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20 Years of Tomb Raider: Starring Lara Croft

In 1996, Tomb Raider and Lara Croft revolutionized 3D gaming. Twenty years later, developers from Crystal Dynamics share how lessons gleaned from Lara's creators at Core Design informed their blockbuster reboot and its critically acclaimed sequel.

An Icon is Born

Life in the Big House

Up. Down. Left. Right. With few exceptions, video games moved in four directions beginning with their origin in science and university computer labs through the rise of Nintendo in the mid-1980s and the heated 16-bit console wars of the 1990s.

In 1996, three groundbreaking games turned heads by adding a Z-axis to the field of play. Released in June, id Software's Quake evolved antecedents like Doom by mashing together a true 3D engine and online multiplayer. The September launch of Super Mario 64 alongside the Nintendo 64 dropped players into expansive worlds made from polygons and gave them total control over Mario and a camera able to be manipulated separately.

That October, a small British developer did more than innovate in a three-dimensional space. It changed the way people perceived virtual characters.

Concept art for the original Tomb Raider starring "Laura Cruz," later renamed Lara Croft (image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics).

Core Design was founded in 1988 by nine friends who put their company on the map by developing games for the Commodore 64 and Amiga. The small crew lived and worked in rambling Victorian converted into an office space.

There was no hierarchy at Core. The nine co-founders grew their team slowly, and fostered a laid-back atmosphere. During crunch periods, programmers and artists wandered in at their leisure, put in 10 to 12 hours, then trundled on home or curled up under their desks before doing it all again the next day.

In 1990, just two years after the studio opened its doors, Core became the first British studio to receive a license from Sega to develop games for the Genesis. That same year it launched a publishing and distribution business that flourished, establishing Core's reputation as a purveyor of CD-based titles for Amiga and Sega CD, and leading to an acquisition by CentreGold in 1994.

Two years later, Eidos snapped up Core from CentreGold for a cool £17.6 million (roughly $21.5 million) based almost entirely on a prototype a 3D platformer called Tomb Raider.

Locomotion

Beginning in 1993, six Core employees crammed into one of the Victorian's smaller bedrooms and hammered on Tomb Raider. At first, they wanted a male protagonist. Most games starred males, and Core wanted their title to fit in.

As the team began favoring stealth and puzzle elements over action, a female character seemed increasingly appropriate—not because a woman was incapable of kicking down doors and unloading a hail of bullets, but because they wanted to break away from stereotypes.

Through the 1990s, most videogame characters fell into one of two categories: beefcakes, or Mario. Female characters existed, but their femininity wasn't front and center. Samus Aran of Metroid fame wore a space suit that hid her gender unless you finished the game in under a tight time limit, the reward for which was an eyeful of Samus's pixelated curves clad in a one-piece; and Ms. Pac-Man was just a yellow circle with a pink bow and lipstick.

Exploring the cistern in 1996's Tomb Raider (image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics).

Laura Cruz, Core's heroine designed by artist Toby Gard, started as a gritty military type before shifting to a finer blend of hard and soft attributes: Tall and curvaceous, but intelligent, articulate, and intrepid—more Indiana Jones than Super Mario.'

Over time, Laura Cruz morphed into Lara Croft, a British aristocrat predisposed toward excavations and spelunking rather than frilly dresses and soirees.

Lara wore apparel appropriate for crawling and climbing around archaeological digs: brown shorts, turquoise tank top, a backpack for supplies, fingerless gloves for a firm grip, and twin pistols overflowing with unlimited ammunition.

Gard and his colleagues did their homework. Mario attained iconic status as much for his recognizable actions, like leaping into the air with one fist raised, as for his identifiable attire. Following in the plumber's footsteps, Core imbued Lara's movements with personality. She didn't just climb up ledges; pressing a certain key caused her to lift herself into a handstand and lower herself gracefully to the surface.

Unlike Mario, Lara's mission wasn't as straightforward as heading straight for the nearest flagpole. Tomb Raider's levels—ranging from caves to tombs and temples—were massive. Figuring out how to traverse each screen's blend of platforms and pits, hostile creatures such as bears and wolves, and puzzles rooted in platforming maneuvers and pulling switches, called for mastery over Lara's acrobatics and keen intellect instead of endless shooting.

Renders of Lara's smooth running animation (image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics).

Instead of enticing players to set high scores or complete missions in record time, Lara collects artifacts as she goes along. Just as importantly, clearing levels spins new threads into a complex narrative tapestry woven from mythology, character development, and intrigue. Whereas Mario and Pac-Man were more akin to vehicles players occupied in pursuit of an arbitrary goal, Lara felt like a person, fleshed out through a combination of cinematic sequences and personality conveyed through attitude, motion, and character interactions.

Breaking Molds

Tomb Raider garnered little interest through the late spring of 1996. That June, representatives from manufacturer 3Dfx swung by Core's office to show off some of their upcoming graphics cards, and one of the programmers whipped up support for 3D graphics acceleration in the PC version of the game. Lara and her environs already looked great; powered by 3Dfx hardware, the game looked stunning.

Eidos took a demo of the game running on a 3Dfx video card to E3, and suddenly members of the games media came knocking. Editors canvased magazines and the nascent World Wide Web with previews of Tomb Raider, praising its clever levels and puzzle design.

Core rode a wave of press coverage into Tomb Raider's October 1996 release, where it was met with nearly unanimous acclaim. Eidos immediately tasked Core with developing a sequel. Tomb Raider II Starring Lara Croft hit shelves in October 1997 sporting larger environs that players explored using vehicles, expanded acrobatics for Ms. Croft such as a midair roll, more action sequences to balance out tomb raiding and shooting, and technical innovations like the ability to save anywhere and graphical effects such as muzzle flares that lit up surroundings.

Tomb Raider II's environments were more open, and could be explored using vehicles (image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics).

For all Tomb Raider's impressive graphics and gameplay, Lara stole the spotlight. Not only was she a pretty face, she was tough and smart—the embodiment of '90s feminism personified by women both real and fictitious such as the Spice Girls, Lucy Lawless' Xena: Warrior Princess, Sarah Michelle Gellar's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and No Doubt frontwoman Gwen Stefani. As Tomb Raider's popularity grew, Lara broke outside the gaming sphere and graced the covers of mainstream publications such as Newsweek, Time, and Rolling Stone.

In an age when machismo and Mario defined videogames, Lara Croft demarcated gaming's past from its future. Characters sporting mature narratives and personalities players could identify with, rather than oodles of bullets and family-friendly action, became the hottest trend.

Franchise Fatigue

The novelty of Tomb Raider's success wore off quickly at Core. The team that had crafted the first two games were burnt out on Lara and craving new challenges. Not done milking their cash cow, Eidos ordered Core to assign another internal team to Tomb Raider III. Ahead of that game's debut in November 1998, the team transitioned onto Tomb Raider IV: The Last Revelation, released in October 1999. There were even plans to kill Lara, leaving no room for interpretation on where Core stood on the subject of more sequels.

By the end of 1998, Eidos was on top of the videogame industry. It had its sights set on climbing even higher. Core had released a third Tomb Raider title, and the first two installments had sold 15 million units between them, propelling publisher Eidos to be named the world's fastest-growing company at 1998's World Economic Forum.

After cranking out four Tomb Raiders in as many years, nearly every person at Core was fed up with Lara for one reason or another. The press had judged her third adventure too expansive and too difficult, though it sold like gangbusters. Tomb Raider IV scaled back, transporting Lara to Egypt and letting her loose in more intimate environments, only for critics to deem them too small. The next game, 2000's Tomb Raider V: Chronicles, was panned as a shallow, been-there-done-that rehash of previous games.

Review scores slipped. Sales dropped in parallel, but not enough to defuse resentment brewing within Core's walls. The company juggled multiplayer projects and mascots, but none were as profitable as Lara. Anyone who worked on Tomb Raider cashed royalty checks exponentially larger than those received by employees, who got pennies on the dollar in comparison.

Lara's sex appeal became a point of contention between Eidos and Core Design.

Bringing on more staff bolstered the studio's ranks, but muddied its culture. New recruits came in with opinions and ways of working that clashed with how veterans who had been around since before Lara Croft was a glimmer in Toby Gard's eye had done things. Cliques sprang up. Developers who refused to talk to one another adversely affected development processes that required input from individuals on opposite sides of political fences.

Long-standing traditions faded. Back in the early '90s, the tightly knit band of Core staffers went pub crawling together every Thursday night. By the early 2000s, the company was so large that many developers failed to recognize colleagues in the hall.

The straw that broke Core's back was its management's failure to adapt to industry trends. In the old days, the team would crunch roughly six months out from a due date, burning the candle at both ends until they finished a game. They'd spend the next four months unwinding, gradually ramping back up for another stretch of long days and nights.

Stop-and-go schedules worked for a team of 15. However, Core Design circa 2002 was huge and in need of structure. Moreover, employees who had worked 18-hour shifts without breaking a sweat often left work ashen-faced during crunch periods. It was one thing to eat, sleep, and breathe work when they were young and single. Now many were middle-aged, married, and had kids.

Angel of Darkness, the sixth Tomb Raider and the first on PlayStation 2, stalled and started for two years before Lara limped rather than vaulted onto shelves in June 2003. Reviewers appreciated its darker tone and modern graphics, but slammed its outdated control scheme, abundance of glitches, and incoherent hodge-podge of action and stealth mechanics, the result of the development team borrowing ideas from Metal Gear Solid, Shenmue, and Grand Theft Auto III.

Core's Lara Croft (image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics).

Despite Angel of Darkness selling 2.5 million units, Eidos was fed up with Core. In an effort to preserve the Tomb Raider brand, executives informed Core that one of its American studios, Crystal Dynamics, would be Lara's steward going forward.

"They just took it and ran," Core programmer Gavin Rummery said in a 2015 retrospective. "It felt like a robbery, honestly. It felt like we'd been raided ourselves and the thing had been stolen."


Author's note: Ars Technica's 2015 retrospective, ''It Felt Like Robbery': Tomb Raider and the Fall of Core Design,' was helpful in writing this chapter of my article.

Survival Instincts

Old and New

Crystal Dynamics shared a lot in common with Core Design. The San Francisco-based studio was founded by three veterans from Sega, the company that had signed Core as the first British developer to write games for the Genesis; Crystal achieved its own first when The 3DO Company signed Crystal as the first licensee of its 3DO home console; and Eidos published its games, too.

Also like Core, Crystal had a mascot. Gex the Gecko never hobnobbed with the likes of Lara Croft and Mario, but he became recognizable in his own right. The studio published Canadian developer Silicon Knights' Legacy of Kain, a gothic-fantasy RPG, in the United States. Following a legal struggle, Crystal Dynamics won the rights to create more games in the series, and the vampire Kain supplanted Gex as its biggest star—until 2003, when Eidos informed the Crystal staff that they would be chartering Lara Croft's tomb-raiding expeditions going forward.

"We were doing a few internal projects at the time, and we'd gotten the word that we might have the opportunity to work on a Tomb Raider title," recalled creative director Noah Hughes. "It was fairly vague, but certainly exciting, being fans of the franchise ourselves. We started talking internally about what we would do with a Tomb Raider game. It came down to leveraging some of the things we had learned about character-based, action-adventure games with projects like Soul Reaver, and trying to apply them to what we loved about Tomb Raider games."

Hughes and the rest of Crystal's team leveraged their fandom for Tomb Raider, as well as their ongoing study of videogame trends, to brainstorm a creative direction for their first crack at the franchise, Tomb Raider Legend. They reached one consensus right away: Core and Eidos had released six Tomb Raider games over the last seven years; Lara needed a vacation if critics and players were to be expected to greet another installment warmly.

Early concept art for Tomb Raider: Legend (image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics).

Targeting two to three years for Legend's development, the team dissected Tomb Raider to identify which aspects had been critical to its success. "We recognized that platforming, or traversal as we more often call it, was an essential part of the franchise," Hughes said. "Combat, traversal, puzzle solving, exploration—these were all core gameplay pillars within the franchise, and were expressed as core attributes of Lara."

It didn't take Crystal long to realize that those four pillars were immutable. Lara had millions of fans, and each of them had a certain mental snapshot of her character and adventures. Rather than abandon any pillar, Crystal reassessed the specifics of how they supported the franchise.

"Some of the things that we saw an opportunity improve were, for one, the movement system itself," Hughes explained. For instance, Lara had moved according to a tank-style control scheme. Pressing up moved her forward, pressing down caused her to backpedal, and tapping left or right rotated her in place.

There were pros and cons to that method of traversal. Relative to Super Mario 64's rendition of Nintendo's mustachioed mascot, who could sneak, walk, and sprint simply by tilting the analog stick to varying degrees, controlling Lara felt ponderous and clunky.

"That defined a ceiling on Lara's agility compared to other modern platform games," Hughes admitted.

At the same time, Tomb Raider's control scheme afforded precision. She responded to taps, and performed different actions when players held certain buttons and pressed directional inputs. Crystal's task, then, was to walk a razor's edge between the precision fans expected and a fluidity that would empower them to flow through environments like a parkour artist.

"We wanted to at least experiment with other control paradigms that had moved away from that general model," Hughes said.

Lara Croft in 2006's Tomb Raider: Legend (image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics).

Exploration went hand-in-hand with traversal. Billing Tomb Raider Legend as a reboot, the game disregards Core's narrative and sends Lara on a personal quest to unearth a stone dais after losing her mother in a plane crash years earlier. Now a veteran adventurer, Lara combs ancient dig sites, Soviet laboratories, and King Arthur's tomb in pursuit of the relic.

Each location showcased Crystal Dynamics' take on puzzle solving. Physics engines, for instance, had become all the rage over the last few years, so Crystal Dynamics made them a keystone in Legend's puzzles.

"Again, that came from a desire to keep what was a central pillar of Tomb Raider—in this case, Lara's brilliance and her archaeological understanding—and apply them in a puzzle space, by modernizing that experience," Hughes said, posing the question, "How can physics and people's basic understanding of how the world works be brought into puzzles in a way that enhances, or at least evolves puzzle solving as an experience?"

Combat comprised another pillar. Gunning down T-Rexes and a pack of wolves was one thing, but Lara approached violence differently than peers like Duke Nukem and Master Chief. The developers tied Lara's enhanced mobility to modern combat systems such as a lock-on mechanic popularized by The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. If Lara got up close to enemies, she could step onto them and spring off to disorient them.

"One thing we always strove for in reinterpreting Tomb Raider's gameplay pillars was retaining what we call a 'Lara lens,'" Hughes explained. "When we look at combat, it's important she doesn't win just through higher firepower or brute force; we want to create opportunities for players to use cleverness within the environment, and to use her mobility and agility to overcome combat situations."

Rebirth

Crystal Dynamics took a chance modifying Lara's time-honored game systems. Its gamble paid dividends. Released in April 2006 in celebration of the franchise's 10th anniversary, Tomb Raider Legend canvased PC and console systems to nearly universal acclaim. Lara handled beautifully, and her adventurous spirit made the jump to her new steward intact. Collectively, Legend garnered the highest aggregate score since 1997's Tomb Raider II. Crystal Dynamics followed up with Tomb Raider Anniversary—a total remake of the original game—in 2007, and Tomb Raider Underworld in 2008.

One could be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, this advertisement is attempting to sell.

Each game sold and scored better than the last, but Crystal still felt like Lara had one foot in the past. "We came out of Underworld feeling proud of a lot of the technical innovations we had made, but with a hunger to push innovation and freshness, and surprise our audience as much as we possibly could," Hughes said. "That was a very broad developer aspiration."

The time had come to wipe the slate clean. "On a development level, we very much wanted to do something particularly fresh and surprising for people. We'd sort of stored up a desire to do that," Hughes recalled.

Step one was taking stock of Lara herself. Like Batman in Tim Burton's 1989 film, the tomb-raiding heroine Crystal inherited was already a confident and able adventurer. Crystal Dynamics decided to take her, and her fans, out of their element.

"We started by interpreting her situation and her characterization," remembered Hughes. "It became clear that something like a reboot, an origin story, would meet our goal of reintroducing audiences [to Lara] and realign how they felt about this character while not changing the underlying fabric of the character—her DNA, for lack of a better word. To really ask people to reevaluate her, and not just look at her as a 10-year-old icon, but a remarkable human going on amazing adventures."

Part of recalibrating how the world viewed Lara Croft had to do with reimagining her physical proportions—namely her breast size and itty-bitty waistline. One of the first cracks in Core's relationship with Eidos had appeared when Toby Gard, the animator who had created Lara, grew livid over how Eidos' marketing department positioned his character as a sexpot. Posters and advertisements featured her in provocative poses and wearing clothing that left little to the imagination.

Gard pitched ideas to play up Lara's sophistication, strength, and poise, but Eidos' marketers shooed him away. His job was to make games; their job was to sell those games as they saw fit. A fan-made patch for Tomb Raider games on PC that stripped Lara of her clothing, unsanctioned and aggressively combated by Core, spread like wildfire across the Internet, which didn't help Gard's case.

In Tomb Raider: Legend, Crystal augmented Lara's sexuality by combining it with her natural sophistication and poise acquired over years of adventuring. The result was a character whose physical beauty was obvious, but not her most defining characteristic (image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics).

Modernizing Lara wasn't as simple as giving her a breast reduction. "We have to be careful: this is an icon of the industry," cautioned Tomb Raider brand manager Rich Briggs. "You can't build a completely new version of Lara Croft; you've got to keep some things that people know and love about her."

Crystal found a comfortable middle ground. "There's this proportionality to her characteristics that were extreme in their percentile of expression of [realism]," Hughes explained. "Generally, we just tried to dial all that back. Although extremes can exist in biology, the more extreme an outlier you get, the more [characters] come across as cartoony. We made an effort to humanize both in a narrative context, and by asking ourselves how we would do that visually. This reduction in cartooniness and stylization became a broader goal."

The team's hope was that by the end of their reboot, fans would come to think of Lara more in terms of how her inaugural crucible had shaped her, rather than her shapeliness.

Image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics.

"What I really connected with in terms of the reboot was being there for her formative years," said Meagan Marie, Crystal's senior community manager and the author of 20 Years of Tomb Raider. "You got a taste of that in Legends with the plane crash; you saw Lara being that globetrotting adventurer who prefers the isolation of tombs to high society. Seeing her as a younger woman in a modern age, seeing her hold a smartphone and having Beats by Dre in her ears—it made her more identifiable to me."

"This idea that a survivor was born during Lara's origin story was not just about doing a reset of the franchise and character," added Briggs. "It was about trying to show people that there are things intrinsic to Lara and to the Tomb Raider franchise that people can identify with in their own lives and in human nature. The idea that when their back is up against the wall, people will do whatever it takes."

Before that could happen, Crystal had to engineer that crucible. It would do so by using the franchise's four core pillars as a base.

Core Pillars

Crystal Dynamics' developers deserved all the praise showered upon them following the release of Tomb Raider Legend, Anniversary, and Underworld. Nevertheless, it's easier to continue an established property than it is to go back to square one.

Re-imagining Lara Croft without knocking her from her perch as gaming's first lady was the studio's first real test as handlers of the Tomb Raider franchise. For a team less prepared, taking on such a herculean task would be tantamount to bulldozing a house without upsetting the furniture.

Fortunately, Crystal had done its homework. They had pinpointed the franchise's four central pillars: traversal, exploration, puzzle solving, and combat. Following those pillars would guide them not only for the reboot, titled simply Tomb Raider and released in 2013, but its critically acclaimed sequel, 2015's Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Traversal

To successfully reinvent Lara Croft, an explorer tempered by close encounters with creatures both real and fantastical, Crystal Dynamics gave her a makeover that went beyond her figure.

"She ultimately couldn't set out in search of supernatural stuff because she didn't believe yet," explained creative director Noah Hughes. "We wanted to take you an adventure starting as someone who might not believe [in the supernatural], but by going on this adventure, she would glimpse the supernatural and begin to believe in that world."

Yamatai, the setting for Tomb Raider 2013 (image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics).

Choosing the right setting for her origin story was paramount. First, it had to be different from previous Tomb Raider vistas so long-time fans wouldn't feel like Crystal was retreading ground. Yamatai, an ancient Japanese country the location of which has been the subject of debate by scholars and historians, fit the bill. It would be an island, which meant the team could pepper it with varied environments like forests, villages, caverns, and, of course, tombs.

Second, a Tomb Raider setting had to feel like a place that could exist. "We start with the google-able myth; that's something we often talk about. The Dragon's Triangle is something you could google and say, 'Oh, wow. It's amazing how many ships were lost in this area.' It became sort of a non-supernatural on-ramp for the mystery in our game," said Hughes.

Third, it had to contain at least one myth the developers could play with. Yamatai was the domain of Priest-Queen Himiko, rumored to be an immortal. Lara, a naïve 21-year-old in Crystal's Tomb Raider, wouldn't believe, at first. She was excited to have an adventure, and rolled her eyes at memories of her father regaling her with tales of silly myths. Her mindset changed after a sudden and convenient bout of inclement weather dashed her ships upon the rocks of Yamatai, and her friends were abducted by terrorists holed up on the island.

Bad guys with guns and Himiko's undead guards were only two of many obstacles. From soaring mountaintops and raging rapids to rocky terrain and caves littered with pits, the land itself seemed dead set against Lara's survival.

"There are enemies on the island, but we wanted the island itself to have a certain hostile beauty to it: this sense of awe-inspiring and epic landscapes that maybe you're used to, but in some ways they're ominous and threatening until you become empowered and competent in those spaces," said Hughes.

Yamatai, the setting for Tomb Raider 2013 (image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics).

Years into the future, Lara Croft would be a capable adventurer. On Yamatai, she was frightened, hungry, and alone. Core's leading lady performed handstands to scale ledges; Crystal's Lara grunted and fought for purchase. Her gear received an upgrade, such as a climbing axe that helped her scale walls and sheer cliffs.

Certain areas could only be accessed after players found a specific item, such as a shotgun, zipline, or explosive arrows. This gated, Metroidvania-style of exploration allowed Crystal to carefully chart players' progression through the story. "You could come into hubs and feel sort of overwhelmed by them, but by the end, with all of your gear you'd found, you'd scoured every corner and climbed every peak," Hughes explained. "That should give you a sense of accomplishment and progression from where you started. We really tried to make progression against the environment another part of the gameplay relationship."

Classic Tomb Raider titles had been slower, reliant more on precision. Such circumstances were front and center in the Tomb Raider reboot, but were buttressed by harrowing sequences where players had to jump and climb at a moment's notice to dodge obstacles while Lara raced ahead.

"We didn't want to spend entire levels edging along cliff sides," Hughes said. "We tried to do forward-moving platforming. Places like after the plane crash, where there are collapsing huts, and you're just running forward. You can clamber up as you go, but it's not so much shimmying along walls as it is making these death-defying leaps and barely making it, scrambling at the last minute before something collapses."

Rise of the Tomb Raider's locales were as threatening as their inhabitants (image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics).

Like its predecessor, Rise of the Tomb Raider was set in a sprawling world divided into hubs, each featuring terrain as dangerous as the men and beasts roaming the area.

"When we talk about Lara versus these gigantic hubs, part of that is making them threatening spaces," Hughes explained. If they're going to demand that she rise to their challenges, how can they be as threatening as possible? We didn't want that to always come back to enemies. Sometimes it's native wildlife, but also this sense that the weather itself is a persistent and ominous presence in Siberia. Weather became part of [Rise's] environmental personality, and in some cases dangerous weather set the tone overall for parts of the game."

Sometimes, shifts in weather pattern and time of day made for pleasant diversions. "We use those elements to give a sense of life and progression to the environment as well. Sometimes a fun treat is fast-traveling around post-game to see areas at different times and experiencing different weather," said Hughes.

Exploration

Voyagers love nothing more than picking a spot on the horizon and figuring out how to get there. Crystal wanted players to feel that same pull.

"On some level, we definitely embraced destinations," Hughes remembered. "Part of that was intentional: instead of moving forward until you get to where the designer says you're supposed to get to, we want you to say, 'I need to get there. How do I get there?' Part of it was a commitment to empowering players to see destinations and track their progress toward those destinations."

Crystal anticipated that some players would get caught up in Tomb Raider's plot, while others would stray, intent on turning over every rock even if it meant Lara's beleaguered friends waiting just a tad bit longer for their heroine to save the day.

"What we find is that players play all different ways," Hughes said. "Some players go all the way through the story and then come back and get all the secondary stuff, then you have some players who diligently collect all the stuff as they go along, but the more common player falls somewhere in the middle where people control their pacing by making a stop along the [story route], and then when they get bored of that, they progress the story."

The development team catered to curious players by crafting a secondary narrative system made up of collectibles like journals and relics. Attaining these items not only added color to Yamatai and its mythologies, finding them served as a reward in and of itself.

"As you explore these places, you feel like you're rewarded for going off the beaten path," explained Hughes. "That's something we probably did not as a gameplay pillar, but almost as a philosophy on top of gameplay pillars: we really pushed for pacing, and narrative, and what I sometimes generalize as entertainment values."

Ziplines let Lara reach new heights in Tomb Raider 2013 (image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics).

In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Crystal Dynamics rooted exploration in survival. "In the reboot, we sort of touched on survival systems as core gameplay," said Hughes. "With Rise, we really pushed further with that as an extension of our action-adventure formula, inspired by the core fantasy formula of tomb raiding but interpreted more systemically than we had in the past.'

Weather changed on a dime. Blizzards broke out in snowy regions, forcing some animals into hiding and others out into the wild to hunt for prey. Lara either succumbed to the elements, or adapted, hunting wolves and crafting their pelts into thick winter coats.

"Things like hunting became more integral to the weapon upgrade system. Similarly, with the health system we introduced resources being a component of health management. That varied a little depending on the difficulty setting, but became very relevant at harder settings," explained Hughes.

One of the most popular additions to Rise of the Tomb Raider was its Endurance mode. Built on the back of the survival systems that drove the base game's campaign, Endurance was made by the "Live" team, a subset of developers who had worked on spin-off games like Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, and Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris. After finishing a project, the Live team transitioned over to Rise and were in charge of devising bonus content.

"We came over to evaluate, what is the best way to help the [Rise] team expand their project and make it a bigger game on the disc? It was split between looking at: what are the right things to provide on the disc itself; and then starting to plan for future pieces of content," explained senior designer Will Kerslake. "We looked at each of those pillars and said, okay, if we take such-and-such pillar to an extreme, outside of what the campaign did, what would be the extreme variety of that pillar? If you look at our various add-ons, Endurance mode was the idea of taking exploration to an extreme."

Unlike the environments that make up Rise of the Tomb Raider's campaign, Endurance consists of caves strung together by a procedurally generated wilderness, like connective tissue. That, Kerslake reasoned, fulfilled the Live team's objective of exploration taken to an extreme: no matter how often players attempt Endurance, no configuration of areas is ever the same.

Surviving Endurance mode isn't as simple as spelunking and gathering artifacts. Time is measured in days, and supplies such as wild game to hunt become more scarce day by day.

Survival mode pits one player or two against Rise of the Tomb Raider's flora and elements (image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics).

"I'm always wondering, if I stay a little bit longer, I'm going to get more artifacts and push a little further in, but I might die," Kerslake reasoned. "The days get harder every day you continue to live. To get that great story, you're going to have to push yourself a little further than you did last time, but you know that's always a risk. Once we hit on not just surviving, but pushing your luck as far as you can, it gave us a gameplay loop we felt really good about."

The Live team fleshed out their Endurance formula by adding a cooperative mode. Their concern that the mode would be too easy with a partner proved unfounded—in fact, the opposite was true. "We actually got it up and running, and what we found, which was odd, was that players ended up dying earlier because you get cocky when you've got a friend around," Kerslake remembered. "You start to show off, run head first into places that you'd approach more cautiously if you were playing alone. That was an interesting [realization], but then we had to find ways to encourage players to work together."

Some tweaking was in order. Fallen players could be revived by their partner, and there was no limit to revives. The Live team modified the system so players had a finite number of revives, but could find more by taking calculated risks.

"That draws on that press-your-luck concept," said Kerslake. "The caves are the most dangerous places, but they're where you'll earn extra revives. It was the nice push-and-pull that we gravitated toward during development."

Timing was another factor that went through round after round of internal testing at Crystal. The Live team found that players tended to play longer solo than with friends. Therefore, cooperative play was revised so most sessions run between 30 to 45 minutes.

"We did not put a hard cap on when you're forced to leave, but we do crank things up to 11 in terms of the difficulty of the enemies, how cold the forest is, how hungry you're getting," explained Kerslake. "We actually reduce the food around you so it's harder and harder to stay. That was a way to drive most players to have about a half-hour experience. It'll be shorter than that when you start. The first couple of times you'll get killed quickly and realize, oh, I actually have to pay attention."

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More Than Just a Pretty Face

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