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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
"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."
From her physical appearance down to the supplies she takes on camping trips, Lara Croft underwent a dramatic metamorphosis for Crystal Dynamics's reboot. Her arsenal got retooled as well.
The image of Lara clutching a pistol in either hand was familiar to both fans and mainstream audiences. Hollywood starlet Angelina Jolie, who played the character in two films, sported dual pistols on promotional materials. Those pistols did more than put down threats. They stood for aptitude and poise. Wielding those handguns, players could jump, roll, and flip, all while lining up shots perfectly—like Indiana Jones, but more athletic.
Crystal Dynamics shelved those pistols for the 2013 reboot. "The introduction of the bow as a signature piece of gear was a major shift in combat: moving away from Lara's duel pistols," explained creative director Noah Hughes. "Part of that had to do with grounding her as a character fresh out of university. It's less believable that someone would be fully trained with full pistols, so we wanted to respect that as an origin story."
Moreover, a bow communicated survival. Lara's new signature weapon symbolized her resourcefulness: that even when dropped on an island in the middle of nowhere, she could feed and defend herself with nothing more than a piece of wood and a string.
Players discovered pistols, shotguns, and other weapons as they played through the campaign, but venturing off-road gave them opportunities to scrounge out parts to upgrade gear. Reinforcing her bow allowed Lara to pull back further, increasing damage, while materials like additional magazines let her hold more bullets.
However, a strange dissonance existed between what weapons like the bow symbolized, and when and where they could be used. Players spend early portions of the game learning how to hunt animals to stay nourished and sneak up on enemies. Almost immediately after acquiring firearms, most encounters become bombastic: Enemies are alerted to Lara's presence no matter how stealthily players approach, and attack in mobs, rendering the bow untenable.
Crystal revamped combat in Rise of the Tomb Raider. All aspects of combat, from Lara's fluid mobility and her use of cover to weapons and her MacGyver-like crafting skills, were filtered through what the team referred to as the Lara lens.
"We tried to [offer] more resourceful approaches to combat," said Hughes. "When you come into combat, we tried to put you in a situation of enemies being unaware. That led to our stealth system and pre-combat situations. From there, more options on the battlefield. That included crafted items that leveraged Lara's resourcefulness, and things like swimming and trees, which leveraged her mobility."
Crystal wanted players to feel like Rambo—a warrior just as capable of slinking through wilderness and relying on the element of surprise as he is mowing down adversaries in a hail of bullets.
"Combat is fun when you can approach it in different ways. If you've got pockets full of ammo, go in guns blazing and have fun," said Hughes. "If you're strapped for ammo, you can take your time, observe the environment, and you'll often find a cleverer way to approach [combat]."
Violence begets violence. After playing Tomb Raider 2013, some players and critics seemed taken aback by how quickly Lara went from shedding tears over killing a deer, to murdering hundreds of human enemies.
"We were the first people to admit, when we were doing our internal postmortem, that there was dissonance between what you're doing and what we're asking you to do as Lara Croft, versus how we're making that develop as a narrative," recalled brand director Rich Briggs.
Noah Hughes admitted that showing Lara progress from hunting and killing animals to survive, to killing lots of bad guys was an aspect of her character that mediums such as books and film would have explored more thoroughly. Crystal had to accelerate that progression to get her to videogame-heroine status as soon as possible. The rub was making that narrative arc believable.
"It's a consistent piece of her character," Hughes said in regard to Lara falling back on violence to survive. "It's not something we just employed in that moment. We wanted to show that Lara isn't going to just give up; she's going to change when the world forces her to change, and we tried to create a believable moment where she crossed that line."
"It's a tricky balance you have to strike when making a video game," Briggs added. "People want action, and we wanted to deliver action as well. You can't necessarily show Lara being upset and grieving over every scavenger she defends herself against."
Rise of the Tomb Raider explored the psychological tool killing took on Lara. The game's debut trailer opened with Lara in a therapist's office, struggling to work through her ordeal on Yamatai. Acknowledging the difference between killing aliens or demons, versus killing human beings, was critical to reminding players that Lara was different from other videogame protagonists.
That difference extended beyond cinematics into gameplay scenarios. "In Rise, the first thing you see some Trinity soldiers do is shoot down an unarmed man," said Briggs. When they find Lara's encampment, they immediately shoot into her improvised shelter instead of saying something like, 'Come out with your hands up.' We try to show that these guys are trying to kill Lara and beat her to the secret of immortality, and they're going to do whatever they can to stop her, including kill her with no hesitation. Hopefully that gets you over the hump of, okay, these are bad guys."
Most ordinary people would crack under the pressure Lara faces on the simplest of tomb-raiding expeditions. By working violence and her reaction to having to commit violence into her character's evolution, Crystal is able to point to her as an example of endurance and perseverance. "It's what drove Amelia Earhart; it drove Jacques Cousteau," Briggs commented. "People who summit Mount Everest. This drive to push beyond where you think you would normally stop, all for the sake of adventure and pushing the human spirit further."
Traditionally, puzzles in Tomb Raider games center on challenges within tombs. Like temples in Nintendo's Legend of Zelda series, tombs are sprawling areas made up of a series of interconnected rooms, and made up of varying flavors of brainteasers: traverse hazardous terrain to reach this area, find a way to this open doorway, locate a key or artifact, defeat such-and-such an enemy to advance to the next section.
Crystal Dynamics' 2013 reboot switched up that formula. Instead of fashioning a series of labyrinths with occasional jaunts into a larger setting, the designers positioned tombs as optional areas hidden throughout the island of Yamatai. Most consisted of a room or two and a puzzle for each, culminating in a chamber where players collected parts to upgrade their equipment.
As Noah Hughes explained, the team decided on that tack as an extension of player-controlled pacing. "I hear people say, 'The reboot doesn't have real tombs because they're optional. They have to be critical if it's a real Tomb Raider game.' We are committed to critical-path tombs, and we spend more time and resources on making those the best tombs in the game. However, this idea that you can find something that not everybody else will find, to me, compounds that sense of discovery."
Following completion of the reboot, Crystal assembled a postmortem to reflect on the development process. Part of that reflection entailed reading through reviews from critics and consumers, and evaluating what criticism should be addressed in 2015's Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Unsurprisingly, the diminished role of tombs came up time and again, and not just from external sources. "In the Tomb Raider reboot," recalled Hughes, "I still wasn't entirely happy with the [quantity of tombs] in the end. Part of that had to do with scale and difficulty of puzzles in some cases, but another part was ancient and undiscovered places. We always have multiple layers of history, and we often have a modern layer, the layer that Lara exists in. There's also an ancient layer, the underpinning of the myth."
Most tombs in Tomb Raider 2013 were hidey-holes built during World War II. Hughes wanted the historical aspects of tombs to stretch back even further—centuries instead of decades. In answer, tombs in Rise grew larger, and while many were still optional, several were mandatory checkpoints on the path through the story.
"We talked about more tombs with ancient discovery, really delivering on that promise of more tomb raiding. Things like the translation system was us trying to deliver that more within the context of Lara's character," Hughes explained.
The idea of being able to read, speak, and write in several languages manifested as a skill called Language Proficiency. Players advanced their knowledge by hunting down documents and relics. As their Language Proficiency increases, Lara gained the ability to decipher writings and carvings on monoliths.
"All of that was us trying to layer in not just 'Survival 2.0,' but tomb raiding and Lara's brilliance, and pulling them back into gameplay systems more aggressively as well," said Hughes.
Puzzles took different forms in expansion packs designed by the Live team. Will Kerslake and his cohorts relished any chance to tailor each expansion to specific Tomb Raider pillars. Cold Darkness Awakened, for instance, favored combat and puzzle solving. Entering an old Soviet weapons bunker, Lara faced aggressive enemies that attacked in packs and lobbed explosives, but the expansion's puzzles stole the show.
The idea is that Lara must shut down production of chemicals by taking certain steps. Those steps change slightly each time, forcing players to pay careful attention and serving as a pleasant interlude from overwhelming combat encounters.
"We wanted them to be replayable so that every time you do a mission, what you need to observe changes; and the actual items to observe change, as does what you need to do as a result of noticing all these changes," explained Kerslake. "It was fun to have that: every time I play through this space I get a slightly different experience."
Tomb Raider 2013 and Rise of the Tomb Raider delighted audiences. Both games controlled fluidly, presented compelling stories rooted in fun mythology and a blend of conundrums and action, and made clever use of contemporary gameplay systems.
While Crystal Dynamics' developers warrant acclaim for their nuanced and thoughtful handling of the franchise, they'll be the first to admit that individuals outside the core group of programmers, artists, designers, and composers deserve as much credit.
"I sometimes call myself the spider in the middle of the web," explained brand director Rich Briggs, laughing. "That maybe isn't the most flattering [analogy], but it is very exciting. The reason I say that is because I get to work with our team, Square Enix, our parent company, and many other partners, but ultimately my day-to-day job that anything that has the Tomb Raider or the Lara Croft name on it is as high-quality as possible; is the best possible representation of the brand; is in keeping with the core pillars we've established as far as what the franchise means; and to make sure, basically, that all these things work in concert together."
Briggs joined Crystal Dynamics midway through 2012, when the team had their collective nose to the grindstone to hit a projected early 2013 launch date for Tomb Raider. Briggs jumped in with both feet. He spent his first day taking stock of marketing initiatives in various stages of completion, talking with colleagues to learn more about their involvement, and putting together spreadsheets to keep track of milestones.
A big part of his job entails working with external partners to ensure that their projects, such as comic books and novels and films, adhere to the spirit of Tomb Raider.
"We have the Tomb Raider reboot, which is modern survival action," Briggs explained. "It's grittier and all about Lara Croft's origin story. But we still do have games and other merchandise like comics that happen in what we call the classic series. That's the Lara Croft many people grew up with: two pistols, back-flipping over enemies, with a wise crack for every situation."
No matter which half of the universe a partner wishes to work in, Briggs evaluates their candidacy to tell stories within the venerable franchise. As an example, partners working inside the parameters of the reboot must grasp that "reboot Lara" is still coming into her own.
"Then we start to refine, all right, now that we know what we want to do and what side of the universe we want to do it in, I give them parameters and ground rules, and hopefully some freedom to run and be creative," said Briggs. "I work with them along the way to evaluate the creative and make sure it hits our quality bar, and hopefully they can be successful."
Briggs and his colleagues strive to incorporate player feedback into their vision. Addressing Lara's reaction to violence in Rise of the Tomb Raider serves as one example. Making tombs more prolific in Rise of the Tomb Raider, and adding layers to Lara's mobility, are two others.
"When we did our community postmortem, one of the most requested features was we want more tombs," Briggs recalled. "They also wanted Lara Croft to be able to swim. The first one was perfect because everyone on the dev team had already said, 'We want to put the tombs back in Tomb Raider.' That became a sort of mantra we used throughout Rise's development. We actually used that when we started promoting the game to people."
Sense of Community
On occasion, members of Tomb Raider's community play a more active role. Meagan Marie knows that from experience.
Working as Crystal Dynamics' senior community manager, Marie got her foot in the door of the games industry writing reviews for Girls Entertainment Network. Her creative outlet and favorite hobby, playing games, fused when she got a dream job as an editor for Game Informer magazine.
"I had read Game Informer for years," she said. "One day I looked at the return address on the label and realized it was basically 20 minutes away from me. I was floored by that, because I didn't really, at the time, realize there were opportunities to work in gaming in Minnesota, where I'm from. I made my mind up [to work there] when I was 16 or 17."
Majoring in graphic design, journalism, and communication, Marie stayed up all night playing Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII to write a mock review that she had to submit with her application. Game Informer's editor-in-chief Andy McNamara called her to personally let her know that he was going to pass on hiring her—not because she wasn't qualified, but because he wanted her to finish college.
"He said, 'This is very important. A lot of us kind of got into the magazine and writing by bypassing college, straight into our careers. You're in the middle of college and we want you to finish,'" Marie remembered.
Marie resolved to try again after graduating. Her efforts paid off. When she finally did get a job at Game Informer, her versatility allowed her to wear several hats, writing articles and helping to design online hubs for cover stories like the magazine's big reveal of Gears of War 3. Marie's first cover story was a huge preview of Valve Software's Portal 2. It went over well enough that she landed Crystal Dynamics' reboot of Tomb Raider for her next cover feature.
Crystal picked up on Marie's enthusiasm for Tomb Raider and Lara especially, and wooed her away from Game Informer to help drive community outreach at the studio. She spearheads numerous projects, including making fansites part of Crystal's official fansite program, giving their writers early access to assets and news; Croft Couture, a gallery of fans who cosplay as different versions of Lara, and a pet project for Marie, who built a reputation as a cosplayer of Lara Croft and other characters like Wonder Woman and Game of Thrones' Daenerys Targaryen; and most recently, the well-received 20 Years of Tomb Raider hardcover published as a joint effort between Crystal and Prima.
Prima set a five-month deadline for the book—less than half a year to set up interviews, transcribe those interviews, conduct research, compose an outline, write a first draft, gather assets such as photographs and old design documents for use in the book, and get release forms signed from anyone who offered assets.
Writing the book required Marie to stick to a rigorous schedule. "I chose to write in the mornings, when my brain power is the highest," she explained. "I would come in at 3:00 am, and I would write until 9:00, work until 5:00, and then write from 5:00 until 7:00 or 8:00 pm and then crash out for a few hours."
Marie quickly discovered that writing was the easy part. "It was finding people—getting contact information, reaching out to them, scheduling interviews, conducting interviews, transcribing interviews, and so on—that took so long. Then, once I had all of that information, I could finally start writing. That was definitely a surprise to me: how long all of that took."
Marie canvassed Tomb Raider's spectrum, talking with Core employees and set designers on the films to fans and her co-workers at Crystal Dynamics. "Richard Morton, one of the designers on several of the games, had some great stuff and unpublished design docs and so on," she said. "It was really cool to add a section based on games that never were, based in large part on my conversations with him and Richard Morton, who was the writer on Angel of Darkness. They had all this great content on what was going to happen with the Angel trilogy, and another idea for a game that was never even talked about."
Just because Crystal Dynamics' take on tomb raiding has been well-received doesn't mean there's no place for Core Design's Croft. Near the beginning of development on Tomb Raider 2013, Crystal split into two teams: one worked on the reboot, and another broke ground on Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, the first in a series of spin-off games branded after the franchise's leading lady.
"In some ways, the inspiration for Guardian of Light was maybe twofold," explained creative director Noah Hughes. "Part of it was, as a studio, we liked the idea of doing a smaller project. It was an opportunity for a small studio: sometimes you have a little bit of room [on your plate] to do something on a smaller scale, but not a larger project. It was just a fun opportunity for us to leverage that format to do another game we might not otherwise have been able to do."
The team in charge of those spin-off games—2010's Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, followed by Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris in 2014—concocted a formula that blended old and new. Lara sported her trademark tank top, brown shorts and boots, and dual pistols, but both games were shown from an isometric perspective a la Diablo, and featured a fast-paced, arcade-y mix of puzzles and action for more characters besides Ms. Croft.
"Guardian of Light was two players and came out on Xbox 360," explained Live designer Will Kerslake. "When we were building Temple, it came out during the first year or so of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. We changed Temple to four players, went back to Egypt, which was a blast for us. A lot of the people on that team were people who contributed to Guardian of Light, and they were excited to do a smaller digital game where we could go in and focus on puzzles and co-op play, and wackier elements like giant scarabs and huge crocodiles and all that fun stuff."
"We wouldn't want to create confusion for people," added Hughes, "yet we did want to create a sense that there's a modern reboot story to follow on consoles as well as a continued celebration of what has always been great about classic tomb raiding. There's something about Lara and everything we fell in love with originally that still works on some level."
More Than Just a Pretty Face
Over 20 years and dozens of adventures on multiple platforms, Lara Croft has become an explorer, a heroine, a sex symbol, a videogame icon, a popstar. For many, the connection to the face of Tomb Raider is more personal.
Crystal Dynamics senior community manager Meagan Marie discovered Lara at a young age, when female characters were few and far between in games. She played the inaugural game with her brothers, passing the controller back and forth and cheering each other on. When the credits rolled, they moved on to other games. Marie held on and hasn't let go.
"Having Lara out there as this beacon, representing femininity and having all these aspirational qualities kind of made her such a perfect character for inspiring someone of my age," Marie recalled. "She had all those qualities: intelligent, adventurous, brave. She also had this unique duality of being an aristocrat but loving to play in the dirt and get her hands dirty; she could pick up and go wherever she wanted in the world."
Lara Croft circa 2013's reboot resonated even more deeply with Marie. "What I love about the reboot of Lara is that she's not perfect. She doubts herself at times and doesn't always have the answers. I feel like that's so relatable. To have a character who is so relatable but still so inspirational in so many ways, and so competent and capable and honest, is great."
Rich Briggs likewise gravitated to Lara, and wasn't surprised to find out he was hardly the only one who held her in such high regard when he tapped into fan feedback.
"People told us they went on adventures with Lara Croft," he remembered. "That's exactly how I felt playing those games: I was on this adventure with this brilliant archaeologist, and couldn't wait to see where the adventure went next."
Getting to pore over anecdotes written on forums and email was one thing. What Briggs loves most about being involved in Tomb Raider is getting to meet fans face to face.
"We put a lot of those people in our announcement trailer because they inspired her to go after something they didn't think they could get, or they'd say, 'When she's stuck in a tough situation and tells herself to just keep moving, that's what I told myself,' or when people say, 'This is the way we should portray women in games now,' or 'I've had such incredible adventures with her," he said. "It's a great thing to be on the receiving end of. For me, that has deepened the feeling that Lara is a real person. We are building adventures with her, and being able to see the community responding so passionately—it's great to go events and have people thanking you, and then to say, 'No, thank you.'"
Will Kerslake values being in a position to recreate some of his fondest Tomb Raider memories. He played Core's original game before he ever touched Super Mario 64, making Lara Croft the face of 3D gaming. What he enjoyed most was seeing Lara's signatures moves, like performing a handstand as she climbed up ledges, a move he talked one of Crystal's animators into including in Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris.
"Being in a position to go and ask an animator, 'Hey, can you sneak in a handstand if I hold down this button?' was brilliant," Kerslake said. "It's actually in Rise, too. If you jump off a high ledge toward water, and you happen to hit the trigger right as you jump, she'll switch from her normal jump into a swan dive. Sneaking that into the game was great for me because I just love that level of player expression in the space."
Franchise director Noah Hughes believes Lara Croft is just as recognizable as other icons such as Mario and Master Chief, and will continue making impacts for years to come.
"I've always seen her as this competent adventurer; this expression of agility, puzzle solving, and combat. I've always appreciated that you see her, and you see the adventure she goes on. She promises action-adventure at its best, and that sounds like such a blast. She's always sort of meant that to me from the moment I first played a Tomb Raider game," Hughes said. "She stands apart from other videogame characters, and even other action heroes in general. She has such a unique and immutable identity. You combine universality of premise and singularity of personality, and you have a great mix. I think that underpins the longevity of the franchise."
Author's note: A huge thank-you to Tara Bruno at Square Enix for supplying assets and coordinating interviews for this feature; and to Noah Hughes, Rich Briggs, Will Kerslake, and Meagan Marie for their time answering my questions.