In its nearly twenty years, the Tomb Raider franchise has seen ten games, a handful of spinoffs, a pair of less-than-stellar films, comic books, and even theme park rides. It’s one of the biggest and most recognizable video game brands—and its star, Lara Croft, is even bigger (thanks in large part to Angelina Jolie’s portrayal in said not-so-stellar films.) In that time, the series has changed significantly, and in the past decade has undergone two reboots, most recently with the critically acclaimed Tomb Raider (2013), which has sold more than 8.5 million copies.
In early November, developer Crystal Dynamics will release a sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, exclusively for the Xbox One and Xbox 360. Crystal Dynamics has been working on the franchise since 2006, and the team has overseen some serious ups and downs for the character.
Now, it finally feels like they’ve gotten into their groove.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is bigger and bolder than its predecessor. I spent just under three hours with the new game, seeing what there was to see and marveling at the visual spectacle of the whole thing. On the Xbox One, it’s one heck of a looker. There have been many games where worlds crumble and crash around you in real time, including in Tomb Raider, but the scale here feels so much more intense. From ice climbing up the sides of a snowy mountain to coming face-to-face with a grizzly bear, to escaping from a burning building, there’s a lot to get the blood pumping. This is an action-adventure game in the purest sense of the word. You climb trees, stealthily take down enemies with a well-placed arrow, then raid some tombs.
With the solid base Tomb Raider built and the many improvements that have been made since, Rise of the Tomb Raider is clearly going to be awesome, and it’s going to be huge. After the three-hour session, I talked with the game’s creative director, Noah Hughes, about Lara Croft, women in video games, and more.
In the past, Lara has been something of a sexualized character. I noticed in this game that she wears a parka in the cold instead of the sleeveless shirt she wore in the snow at the end of the last game. How important was it to keep her from being needlessly over-sexualized?
We don’t think about it too much as we go. At the outset of the reboot, an important part of humanizing her and making her character come through was really to ground her as a relatable human. So anything from her dress to her proportionality was meant to ground her and place her in the world in a more believable way. And as we take her to these hostile locations, dressing her appropriately for the situation becomes part of that. It’s part of the aesthetic we’ve been building through the reboot.
Did you feel more pressure working on the sequel or the original reboot?
I think each has its own flavor of pressure. The reboot was probably bigger pressure, because we were doing something very different than people had seen from Tomb Raider and we’ve seen that go well with franchises and bad with franchises. So it was a bit of a high-wire act. In the end, I was very happy it was relatively well-received. You really want to build on the success of the first one and make it an even better experience—any of the feedback you get you want to address, things like that. There was a lot of pressure to outdo ourselves, but in some ways it wasn’t quite as scary as rebooting a franchise.
How do you feel about video game reboots in general? There have been so many of them lately.
It’s hard to speak in generalities. A lot of our inspiration came from film, [since it’s] been around a little bit longer and has done a few more franchise reboots. There was Bond and Batman and some of these things. I think there is a natural point in creative content where it might make sense to do a reboot, and I think the longer you have these franchises go, the more it might make sense. So I do think in games it also makes sense, and I think for each franchise it’s a specific decision about what’s right for them. For us, it was right because we had a character, Lara Croft, who was extremely popular and well-known but not as relatable and likable as she once was. So we had a very specific goal with the reboot.
So a lot of it was about making Lara more likable and bringing her back to that iconic status that she had?
“Relatable” is probably the better adjective. There was a sense that she had become Teflon, almost a single-dimensional expression of her icon. What was fantastic was that icon was recognizable by almost anyone in games, but there was a sense that she was more caricature than human, so the desire to make her more human drove our reboot.
Over the course of the first game, she becomes more and more of a hardened killer. There was some criticism about her expressing how much she hated killing while simultaneously being so great at it. Do you feel that this game is less likely to create that controversy? Where does the character sit on that spectrum?
I think in the last game we had a tough arc for her character, especially early on in the game when she went from having killed nothing to having to kill in order to survive. That was a tough transition, especially in the scope of video game storytelling. I think we could have handled that a little bit better, but beyond that we take a pretty similar approach to combat as most other action-adventure games out there. And it brings to mind again most Hollywood movies. I think we had a clunky transition in the last game that could have been better from a storytelling perspective, but we tried to balance all the different aspects of the gameplay as best we could.
In this game, she’s already toughened up. How do you walk that line between making her more ruthless and keeping her relatable?
It was important for us to recognize her growth from the last chapter and show that she was more prepared for this adventure. But at the same time we wanted to make sure that A) the adventure had scaled large enough to challenge her again as a hero, and B) it had facets that drew out elements of her character. Things like the flashback about her father or digging deeper into the tomb-raiding itself. These are ways we try to tease out more of her character even as we move her forward.
Do you think that Lara serves as something of a role model for players?
That’s a tough question in video games. Like in Hollywood, we create a world with somewhat different morals than our own world’s. Certainly Lara deals with some of her conflicts through all-out combat in ways that I wouldn’t recommend people do. [Laughs.]
But there are facets of her character that are inspirational, and we do get a lot of fan mail. For example, after the last game, people wrote about Lara’s ability to endure and her ability to get knocked down and get back up again—that perseverance and determination are things that actually inspire them in their own lives. So there’s always a hope that there are facets of her character that are aspirational for people. But ultimately she is an action heroine and she lives in a different world than you or I.
In Rise of the Tomb Raider, there’s another female warrior character and one of the antagonists is a woman. Was it a conscious decision to integrate more women into the story, or did you feel it was just a natural progression?
That was a natural progression, certainly. We brainstormed different characters for different roles, but it had more to do with their relationships with Lara than any distinctive choice.
When the game was first announced, there were clips of Lara in therapy. Does that play a role in the final game?
The therapy moments did happen between coming back from the island [in the first game] and going on her next adventure. It’s important to realize that in some ways she came back to a society that was unwilling to accept that what she saw was real. She became an outsider in her own world, and ultimately there was a certain amount of trauma from the experience she had to get over. But in some ways she ultimately had to decide to find out for herself whether what she saw was real or not.
How extensive was the performance capture and working with the actress who plays Lara?
We had a great opportunity in this chapter when we moved to new hardware. We had done an HD version of the last game [last year’s Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition] but it wasn’t from scratch. We chose a number of things we wanted to do better, from bigger hubs to Lara’s hair, but a really important one for me was enhancing our facial animation technology. With the higher fidelity face animations that we were able to capture, it became that much more important to capture nuance. Camilla Luddington is our Lara Croft, and she’s fantastic. We go down to L.A. very regularly to do shoots and reshoots of cinematic scenes with her. The goal there, from her performance all the way through to the technology, is to capture some of that nuance of emotionality and humanity in Lara’s character.
In the past year or so, there’s been a lot of anger from some troll sectors of the Internet at the idea of including more women in video games. Lara Croft has always been one of the most prominent heroines in gaming. How do you feel about the character’s place, and where do you hope the growth of women in video games goes in the future?
We are proud of Lara as a well-known female character, and I think there aren’t enough of them. Compared to the early days of Lara, there is much better representation in gaming, but I think that we have some work to do. There is a vast world of gamers out there with lots of different tastes, and I think it would be great if we could get content that’s representational for as broad an audience as possible as a gaming industry.
What do you see as the future of Lara Croft as a character and a franchise?
For us, it was exciting to get to tell this chapter of her story. There was a lot left on the table in terms of seeing her fully realize her tomb raiding potential. And by the end of this story, I think people will have gotten to see that growth and fulfilled a lot of their desire to go on epic expeditions with Lara. I think there’s a lot more we can tell about the character and a lot more we can do with her, so we always approach it from a storytelling, character-driven way. I’d love to have the opportunity to do more in the future. Having said that, there are no specific plans for more games.