Lara Croft bounces back: Reinventing Tomb Raider without ruining it

Make of Tomb Raider 2013

Typically when you interview game developers close to the release of the game they have been slaving away on, they tend to keep their emotions in check. The title they are representing has been part of their lives for years, and the window prior to launch – once the game has been sent out for retail packaging, but before it hits stores – is understandably nerve wracking. Even developers from successful annual franchises can be at least somewhat reserved as they await the results. That is not the case with Crystal Dynamics’ Studio Head, Darrell Gallagher, and Tomb Raider’s Creative Director, Noah Hughes.

Darrell Gallagher
Darrell Gallagher

During a recent interview, both men were undeniably nervous about the results of their project, but it was a nervousness eased by confidence and tempered with excitement. The majority of reviews have already come in, and the reception of the new Tomb Raider has been very good (we gave it a 9.5, and the current Metacritic average is 86). That in no way guarantees a successful financial release, but the developers have done their job. 

“We sort of go into [launch day] feeling that there’s nothing more you could have done, and that’s actually a good place to be,” Hughes said. “I feel that way about this game.

“As much as we say there’s little things we’d like to do, to be able to go into this and say we really did achieve our goals on a high level – and we hope that people enjoy that – but we’ve done what we can in that regard, and you kinda have to sit back and watch the show.”

Noah Hughes
Noah Hughes

The excitement in their answers stands in stark contrast to the typically stoic attitudes most developers unavoidably adopt as they wait for the results that will not only be the final judgment of the work they toiled on for years, but results that could define their future career potential and even the future of the company as a whole. 

The gaming industry is moving in what some have described as a “Hollywood” model, meaning that games are either being developed as big budget blockbusters or as indie titles created by smaller teams, with very little in between. Tomb Raider definitely belongs in the “big budget” category, with all the potential and pitfalls associated with that. If it succeeds, it will revitalize both the Tomb Raider brand as well as Crystal Dynamic; if it fails, the developer may join the growing ranks of studios that have closed recently. The stakes are high, both professionally and personally.

“Every time you release a game, it’s a very personal thing,” Gallagher said, “I think every developer, myself included, puts so much into it. Whether a game goes right or wrong, it’s the same. You work tremendously hard because you are very passionate about what you do.” 

tomb raider 2013 screenshotThe Tomb Raider brand has remained viable over the years, but it has lost a lot of its luster since the early days when a geometrically precise Lara Croft became the nearest thing to a sex icon in gaming. Originally developed by Core Design, the Tomb Raider titles that found so much success originally on the PS One were huge sellers. The original Tomb Raider, released in 1996, sold over 7 million copies, and the next four games sold at least 5 million units each. But by 2000, with five games on the market, the adventures of Lara Croft began to lose their appeal. Part of this was due to increased competition, but much of it had to do with the oversaturation of the brand.

tomb raider lara croft
The original Lara Croft (1996)

The series continued to stick to the same mold. Each new game felt like a continuation of the last rather than an evolution of the series. In 2003, the sixth game in the series, Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, was released to poor reviews and lower than expected sales. The failure of this game led publisher Eidos to move the development of the series from Core to Crystal Dynamics.

Three years later, Crystal Dynamics released its first title in the series, Tomb Raider: Legend. The game was well received critically and financially, and it also attempted to expand on the character of Lara by introducing her mother’s history. Other Tomb Raider games had tried to flesh out the character a bit, but none ever really tried to make Lara relatable.

Crystal Dynamics would go on to issue an anniversary remake of the original game to a lukewarm reception, before releasing its last title, Tomb Raider: Underworld, in 2008, to only decent reviews and average sales. (A downloadable game, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light was released in 2010, but it is considered part of a separate franchise, according to Crystal Dynamic). The series was in need of a serious change if it had any hopes of reigniting the passions of former fans.

tomb-raider-2013-screenshot11“After we finished Underworld,” Gallagher said, “we knew that [the next Tomb Raider game] was going to be something that was different. We sort of knew that conceptually, but we didn’t know what it was.”

Something different was definitely required. The day of Lara Croft simply jumping from place to place are long gone. Other franchise have exhausted the Tomb Raider-style, forcing the developers to rethink the way the games played, while still making it feel like Tomb Raider.

“We wanted to take the character in a direction that was more human, more relatable, that we could actually get to know who Lara was.”

The game wasn’t originally meant to be a reboot, it just ended up that way in order to fit with the goals that Crystal Dynamics wanted to achieve. They wanted to tell the story of Lara in a new way that hadn’t been done before. The game was originally meant to be a continuation of Lara Croft’s established continuity that expanded on her past, but it soon became clear that creating a sequel that continued Lara’s journeys may not be compatible with the desire to make her more relatable.

“It initially started out as a sequel with a number of goals attached, and those goals were [that] we had to do something new; it had to be fresh; we wanted to take the character in a direction that was more human, more relatable, that we could actually get to know who Lara was,” Gallagher told us. “We felt that she had become a little bit too superhuman over the course of the series’ past, and we never really got to know her.”

TombSince the moment Tomb Raider was first introduced, Lara was little more than a female avatar with plenty of attitude, but very little real character. She was the male fantasy of a sexy adventurer, with an alluring British accent and a predilection for surviving against all odds. But in each of her adventures, she simply was Lara. There was very little character growth, and in most cases she had almost no personal story arc. She neither learned nor grew; she simply saw, killed, and jumped a whole lot. 

Lara is an expression of action adventure, even action adventure gaming.”

With the new Tomb Raider, Lara is a totally different and more realized character. The game also strays from some of the more over-the-top moments of the series, where Lara would do impossible things like fight sharks and dinosaurs. That grounds the game in a more realistic, even gritty environment. The embers of that fearless adventurer are still there, but it is buried beneath the doubts of youth, the uncertainty of inexperience, and the at times horrific experience she is undergoing. Lara is new to the world of being hunted and needing to climb sheer cliffs to survive. It terrifies her, but she learns to gradually accept it. But will fans?

“Any kind of change is going to be tough. It’s going to be something that comes with questions, it’s going to be something that comes with some degree of people being onboard, and people not being onboard,” Gallagher said. “We expected that, and said we feel like it’s the right thing to do.”

But despite the changes to the character, the spirit of the game remains the same. It is still an adventure game with puzzles, combat, and plenty of tombs to raid.

tomb-raider-2013-screenshot16“Working within the framework of a preexisting framework can be difficult,” Hughes said. “But one of the things that makes it less difficult for me is that Lara is an expression of action adventure, even action adventure gaming – this idea of sort of a mental aspect of solving puzzles and the athletic aspect of climbing and traversing and platforming, and the dual pistols of old, and in our case the bow, this promise of combat experience.”

“As much as a game is never done for me, it’s impressively done this time. We’re proud of that.”

One of the consistently noted positives about the new Tomb Raider is the game’s polish, which is exceptional, especially for a game of this size. There are a few minor glitches here and there, but for the most part it is one of the more technically sound games around. 

That level of refinement takes time and effort that most games don’t have the luxury of taking, as hard deadlines loom, many of which are directly tied to a publisher’s financial success for a fiscal year. In the end, all games are a race to the proverbial finish lines. Tomb Raider was no exception, but it got further than most game do.

tomb raider 2013 screenshot“They pried it out of my hands! They made me ship it!” Hughes joked. “It’s much further down the finished road than we’ve been able to get before, so we recognize that.

Now all that remains is to wait for the sales results. Even with the majority of reviews already ranging from good to great, that is no guarantee that people will buy it. This is more than a reboot for the series, it is a rebirth of a gaming icon. 

“All you can do is along the way feel like that you’ve done everything you can to make the best decisions,” Gallagher said, “to put everything we can to make the best game possible by the time it releases, and sort of live with that.”


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