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."