A couple of weeks ago at XONZ, I spoke to Mike Brinker from game development company Crystal Dynamics about Rise of the Tomb Raider, the game he felt was the “quintessential Tomb Raiding experience”. Here’s the interview.
Game JunkieNZ: I really liked the reboot of Tomb Raider but do you think Lara Croft has got tougher, more hard-edged over the years?
Mike Brinker: I guess you have to look at what she went through in the last game. A lot of her story was circumstances she didn’t want to be in so she was learning to survive. There were some tough lessons during that survival but what we’re really focusing on in Rise is not just about survival but it’s about she got a taste of those mysteries, those truths that are out there. So now that’s what’s driving her. That’s what she was to uncover and expose to the world. So, she is now going in prepared and is being resourceful about that. All the systems in the game speak to that, right, and that’s about her going after those ancient truths out there.
GJNZ: What have you build on from the 2013 game? Have you built on the foundations of that game or have you tried to push the envelope in terms of game play?
MB: A bit of both. Building a sequel is important because you want to do the things you did well in the last game again – but at the same time you want to do them better – but then you want to get in some of the things that the fans want. Some of the big things we really wanted to focus on was what do the fans want. And the big one was “Bring back the tombs”. [laughs] Really, that was the huge thing. In the small taste we had today [the XONZ Rise of the Tomb Raider demo] we’re going back to those epic spaces and the big grand feel of them. There’s a through-line of history that ties in with the main story for each of them and then bringing back the deadly elements [the guardians] and then the formula for how we actually put the puzzle together, which isn’t just one in one area but multi chambers that solve the puzzle. That’s one of the things that we look at when we think about the evolution: We’re trying to keep what worked but look at what the fans want and what we can expand on. That was one of the key things.
GJNZ: Touching on bringing back more tombs, was that one of the biggest criticisms of the reboot: That it didn’t have enough tombs for people to explore?
MB: I think if you look at what the both the fans and the reviews stated is that they felt that they got puzzles but they didn’t get that sense of an ancient layer of history and that ancient scale, that epic, large unknown spaces that were really more grounded in some of the Yamatai mythos. What we ended up saying was “Sure, that worked for the last game but now we really want to delve into what those history layers are and bring that back”.
GJNZ: How much depth is involved in delving into a story line that contains an historical basis? Do you need to be historically accurate or can you take some creative license?
MB: Those are always great questions in anything creative that you do: Movies, TV, books, whatever. So we take a look to see what gamers grok [understand ] right away – and that’s usually something based in reality. That’s something that there’s a known layer of history, like we look at some of the ancient mythos for stories and characters that are involved in anything that has to do with being invulnerable, or having immortality, right? Those sort of uncoverings that we have when we’re doing our research lead to things like locations and types and styles of architecture. So, we do a lot of research in the historical side but then our creative director, Brian Horton, went to Turkey to do real world research and came back with that, so we bring all those elements in, ground it for a lot of the game, then we start to feel like “What are the elements that make things exciting as a game?”
GJNZ: What sort of philosophy does Crystal Dynamics use for the Tomb Raider game? What is the overarching ethos of the company?
MB: We’re all about being able to tell a very interesting and engaging story with a character that we can understand and relate to and I think that as a company we’re striving to build the best possible Tomb Raider experience through that lens of what’s the historical knowns then what is the interesting and fun aspects of the story.
GJNZ: And a really strong narrative?
GJNZ: In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara has Jonah [who appeared in the Tomb Raider reboot] as her, I guess, companion. What was the reason behind choosing Jonah?
MB: Well, when you look at what I was talking about in telling a good story, part of building up a good character is understanding where those strengths and where her loyalties lie and what some of the driving forces are for her about going through these adventures. So bringing Jonah into the picture is really more about understanding the tie to the last game that people who played the last game can understand but also give Lara some grounding because if she were going after all this by herself without having any person to relate this all to, to bounce ideas off of, you lose a little bit of who she is, how she is, as far as a character is concerned so Jonah is really a key part of that.
GJNZ: Tell me a little about Crystal Dynamics’ creative processes
MB: Iteration is one of the things that we look from a design side but also narrative. We have a team of writers that we work with – Rhianna Pratchett is one of those people – and we really focus heavily on iteration. It’s about “Let’s get something on paper, get it going, play with it, let’s poke it then get it in front of users right away” and say “Hey, test this: Let us know what you think”. So, we do that constantly with level design, system design, game design, and even just the story itself. We do a lot of put it out there, poke holes in it, come back, tool it, tweak it. I think one of the beauties about working at Crystal Dynamics on this game is that we have this iterative cycle that we’ve pushed to its limits.
GJNZ: There was a game play trailer that came out, I think, around E3 that was a very action orientated sequence. I think there was a bit of criticism because Lara was a bit too violent and full-on. I now see that there is a new trailer out where you can do that sequence stealthily. Every player is going to play the game differently so does that create a difficulty for a developer where some player might want to play guns blazing but another player might want to sneak over rooftops? What kinds of challenges does that open-ended design create?
MB: Oh, that’s a great one. So one of the big things about Rise of the Tomb Raider that I’m so happy and excited about for both our fans and those that want to play it both ways is that we have all those options available. So a lot of it is we work with our system to work out that problem. Something new is Lost Target. In the last game, if you distracted an enemy with an arrow, you shot it over into the weeds, he go over and look at it. The moment he looked at it he knew exactly where it came from and where you were – and he attacked. So now in Rise of the Tomb Raider we have something called Lost Target which allows the enemy to look at that arrow and say “I think it came from over there. Spread out” then the enemy force tends to go looking for where it has come from, not “There she is”. So now you have an element of the player being able to stealth their way through encounters so you have a lot more choice. You can go in guns blazing, if you want, and you can upgrade your weapons to do that or you can play it the stealth way and not kill anyone. Just distract them and get around them.
GJNZ: Did you play the original Tomb Raider?
MB: Oh, yeah, absolutely! That’s a good story too. I remember I was in my college [university] dorm room, right, and I remember discovering and playing this game character who was in these amazingly huge and epic spaces with grand puzzles. The way she was animated and the fluid movement … It was such a neat combination of discovery and adventure that I’d never played before so it’s funny looking back on it: Where I was, what I was doing, what I experienced and where I am now and am able to influence that. It’s really neat.
GJNZ: That’s an interesting one, isn’t it? You’ve gone from playing the game to now working on it. Were you a huge fan of the series?
MB: I experienced a lot of the first Tomb Raider on PC but I remember tailing off for 2 and 3 because I was doing other things, but going back to when I was interviewed for the job at Crystal and hearing where the franchise was going and what they were doing, I was really excited. I was super stoked to not only be able to go back and look at what the origins are but the reboot. So to me, it’s more I had that beginning and ending experience, so to speak, and the beginning was the rest of my future in the franchise. I think I’ve had the best of both worlds when I look at it.
GJNZ: Do you think that the hardcore fans of the series are really critical of what you’re doing? Is there an extra layer of pressure on you to make sure you don’t stray too much from canon? What kinds of pressures are there?
MB: Oh, there are all kinds of pressures, and not just what our fans are after. There are fans who have played all the games, they know all the detail and they will definitely remind us every single time of the detail we may have missed or the thing she [Lara] may have done. What I’m also really happy about our fan base is that they’re able to grasp what we’ve been trying to do with the reboot and they’ve really dived in.
GJNZ: Given the games’ historical basis, what are some of the most interesting things you’ve learnt over this journey of the past two games? over the course of the two games?
MB: Boy, that’s a good one. I think for me the most interesting stuff that we’ve learned is that the mythos of having immortality runs in a lot of different directions, not just one ancient religion or ancient version of something. It’s actually in multiple story lines and people, different ages and time periods. That, to me, has been the most interesting “Wow, I didn’t know that” part. To me, it’s been more of a discovery of all the different threads of that mythos.
GJNZC: Lastly, where do you think the franchise can go from here? What direction do you think it will head?
MB: That’s a really difficult one to answer. It’s hard to say because we’ve been so focused on this one but I think the basis for what the story is going to tell is the evolution of her character and what she’s going to be, and also that layer of history that she has yet to uncover. Those are the core elements that I don’t think will ever go away.