After the first two games in the rebooted Tomb Raider series, Lara Croft’s journey down to South America is one that’s set to define her as the Tomb Raider once and for all. She might not really have that much competition for the job, but it’s one that comes with a lot of responsibility to be able to handle the mythological weirdness that she’s bound to encounter.
Having gone hands on with the first few hours of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, we spoke to Jason Dozois, Narrative Director, and Heath Smith, Lead Game Designer, about how they’re evolving past Rise of the Tomb Raider and pushing the narrative in a different direction.
TSA: So, I’m just going to assume that you’re big fans of Predator?
Jason Dozois: Whaaaat? [laughs] Well, when we did do research into the jungle, and you’re always looking for what are the coolest moments and if there was anything we could do or be inspired from.
TSA: And Arnie covering himself in mud was clearly a part of that?
Heath Smith: Well what’s interesting about that was that when we were developing the concept of fear in combat we tried a lot of stuff. We realised after a while was that the stuff that stuck was when you saw the expression of the enemy being afraid. That was something we didn’t realise early on, because then they’re trying to gameify, systemise everything. Looking back to our references, like Predator, very often you don’t see the monster, but you do see the expression on the face of the people who see the monster.
So a lot of these mechanics that we ended up using, like the fear arrow, when you see him freaking out like, “Ah! What the hell?!” and the other guys come running and going, “Hey man, are you OK?” And then we have a takedown, which is a chained takedown that you can buy in the skill tree, where time slows down and you can target a second guy. That guy’s turning around and freaking out.
It enabled us to realise that fear is not just sound, but you have to see the whites in their eyes….
TSA: Yeah, that’s a pretty common saying! That’s interesting though, because it cuts both ways where it’s always been Lara up until now that’s the focal point for the emotions and reactions, and now you’re extending it the enemies.
Heath: Absolutely. She’s in the jungle, and pretty early on when she has the encounter with the Jaguar, she realises “I have to become that Jaguar.” That Jaguar is top dog, or top cat…
TSA: Top Cat is pretty different though, living in a trash can… [laughs]
Heath: [laughs] Well she realises early on that she needs to employ those sorts of tactics in order to survive, but what’s interesting about that is how it ties into the narrative theme of obsession and not becoming the thing you’re fighting against. There’s an interesting tension there between what Lara’s going through emotionally and what the player can do.
In the skills in the game now, you have more options for avoiding combat and being non-lethal. There are still those moments where it’s kill or be killed, but now you have stunning tools and things like that. It really enables the player to reflect the psychology that they want to.
TSA: So with the enhanced stealth play in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, can you actually avoid certain combat situations and get through without making a fuss?
Jason: Uh, yes. Sometimes there’s chokepoints because we want to make sure you don’t just blast through an entire sequence, but you can use distractions, throw bottles and things. Like Heath was saying with the skills, you can get softer landings for takedowns, you can use smoke and things like that. So yeah, there’s some chokepoints where that’s going to be very, very difficult to get past, but…
TSA: Yeah, I’m not suggesting you can get a no kill playthrough…
Jason: Well on one of my last playthroughs I decided to try and stealth past, and I was surprised with how many I actually could get past.
TSA: That’s great to hear, because I’ve often been disappointed when action games with stealth only use it to get an advantage in the following combat.
Heath: It’s showing also a progression in her skills, that she’s able to do that, because before she was getting there, causing a lot of chaos, blowing things up. Now she’s able to be more strategic.
TSA: Yeah, and that’s the hit and run combat now, where you can Predator yourself up, although that’s not quite the right way to put it. But the thing that really struck me about the combat gameplay that you showed at E3 and what I’ve seen here is just how visceral it is. There’s some really brutal stuff which Lara does…
Jason: So there’s actually much less violence in the game, it’s just the situations that she’s in. There’s a visceral side to the jungle that we’re trying to represent. There’s being overwhelmed six to one and stuck in a corner, so she’s using everything at her disposal to get through these situations. Sometimes she could avoid them, but sometimes she needs to do what she needs to do to get out of the situation.
It’s because of the urgency and the emotions of the moment that make it feel more visceral, because there’s more at stake. They’re not empty situations, there’s things that are very important at stake.
TSA: One of the things that you said, and maybe not in these particular words, but it’s that Lara isn’t really a people person and that Jonah is there to be the foil to her and add a more human element.
Jason: He’s the ambassador. [chuckles]
TSA: It feels like now you’re trying to force Lara into a situation where she has to interact with people and can’t isolate herself?
Jason: A lot of what the game is about is that. That’s part of her personality, part of her life that she’s not really explored, right? I think that as an orphan, losing her parents when she was very young, I think she just focussed on achieving. She says to Jonah at one point, “I feel that if I stop, I let everyone down,” so she’s constantly driven and feels that if she’s not moving, she’s disappointing everyone. It’s not a very healthy place to be. She’s confiding in Jonah, which is good, but he’s someone where at the beginning on Day of the Dead, he knows everyone’s name. In one of the optional conversations he’s like, “Well yeah, I talk to people!”
That’s part of it, that’s why there’s social puzzles, that’s why there’s Paititi, because the social interactions have been missing.
TSA: Is it just that Lara’s really bad at small talk? [laughs]
Jason: [laughs] It’s a skill, right? I mean, not a literal skill [on the skill tree], but it’s a life skill.
TSA: Maybe for a future Tomb Raider game it can be on the skill tree!
Heath: Well, she’s trying. What we’re saying essentially is that to become a tomb raider, it’s not just about the dead history, it’s not just about taking the dead history and taking that artefact and keeping it in a museum or mansion, it’s about understanding the culture, respecting that and learning from that. Then you’re ready to go off around the world and become the world’s tomb raider, because you’re not just going to barge in there like a bull in a china shop and have the tomb crashing around you when you leave. What if the tomb’s full of people? That’s why we created Paititi. We wanted to ask those questions and subvert people’s expectations by having you get to the tomb, have it be full of people and how that changes your approach.
TSA: One of the things it’s often important to ask about with games these days is how you’re trying to be culturally sensitive. Lara Croft, as a white British woman, doesn’t exactly have the best cultural, institutional background in that regard. How do you stay on the right side of that line and avoid being like Dances with Wolves and Avatar where it’s a white person coming to save the day?
Jason: Well, as evidenced in the Day of the Dead and Cozumel, it’s actually the exact opposite of that, right? We’re showing you that when you don’t understand, when you don’t know what’s going on, you cause damage. Lara is repairing her own mistake, it’s not that she’s going somewhere and there’s people in trouble and she’s saying, “I’m going to save all of you!” She’s going and stopping Trinity, and really stopping herself. She went off and did something without knowing and now she’s correcting her mistake, so it’s a very different point of view.
TSA:: You’ve taken us to the jungle for this game, and jungles are always such busy environments. From a gameplay perspective, how do you make sure that it remains readable and that you’re not relying too much on symbols and pointers?
Heath: We worked a lot on lighting, we worked a lot on different foliage, different density so you could read what’s a path and not a path. We have the canopy layer as well, where you can gain an omniscience, and overview of everything.
We’ve also got a lot of skills and abilities that let you sense things through the environment, because we knew we wanted to include the jungle, but it was about how you can get the upper hand, how you smell the fear of the enemies. There’s a new ability she has through the herbal remedy system where she can sense enemies, plants and animals through the environment.
There’s layers to that challenge, so level design takes that into account, but then there’s abilities that do go even further and make her more powerful than she was in the previous games.
TSA: Yeah, she was already very well powered, so you’re having to find new abilities for her to use in this game.
Heath: So, the jungle was the key. The jungle was where we were able to say she’s a fish out of water, even the underwater parts of the jungle. Well… then she’d be a fish in the water! [laughs] That was our key to developing the new traits and new unique things.
Also the outfits too. We’ve majorly expanded the outfits system, so it used to be that you’d put on an outfit and perhaps it would have a gameplay effect, but mainly it was cool cosmetic outfits. Now you have even more flexibility and variety, because we’ve split it into torso and legs and each piece has a unique gameplay benefit. Depending on your play style, whether it’s stealth, explorer, soldier, you can mix and match?
TSA: Can you get a really big woolly jacket and then short shorts?
Heath: [laughs] Actually, we went through a lot of different options, but what we arrived on was this concept of a vestige, which is almost like a wearable relic, like wearable history.
TSA: Yes, I think you’ve shown that you can have the clothing from the people of Paititi?
Jason: Those are gear gates that let you unlock certain conversations with people, the vestiges are like old, almost decomposed pieces of clothing that she’s able to find resources for and restore. Each of those, instead of just being ‘Stealth 01’, it’s based on someone who was a warrior or a merchant and can give you benefits in line with the character.
TSA: How did you go about picking the setting? I imagine it’s a similar problem that James Bond films have, where they’ve got yet another skiing scene, another boat chase… How did you decide on the jungle?
Heath: [laughs] So we always start with fact-based fiction, a myth, and the myth we started with was Paititi. This is a place a lot of people went looking for (and disappeared trying to find), so it’s credible enough to do that, but we wanted to change it up a little bit, so did a lot of research and came up with Mayan for the riddle and wondered what if people from Mexico went down to Peru? What would that be like? Then it’s just digging down on that kind of stuff.
Why the Mayan? It’s because they’re big on astronomy and dates. So the first riddle is there and we can go from point A to point B in a cool believable way, that someone at Trinity could be intelligent but get it wrong, while Lara can get it right. There’s a lot of research into that, but then it’s just making it the most emotional story that we can.
TSA: Finally, is this definitely the last Lara Croft Tomb Raider origin story?
Heath: This is the end of the origin story, the end of the beginning. Yes!
Thanks to Jason and Heath for speaking with us. Catch our hands on impressions here, and keep an eye out as Shadow of the Tomb Raider heads to release on 14th September for PS4, Xbox One and PC.