Chapter 9
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The Elite

From tombs and stealth kills to swimming and scaling, Shadow of the Tomb Raider's developers reveal the thought process behind level design and gameplay systems.

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Tomb Raider 2013 and Rise of the Tomb Raider were designed around keywords.

In the first installment of the trilogy, Lara was vulnerable and reactive. She would either learn to survive or die trying.

Rise of the Tomb Raider whisked Lara away from the ancient island of Yamatai to snowy mountains and ancient civilizations dotted with Byzantine architecture: grand, massive, and softly lit interiors. The game’s title communicated Lara’s goals. To ascend. To meet challenges head-on and rise above them.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider juxtaposes sets of dueling themes.

“Looking at Shadow, one of the key themes for us is death and life,” explained Daniel Chayer-Bisson, creative director. “It's a game about a celebration of life. You may think it's about a celebration of the dead because it starts like that, but when you're looking at the entire game, it's a celebration of life and finding yourself: being alive, how you feel when you're connected to the world. Tombs are the opposite of life: ascension, and descending.”

Following the game’s action-packed opening area, the plane transporting Lara and Jonah goes down in the Peruvian jungle—a visually and thematically unique setting compared to the stormy islands and snowy mountains of the previous games. “We wanted to take Lara to one of the deadliest environments in the world, and that's the jungle, where everything is trying to kill you,” said Briggs.

Life and death. Light and dark. Themes that contrast sharply, yet are intertwined. Both juxtapositions are reflected in Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s jungle setting and its myriad tombs. Where Tomb Raider 2013’s tombs were small, usually consisting of one or two rooms, and Rise’s were larger, Shadow’s are tenebrous and riddled with traps.

“I love so many of the themes they brought in,” said Rich Briggs, brand director at Crystal Dynamics. “The idea of making the tombs very dark and brutal—that was something Dan [Bisson] had as his theme from the very beginning: ‘I'm going to make these tombs as scary as possible.’”

Mario Chabtini. (Image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal.)
Mario Chabtini. (Image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal.)

“The environment is a character, and we need to tell stories with the environment,” put in Mario Chabtini, senior producer on Shadow of the Tomb Raider. “When we go into tombs, we’re having the environment tell stories that they're dangerous and treacherous.”

While Tomb Raider 2013 and Rise of the Tomb Raider were well-received, fans of the classic series continued to demand larger, more elaborate tombs and puzzles of the sort found in the PlayStation games. Eidos Montreal answered by designing optional and mandatory tombs for Shadow. One of the first that players encounter is the Trial of the Eagle, an intricate and sprawling location that developers say contains the single most complex environmental puzzle in the game.

Players run across the Trial of the Eagle on the path to Paititi, an ancient city and Shadow’s main hub. The Trial starts out simply, with an introduction that lets players get a feel for what they must do to progress. “There's some exposition, you're walking around looking around. There's almost no dialogue. You get the idea that you need to get to the top,” said Jason Dozois, the game’s narrative director.

Lara must ascend to the top of a derelict tower. That’s the Trial’s ultimate goal. To get there, she’ll have to solve several smaller puzzles. As Lara shimmies, climbs, and jumps, she’ll find moving parts able to kill her quickly. At one juncture approximately halfway through, she’ll need to grab a rope and rappel down to a platform.

That sequence, Dozois explains, is part of the game’s narrative. It tells a story through environmental details and Lara’s actions. Players feel good about themselves as they successfully navigate puzzles, only to be thrown for a loop when the tower begins to fall apart beneath their feet.

“It's not what you expected, but it seems inevitable,” said Dozois. “All of that is excellent storytelling just within the physicality of [the actions]. Game designers come up with the grammar, and the level designers write the level. We have all the pieces, all the chunks we can use to make a level. Then it's all about the timing, pacing, comprehension, and intent.”

As a natural extension of narrative design, Shadow’s levels are constructed with emotion as much as geometry. Trial of the Eagle takes place in a bright and sunny slice of the Peruvian jungle. Later on, players leave the jungle and descend into deep tombs wrapped in dread and claustrophobia.

“All of them tell a story that reaches an ah-ha moment where you thought you understood what was going on, but actually, you're wrong because there's this extra twist you have to do to make it work. That feeling you get when you figure out a puzzle is part of the narrative of that puzzle,” Dozois said.

Neither Dozois nor any other designer at Eidos Montreal builds content in a vacuum. “In terms of design, it's split between systems and levels,” said Smith. “Level designers work more closely with environment artists developing level spaces and flow, and how the ingredients are used. On the systems side, we develop those ingredients.”

Level designers build tombs and stretches of jungle, and Dozois is instrumental in helping to determine how and where to fit locales onto Shadow’s narrative track. “That's the kind of stuff you can do when you see an opportunity. Maybe there's a really cool piece that's kind of floating out by itself, and maybe it would serve to fit the problem we're having in a sequence somewhere else. You have to be open to see opportunities like that.”

Even veterans of the classic Tomb Raider titles should notice bump up in Shadow’s difficulty. That stems from two points of origin: The larger and more complex nature of tombs in the concluding chapter of Lara’s origin story; and as a means to express that the confidence and aptitude Lara gleaned over her first two adventures must be put to the ultimate test.

Nevertheless, Eidos Montreal anticipated that the game’s pillars would engage fans on different levels. “We've balanced the game evenly,” said Chayer-Bisson. “In 2013 and Rise, we were more combat oriented. There's a much larger percentage of combat than we had for exploration and puzzles. When you look at Shadow, we balanced it evenly: a third for combat, a third for traversal, and a third for puzzles was key for what we wanted to do in this game. People who are not very strong in combat will [excel at] another third of it. The community also communicated this to us. They asked for underwater segments. They wanted the game to be harder in tombs of challenge tombs and underwater sections.”

EIDOS MONTREAL FOLLOWS a well-defined hierarchy on Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

As creative director, Daniel Chayer-Bisson concerns himself with the “why” of the game: Why is Lara hunting down a magical dagger? Why would she steal it? Why does she need a mysterious silver box to use in tandem with the dagger?

Other directors and managers collaborate with Bisson to figure out the “what.” What can Lara do as far as abilities? What sorts of tombs would be appropriate for this stage of her character arc? That’s where disciplines such as programming, art, and sound come in.

Heath Smith. (Image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal.)
Heath Smith. (Image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal.)

“Everyone else on the team is doing the ‘how,’” said Heath Smith, co-lead game designer with Michel Leduc St-Arnaud. “How are we going to do this thing? Dan will come to us with a vision and say, ‘Lara is going to the jungle because x, y, z.’ That's the ‘why.’ He'll say there's going to be combat there. What does that mean? What does fear in combat mean, or fear in tombs? The designers and programmers say, ‘How are we going to realize this on the screen?’”

Smith and St-Arnaud are like chefs who concern themselves with Shadow’s gameplay ingredients: Everything from the enemies Lara encounters, to their moves and weapons, to upgrade systems, to hunting. “We managed designers and how they interacted with the other departments, and gave them the creative freedom to come up with the ‘how’ for doing these things,” Smith added.

Determining some game systems is a matter of looking to Lara’s past—or rather, her future, chronologically speaking. The classic Tomb Raider series starred a confident and battle-tested woman able to climb, jump, flip, and swim. To Smith and the other designers, swimming was part of the pedigree that Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal had yet to incorporate.

“We wanted to bring it back, and the jungle was the best place to do that,” Smith explained. “In the jungle, everything under the water—just like everything about the water—can kill you. There's even threat of death in water. You're not just swimming around exploring. We were looking at the Tomb Raider she was becoming at the end of the second game and thinking about what should could do in the classic games. That's where swimming, rappelling, wall-running, spelunking, all these actions that came from looking at the history of the franchise and wanting to bring her to the point where she becomes a full Tomb Raider.”

When Lara is on solid ground, she’s either exploring or fighting. The developers made several attempts to manifest Shadow’s chief concept of fear in its combat. “At the starting point, when we were thinking about difficulty, one of the keywords I used to describe Lara in Shadow is control. She needs to be in control,” said Bisson.

Each installment of Lara Croft’s origin trilogy has dedicated some or all of its time to exploring the idea of control. The games are cinematic, meaning a combination of player-directed gameplay (exploring, fighting, navigating, puzzle solving) and reactive gameplay that feels like an evolution of standard quicktime prompts. Instead of watching an action scene unfold and pressing the right button at the right time, players are thrust into harrowing scenes and often maintain full control over Lara, such as running and sliding down mountains in Rise of the Tomb Raider with an avalanche nipping at their heels.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s manifestation of control was destined to be more precise because of its link to fear. Lara’s skill tree and selection of outfits, each of which grant more or less control over elements such as stealth and movement speed, give players more control. They also run the risk of making the game too easy. A game that’s too easy results in the absence of fear. “You really amp it up and say, ‘Trinity won't send normal goons, they'll send the elite,’ because this is the last run,” Bisson continued. “They're going for something that could change the state of the world. They wouldn't just send two people. It'd be the cream of the crop, and you need to feel that in the game.”

One early attempt at portraying fear in combat seemed natural. Lara would stalk through the jungle—scurrying through underbrush, swinging from vines, leaping and crawling across trees—and enemies would gradually build up an accumulation of fear, indicated by meters that fill up or drain depending on how badly Lara has them quaking in their boots. It didn’t take long for the team to realize that wouldn’t work.

“We found out a few things. The approach required a lot of UI, and we were doing a very cinematic game. It also harmed believability. You had these hardened mercenaries who were running away in terror,” Smith explained.

The other problem was that the developers were unable to see the results of their intimidation tactics. Instead of basking in the effects of her terrifying presence, Lara would have to chase down scared Trinity soldiers. In some cases, soldiers would scream. That let Smith and the other designers hear the results of their tactics, but that was less satisfying than being able to see them firsthand.

“We went back and looked at Predator and Aliens, and fear was always on the face of the victim. We would ask, ‘Why isn't our fear effective?’ And the answer was, oh, we're not able to see the enemy's fear,” Smith said.

Fear does not discriminate. In the game’s most difficult tombs, players experience a cocktail of terror and relief as they navigate perilous challenges. In the jungle, players are the purveyors of fear. “All the fear you go through when you're exploring tombs or swimming underwater as Lara, you want to feel that from your enemies because in combat, that's where she has power. That's where she's most dangerous, yet trying not to cross that line,” Smith continued.

Lara is able to stalk enemies and, at the right moment, sneak up behind them. If they happen to turn around, she—and players—see their eyes widen, their jaws drop to issue a scream. “Once we hit on that, that the fear had to be on-screen, everything made sense. Otherwise you don't feel it,” Smith said.

Fear is an intrinsic part of Lara’s repertoire in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Fear arrows are one of many projectiles she can fire using the variety of bows she will find and upgrade. The ability to hit enemies with a powerful hallucinogen combines the themes of control and fear.

“Maybe they'll shoot their buddies, and you can take advantage of that: you can escape, or tackle other enemies from Trinity,” said Chabtini. “The minute enemies enter an alert state, you'll want to run for your life. You can disengage, but that will require a bit of running so you can hide behind cover or blend into the environment to lose them.”

When struck, enemies scream, shoot wildly, and try to run away. Throughout an enemy’s pitiful display, players have a front-row seat to the terror they sow.

“It's effective because you're looking down [the view] of the bow when you shoot, so you can't not see its effect,” said Smith. “It's the same thing with the rope takedown: you shoot a guy with a rope, you string him up, and you see the whole thing. You can see his eyes go fearful when he's strung up, and you see other enemies freak out. It really works well.”

THE JUNGLE ENDED up being the perfect setting for Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Players propagate fear through the use of arrows and fearsome combat techniques.

Of course, Trinity comes prepared. “Enemies will use night vision goggles. That challenges Lara to use the environment more effectively to tackle those enemies,” said Chabtini. “That challenges Lara to use the environment more effectively to tackle those enemies.”

Lara’s arsenal works as a counterpoint to Trinity’s. Where the organization boasts night vision goggles and big guns, Lara converts scrap from her downed plane into a knife that starts out as a makeshift key before she wields it as a weapon. “Since it's a makeshift knife, to me, it symbolizes the fact that Lara is at her most resourceful. She needs to be creative to survive in this environment that's so threatening to her,” Chabtini added.

Lara’s best chance of surviving against Trinity is by avoiding rather than seeking out head-on confrontations. “We put all our effort early on into answering, ‘What's the fantasy of being in the jungle? What's combat like in the jungle? What's traversal like in the jungle? What are puzzles like?’ We reevaluated systems through that lens,” explained Smith.

When examined through their design microscope, the answer seemed obvious: Stealth, another manifestation of fear and control. “If you put a player into that environment, the natural instinct is going to be, I'm outnumbered and outgunned. I want to disappear into the foliage,” Smith said.

Mud is an integral part of the environment. “In the jungle, mud made sense because it worked within the fantasy of becoming one with the jungle: You'd cover yourself in mud. It's that fantasy of, I'm low tech, they're high tech. They're coming in with a whole platoon, and I need to have some advantage over that,” explained Smith.

No matter their weapon of choice, the history of Tomb Raider dictates that players must always be on the move. “When you think back to the original Tomb Raider, when you were fighting you were locking on to enemies and circle-strafing, doing back flips and side flips. The enemy had more firepower, but you stayed in motion. You were acrobatic and repositioning around them to win,” he recalled.

That made implementing mud a challenge. In an early version of the game, mud was used as a pit. Players would wriggle into it, submerging themselves, and wait for an enemy to wander by. When their prey drew near, players could burst free and drag them into the muck.

That implementation was too staid, and thus antithetical to Tomb Raider’s emphasis on movement. “The more you can move, the more empowered you are,” Smith said.

Mud evolved into an active system. Players camouflage themselves to avoid detection as they sneak around, and create mud walls to exercise more control over their space. “This game features much more of a canopy, so you have ways to traverse enemies not only on the ground, but up in trees. When you go into the trees, and if you move between trees, mud, and walls, you can win. That's the empowerment fantasy we wanted to create. You realize very early on what works within the franchise and what does not,” said Smith.

Other game systems were given the active-over-passive treatment. “We took healing, which is a more reactive verb: ‘I'm damaged and need to heal,’” said Smith. “We said, ‘No, she's not that person anymore. She's someone who's going to use her knowledge of plants to gain an advantage, maybe even before she gets into combat.’”

Players can harvest plants to whip up poultices, detect locations of living organisms including game, and perform other survival-oriented actions. As the game progresses and players gain more knowledge of their environment, they (and Lara) should detect a change in their surroundings. “We lighten the jungle,” said Briggs. “It starts to feel more welcoming to you as the player because you're becoming one with it. Now you are almost allied with the world to take down Trinity.”

Bisson views the jungle as an active enemy that pushes against Lara, only to welcome her over time. “It treats her like a parasite: It tries to reject and kill her. It wants her out. The more she advances, the more she learns, and the more she understands the jungle, the more the jungle accepts her. She becomes a part of that world.”