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Interview: Can Tomb Raider balance narrative and gameplay?

Art director on gameplay vs. narrative, writing for a female protagonist, and Apocalypse Now

Let's be upfront: Crystal Dynamics' anticipated Tomb Raider reboot is a departure from previous games in the series. Following a recent hands-on playthrough, we said "our biggest concern is that it doesn't really feel like Tomb Raider."

Still, it's only fair to judge Tomb Raider for what it actually is, so during his recent trip to Australia we spoke to the game's art director Brian Horton about balancing narrative with gameplay, the challenges writing for a female protagonist, and how Children of Men and Apocalypse Now inspired Tomb Raider's newly gritty aesthetic.

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Tomb Raider is a reboot of a beloved series. To what extent has the game's legacy influenced the current approach?

We wanted to capture the impression, the feel and the DNA of a Tomb Raider game. When we reimagined this, we knew it needed to be perceived as a Tomb Raider game and not something different. We have changed quite a bit in terms of the mechanics, her [Lara Croft's] presentation and the world presentation, but it is still at heart an action adventure game with the navigation, puzzle solving and combat that is a classic Tomb Raider formula.

There's prominent focus on story-telling. In terms of the industry at large, do you think combining narrative with gameplay is still a work in progress? Is there a best way to go about it?

I think that as the gaming audience matures there's a desire for more depth in the characters in their worlds. As an industry, I think we've only just touched the surface of our version of storytelling. We've been using traditional cinematics, something that's definitely borrowed from film. But what we've tried to do in this game, in addition to tell a story through cinematics, is tell a story through play. As you're playing through the world there's visual storytelling going on everywhere - there are conversations going on in context with gameplay.

One of the powers of our medium is that you can have choice and story, in addition to what we have to force through cinematics. There are certain things we have to get across, but the things I'm more excited about with the medium is that we're able to do more visual storytelling: that sort of optional interactive storytelling that you perceive when, instead of killing a dude, you can wait and listen to his conversation. You can get more of the fiction without being forced to stop and wait.

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Are there any ways Tomb Raider approaches storytelling in a unique way?

I don't know if it's new, but I mentioned visual storytelling moments. I think one of the most powerful moments is when she comes out of the [opening] den and she looks out and sees all these shipwrecks from all these ages: World War II bombers, tankers and gallions. It tells this story about the island: that you come here and you don't leave. We don't need to say that, you just get it from looking at this space. That visual storytelling is super important to us, and I think the best games out there are thinking about that as another level.

Lara's first human kill is an important moment in the game. How do you go about creating a moment like that? Especially since later she's mowing guys down left right and centre.

In video games the mechanic, or the idea of using killing as part of a gameplay loop, has been part of video games forever. It's just something that we've grown accustomed to. But very few games put that importance and the weight of what killing a person means [into the game]. So the first kill for Lara had to mean something. It was something that she had to do, but she actually made a choice to do it, in a way. The player makes the choice. You need to pull the trigger. So you go through that event and you feel the weight of it.

What's exciting about video games versus film is that films have to tell a story in an hour and 45 minutes. We can tell a story over many hours, so we can ramp up that experience over time, and we can feather that in from going from that first kill to more kills. It's a game, so you have to bring it in, but the next big encounter you see she's not too sure of it. She's like "stay away", and she's injured. So she's once again cornered but now she has two guys to kill. So we've ramped it up so that we're not actually going from zero to hero in the span of an hour, we really give you the opportunity to get used to the idea of what she has to do, which is to kill in order to survive.

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