“I’m sorry, could you repeat that one more time?”
“Did you, as an individual, or as a team – did you get shipwrecked in order to fully appreciate what Lara Croft is going through?”
“I thought that’s what you said, but I was like No! She couldn’t have said that!”

…but I did. I’m chatting to Brian Horton, Senior Art Director on Tomb Raider at Crystal Dynamics, and he’s not quite sure what to make of the question.

“I would have loved to have gotten shipwrecked!” he laughs, before clarifying that, um, no, not really, thanks for asking.

What we tried to do was put ourselves in the shoes of someone who had been in a situation like that, so you try to gain as much empathy for your character as you can.

What we did: We watched a lot of movies! We listened to stories that had survival themes, and one of the themes that always came up for any survival story is ‘Just keep moving’. That’s a theme that came up for anything – so we sort of adopted that for our game, and we knew that no matter what else happened to Lara, that she would have this forward motion, that she would be able to find that inner strength and move forward, and that’s something that we tried to imbue in her character.

Brian confirms that no developers involved on the project were asked to find out first-hand what it was like to get shot, but more than a few of the team did actually go above and beyond simply sitting behind a desk. Thanks to Crystal Dynamics‘ thoughtful purchase of mo-cap suits, a number of the developers are immortalised in the game as extra characters, and not always in a flattering light. Brian himself appears as one of the guys getting roughed around a bit, while that “Lara”, hit by a pistol in an early scene? One of the game’s producers. In Brian’s words, “We put our own little bits of pain into the game.”

It was an accident, really. There was a bridge, but next to the bridge a small trail led to the riverbank. I followed it, into a darkened cave. My confident footsteps became less-so as the cave wound deeper into the mountain, convinced beyond measure that my flickering torchlight would pick up the glint of a wolf’s eye, that my next step would be into a trap, or – almost worse – that this cave would result in a dead end and I would have to backtrack.

One of the walls was covered in skulls.

When the game wants you to walk right, there’s a certain sub-set of gamers who will inevitably turn left. Sometimes they are rewarded for their efforts with a shiny coin or two, an extra life, or some other trinket that will help to unlock the most completist achievements. (Sometimes, they walk straight into a sharpened spike at chest-height.)

This time, I helped Lara Croft live up to the title of her game, and sat in stunned silence as her horrific experiences paled in the glow of a new discovery.

[img_big]center,7183,2012-12-05/969911_WolfAttack_02.jpg,This is not a metaphor[/img_big]

Famously, people don’t buy games with exclusively female protagonists, because publishers don’t support them to the same extent, or in the same way as they do their male counterparts. Lara, however, the 15-year old Tomb Raider franchise, bucks that trend. Brian smiles, recounting that Lara is “absolutely unique” in the marketplace.

I think Lara has always been a smart, capable, strong woman who just happens to kick ass and her games are a lot of fun. She’s the first one to really break that (gender) boundary, and she’s endured because people like her! They like the idea of not only who she is, but what she does – the context of being an adventurer and a treasure hunter, and someone who can really handle themselves.

The new game – as we’ve been told over and over – is designed to show a little history, some context, a background into how Lara Croft really became the Tomb Raider.

…and don’t think that she was a shrinking violet before the game started. You aren’t taking a spoilt suburban princess into the wild and expecting a complete transformation. Her original journey is one of adventure, even before things go wrong. The young Lara Croft wants to be a Tomb Raider. She wants to be an archaeologist, an adventurer, someone who explores things, discovers things, and writes the history books (as well as potentially starring in them).

This back-story to the back-story is told through video diary entries watched on a salvaged camcorder, and it’s in one of these clips that she’s shown to be more than just a woman of science and knowledge, relying on instinct and intuition when all signs suggest otherwise.

Brian describes Lara’s uniqueness as “a series of elements”, and while he’s referring primarily to the on-the-island version of the character, it shines through in earlier clips. Decisions she makes – even in sections with no player input – are flawed and human, driven by emotion rather than science. It’s difficult to imagine a male character, an Indiana Jones or a Nathan Drake, becoming quite so passionate over making what seems to be the wrong decision.

[img_big]center,7183,2012-12-05/9700HandgunUpgrade.jpg,Finally: Upgradable weapons and optional skillsets[/img_big]

Putting the passion behind that decision is writer Rhianna Pratchett, which puts Lara further into unmarked territory – a strong female character penned by a strong female author. It’s impossible to think Rhianna’s personal experiences haven’t been drawn upon.

Brian continues:

I think Rhianna has brought a certain element that we find value in as developers. She’ll tell you that she doesn’t feel just because she’s a woman that it makes it any “better”, but I do think there’s a value in that.

It gives her an instinct, of what to put on the page – whether she’s conscious of it or not.

We are camping in an abandoned Japanese village. My goal is to scale a nearby mountain (of course), but I choose to take a few moments to wander around the buildings – injured crewmate be damned. The buildings are in various stages of disrepair, a crumbled wall, a caved-in roof, a few missing floorboards. Even in the squally rain and the blustery wind, there’s a sense of calm. A plane has crash-landed in a waterfall, but the power of nature and the flowing water has made the rusting hulk look like it’s always been there. Maybe it has.

I walk across a courtyard and notice a religious statue, sitting cross-legged on a pedestal in a little building that still has a mostly-solid roof. Regardless of what the game might want me to do, I head to the main building, light my torch, and return to the shrine. A quick tap of X, and Lara touches the flame to the dry kindling held by the statue, which quickly ignites.

As a gamer, I am rewarded with part of an achievement. As a respectful traveller, I am rewarded with a sense of making things “right”. In an already emotion-filled game, it seemed wrong to leave a shrine – a place of worship – abandoned.

The island Lara is shipwrecked on does not exist. However, the perilous Dragon’s Triangle is very real, officially marked as a Danger Zone on Japanese maps. The forested mountainside, waterfalls and shrines Lara encounters are – almost – real, too.

Brian’s eyes sparkle as he reminisces about a trip to Japan. He was there to work with Square‘s Visual Works CGI studio on the very first Tomb Raider trailer, but while he was in the country, he took a trip to Nikko, a village in Tochigi Prefecture – and fell in love.

I was very fortunate to find a place that fit really well with something we wanted to do in our game, and could help give that next level of legitimacy to make sure that that space felt as believable as we could make it.

[img_big]center,7183,2012-12-05/9701VillageHub.jpg,Almost totally lifted from a photograph of Nikko[/img_big]

I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. I – as Lara – scrambling to escape a collapsing cave. Boulders have dropped and blocked every way out that I’ve spotted, with one last glimmer ahead of me, the literal light at the end of a rapidly disintegrating tunnel. And then someone – a man – grabs her leg.

A few button-presses later and she’s kicked him off, a well-timed chunk of rock now separating me/her from him. One more desperate lunge and Lara is free, outside, in the rain. Deep breaths, calm down, need to find shelter.

That night, as I am trying to sleep, the man snaps into focus in my mind’s eye. I got the briefest glimpse of his face before contorting my fingers to the appropriate combination, his eyes wide with panic. He was talking to me/to Lara. The only word I could hear was “Help” – did he want to help me? Did I need to help him? Was my whole escape plan, my dash to safety, my carefully-solved puzzle, simply going the wrong way?

Jessica Citizen was a guest of Namco Bandai Partners Australia.

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