Daniel Chayer-Bisson, creative director of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, has a challenge for Tomb Raider fans.
Load up your copy of Tomb Raider 2013 and play the first hour. Not even halfway through the introductory cinematic, Lara Croft is in way over her head. Over the rest of that first hour, Lara survives by the skin of her teeth.
“Now take out that disc, put in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and play the first hour,” said Bisson. “You'll meet a young woman who is powerful, smart, and overconfident. She thinks she can deal with everything. But like most young adults, she doesn't have the maturity to understand the consequences of her actions.”
Narrative director Jason Dozois harnesses more than words to craft a story. Storytelling in game development is a team effort, and every developer works toward the same end. “It all comes down to emotion. You want players to feel certain emotions at certain moments,” Dozois said of interactive storytelling. “Words are part of it, but ultimately it's a combination of words, music, lighting, visuals, animation—everything coming together to create emotions and experiences.”
Dozois is intimately familiar with most of those development tools. His first job in the industry was as a sound designer. “When that project was cancelled, I got into the game and level design side, mainly with a focus on missions: how are things organized, and what's the order in which they appear in the game, stuff like that. I did that for several years.”
When Dozois started out, everyone on a team wore several hats. As the industry matures, larger studios such as Eidos Montreal simultaneously branch out and narrow their focus: Studios take on multiple projects and support multiple teams, while individuals tend to specialize. As narrative director on projects such as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Dozois benefits from his past experience. He understands the demands and capabilities of the tools at the disposal of each team, and knows how to work with those teams to integrate each type of content, creating create a narrative symphony of graphics, animation, sound, text, and design.
“A lot of the job is collaboration with people,” Dozois said. “Early on, I was talking with the art director and concept artist: ‘What is this place? Who is this character? What are they like?’ and iterating from there.”
At its most embryonic stage, Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s narrative was a boat without a paddle. There was only a story treatment, a brief outline of what should happen in each section. Concept artists supplied illustrations to help visualize a moment, character, place, or item. As details solidified, a script written by head writer Jill Murray and other designers and writers emerged, and underwent several rounds of iteration. Once the script was finalized, actors such as Camilla Luddington and Earl Baylon were scheduled to provide motion-capture footage.
Even then, the script remained fluid. “It's not like a film where you do a script, shoot it, and then edit,” explained Dozois. “There's a constant loop going on where you're evolving. Anything you can improve on, you're trying to fix. You want to make sure your experience [lands]. You define that early, how you want it to feel, but the exact implementation can vary and fluctuate as things go forward.”
Shadow’s story takes place two months after the events of Rise of the Tomb Raider. Lara is hellbent on stopping Trinity and seeking vengeance for the death of her father. Jonah Maiava, her closest friend, throws in with her. Their investigation leads them to Cozumel, Mexico, and Dr. Pedro Dominguez, leader of a Trinity cell. When Lara learns that Dominguez and Trinity are after a sacred dagger in the area, she ignores warnings of what the dagger could unleash—the Mayan apocalypse—and steals it.
Lara’s impetuous behavior played right into Dominguez’s hands. By stealing the dagger, Lara has unleashed the Cleansing, a series of disasters that begins when a tsunami devastates Cozumel. That leaves Lara at a crossroads: pursue Dominguez, or stick around to clean up her mess.
“In Tomb Raider 2013 and Rise, she was always dealing with the consequences of the actions of others,” said Bisson. “This time around, she thinks she can do everything herself. When she takes this dagger and creates her first big mistake, that's why she freaks out: She's never had to deal with that, and she lacks maturity.”
“She feels like she's the only one who can take them down,” added Rich Briggs, brand director at Crystal Dynamics. “That hubris leads to her mistake. When she takes the dagger that triggers the apocalypse, that's Lara making a decision: ‘I have to be the one to fix this. I have to be the one to stop Trinity. And I can't let Trinity get this dagger. It's all on me.’ Even when Jonah's saying, ‘Hang on, now. We don't know what this thing does. Let's take a minute.’ Lara's not hearing any of that.”
BEFORE DIGGING INTO Shadow of the Tomb Raider, its developers realized there was one scenario where Lara was clearly not in control. Eidos Montreal’s developers asked the team at Crystal Dynamics if they had any reference material of Lara cool, calm, and collected in a normal social situation.
“And they were like, ‘Uh... no,’” recalled Dozois. “There was no reference of her acting that way because she was always in a hectic, stressful, survival situation. We had to come up with different scenes to create that.”
Enter Paititi, the ancient city hidden deep in the Amazon jungle where the game’s action takes place, and just as important a character in the game as Lara, Jonah, Dominguez, or any other actor. Paititi stands apart from every other ancient place Lara has uncovered. “One thing that was very important in Shadow of the Tomb Raider was making this hidden city of Paititi. That's what the jungle is protecting,” explained Briggs. “It's a hidden city untouched by modern civilization, untouched by time. It's very much a living, organic culture. Living history, as we call it.”
Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics drew from legend to create the city of Paititi. It’s believed to be found somewhere in the rainforests of Peru. According to a long-lost report by a mission that was uncovered in 2001, it’s rich in gold and jewels, and hosts fabulous structures made from stone.
Lara is awed by her discovery, and intimidated. “Ironically, she feels out of her element in social situations but in her element at these deadly survival situations. She's become really, really good at that,” said Heath Smith, co-lead game designer.
“We didn't say at the beginning, ‘Lara will be more awkward around people,’ but that's what happened. You see that Lara is not comfortable with small talk,” Bisson added. “Even when she's going out of the jungle into the village, she says, ‘There's a lot of people there. Jonah, you do the talking,’ because she doesn't know how to deal with that. This is the game we're making: She'll learn how to deal with that, and that is important.”
The notion of showing Lara’s discomfort around people arose from a discussion the developers had about how the famous adventurer would handle small talk. “It's like the opposite of PTSD where you might go seek out dangerous situations because that's easier than interacting with people,” Smith said. “You have very empowering combat where she's doing all this stuff, and then you have quiet, introspective moments where she's talking to people and listening to people.”
Like every other element of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Paititi serves as an extension of the game’s themes: the city is light, while the jungle in which it’s hidden is dark. Life and death also take center stage as Lara slowly comes out of her shell among the city’s natives. “Paititi is kind of a celebration of life. What we wanted to achieve with that is to show Lara making more human contact,” said Mario Chabtini, senior producer. “She will be able to get side missions from them, or she may have to help them. That's one part of it. The other part is that we try to introduce social puzzles. You'll have to interact with people to solve a situation and get through it.”
Paititi is also a slice of real-life cake flavored with fictional icing. Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal researched the city, Peru, and associated cultures in order to portray them respectfully, while keeping in mind that their focus was on creating a work of fiction.
“That's why we call it living history: We wanted to make sure Lara would go in and interact with it as respectfully as possible,” Briggs said. “That's why when you go into Paititi, there are side quests you can do for people. Of course that furthers gameplay, but it also furthers the narrative: Lara's getting to know the people. She's going into what we call social puzzles where you have to find out what people need, talk to different people, and maybe they clue you in to where a challenge tomb could be.”
The opportunity to meander through Paititi and interact with its inhabitants led to the moments the developers were so curious to see play out. “The first time we heard her laugh, I was like, ‘Wow. I've never heard Lara laugh.’ When you see all these scenes together, they create more of a person rather than just a super athlete who was always getting in and out of horrible situations,” Dozois said. “Everywhere she goes, she meets new people who are helping. Lara is generally a loner, and I think that's part of her problem. She needs to ally with people and learn from them. I think she learns way more from the people in this game than ever before.”
Shortly after Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s release in September 2018, fans and critics called one aspect of Paititi into question. An option called Immersion Mode allows players to hear NPCs speaking their native language, such as Spanish or Yucatan Maya, as they converse with Lara. The problem, as perceived by some outlets, is that Lara responds in English, and Paititi’s inhabitants seem to understand her.
Lara is no linguistic slouch. In Tomb Raider 2013 and Rise of the Tomb Raider, players performed gamified actions such as dusting off monuments and reading old scrolls to refresh Lara on languages she hadn’t spoken in a while. However, the fact that Lara seems to respond in English, and that NPCs understand her, is a collective area that some at Eidos Montreal view as a missed opportunity. Lara’s voiceover was recorded in English so players can understand what Lara is saying, but in the game, she’s actually speaking the NPC’s language—trouble is, that doesn’t come across.
“What we were trying for there is that she's a professional adventurer fluent in many languages, and she's not learning these languages for the first time in this game,” admitted Smith. “In retrospect, there could have been a [scene] where she says a few words in that language and then it changes to English so you realize she's speaking to people in their language all the time. I think what we were trying to do with Immersive Mode was trying to give players a more... let's say believable experience, or immersive experience, with other languages in ways other than using subtitles.”
MANY MODERN PROPERTIES, from Marvel superheroes to video game icons, have grown up and become self-aware enough to analyze their pasts and consider their message.
Some characters have found more success than others. In 2015’s Man of Steel film, Superman and General Zod clobbered each other across rural and urban locations, leveling city blocks. Critics and fans took direct Zack Snyder to task for the bombastic fight scenes, stating that the character of Superman should be more intent on protecting the innocent. Contrast that with Marvel’s Avengers movies, where characters lament the cost of human life and property damage that occurs when Ironman and friends show up to thwart evildoers.
Lara Croft likewise grows up in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. True, she’ll have amassed a body count in the hundreds by the time the end credits on Shadow (and the trilogy) roll, and that’s only counting people who would have killed her if she hadn’t killed them first. But part of accepting a hero in an action game is reconciling their kill-first mentality with any narrative attempts at morality. Lara is no exception. Her thoughtless actions at the beginning of the game result in disasters that color our perception of the character. Lara no longer looks like a brave hero risking life and limb to make important discoveries when she ransacks tombs. She looks like a bloodthirsty thief smashing and grabbing her way across culture and history. Her only thought is to stop Dominguez, and the ends justify the means.
“Lara's growth through Shadow of the Tomb Raider is really about conquering what's inside you in terms of inner demons,” said Briggs. “To make sure you don't cross lines you've drawn for yourself. That's the arc we want to take you on. That first decision triggers her descent, if you will, to trying to stop Trinity by any means necessary, and then, when she hits the lowest, darkest point of her narrative part, she realizes, ‘This is not who I am. This is not who I'm meant to be.’”
Two characters play supporting roles in putting Lara back on track. The first is Dominguez, who is Lara’s equal in many ways. “I like to say that she's more like Sherlock, he's more like Moriarty,” said Bisson, referring to Sherlock Holmes’ longtime rival. “You have this element of intelligence, but he has something over her because he has maturity and experience. He understands the action she took, while she doesn't fully comprehend it yet.”
Dominguez is more antagonist than villain. His real name is Amaru, the head of a cult that intends to use the dagger and the Silver Box of Chak Chel, a jaguar goddess, to harness the Cleansing’s power to remake the world in the cult’s image—one free of sin, a veritable utopian paradise.
“When we talk about villains, to really feel something when you meet a villain, to believe this character could do something to change your perspective, that's powerful. It should be shades of gray,” said Bisson.
“He feels like he is doing the right thing. He feels like he is protecting Paititi and its way of life,” added Briggs. “Now, he obviously is not going about it the right way. He is the head of Trinity, and is trying to use the Mayan apocalypse to remake the world in an image he believes is right and free of sin, but that is not going to be good for humanity.”
Jonah, more than Lara, is Dominguez’s foil. “We started talking about Jonah, and found that in general, Lara is constantly moving from place to place. She doesn't have a home,” Bisson remembered. “She has the manor, but she hasn't established herself there. He's always her moral compass. She's young and getting overwhelmed by a lot of things. She's physically capable, but emotionally, it's hard for her to get a sense of everything that's happening at the same time. It was very important for us that he be way more present [in the final game], because Shadow is a much more personal journey and story.”
In Tomb Raider 2013, Lara saves Jonah. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Jonah works at her side. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Jonah opposes Lara after the Cleansing’s tsunami obliterates Cozumel and she declares her intention to go after Dominguez instead of sticking around to help the people who got caught up in her quest for vengeance. He’s the only one able to make her face the reality that she is as responsible for the destruction and death around her than Dominguez, if not more so, and that Lara needs to be better.
“Jonah does stick with her. They ultimately realize they need each other. But there are a lot of really poignant moments in the story,” said Briggs.
The stakes are raised when, later in the story, Lara believes Jonah to be dead. She goes on a rampage, destroying a refinery and killing everyone on-site until Jonah emerges alive but worse for wear. This, more so than the aftermath of the tsunami, is when Lara realizes what all her strength, knowledge, and training have made her capable of: A force of death and darkness rather than life and light.
Lara and Jonah work with new characters such as Unuratu, a relative of Amaru’s, to prevent him from carrying out his plan. At the story’s climax, Amaru comes into possession of both dagger and box, and pierces the box with the dagger to claim the power of the goddess. After Lara defeats him, he transfers his power to her.
This is Lara’s moment of truth, her “defining moment” hinted at in the game’s marketing campaign. She could harness that power for herself. Her desire is to resurrect her parents, to effectively turn back the clock to reclaim the people she loves the most.
Her other option: Allow herself to be sacrificed, killing the goddess within her and halting the Cleansing.
Lara chooses to let go. The spirit within her is sacrificed, the Cleaning is stopped, and the region is saved. The cost is any hope Lara had of reuniting with her mother and father.
“She even mentions that in Shadow, in a conversation with Jonah,” Smith said. “She says she thinks she's going to let everyone down if she just stops. Psychologically and emotionally, while she may be deadly in combat, emotionally she still hasn't deal with all this baggage. That's one of the things she needs to learn: How to let go of the past and become a more well-rounded person so she can be a responsible tomb raider rather than focusing on goals to the detriment and expense of the people around her.”
At the end of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara becomes the Tomb Raider. A flawed hero who prioritizes people rather than vengeance, selfishness, and an ephemeral sense of discovery.
“Players will see that Lara wants to do the right thing,” Riggs said. “She'll make some mistakes, but she will realize what tomb raider she is destined to be, and she'll go after that. She won't compromise her humanity in order to stop Trinity. She will not become Trinity. She will do this the Lara Croft way—the right way.”
“One of our lines that Unuratu says is, ‘We all create destiny.’ It's about that,” Dozois said of Shadow’s story. “It's kind of a fantasy to say, ‘I'm going to find some object and make the world exactly how I want it to be.’ Reality is, things happen, and you need to make the best of situations.”