In Shadow of The Tomb Raider, the final entry in Lara Croft’s origin story trilogy of games, Lara becomes “one with the jungle,” as game director Daniel Bisson told everyone at an event hosted in Montreal, just blocks away from the Square Enix studio. It’s a fitting setting, as the harsh jungle environment can reduce even the staunchest character to her basest nature. And it’s with this backdrop that Lara must grapple with her own duality.
The 2013 Tomb Raider reboot introduced us all to a young, inexperienced Lara, whereas Rise transformed her into a survivor. In Shadow (launching September 14), Lara has to make critical choices that she will have to live with as she becomes “the Tomb Raider she was meant to be,” Bisson noted.
In the first-ever gameplay reveal, attendees at the jungle-themed venue were treated to an hour-long demo. It’s evident from the beginning that this is a much stronger, fully actualized Lara. From new traversal mechanics, full swimming exploration, and even more robust combat and stealth takedowns, Lara’s portrayed as a more efficient and confident adventurer right out of the gate.
"It's about taking the Lara from Rise and... expanding to the Lara of Shadow of The Tomb Raider who is way more capable and confident in her approach against the enemy and the environment,” gameplay designer Daniel Drapeau explained to me.
And the new “one with the jungle” theme gave Drapeau a broad palette to design with. "The jungle environment is very rich so it can bring a lot of ideas to the table,” he noted. “With combat we looked at how Lara can use her environment to fight her enemy. So it's things like blending in with the environment, using mud to hide from her enemies and strike and then disappear again back in the jungle. In terms of smart and resourceful Lara, it's about using what the jungle offers her to craft upgrades for weapons or to craft tools, and using what's around her to enhance herself. It is very rich for us to push the limits of those systems."
But what’s really interesting is just how different Lara’s character is. Eidos Montreal Lead Writer Jill Murray commented to me that when she was brought on to the project, she was told by Bisson, “We need somebody to be Lara’s soul.” No pressure, right?
“I think [fans are] going to notice that it's a more emotional story — that Lara's lows are lower, [but] she also has higher highs, which is really fun,” Murray said. “It’s very character driven… those surprising interpersonal moments that do show the character of each person in the story is what I'm hoping people notice and enjoy.”
As the protagonist, Lara’s character gets the deepest exploration. And as we’ve seen with other origin stories in the Marvel and DC Comics universes, heroes’ stories aren’t all rainbows and sunshine. Lara must save the world from an apocalypse, but she also has to wrestle with her inner demons.
“She arrives in Shadow of the Tomb Raider in full height of her power, but perhaps to the point where she's realizing for the first time that she's strong enough to also ruin things,” Murray commented.
“She really has to confront what she's going to do with her power. Is she going to let it drag her to a place where she almost becomes like the enemy that she hates or is she going to reconcile the forces within her that make her so driven and obsessive to find a way to apply it positively?”
Rich Briggs, brand director at Crystal Dynamics, added, “It's Lara with a lot of baggage. She has lost so much. She has lost friends, she's lost loved ones. And Lara is always thinking about everything she's sacrificed in her fight against Trinity. She feels what we call the burden of responsibility, where she thinks that she's the only one that can do this and that's good in some ways. But it's also bad because it means that sometimes she makes decisions that are not great… So, yes she's the most capable, she's the most confident that she's ever been, but I think she's also the most conflicted.
“I will say that this is absolutely Lara fighting through her darkest hour. You are going to see, as Jill mentioned, her struggling not to become that enemy, not to become that monster that she's fighting. You know, it really is a balance and at times, in the game, you are going to see her tip the balance the other way. You are going to question her motives.”
As fans experience Lara’s evolution in the game, there will be moments of levity to break up the gravitas. It can’t all be dour and end-of-the-world tenseness, after all. And the writers had a lot of fun playing to Lara’s sassy side.
“To be able to come here today and say this is a game where she might be wrong and has to figure it out is probably the thing I'm happiest about,” Murray continued. “[But] also her good humor; I think arriving at the end of the trilogy she has a little bit more leeway. Even though she's tested a lot she has more moments to relax and when you see this interplay between her and Jonah, neither of them is a comedian but they have a few small moments that are just so rewarding.”
According to Eidos Montreal producer Fleur Marty, one of the most important things when designing Lara’s character was to ensure that she’s seemingly a normal human being, even if she is trying to save the world. And part of that focus comes not only from the fact that Lara’s no longer an overtly sexualized heroine, but also from the studio’s hard work in maintaining a realistic depiction of different cultures and peoples.
“Lara needs to be relatable, and we want to ground her into reality. The world is diverse and it wouldn't make sense to ignore that fact,” Marty said. “We didn't sit around the table and say, 'Okay how do we make the game more diverse?' It's a natural thing for all of us as developers.”
That’s not a point to be taken lightly. In fact, before I began playing the demo I was presented with a screen that mentioned the studio’s diverse team and how Eidos Montreal even consulted with historians to make sure depictions of Maya people were accurate. The demo begins with Lara walking through a village on the Day of the Dead. I was reminded of the brilliant Pixar movie “Coco” and it brought a smile to my face to think that entertainment is now borrowing from diverse cultures but doing so in a respectful manner.
“We don't pretend we're doing something historical but we treat it with respect,” Drapeau remarked. “We try to be as true as possible to any culture we have in the game… It has influenced elements mostly in the living, breathing world. Down the line, you'll see we deal with the social aspect of the game with Lara interacting with the people.”
Briggs offered similar thoughts: “Working with a historian, one of the most eye opening things for me, I'd always said the ‘Mayan’ apocalypse or the ‘Mayan’ calendar and we learned that it's actually the Maya apocalypse and the Maya calendar. So sometimes it's little things like that, in terms of just how you describe the culture, the words that you use whether it's plural or singular.
“Other times it's actually looking at how we are representing the people that are there, [and] the outfits that they use. And while it's not necessarily meant to be a one-to-one historically accurate depiction, we wanted to make it feel [true]. So having the historian look at the outfits, look at the architecture, look at the culture... the types of tools that they were using. These are all things that we got a lot of great insight into.”
It clearly helps the tone and structure of the Tomb Raider trilogy that narrative is a central component. Award-winning writer Rhianna Pratchett, who wrote the previous Tomb Raider for Crystal Dynamics’ reboot, has made it abundantly clear that writers need to be brought in from the beginning stages of a project. Moreover, every person on a project also needs to have some understanding of storytelling because game development is like a living organism, where each component can affect the other. Each part of the game’s design can impact how a story unfolds, even if it’s a minor detail.
Thankfully for Jill Murray, whose previous writing credits include Assassin’s Creed Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed Liberation among others, she’s entering an atmosphere that places high importance on narrative.
“The team in particular, Eidos Montreal, the whole production I would say is quite narrative led,” she said. “Everyone has been really committed to orienting their efforts so that every piece of the game can help advance story. It's been really wonderful in that regard.”
Story, of course, is also aided by state-of-the-art visuals. The demo I played on Xbox One X looked beautiful. Whether I was lurking in the shadows in tombs, swimming through underwater caverns or dancing around flames during explosive combat, I was consistently in awe of the Eidos Montreal production.
“Certainly one thing that helps is we have great tech tools,” Murray added. “I was saying before the art really pushes the tech. There's never been a point where it's like, ‘It would be nice if we could do this, oh well.’ It's [more] like, ‘It would be nice if we could do this, let's figure out how.’ ...I think also the sort of audience of gamers, has grown a lot and because devs come out of that audience of gamers, it means that every year more and more people are deeply invested in narrative, no matter what their role is on the production.”
While the audience has matured, there’s no doubt a portion of the fan base that has never played the original Tomb Raider games. That’s been an opportunity for Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics, as well. Lara Croft is being redefined as both a person and a hero, and this year’s well-received Tomb Raider movie starring Alicia Vikander has only helped bring the new Lara to a more diverse crowd.
“It was great to see our version of Lara Croft on the silver screen,” Briggs commented. “They basically rebooted it the same way we did. While it wasn't a one-to-one retelling, I think the reason why it was [well] received by fans is that there were a lot of great narrative moments and a lot of things that you recognize. So if you liked Tomb Raider 2013, you'll see the parachute moment, you'll see the island of Yamatai, you'll feel like ‘Yes, they're absolutely keeping that style and tone of the survival action reboot formula.’
“Obviously Alicia was phenomenal, she did a great job in it. So for us… We feel like it's an honor, it's a responsibility and we always try and pay as much respectful homage as we can to the prior games. That's why when fans say, ‘We want swimming.’ Okay, we're going to give you swimming, but it's survival-action swimming. Then this is the lens we look through… When we show Lara becoming the Tomb Raider, we're going to pay respectful homage but we're also going to say, ‘This is what that means in our universe’.”
Thanks to the movie, Tomb Raider awareness may be enjoying a new high, but the marketers at Square Enix have another ace up their sleeve: releasing Shadow of The Tomb Raider only months after it’s been revealed. For most AAA games, typically you’d first see a teaser trailer a couple years in advance and then wait as more and more information slowly trickles out. That’s a release strategy that could be going the way of the dodo. We’ve already seen publishers like Bethesda and Warner Bros. try a much quicker announce-to-launch schedule with Fallout 4 and Shadow of War, respectively. There are numerous advantages to this approach.
“We really wanted to do a couple of things with this campaign,” Briggs explained. “Number one, we wanted to make sure that it wasn't too long from when we announced, to when fans could their hands on the game because we know that sometimes the wait can seem like it's so long. So we said, ‘What if we just pulled back, what if we just let people see the game and then five months later you're going to get it?’ So that was the big idea that we had up front.
“The second thing is, it allowed us to show a lot more than I think you would normally get out of a normal reveal,” he noted, referring to the hour-long demo, which already looked highly polished.
By talking about all the different SKUs and showing off the game in-depth to start, there’s a certain transparency about the campaign that Briggs believes will resonate with customers: “It's a ton of content, it's a ton of details, we're talking about what we're doing with the season pass, we're talking about all the SKUs… You don't have to say, ‘Oh, well do I want to preorder this version or that version?’ No, here's every preorder instantly.”
We don't have to worry about ‘Okay, well we got to hold back for this E3 because we got another E3 next year.’ No, E3 is going to be huge, Gamescom's going to be huge, PAX is going to be huge.
“We have three events happening, we got one in London, we've got one in LA, we've got one here [in Montreal]. So it's a different type of reveal even than we've ever done before and we can just keep the gas on the entire time,” Briggs continued. “We can make sure that from now through September 14, we are constantly showing something to our fans… We don't have to worry about ‘Okay, well we got to hold back for this E3 because we got another E3 next year.’ No, E3 is going to be huge, Gamescom's going to be huge, PAX is going to be huge.”
The rebooted Tomb Raider games have already combined for around 18 million units sold since 2013. Based on what I saw in the demo, fans are going to be eager to complete Lara’s hero journey. And let’s face it, other than Sony’s single-player masterpieces like God of War, there aren’t many blockbuster single-player titles to contend with.
“If other people want to abandon the genre, then that gives us a space to fill,” Marty told me with a grin.
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James Brightman posted a new article, Lara Must Confront Her Dark Side to Become The Tomb Raider