Word of the final chapter in Crystal Dynamics’ origin story for Lara Croft issued forth not with a bang or a whimper, but as a steady dribble of leaks.
In late October 2016, Reddit user Tripleh280 was riding the Montreal subway when he happened to glance at another patron’s laptop. On the screen he caught a glance of marketing materials for a game titled Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
Naturally, Tripleh280 snapped a pic and shared it in a Reddit post describing the chance encounter.
The gaming community dug through the photo and extracted three points of interest.
The first was a possible title. Kotaku reporter Jason Schrier learned that Shadow of the Tomb Raider was indeed the working name for the trilogy’s finale.
The second was that another Montreal-based developer, Ubisoft Montreal, had accidentally leaked game materials on public transmit before. In 2013, Reddit user photoacoustic claimed he noticed a PowerPoint presentation and logo for Assassin’s Creed IV: The Black Flag, the next installment in the acclaimed franchise, on a flight. Ubisoft announced the game in late February of the same year.
The third, and a source of confusion for some fans, was more of a question: Why would a developer from Montreal be finishing up the Tomb Raider reboot when Crystal Dynamics, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, had developed the first two-thirds of the trilogy?
In truth, Eidos Montreal had been crafting Lara’s foundational adventures alongside the Crystal team in California since the trilogy’s inception.
“Eidos Montreal has been a partner on the Tomb Raider franchise since the reboot began, before its release in 2013,” said Rich Briggs, brand director at Crystal Dynamics. “They had a strong role on content creation on Tomb Raider 2013, including working on the multiplayer side.”
Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal put leaks and rumors to rest when they announced Shadow of the Tomb Raider in March 2018. The announcement came with a projected release date of September 14 for the installment. (The news didn’t come as a surprise to enterprising fans who had dug through the HTML of a teaser website and discovered the game’s title and release date beforehand.)
Developers described the Canadian studio’s role on Tomb Raider 2013 and Rise of the Tomb Raider as that of a support team. Crystal Dynamics had handled principal development, while Montreal had taken point on multiplayer modes and a few levels.
Those roles would be released for Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Crystal Dynamics had expanded, opening another development studio in Bellevue, Washington, called Crystal Northwest, where a team would build technology to power The Avengers Project, a game based on the heroes and villains of Marvel Comics.
While Crystal Northwest donned caps and tights, a team at Crystal Dynamics in California was tapped to support Eidos Montreal, where a team headed by game director Daniel Chayer-Bisson claimed ownership of the game’s design.
Dan Bisson was uniquely suited to lead development on Shadow. He got his start in the games industry in 2000, working on children’s titles such as Hype: The Time Quest and Laura’s Happy Adventures. Soon enough, he was bit by the entrepreneurial bug. “I left and tried to start a company, and it didn't work very well,” he said. “We were young, and we were partying more than working at the time. I went back to Ubisoft and got my first big break with Assassin's Creed.”
Bisson went from diving into wagons of hay as a designer and writer on Assassin’s Creed to joining the design teams for Rainbow 6 Vegas 2 and James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game. “After that, I got a call about going to Eidos Montreal. They said, ‘What you did on these games in terms of your involvement on their stories, maybe you could do the same thing at Eidos Montreal,’” he recalled.
Soon after starting at Eidos Montreal, Bisson was informed that he would be assigned to a reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise originally developed by Core Design in the 1990s. He was elated. Before he wanted to design games, he wanted to make movies. And before he wanted to make movies, he wanted to be an archaeologist in the vein of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, the heroine of the 3D action games he and millions of others had enjoyed on PlayStation.
Bisson relocated to Crystal Dynamics for five months and joined Tomb Raider 2013’s team as co-game director with Noah Hughes.
“I was responsible for the actual game,” he explained, clarifying, “Everything that was about development of the combat, traversal, the mechanics, working with animators and combat-system designers. My goal was to make sure that what we had in mind as our vision in terms of the interaction between Lara and the world was fun and memorable.”
Months later, Bisson packed his bags again. This time he would leave Redwood City, California, to return to Montreal. “My wife really missed the cold, and how it is here, the survival aspect of Canada,” he said, laughing. “There are lots of polar bears very close to our house, and she must like to survive these things.”
The truth was much simpler. His wife missed their family up north. Midway through work on Rise of the Tomb Raider, he and his family moved home, and Bisson put together a team at Eidos Montreal to continue working on Rise. “We created a small team based on people who'd worked on the multiplayer of Tomb Raider 2013,” he said.
Bisson teamed up with Noah Hughes, still stationed at Crystal Dynamics, to brainstorm Lara’s narrative arc and abilities for Rise. Around the time the development team completed the game’s vertical slice—a playable demo that illustrates a game’s primary story points and systems—he led efforts to bulk up the team at Eidos Montreal.
“My time was shared between the two studios: I was always going from one place to the other, because I was responsible for some part of different systems,” he said. “On Rise, Eidos Montreal did a lot more on the single-player content: roughly a fourth of the critical path, and challenge tombs.”
Early in Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s preproduction stage—brainstorming a game’s look and feel, with most code and art assets being temporary or experimental in nature—Crystal Dynamics passed the baton to Eidos Montreal.
“When we started talking about it, one thing that was interesting was that some of the maps that were made at Montreal rated very high in play tests,” explained Bisson. “That built confidence between Crystal and Eidos Montreal.”
Crystal Dynamics didn’t simply hand over the franchise and leave Eidos Montreal to it.
“When we first started working with Eidos Montreal to conceptualize what Shadow of the Tomb Raider should be,” Briggs remembered, “that's when we sat down and said, ‘Okay, what is sort of the box that we have, the space we have, to play in?’ Up front, we knew what was important and what had to be represented in a Tomb Raider game, through those pillars of the franchise.”
Several years and two blockbusters later, both teams had a firm grasp on the franchise pillars: traversal, exploration, combat, and puzzles. Tomb Raider 2013 had reinvented the franchise by taking Lara and players to a sprawling venue replete with optional, bite-sized tombs, new combat and upgrade systems, and an expanded repertoire of acrobatics and gadgets. Rise had been built on a foundation of feedback: Players wanted more tombs, so Crystal and Eidos Montreal gave them more—and larger—crumbling caves and ancient temples to plunder.
“When you're developing a story and a game, you start learning surprising things about your characters,” said Bisson. “I knew where Lara should end up before we started Shadow of the Tomb Raider. I was in constant conversation with Noah. We would talk about the evolution of the character, and on Shadow we were still having this conversation about where she would be and what she would do.”
Not all meetings took place between the heads of both studios. Bisson brought narrative director Jason Dozois, lead game designer Heath Smith, producer Mario Chabtini, and the rest of his growing team into the fold to weigh in on decisions and content creations.
One conversation led to an unlikely but intriguing comment about Lara Croft.
“The ultimate question, and this is something we were not prepared for, was, if we had Lara sitting down at a table and not talking about archaeology, what would she talk about? If we said, ‘Hey, Lara, what did you do last week?’, how would she react?” Bisson said. “The question was, ‘Does she even know herself?’”
Crystal Dynamics had contracted a model to portray Lara Croft, and took pictures of her for use in marketing campaigns for Tomb Raider 2013 and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Artists took each photo and drew overtop them in an attempt to capture an emotion in a snapshot-like illustration. One, a picture of Lara bandaging a wound while resting at a campfire, had communicated the vision of a vulnerable young woman, thrust into a life-or-death adventure, scared but determined to follow in her father’s footsteps and make him proud.
“That was our theme for Tomb Raider 2013: ‘A survivor is born,’” said Briggs.
Of the dozens of themes that were pitched in meetings for Shadow of the Tomb Raider, one came up over and over.
“Lara has this duality within her, and she's trying to not—and I know this sounds cliché—to go to the dark side,” said Heath Smith. “She's struggling because she could become the thing she's fighting against. This is the final lesson she needs to learn, in a way. These three games, this arc, is about maturing and becoming the Tomb Raider. The Tomb Raider is not just about being awesome and powerful. It's about responsibility. That's where fear comes from. How do we inject an element of fear into things? She has to face her darkest fears to become the Tomb Raider.”
The concept of fear had lurked beneath the surface of Tomb Raider 2013 and Rise of the Tomb Raider. In the first game, Lara was thrust into a dangerous and unexpected situation. In Rise, she became proactive. “For the first time she's going out and choosing to be an explorer—on purpose, going after something to prove her father was right,” said Dozois.
Lara had locked away her fears by reacting—run, jump, climb, shoot, stab, kill, explore. Eidos and Crystal wanted to force the character out of her comfort zone. “It's more about the why,” Dozois added.” Why is she doing these things? She needs to learn. Her skills are at their peak, but she needs to consider the why, the reason behind things.”
“Lara Croft is on a roller coaster ride from a narrative perspective,” Briggs said. “At the end of Rise of the Tomb Raider, when she realizes that Trinity killed her father, that's when we flip a switch and turn that drive into almost an obsession. That's where we start in Shadow of the Tomb Raider.”
Eidos Montreal had their keyword. Now all they needed was one pivotal moment, the keystone that would support Shadow’s narrative and gameplay. They found it during a long, hectic day of filming a scene starring Camilla Luddington, the actress who has voiced and provided the motion-capture footage for Lara Croft across the entire trilogy, and Earl Baylon, portrayer of Lara’s closest friend, Jonah.
At a point early in Shadow, Lara steals a dagger and unleashes the Mayan apocalypse. During filming, Lara and Jonah clamber up to a rooftop to escape floodwaters Lara unwittingly and recklessly unleashed. The scene is grim: flooded homes, ruined land, death and devastation at every turn.
“We did over ten versions of that scene and said, ‘This is okay,’” Dozois recalled.
Before the next take—and the last take of that day—Darryl Purdy, the project’s performance director, pulled Baylon aside and gave him direction: Upset Camilla by driving home the fact that the tsunami and subsequent flood were Lara’s fault.
Lights. Camera. Action. Baylon and Luddington, dressed from head to toe in motion-capture gear, reached a point in the script where Lara is eager to pursue Dr. Dominguez, her antagonist in Shadow of the Tomb Raider; she believes she’s the only one up to the task, and would prefer to leave any survivors to their own devices while she charges on ahead.
Baylon, fully in character, unloaded on a shocked Luddington. “You’re the only one that can what? You don’t know that you caused all this, Lara. Not everything is about you. These people need us here. We can do good NOW.”
The next day, Dozois and other team members reviewed rushes, unedited footage from the previous day’s filming. The shock and hurt on Luddington’s face were evident.
“She was not expecting that, so you had this really natural performance,” Dozois said. “We were saying, ‘Which scene is our benchmark scene?’ When we saw that, we were like, ‘There it is.’ It's got some good drama between people who are allies. Each point they make makes sense, but they have weaknesses, also. They're having a strong moment that really amplifies what Lara wants to do. Without that context of the flood and the people, you don't want to ask what happened and what's motivating Lara.”
“If you think back to Tomb Raider 2013, the way Lara carried herself, her whole performance, her actions—she was the rabbit, and they were the wolves,” Smith said, referring to the Trinity organization responsible for the death of Lara’s father. “She was the one being hunted. Now she is the hunter. That's another reason why we chose fear: To show that progression. To show that she's become proactive and very deadly. But we didn't just want to show that and say, ‘Yay, she can kill really well, now.’ She struggles. This game is about her not giving into the shadow and finding a balance by the end of the game.”