Tomb Raider: How we saved Lara from upsetting Northerners
10th Jun 2011 | 11:01
There were two talking points after seeing the first gameplay footage of Tomb Raider earlier this week. 1) How ace the new horror-flavoured action looked, and 2) how much Lara panted and shrieked as she fled a collapsing cavern while fending off the attention of grubby loons.
But having seen the full demo today, it was something else that caught our attention. As Lara is tending to the wolf-inflicted wounds of Conrad Roth, another survivor on the mysterious island, she shouts: "Don't die on me you Yorkshire bastard!" Uh, what?!
Speaking to Brian Horton, senior art director at Crystal Dynamics, we explain that a nice girl like Lara wouldn't really use a regional distinction like that, and certainly not in an affectionate way. "The script and everything you've seen so far in our demo is from our 'vertical slice,'" explains Horton, "so these aren't final examples of our game, they're showing the sort of trend in which we're going. I imagine we're going to see tweaks in all aspects of our game." Once the recorder is off, we chat about different phrasings, agree Northern bastard won't really work either, and he tells us the line would definitely be coming out. Put those pitchforks down people of Yorkshire.
Given how much is riding on this reboot, it's no surprise Crystal Dynamics are determined to get every aspect of Lara absolutely spot on. "She was losing her relevance in the marketplace," admits Horton. "We wanted to make a more relatable, believable character, and a more cinematically driven experience. I think it's in line with the tastes of the modern gamer for a third-person action game."
And a key part of that has been choosing the right actress to provide Lara's voice. Her name is set to be announced soon, but for now all Horton will confirm is that she's British and an unknown. He also says that all the huffing and puffing in the Microsoft conference footage only seemed excessive because it represented a longer gameplay sequence condensed down.
Nonetheless, you're still going to hear a lot of Lara screaming. "We're not making a horror game," says Horton, "but there are going to be scary elements. Lara is going to experience pain, she's a mortal hero now, and I think it's a big differentiation factor from where we were on past Tomb Raider games." That mortality is demonstrated in the demo with a 'custom death' in which the player fails a quick-time event and Lara ends up getting brutally axed by one of her attackers.
These bespoke deaths will be familiar to anyone who's played the Resident Evil or Dead Space games, but it's going to feel very different when they're happening to gaming's former pin-up girl. So, we ask Horton how harsh the team is prepared to be with their heroine. "Right now we're at that place where we're still pushing," he says. "I don't think we've found our ceiling yet. In general we just make sure that it fits the situation. If it's gratuitous, then it's not right. So, if it fits the situation I think we can some pretty nasty things." Would you slice her in two then? "I didn't say that."
Even during quieter moments Lara is a gabbler, talking to herself much like Nathan Drake does in Uncharted, making little observations as she explores. It's clearly a way of reinforcing the player's emotional attachment to the character, and again the performance of the unnamed actress is key: "She's really breathed a lot of life into the character. You can craft a beautiful exterior as much as you want, but if you don't get someone to perform that character in such a way to get that believability, it's never going to come across."
With regards to the exploration gameplay, two things caught our eye. First was the fact you can take multiple routes to reach where you need to get to, making the clambering about seem more freeform than Uncharted, which usually only features one path. Second was the way Lara can be nudged slightly to correct her course in mid-air after jumping, rather than the magnetised ledges and fixed-animation jumps of old. Makes sense, but it'll take a playtest of a tricky section to be sure it really works.
Crystal Dynamics aren't showing the combat side of things yet, but in addition to a climbing axe nicked from mentalist caving movie The Descent's prop cupboard, Lara is also armed with a bow and arrows. Horton hints that this will also tie-in with the use of fire in the game, suggesting she'll be able to torch flammable obstacles from a distance. You'll also be able to craft new weapons and kit on the 'Base Camp' screen, which also acts as a hub for quick travel around the island and the place where you upgrade Lara's survival skills.
The idea of Lara as a survivor is absolutely key to what Crystal Dynamics are trying to do with Tomb Raider. "We definitely looked at film," says Horton. "You mentioned The Descent earlier, and it was a really key influence for us on these strong female characters going on an arc from unsure of themselves all the way through to badass. That was a big inspiration." Hmmm. So does that mean Lara will be attacked by horrendous monsters too? "I didn't say anything about horrendous monsters."