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AusGamers Tomb Raider Developer Video Interview
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 03:24pm 11/12/12 | Comments
AusGamers caught up with Tomb Raider senior art director, Brian Horton, to talk about thier reboot of a classic character and franchise. Read on or watch for what he had to say...

Watch the full video interview embedded above, or click here for a direct link

AusGamers: Ladies and gents, welcome back to AusGamers. You are here once again with Stephen Farrelly. I’ve got Brian [Horton], who is the Senior Art Director out at Crystal Dynamics working on Tomb Raider.

It’s been coming for a while; we’ve covered it from E3s, and there’s a bit of controversy around it; lots of people really excited for this reboot, and this more vulnerable Lara... that you’re probably going to mold her and shape her into the Lara that we already know and love.

Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about going back to the drawing board with the franchise, and I guess where did that come from? Was there a checklist that you guys had to kind of hit right off the mark?

Brian Horton: We were very fortunate to work on the Tomb Raider franchise. It’s a beloved franchise; [Lara’s] the second most recognisable character -- next to Mario -- in the videogame pantheon, so it’s a great chance to work on a Tomb Raider game.

But people who knew her, they were losing their affinity to her. She was just too removed... displaced from the action around her. It’s almost like she could never be hurt. So what we wanted to do is make sure she was more believable -- more vulnerable in the beginning -- and the best way to do that is to tell an origin story.

There’s been hints at her past in other games, but this is the first game that really explores that first adventure, that path that she was going to take to become a tomb raider, and that was one of our mandates: “let’s re-imagine this franchise through a modern filter”.

AusGamers: Did you guys go back to the original Tomb Raiders to kind of take particular milestones or moments from those, and make sure that you wrote them into the path of her becoming who she is?

Brian: We wanted to make sure the essence of Lara Croft is in her character in our reimagining of the franchise -- we obviously looked at Lara herself. We did want strip away some of that steeliness -- at least at the beginning -- because, there’s a point where to get Lara to where she was, there was something that happened beforehand. So we needed to tell that story.

We did look at a lot of the ingredients of the first Tomb Raider, at least for me, that was my favourite game of the franchise. My first experience with Tomb Raider was the PlayStation One version, and one thing that rings true to me, is that the game -- even though it was very low polygon -- treated the world as a very real place. Yes, there was moments like the T-Rex and things like that that came in, but in general, it was a woman in these real places, doing dangerous things.

So the essence of that game actually had a mature flavour to it, and I think we brought it a little bit back to that Tomb Raider One flavour, versus the more storybook flavour that it achieved as it progressed as a game.

AusGamers: I think that’s something that you guys have nailed. I actually just had a chance to get hands-on with the game, and you talk about environments, and obviously, I only played the first hour and a half of this demo, and I’m already jumping from one place to another, to another, yet you’re kind of on an island. It’s obviously its own character, and you guys have spent a huge amount of time building that character.

WIth the diversification of that world, can you go into... I guess, how deep did you guys go, and again, did you pull stuff from classic Tomb Raider, or was this kind of starting from scratch?

Brian: This is a bit of starting from scratch. We wanted to come up with a whole other place that Lara’s never been. It is a fictional island off the coast of Japan, but it is steeped in some kind of history. The myth of this island is something that we drew upon and we built a fiction around.

The idea of one island, or one location, is kind of new to the franchise -- usually Tomb Raider is a globetrotting adventure -- but we wanted to make sure that when we’re in this one place, that each part of the island had its own ecosystem. Weather plays a huge part in our game, the forces of natures. And you talked about the island being a character, and that was one of our goals, is to make sure that it came across as a place that was alive; that was almost a combatant in a way, or something that was keeping her from reaching her goals.

These weather systems, and the ecosystems that exist in each one are also woven with these layers of history. You’re going to see the island as a mismatch of all kinds of different cultures. There’s an ancient Japanese culture, there is an Age of Exploration layer of history, and there is the more modern history, and World War II history. All of these things are a tapestry that weaves the aesthetic of the game.

You saw a little bit of the scavengers, which are a more modern shipwreck society that has formed, and they’re sort of under the rule of this guy named Mathias, and they end up becoming one of your main foes in the game.

AusGamers: You’re talking about history, and there’s already copious amounts of lore that you’ve created for the game. How far does that go? And I guess a question tied to that would be: in the demo I played, I’m being driven down quite a few paths, but then I’m going out into these big open sandbox areas. Does the island ever fully open up for you? Because you talked about ecology as well, and obviously hunting’s a big component, and scavenging, and bolstering your weapons and items. Can you talk about how that all works?

Brian: Sure. The ecosystem of the game is tied to the mechanics as well right? So getting salvage is actually a resource that the player can use. Something new for the franchise is that you’ll be able to actually upgrade your weapons -- they’re not just something you acquire. You will get new weapons -- bespoke weapons; something that is going to be a new tool -- but there is also the idea of augmenting those tools and weapons.

Our game... you also mentioned the bigger spaces. It’s not an open-world game but there are these explorable hubs. What these hubs allow us to do, is you enter the hub, and the first time it’s almost overwhelming. You come down the bottom of the mountain and you’re looking up...

AusGamers: I can attest to that...

Brian: It’s a big place right? And there’s a lot of things you can do. But there’s also barriers that keep you from fully exploring it. You’ll go through more of the game, and when you come back into that hub-space, you’ll now have more tools and weapons, and that will allow you to unlock more potential, and discover more things.

But for that explorer out there, the one that played the original Tomb Raider games, and are looking for that sort of undirected “I just want to explore this space”, the game has that part to it. Also for that action fan, the one that just wants to have a really good adrenaline experience they can have that as well. Catering to different play-styles is a big part of our charter as well. We wanted to make sure that a non-Tomb Raider fan would really appreciate this game as much as a Tomb Raider fan would.

AusGamers: You mentioned action and exploration, but one of the things that I found basically from the outset, is that this is almost survival-horror.

Brian: It has... survival as a theme has a horror component to it. When you think of videogames, it’s sort of a mixture of fear and control -- the mix between those two things. Now fear can manifest in multiple different ways, but we don’t put this into a monster-scare kind of thing, it’s just scary being in a dark cave, it’s scary, it’s that fear of the unknown. You have someone that is hunting you; that has a fear component to it.

But I wouldn’t say our game is survival-horror, but I do think it has a survival nature to it, and survival in itself has a dark tone. I often cite one of our influences is Apocalypse Now; now that’s not a horror movie, it’s a war movie, but it has horrific elements to it. The Descent is a movie that also influenced us, which is a horror movie, but we don’t have that traditional monster formula. So I would say I can see where you could see parallels to a survival-horror, but it’s more a survival-action game -- that’s how we’ve branded it.

AusGamers: Talking about horror: the very first kill is a very jarring moment. I’ve seen it quite a few times, at E3, and obviously in that video, then actually playing through. It’s quite jarring, which is exactly the right word for it. But then after that after that, you do fall into a sort of action-shooter cadence.

I’m actually curious to know: the original Lara Croft games, Tomb Raider games were a lot more about isolation, and a lot more about Lara versus the puzzles and the environment. Obviously on the island, she’s got a number of enemies, she’s got all the ecology to deal with, but she’s also got friends there as well. A lot of what I played was going through isolated moments, but will we get to a point where it really does feel like everything is just crashing down on her, but it’s just her against almost silence?

Brian: There are ingredients of the game where isolation is important. We have probably a higher level of human interaction in this game than past Tomb Raiders -- especially the first Tomb Raider game, which was very much about isolation, and you against the world, and world navigation puzzling -- but I would say that the goal for a hub-space, is to give you an ingredient of that, of that feeling of “I just want to look around: I want to go over there; I’m going to plot a course, and go there, and see what I can discover”.

So those that are interested in something that is more isolated and more internal, there’s a lot of things to acquire. You’re going to find journals along the way, you’re going to find artifacts and relics, and those will give you a deeper feeling of the story, and also give you those pace-breakers right? If you’re feeling like “oh, I just want to relax and take a break out of the heavy action”, there’s moments where after the action is over, you can really explore a space, and have a run and revel in that kind of isolation.

Another thing that’s kind of interesting about our combat though, is after the first kill, we do emphasise a new mechanic, which is the sneak and opportunity kills. So the bow, being one of our weapons that we’ve introduced in the franchise, has actually been a fantastic tool for us as a stealth weapon, and a weapon that you can use as an opportunity weapon.

Our AI is developed in such a way that I don’t have to take people on full-force, I can actually find a way to distract one guy, separate them, then take them out individually, and I won’t be into this massive action moment, it’s more of a stealth-action moment, which is a fun way to make a choice on how you play the game.

AusGamers: There was a few moments after I’d done that first kill, then I’d taken out a couple of other bad guys, that Lara is kind of remarking about how horrible everything is. Are you going to be reminding the player along the way that this is the first time she’s had to take human life, and the cost of that to her, and to her character?

Brian: It’s something that is a recurring theme, that idea of sacrifice and loss. But the fact of the matter is that that first kill changes her. It was something that she had to do to survive -- she had the inner strength enough to survive. But it’s something that will plague her in some way, something that she has to grapple with, and she’ll be challenged by.

What we realise, is that when you get into a situation like this, and where it’s kill or be killed, it’s the only logical step that she could have taken. But it does ultimately change her, it does form her personality, it transforms her. So I think you’re going to see that theme sort of weave its way through the entire game.

AusGamers: Now I played, like I said, an hour and a half, and I felt like I barely scratched the surface. It’s always a hard question to ask people to quantify a certain amount of play-time, because obviously everyone has different play-styles, but for the completionist out there, the person that wants to get all the journals, and discover all the temples, and that sort of stuff: what kind of length would we be looking at?

Brian: Easily, a minimum for a completionist player... if you know exactly where to go, and I do, I’ve played the game many times now, it takes me anywhere from 10 to 12 hours depending -- that’s knowing everything. If you don’t know where you’re going, and you’re trying to be a completionist, I could easily see you in the 20-hour game experience, if you want to get everything.

We’ve also got a new feature in our game, which is the fast travel menu, which is another campsite option. So after you’ve completed a space, or after you’ve gone through it one time, you might have missed some stuff right? There might be things that you want to go back and find. I can go to any of my base-camps and I can fast-travel back to an area I’ve been, then with all my new tools and weapons, explore that space again. I might see something I didn’t see before, because now I’ve acquired more information.

So I think that’s really what’s exciting, is that you don’t have to play this game completely linearly, you can actually play it in a little more of an organic way and control your pace.

AusGamers: Now currently you’re on the two consoles and PC. Any plans for Wii U, have you guys announced anything like that?

Brian: Our announcements right now are still Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. We chose to focus on those platforms, and that’s been our goal from the beginning.

AusGamers: Now I’m going to wrap up, but I’m starting to ask people this now, because we’re transitioning from one generation to the next. You’re a Senior Art Director, you guys must be excited about what’s happening in the console space, and just the power space as well, in terms of what you guys can potentially put on-screen. And now that you’ve got this rebooted franchise, Crystal Dynamics must be champing at the bit to get stuck into the next game?

Brian: We’re one hundred percent focused right now on Tomb Raider. There is obviously potential for the future -- we’re always thinking about the future in some capacity -- but we know if we don’t get this right, if we don’t re-launch Tomb Raider in a really strong way, none of our future plans are going to manifest.

So the focus is: how do we make the best Tomb Raider game we can? And the way we did that was we made a choice to say “Alright, we’re going to make sure that when we deliver this game, it’s going to done and tested, and tested, and tested, and refined”. So we’ve been in a huge phase of refinement now for quite a while and our goal has been “Let’s keep refining this thing, let’s get the focus-test feedback, let’s get people playing the game and giving us information that we can use to make our game better”.

But yeah, of course I’m excited about the future. That’s the great thing about the games industry, is that it’s always evolving, and there’s always something on the horizon. There’s no other industry in the world that has the kind of technological advances that we do, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about the future, and the future of what Tomb Raider can be, but what I’m excited about now is that I think we’re delivering something that feels like filling the corners of the Xbox [360] and the PS3. We’re really delivering something that feels like a mature end-of-generation game, and that’s what we’re excited about.

AusGamers: Final question then: is there going to be any differentiation with the PC. Are you guys using DX11 or anything like that?

Brian: The PC is definitely going to be its own... has its own requirements, and our hope is to deliver, for those PC fans out there, and if you have a beefy PC, we’re going to give you something that you’ll be very, very happy with. We’re not going into a lot of details about what this is right now, and our commitments, but know that for those PC fans out there, we’re going to be making sure: if you have the base-spec machine or something lower-end, you’ll be able to play this game, or if you have something beefy, you’ll be very happy with it.

AusGamers: Alright, awesome. Well thanks very much for your time today Brian. The game’s looking great so can’t wait for it to get out there. Cheers.

Brian: Thank you.
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Latest Comments
Posted 04:06pm 11/12/12
That thread title is really confusing, I was trying to work out how they failed before release.

Maybe rename it to "Crystal Dynamics on Tomb Raider PC love, recrafting gaming icon and going all-in"?
Nerf Lord
Posted 04:30pm 11/12/12
'Not failing' makes more sense than failing, but now is even more confusing :P - I think that 'succeeding' might be the word that you're looking for..

And yeah it's looking pretty good, but PC performance was a huge concern for me. Guess if I make some unexpected sales soon then it might justify grabbing a discounted copy on GMG, if they're still doing that...
Posted 04:49pm 11/12/12
It's not even "not failing", it's on "what failing would mean; the stakes are high". They haven't failed or succeeded, yet!
Posted 03:05pm 24/2/13
Take out a major factor in the TR franchise that is SWIMMING, and replace it with a completely garbage MULTIPLAYER? Wow what are dev companies thinking with that crap these days.
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