Author's Note: Ascendant was my first Shacknews long read. I wrote it in 2016 when Tomb Raider celebrated its 20th anniversary. Two years later, I added new chapters that explored the making of Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Tomb Raider and Shacknews both turned 25 this year, so I thought it appropriate to revisit the story that cemented long reads as a staple feature on this website so many gamers and developers call home. Below, you'll find a complete chapter from Ascendant: The Fall of Tomb Raider and the Rise of Lara Croft. You can read the full long read--a book-sized feature--by clicking here.
Crystal Dynamics shared a lot in common with Core Design. The San Francisco-based studio was founded by three veterans from Sega, the company that had signed Core as the first British developer to write games for the Genesis; Crystal achieved its own first when The 3DO Company signed Crystal as the first licensee of its 3DO home console; and Eidos published its games, too.
Also like Core, Crystal had a mascot. Gex the Gecko never hobnobbed with the likes of Lara Croft and Mario, but he became recognizable in his own right. The studio published Canadian developer Silicon Knights' Legacy of Kain, a gothic-fantasy RPG, in the United States. Following a legal struggle, Crystal Dynamics won the rights to create more games in the series, and the vampire Kain supplanted Gex as its biggest star—until 2003, when Eidos informed the Crystal staff that they would be chartering Lara Croft's tomb-raiding expeditions going forward.
"We were doing a few internal projects at the time, and we'd gotten the word that we might have the opportunity to work on a Tomb Raider title," recalled creative director Noah Hughes. "It was fairly vague, but certainly exciting, being fans of the franchise ourselves. We started talking internally about what we would do with a Tomb Raider game. It came down to leveraging some of the things we had learned about character-based, action-adventure games with projects like Soul Reaver, and trying to apply them to what we loved about Tomb Raider games."
Hughes and the rest of Crystal's team leveraged their fandom for Tomb Raider, as well as their ongoing study of videogame trends, to brainstorm a creative direction for their first crack at the franchise, Tomb Raider Legend. They reached one consensus right away: Core and Eidos had released six Tomb Raider games over the last seven years; Lara needed a vacation if critics and players were to be expected to greet another installment warmly.
Targeting two to three years for Legend's development, the team dissected Tomb Raider to identify which aspects had been critical to its success. "We recognized that platforming, or traversal as we more often call it, was an essential part of the franchise," Hughes said. "Combat, traversal, puzzle solving, exploration—these were all core gameplay pillars within the franchise, and were expressed as core attributes of Lara."
It didn't take Crystal long to realize that those four pillars were immutable. Lara had millions of fans, and each of them had a certain mental snapshot of her character and adventures. Rather than abandon any pillar, Crystal reassessed the specifics of how they supported the franchise.
"Some of the things that we saw an opportunity improve were, for one, the movement system itself," Hughes explained. For instance, Lara had moved according to a tank-style control scheme. Pressing up moved her forward, pressing down caused her to backpedal, and tapping left or right rotated her in place.
There were pros and cons to that method of traversal. Relative to Super Mario 64's rendition of Nintendo's mustachioed mascot, who could sneak, walk, and sprint simply by tilting the analog stick to varying degrees, controlling Lara felt ponderous and clunky.
"That defined a ceiling on Lara's agility compared to other modern platform games," Hughes admitted.
At the same time, Tomb Raider's control scheme afforded precision. She responded to taps, and performed different actions when players held certain buttons and pressed directional inputs. Crystal's task, then, was to walk a razor's edge between the precision fans expected and a fluidity that would empower them to flow through environments like a parkour artist.
"We wanted to at least experiment with other control paradigms that had moved away from that general model," Hughes said.
Exploration went hand-in-hand with traversal. Billing Tomb Raider Legend as a reboot, the game disregards Core's narrative and sends Lara on a personal quest to unearth a stone dais after losing her mother in a plane crash years earlier. Now a veteran adventurer, Lara combs ancient dig sites, Soviet laboratories, and King Arthur's tomb in pursuit of the relic.
Each location showcased Crystal Dynamics' take on puzzle solving. Physics engines, for instance, had become all the rage over the last few years, so Crystal Dynamics made them a keystone in Legend's puzzles.
"Again, that came from a desire to keep what was a central pillar of Tomb Raider—in this case, Lara's brilliance and her archaeological understanding—and apply them in a puzzle space, by modernizing that experience," Hughes said, posing the question, "How can physics and people's basic understanding of how the world works be brought into puzzles in a way that enhances, or at least evolves puzzle solving as an experience?"
Combat comprised another pillar. Gunning down T-Rexes and a pack of wolves was one thing, but Lara approached violence differently than peers like Duke Nukem and Master Chief. The developers tied Lara's enhanced mobility to modern combat systems such as a lock-on mechanic popularized by The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. If Lara got up close to enemies, she could step onto them and spring off to disorient them.
"One thing we always strove for in reinterpreting Tomb Raider's gameplay pillars was retaining what we call a 'Lara lens,'" Hughes explained. "When we look at combat, it's important she doesn't win just through higher firepower or brute force; we want to create opportunities for players to use cleverness within the environment, and to use her mobility and agility to overcome combat situations."
Crystal Dynamics took a chance modifying Lara's time-honored game systems. Its gamble paid dividends. Released in April 2006 in celebration of the franchise's 10th anniversary, Tomb Raider Legend canvased PC and console systems to nearly universal acclaim. Lara handled beautifully, and her adventurous spirit made the jump to her new steward intact. Collectively, Legend garnered the highest aggregate score since 1997's Tomb Raider II. Crystal Dynamics followed up with Tomb Raider Anniversary—a total remake of the original game—in 2007, and Tomb Raider Underworld in 2008.
Each game sold and scored better than the last, but Crystal still felt like Lara had one foot in the past. "We came out of Underworld feeling proud of a lot of the technical innovations we had made, but with a hunger to push innovation and freshness, and surprise our audience as much as we possibly could," Hughes said. "That was a very broad developer aspiration."
The time had come to wipe the slate clean. "On a development level, we very much wanted to do something particularly fresh and surprising for people. We'd sort of stored up a desire to do that," Hughes recalled.
Step one was taking stock of Lara herself. Like Batman in Tim Burton's 1989 film, the tomb-raiding heroine Crystal inherited was already a confident and able adventurer. Crystal Dynamics decided to take her, and her fans, out of their element.
"We started by interpreting her situation and her characterization," remembered Hughes. "It became clear that something like a reboot, an origin story, would meet our goal of reintroducing audiences [to Lara] and realign how they felt about this character while not changing the underlying fabric of the character—her DNA, for lack of a better word. To really ask people to reevaluate her, and not just look at her as a 10-year-old icon, but a remarkable human going on amazing adventures."
Part of recalibrating how the world viewed Lara Croft had to do with reimagining her physical proportions—namely her breast size and itty-bitty waistline. One of the first cracks in Core's relationship with Eidos had appeared when Toby Gard, the animator who had created Lara, grew livid over how Eidos' marketing department positioned his character as a sexpot. Posters and advertisements featured her in provocative poses and wearing clothing that left little to the imagination.
Gard pitched ideas to play up Lara's sophistication, strength, and poise, but Eidos' marketers shooed him away. His job was to make games; their job was to sell those games as they saw fit. A fan-made patch for Tomb Raider games on PC that stripped Lara of her clothing, unsanctioned and aggressively combated by Core, spread like wildfire across the Internet, which didn't help Gard's case.
Modernizing Lara wasn't as simple as giving her a breast reduction. "We have to be careful: this is an icon of the industry," cautioned Tomb Raider brand manager Rich Briggs. "You can't build a completely new version of Lara Croft; you've got to keep some things that people know and love about her."
Crystal found a comfortable middle ground. "There's this proportionality to her characteristics that were extreme in their percentile of expression of [realism]," Hughes explained. "Generally, we just tried to dial all that back. Although extremes can exist in biology, the more extreme an outlier you get, the more [characters] come across as cartoony. We made an effort to humanize both in a narrative context, and by asking ourselves how we would do that visually. This reduction in cartooniness and stylization became a broader goal."
The team's hope was that by the end of their reboot, fans would come to think of Lara more in terms of how her inaugural crucible had shaped her, rather than her shapeliness.
"What I really connected with in terms of the reboot was being there for her formative years," said Meagan Marie, Crystal's senior community manager and the author of 20 Years of Tomb Raider. "You got a taste of that in Legends with the plane crash; you saw Lara being that globetrotting adventurer who prefers the isolation of tombs to high society. Seeing her as a younger woman in a modern age, seeing her hold a smartphone and having Beats by Dre in her ears—it made her more identifiable to me."
"This idea that a survivor was born during Lara's origin story was not just about doing a reset of the franchise and character," added Briggs. "It was about trying to show people that there are things intrinsic to Lara and to the Tomb Raider franchise that people can identify with in their own lives and in human nature. The idea that when their back is up against the wall, people will do whatever it takes."
Before that could happen, Crystal had to engineer that crucible. The franchise's four core pillars made for the perfect foundation.
For the full story of Tomb Raider's creation by Core Design and how Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal teamed up to tell Lara Croft's origin story, check out Ascendant: The Fall of Tomb Raider and the Rise of Lara Croft, one of many Shacknews Long Reads that goes behind the scenes to share stories of how games are made and the people who make them.