our “OMS” moments. It stands for “Oh My Shit.” The kind of cinematic, blockbuster moments in the game and the franchise, the things that make that wrapper on top of everything else the player is experiencing.
GamesBeat: Is that some of the pattern here? You have the buildup to these things, and then some down time afterward.
Johnston: Structurally, it’s a tool we’ve used very well for Tomb Raider. Players can continue to expect the style that’s helped deliver this really cinematic action survival experience.