Interview: Noah Hughes, Creative Director of Crystal Dynamics, on Tomb Raider

You’d forgive Lara Croft for feeling a little fatigued of late. Nine core games and two Hollywood movies spread across sixteen-years – not to mention several theme park cameos. It’s high time one of gaming’s most notable franchises got a kick-start then, and Crystal Dynamic’s are here to administer it. I sat down with Creative Director of Crystal Dynamics, Noah Hughes, to discuss reshaping Lara Croft, accidental parallels with Lost and how you go about shepherding a 16-year-old franchise forward into the modern era.

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How did you approach rebooting a franchise as ingrained in the gaming tapestry as Tomb Raider? It must have been an intimidating prospect.

It was. I think it was almost more intimidating when we got a hold of the franchise in the first place. When we did Legend we had such respect for what Core had done and really wanted to carry forward what they had started. Obviously we had our own engine and our own sensibilities but we felt we needed to shepherd the franchise forward. After Underworld we really felt like we wanted to do something that was going to make people at least re-evaluate whether they wanted to play a Tomb Raider game or not. That almost felt like an obligation. I felt like it was on us to make sure the franchise didn’t go stale. Having said that, that was just confidence with the idea that we needed to make the change, but the proposition of trying to balance that goal of freshness with a commitment to not straying from the core values of the franchise… It was an easy decision to do something fresh but it was a hard balancing act to execute it without alienating the awesome fanbase we had already.

What were those core values you felt were important to keep intact?

Well, there’s two main points for that. Lara as a character was the centre of it all, so as much as this is a new Lara, it’s more looking at the same Lara through a new lens. She’s still a brilliant archeologist and athlete and she has an amazing force of will. These are all things I liked about Lara before and really all we tried to do was reveal a little bit more character depth and complexity beyond that. She’d sort of become an icon as such that people only described her through her physical attributes or her actions. We wanted to bring her to life.

Lara was the anchor for all our choices but the second core value we wanted to carry forward was the gameplay. Tomb Raider has always been about puzzle solving and traversal and exploration and combat and in every case, just like we did with Lara, we looked at all that gameplay through a new lens but really tried to deliver that same Tomb Raider formula.

Was there anything that changed drastically?

The thing that changed the most was probably the combat, we really felt we’d fallen behind the curve a bit. But the goal isn’t to emphasise combat this time round, it’s really just to bring it up to date so that gameplay pillar can be thrown in the mix, which allows us to cycle through each of the gameplay styles. And that’s something I’ve always loved about Tomb Raider – that variety of gameplay.

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Did you ever explore not including out-and-out combat, instead focusing on the stealth combat and other aspects? From the build, it’s the exploration, the survival aspects, the tiptoeing past bad guys and Lara as a person – someone who thinks with her brain and not her trigger finger – that really stood out. And it’s not just with Tomb Raider, there’s plenty of games that could do with less combat. Is combat a crutch?

I think that’s a fair point. It’s the hardest thing for me in terms of really not wanting to alienate the fans. What we tried to do with the combat system is make sure that it was appropriately Lara-like. You know, people call out similarities between our game and others but… There were some key choices; we decided to do a very fluid cover system instead of just having Lara stick in one place. We tried to create systems that would allow Lara to move a lot; the idea that finding higher ground within a battle area is an advantage means traversal comes into play. Similarly, the stealth opportunities were really about letting Lara and the player feel like they’re outsmarting the enemies. I like the mix of combat and everything else. It really allows us to offer the player a new flavour and a new pace every fifteen minutes or so. I think I would worry about the variety of experience if we didn’t have that, but it was really important that we at least delivered what we felt was a Lara inspired version of combat.

Does the full-game follow a similar mix whereby the combat isn’t the focal point?

Yeah. Just to get a taste, after the demo there’s a stretch of very low-combat sequences and some high-action traversal and then you’re back in a hub that has changed states a little bit since you’ve been there. You have some new gear and you’re able to progress through the hub and get to areas you couldn’t get to before. And then you’re back to one of our tomb-like spaces which is really more about atmosphere and ultimately ramping up some puzzle elements in the culmination of one of our larger critical path puzzles. So it’s really about cycling those experiences rather than hitting that combat note and sustaining it all the way through.

What games or films or books or TV have influenced you with the reboot? People are quick to make comparisons to Uncharted but early on I thought it felt particularly like a contemporary survival horror game.

We take inspiration from a lot of places. I hope that when people play the game they realise that it’s something different to other games out there. I admire the storytelling in Uncharted. I admire the richness of systems in Assassin’s Creed. I admire the game structure of Batman: Arkham City. We take inspiration from all the games we love to play. But, for example, real world survival stories were really inspiring to us. The idea of pushing humans to their extents and really being forced to make choices and change as people in order to survive. And, of course, we grew up with movies that find their way in as inspirations as well. As a character we looked at Ripley a lot. She’s a remarkable character in terms of the survival theme we had. Then there’s Rambo, obviously the first Rambo and not some of the later ones that were just about big guns.

You mention survival horror and that’s really about – in the same way that I love the variety of gameplay in a Tomb Raider game – we really wanted to get the variety of experience. If you think about the first part of this demo, it’s dark and claustrophobic and if you think of the end it’s grand and open with jaw-dropping vistas. It’s about presenting that contrast and variety and certainly there’s great inspirations within the survival horror genre as well.

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Lost or something like Lord of the Flies seem to be other obvious ones. 

It surprised me when people started making those analogies and then immediately I realised how many parallels there were. But to kind of walk you through it, if we were going to force Lara to progress as a character we needed to take her away from things she could rely on outside of herself. So the island was one of our first choices and that was completely independent of Lost. But then you want not just friends on the island you want enemies on the island and all of a sudden you’ve got ‘others’. The idea that, as a franchise, we celebrate mystery and the idea that it’s about unravelling these mysteries is part of Lara’s character. So strangely enough we sort of backed our way into something that felt very like Lost-like in the end, but I hope it has its own flavour as much as there is obvious parallels. But yeah, you can see how it’s kind of hard to not make some of those choices once you’re there.

On a slight tangent, what do you think has been the most influential game of the last four or five years?

It’s hard to answer such absolutes. I really loved BioShock. I felt that the world and the atmosphere they created felt very believable, but it was also fantastical in some ways and it had that mix of taking you somewhere you could never go but making you feel like you were really there. It was smart about it, too. I don’t think BioShock talked down to its audience, it respected their intelligence and offered entertainment for smart, mature people.

It’s interesting you namecheck BioShock because the intro to Tomb Raider manages to convey the same sense of awe and excitement that comes from arriving at a world that’s so well grounded in real-life, yet manages to feel completely foreign. 

That’s why I use the word believability rather than reality and it’s easy to get them mixed up. For us it’s about making it believable and part of the reason for that is, when you take someone someplace more amazing, it is that much more amazing because it’s grounded in an illusion that they are bought into. For us, it’s about grounding it as a foundation and then offering Tomb Raider-ness in ways we can’t talk about yet.

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What was the thinking behind bringing Rhianna Pratchett on board?

We knew we wanted to bring out Lara’s character and we tried out a bunch of writers early on and someone had recommended Rhianna. Most of the writers we worked with were fine storytellers but what was most important to me was making Lara feel real and plausible and having some dimensionality and the samples Rhianna did with us early on really captured the Lara that we wanted to bring to life.

You mention Lara being the anchor this time round and bringing her to life, how exactly do you do that?

Part of it is having other characters in the world that she cares about and that aspect of human interaction was important to exposing some of her relatable side. But also, it was about starting from the beginning and helping the player understand her motivations. Like, the idea that she kills someone but she doesn’t do it without it having an impact on her own character and sensibilities. We wanted to show her growth as a character as well as the motivations behind her actions.

How do you feel about the portrayal of female characters in games? 

There’s obviously a strange focus on male protagonists and I don’t know why. I think Lara’s a particularly cool character to work with and I hope that as we mature as an industry we’ll see that balance equal out a little bit more. I can only speculate why we are where we are.

Finally, the impression I got from playing was Square Enix and Eidos has given you significant freedom with the reboot. I’d be interested to know just how open they were to you making so many changes.

It’s kind of strange. Working with the franchise for a while, everybody has always been supportive but they’ve also been conservative in a healthy way. But I think everybody felt we had a mandate to freshen up the franchise and we were fortunate enough to be given enough time to put enough things on screen that really started to generate belief in both Eidos and Square Enix. Having said that, I think it’s been more supportive and more free than I could have even imagined. Even given the idea that people are behind the general concept, you’d think there’d still be that nervousness. Somehow someone managed to give us that bubble to work within and I feel lucky for that.

This interview was originally published on Strategy Informer.

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