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The big Rise of the Tomb Raider interview

Posted: 6 November 2015 8:31 pm


Rise of the Tomb Raider is the middle game in a new Tomb Raider trilogy, the first of which – titled simply Tomb Raider – came out in 2013 on multiple formats. The sequel is launching on Xbox One, with PC and PS4 version arriving deep into 2016. It’s a huge win for Microsoft, as the Tomb Raider reboot was a heck of a game.

Developed by Crystal Dynamics, this new trilogy distances itself from the eight previous games in the series that released between 1996 and 2008 by being an origin story. In the 2013 reboot, heroine Lara Croft is barely of age and has never encountered any of the trials, tombs, mysteries and murders we know will come to dominate her life. It remains an action-adventure game in all the right ways but uses incredible visuals, an excellent narrative, and sharp-edged survival gameplay to take players on an emotional journey deep into Lara the character.

There are of course tombs to raid, too, and action set pieces a plenty that unfold alongside surprisingly mature content to keep you glued to the screen. We highly recommend playing it if you have not already. If nothing else, you’ll be doubly excited for the coming sequel. Thankfully Brinker was only too happy to tell us more about Lara’s state of mind and what to expect in Rise of the Tomb Raider:

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Michael Brinker

- Senior Designer at Crystal Dynamics
- Former Game Designer at Electronic Arts
- Worked on The Godfather (PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii) and Dante’s Inferno (PS3 and Xbox 360)

How would you describe the Tomb Raider franchise’s journey over the last 20 years, and how has that both hindered and helped in the development of this game?

MB: Back in my college days when I was completing a Bachelor of Art and Theatre, I actually remember playing the very first Tomb Raider on my PC. I think that speaks to how iconic this series is and the impact it had, trying to capture these amazingly large, epic, ancient spaces you could explore. They had a very deadly nature to them as you were uncovering ancient mysteries. That was a great game and an experience I'll never forget.

Fast-forward a little bit and I finished my degree, went into interactive media, and then finally into games. Suddenly I find myself working on the reboot of that entire franchise. It was a big responsibility because, like you said, that 20-year history has a lot in it. There's a lot of people who have many ideas about who Lara Croft is and what she's all about. So to reinvent that and to be a part of the reboot was really important.

We managed to be successful with the reboot and to come up with a character that is both dynamic and multi-faceted, so now we’re able to work on a sequel. Furthermore, I am now at the helm. It’s a huge responsibility, because not only must this sequel take all that history into account, but now we have a reboot, too. We have a method of how we do things; we have an idea of who this character is and now we need to capitalise on the things that we know our fans really want to see, while also building on some of the stuff that we know we did well.

I think if you really look at the through-line for all of that, it’s the tombs that stand out. And I think it is what always will be so iconic about adventuring with Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider franchise.

She's going to be more prepared. She's going to be looking at it from the perspective of being a smart, resourceful character and not one that is just reacting to all these situations.

So she's no longer a scared rookie like she was in the first game, but she's certainly not the hardened, cold hero we know from the previous games in the series. As the title suggests, there is even a greater focus in this sequel on the growth of Lara as a tomb raider. What can you tell about her personality timeline at this point in the series?

MB: That's a really good question and the answers lie in the very ending of the reboot. She went through all these situations in our last Tomb Raider that she did not necessarily want to be a part of, and she survived them and learned a lot. But she also got a real taste for those universal truths; those mysteries that are still out there.

That taste is what drives her in Rise of the Tomb Raider, and that to me is super important because it starts to establish the idea that she is now experienced. Now she has the drive to go tomb raiding. She's going to be more prepared. She's going to be looking at it from the perspective of being a smart, resourceful character and not one that is just reacting to all these situations.

So all the game mechanics that we have and the story we're trying to tell really delve into that idea. I think that's what's going to be most interesting for not just our fans, but also for the general gaming audience who may have never played a Tomb Raider game before. It’s what really speaks to universal truths – the things we all face every day, things like sacrifice.

What does it mean for us to be working at our jobs? We all make decisions every day about work, and those are the same types of truths and same type of storytelling elements that I think will bring about a universal sense of not only a good story and character, but something everyone can latch on to.

Speaking of resourcefulness, there appears to be quite a lot of focus on customisation in this sequel. What have you learned about customisation gameplay? Why do you think gamers love it so much and how do you make it good?

MB: One word, choice. I think one of the big features for me as a gamer - and as someone who has studied film and delved into a lot of different types of media – is the ability to make choices. So when you look at what Rise of the Tomb Raider is doing, and you look at the overall superstructure of the game, choice is a part of that. So a lot of the elements we allow people to experience are not just tied to the great story that is Lara Croft and her evolution towards becoming the tomb raider and raiding those tombs, but also how you go about doing it.

So all of our crafting system and our translation system. All of the deeper RPG elements really speak to that element and that is the core essence of what our fans like. It’s all about having choices. And that to me not only speaks about being a good Tomb Raider game, but a good game in general.

On that line of thought, I loved the first game because, even though you came across these big hubs that unraveled as you explored, you always felt like you were moving the story forwards. The game felt like the right length. With the focus on supplying more choice in Rise of the Tomb Raider, what have you done to make sure the pacing remains perfect?

MB: That's always at the forefront of our discussions because there is a core story we're trying to tell and it’s something we want our players to understand. We don't want to make that feel disjointed. So we allow you to experience the core story path in sections that make sense to the pacing of our differing types of gameplay. But when we start to open it up into those larger hub spaces, that’s where the player has the ability to say, "well, I'm just going to follow the story path," or, "I'm going to venture off and find some of these other elements.

We've added to the game in ways that really beef up the world around Lara. That's where I think it becomes a conscious choice of, "I'm going to go do that optional tomb." You can acknowledge that the tomb is an amazing, cool space that's going to give you a great reward that feeds back into the main gameplay.

But you’re free to think, "I'm going to go barrel on with the story because that's what I'm most interested in."

The core loop for us is having the player think, "Hey, I was out in this story section and now I’m back into this huge hub space, but another layer of it has opened up because I have a new gear item.”

I guess you've got to make sure that players don't feel like they're obliged to use these optional areas to grind to rewards they need for the story?

MB: You’re right. And I think that's core to what Tomb Raider is, and core to how we work at Crystal Dynamics - we don't want it to feel as grindy as most other games do. Remember, there's still an element of choice in thinking, "I can go level-up my character and go down that different skill tree if I want.” But you don't have to. And as I choose to go between those skill trees whenever I want, I can still play the main game and not have this sense of, “oh, I feel like I wasted my time.” Players still have the ability to say, "ok, well, I can spend a little bit more time going down this other path first."

That's what I really like about Rise of the Tomb Raider: the breadth of choice is great. We had 15 or so skills to unlock in the last game – now we have over 50! We have three trees and each of them has four tiers. So all of that allows you to have a much, much greater sense of who you want to be, or how you want to play as Lara Croft in this adventure. You have the ability to say, "maybe that's a little tough for me, so if I got adventure off into another tomb maybe I'll get a better skill or find some key resources that might help me out."

The core loop for us is having the player think, "Hey, I was out in this story section and now I’m back into this huge hub space, but another layer of it has opened up because I have a new gear item.”

Perhaps these huge spaces could have benefited from extra processing supplied by the cloud; would you have preferred it if the Xbox One had remained an “always online” console?

MB: It's an interesting question, because when you talk about what's hot right now and what people are discussing – which is casual games and social media - they are experiences that are always online. But with Rise of the Tomb Raider, we’re looking at the core of who Lara Croft is and her story, and we build a lot of the world around that. So the experiences that we're trying to make are inherently about a character, not social interaction. Still, as game developers we're not ignoring always online experiences, it just doesn’t help our core of a story about a singular character.

Tomb Raider got some bad press, unfair in my opinion, about the so-called “rape scene.” Do you have any examples of moments during the development of Rise of the Tomb Raider where you pulled back on certain directions as a result?

MB: What you need to remember is, whenever you're creating an experience, an action-adventure experience, and you're looking at what it means to develop a character who has a lot of history and where there’s a lot of ideas about who that person is, you really have to boil it down to the core elements of what it means to be a universally strong character. Then you can know how to tell that story. So we always go back and ground everything in history - that layer of real world heroes and heroines.

For example, we looked a lot at Amelia Earhart, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Tenzing Norgay: people who have actually done real things in real life. Summiting Mount Everest. Crossing the Atlantic. Those are heroic deeds from history by real people whose through-lines we can resonate in our characters. So we borrow that spirit of adventure and those storytelling elements, and pull them into influence where we start to make a character and bring about a tale.

The controversy that surrounded Tomb Raider has not influenced the sequel

We use that to look at the stakes of what we're putting our character through, and I think a lot of that tends to boil away to universal truths. These go beyond the singular situations a character might be in, and tie more into the larger look at that character and how they're developing.

In every development studio it’s the same - in every problem you're trying to solve and in every situation you put your character in - you're always thinking, "is this too much? Is this too little? Does this hit the right notes? Does it say what we want to say?" And there's always a back-and-forth with that.

So in any game you make you're going to run into a discussion [like the “rape scene”], so we spend a lot of time making sure we go back to the roots of the character. We look at the layers of history. We look at the story we're trying to tell. And with Rise of the Tomb Raider, we look at the immortality mythos. Then we ask, "does this situation support the narrative? Does it support what we're trying to do?" That’s the only thing that influences us pulling back on certain directions.

What I'm proud about in Rise of the Tomb Raider is that we've worked out what our survival elements are and what our actual woman-versus-wild situations are in the game. Those to me speak to a smart, resourceful character who's utilising her environment. So we're looking at Lara in terms of that evolution and that rise, which is now more about being prepared than vulnerable.

We have our rules. We don't decapitate her. That's not something we do, because it doesn't speak to our version of what those situations should be like.

Lara's death sequences in Tomb Raider are full-on, even after you've seen them a dozen times. Why did you guys go so hard on those? And is it an element you've built on for Rise of the Tomb Raider?

MB: I don't know if it's necessarily something we built on. I think there is, yet again, a nod there to the history of the franchise. If you look at the very first Tomb Raider, you may remember jumping off that cliff and missing the landing, then sailing down and hitting... smack! And you see that rag doll, right? That was one of the first things I experienced too, and it made me think, "ouch! That looked like it hurt."

It makes you understand the risk. These are some of those adventuresome risks that players take, even from the very first game in the franchise. So when we went back and looked at what those risks are and knew the stakes, we decided it was important for players to understand these are life or death situations. To know that Lara is willing to take those risks.

So we did make nods to that; emphasising the direness of the situation, not necessarily the gruesomeness or the brutality of it. I wouldn't say in Rise of the Tomb Raider we went and asked, "oh, how much more gruesome are we going to get?" I'd say there are still nods to those things, but they still keep within the canon, so to speak.

So we’re not about to see Mortal Kombat style fatalities?

MB: [Laughs] Like you said earlier; you were asking what is the extent we’d be willing to go to and we do have our boundaries. We have our rules. We don't decapitate her. That's not something we do, because it doesn't speak to our version of what those situations should be like.

Let’s talk about the Xbox One – what does it bring as the launch console to Rise of the Tomb Raider?

MB: A lot. I'm really excited about the Xbox One because of what the platform allowed us to do. I was just in Seattle and I watched people walk by our booth and saw their jaws drop and their eyes pop out of their heads because of the tech that's behind this game and how it looks.

For example, what we can do now is have a global lighting solution so we have a physical-base render, singular light source, soft shadowing on the walls and layering of textures so that light bounces directly off them. We have sub-surface scattering on the skin tones and skin shaders. We have hair simulation. We have more morph targets and blunt shapes in her face. So all of the facial emotion we're capturing from Camilla Luddington's performance [as Lara Croft] is way more detailed than it was in the last game.

So you're not only getting that layer of immersion that comes from being in a world where you have things like deformed snow, but you're also getting that emotion that's coming across in the character. And by focusing on that, the Xbox One really allows us to show emotion. That to me is what is so important about this game: it is the quintessential Tomb Raiding experience that we've always wanted to build from the ground up.

Do you have a name for your in-house game engine?

MB: Update: Crystal Dynamics have since reached out with a correction on this answer. Click here for the full story.

We have a proprietary engine with an editor we call Horizon. It was a WYSIWYG editor, but it's built on a couple of core principles we use in the studio. In Crystal Dynamics, we really focus on building levels in an iterative fashion. So what we try to do is get things together fairly quickly. We have a lot of referencing we do, historically, and we have an art team that comes in and builds the shell.

When we do that shell, we do it with something called a kit-bashing technique. So our engine is really good at having pieces and parts that allow us to put them together like modules, and build out these really crazy worlds so we can play in them. When we get it on screen we ask, "does this feel good? Does it feel like we want it to or not." Then we tear it down and build it up again. And then we tear it down and build it up yet again. So we have this nice iterative cycle of what feels good on screen, and it allows us to set a really high visual bar right away, while also ensuring we focus on the gameplay.

That method and the tools that we use are really important, and I'm super excited because a lot of the engine that we've been able to build up has been great for the Xbox One. It’s all new stuff we’d never done before.

The controversy that surrounded Tomb Raider has not influenced the sequel

It sounds like you’ve made Tomb Raider Maker?

MB: [laughs] Now you're putting words into my mouth.

...we really want the player to feel it’s a do-or-die moment and think, "oh my shit, I was just running down the side of a mountain and an avalanche was chasing me."

I read that you have a team in Crystal Dynamics called the “smart resourceful Lara” team. What is the weirdest team you have working on Rise of the Tomb Raider?

MB: The weirdest team? That's a hard one because “weird” is such a relative term. Well we have our core action element. We have some of the combat unfold in our RPG elements. We have our systems team. We have the smart resourceful Lara team you mentioned, which I'm very close to, because that's how I got my start, working on that team in the last game. But we also have the OMS team - and I'll call out our game director, Remi Lacoste, because he's a good personal friend, but also one of our great developers who worked heavily with this OMS team.

What’s OMS?

MB: It stands for Oh My Shit. We have an Oh My Shit team. It’s a team that really focuses on our very high-intense, high-action moments in the game. And those are the spikes where we really want the player to feel it’s a do-or-die moment and think, "oh my shit, I was just running down the side of a mountain and an avalanche was chasing me."

That team is really another very core element to Tomb Raider and what they do is very special. Their work is so incredibly detailed and I can't stress enough how much time goes into those sequences. I think those moments in Rise of the Tomb Raider are some of the most iconic work we've ever done and I'm really happy with that.

Would you anticipate having an Oh My Shit team in all your future games?

MB: Well that team is not going away any time soon, let's put it that away.

It’s a bit of a surprise to find a game this deep into a new generation still serving the old one: did you find that you had to restrict the Xbox One game at all to be able to make it also work for an Xbox 360?

MB: No. That's one of the things I'm really happy about, too. We work with a partner called Nixxes Software and the team there has helped us do a lot of different things over the years, one of which is to beef up graphic fidelity. In fact, Nixxes help with a lot of our graphics programming, but it also solves a lot of the problems that come from trying to be across Xbox 360 and Xbox One.

I'm happy to say the Xbox One and Xbox 360 Rise of the Tomb Raider games are in parity. The experience you're going to have is no different outside of the graphical fidelity, really. I think our fans will be really happy with that.

Do you think it's easier or harder to work on a female game hero now than it was in 1996, given the change in the audience and climate?

MB: That's an interesting question. It's hard to associate difficulty working on any game. You have a core audience. You have elements you try and do with the storytelling and character development, and if you look at the evolution of games in general, I think you see we now have a much broader look at what a character is and what a story can be. People expect a much deeper, more meaningful experience, so to speak. I think a lot of the games of yore are a bit one-sided and have one-trick - you can't get away with that these days. You just can't.

So what it means to develop a Tomb Raiding experience goes beyond just Lara Croft. It's about her world. It's about everything that goes into making that experience. So if you are a one-trick pony and if you have a one-sided character these days, you are just going to get blown out of the water, because everything has depth now.

We learnt this when we rebooted the franchise. What we did right and what we're doing even better with Rise of the Tomb Raider is to focus on those universal truths that are not so one-sided. Sacrifice. Loss. Those are elements people play with even at the very beginning of the game. We talk about what the stakes are that are driving her and relate it to what it means in everyone's lives.

Lara's going to be going through those things and they play into her adventure, who she is and what she becomes. Those are all much more multi-dimensional, much more pervasive themes and elements that everyone can grasp. So I'm proud to say that those are the elements we stick to when we're talking about what it means to make a great, lasting character, regardless of sex.

You look at what's going to happen with games and what we're doing with hard drive sizes and technology and Moore's Law. The install size of a game becomes a non-issue.

Somewhat random question, but can you explain why a game like Rise of the Tomb Raider has a 20GB install, which is less than half that of Halo 5: Guardians at 46GB?

MB: I'm not the best to answer the question - I'm just not at that level of tech. I think everyone has their technology and everyone is going to do things differently on how they go about compression ratios and get it on a disc. The content you’re working on is always going to be bloated when you’re working with on an uncompressed version on your PC, versus what's compressed down and stuck on a disc.

So the sheer size of content, from a game maker's perspective, disappears because you look at the future. You look at what's going to happen with games and what we're doing with hard drive sizes and technology and Moore's Law. The install size of a game becomes a non-issue.

You used to worry about having a phone that had enough memory to even store a picture on it. Now it's in the Cloud. We don't even need a device to store data on. Who says we'll even have to worry about compression ratios on a disc when maybe you're always going to pull data from the Cloud. Where the file size will bloat or shrink based on whatever experience you want to have.

Like how Apple TV works?

MB: Well, yeah. To me it's all about the experience we're still trying to create, regardless of what the tech really is doing in the background. So sure, you're going to have those trials and tribulations, but ultimately you will find a way to get that experience to the audience, and that's why I'm super happy with our tech team, because they rely heavily on us as creators to focus on the experience.

As an example; one of our oldest and most wizened engineers, technical director, Scott Krotz. I work closely with him and lead programmer Steve Austin - those guys are very much invested in Rise of Tomb Raider's story and the gameplay. We have more conversations about story, gameplay and what that experience is for the player than we do about file size and compression.

I'm sure they're worried about it as we do need to ship the game, right? But at the same time, that's why Crystal Dynamics is so special, as it's about the experience. We know that the tech will figure itself out, because those problems are easier to solve than discovering the next gameplay feature that's going to make sense in the next amazing action-adventure. That’s where having more minds - even on the tech side - can help resolve a problem.

If you were casting a new Tomb Raider movie tomorrow, and you could have any actress that you wanted in the role, who would you be choosing to star as Lara Croft?

MB: Oh man, that's a tough one. To be honest, I actually met [Lara Croft’s voice and motion-capture actor] Camilla Luddington and I think she's fantastic in her portrayal of Lara. I wouldn't mind seeing her have a crack at actually bringing the character to the on-screen. I think that'd be pretty cool. She's really embodied a lot of what I feel like Lara is, even just in her voice. I'd love to see what she'd do with it on the big screen.

If you were a betting man, what odds would you give for a new, single-player Legacy of Kain releasing this generation?

MB: It’s a 50/50 chance. We have in-house developers who really want to make that game. It’s interesting because people look back at our history and our franchises and see that we have some really great iconic IPs. So gamers wonder; ‘where are they and what are they doing?’ Well, we’re always tossing around and talking about ideas [of bringing them back]. It really is 50/50.

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