Her reactions are yours: Tomb Raider’s creative director on mixing mechanics and narrative
Disclaimer: Square Enix paid for air travel and a one-night hotel stay
Tomb Raider takes great pains to mix its narrative into its game play systems and mechanics. When players enter a camp site to upgrade Lara’s skills and equipment, she reads from her journal. When bypassing an obstacle, the game projects Lara’s fear and strength. When Lara discovers a hidden collectible, inspecting it gives clues to the island’s mystery. The idea that a game’s story only comes in cutscenes is fast becoming antiquated, as video games no longer need to separate story from game play. Tomb Raider creative director Noah Hughes explained why.
More human than human
The Tomb Raider reboot wants Lara Croft to be a believably human character. It’s clear the team at Crystal Dynamics are laser-focused on relating that to players, but what’s most interesting is the way they’ve abandoned the oft-assumed notion that character progression and story can only come in the form of cutscenes.
You can see the attention to detail even in the opening scenes by moving the camera to see Croft’s front. Her eyebrows are piqued, her posture is slumped, and her eyes dart across the scenery. She looks scared. She is scared, for a good number of reasons.
However, if players are going to be looking at a character’s back for 90% of the game, why spend so much time on something most players won’t see?
“What we mainly try to do is look at the whole game as a canvas for storytelling. We try to do whatever we can appropriate to the situation to reinforce the overall narrative or Lara’s state of mind,” Hughes told the Report. “There are times when interactivity goes lower or away for a little bit and story is the only thing on the table, but even when you’re in game play sections, story isn’t going away.”
“As an example, when she encounters people after her first kill, you still see her trying to be like, ‘You don’t have to do this!’ So rather than switching off the story and being like, ‘Pew pew,’ we’re trying to make sure that if you feel like Lara would be feeling something strongly at that moment, even if it’s in game play, that we’re expressing that.”
“The center of the story is Lara’s story. Since the story’s about her growth as a character, we can reinforce where we are in the story progression.”
Relating this sort of information is tricky, and relies heavily on scripting events. Right now, scripted events are seen as lazy and linear, as they often take control away from players in order to make them look at a particular set piece, or perform a particular action. What Tomb Raider does so well, and that other games could stand to learn from, is inserting those scripted moments in an unobtrusive way.
As Hughes pointed out, Lara doesn’t stop being human after her first kill. She’s not Nathan Drake, who murders legions of men and cracks wise between firefights. She doesn’t want to kill, and twice during my time with the game, she called out to the island’s scavengers, telling them she didn’t want to fight. When she successfully tagged a deer with an arrow, she apologized.
It’s always clear what caused Lara to speak or react but it gives the illusion of something organic; it’s story that feels like game play. Still, scripted events don’t always play out the way they’re meant to.
“A lot of times, we’re trying to have the player… we really strive for synchronization between Lara’s emotions and the player’s emotions. It’s weird for us the player to feel one way and Lara to be acting a different way. So if Lara’s scared and you’re not or vice versa, there’s a big disconnect there,” Hughes told me. “But it’s hard, right? Sometimes lines don’t play. So in the middle of combat, they don’t play right, so even the practical aspects of trying to deliver convincing performances over game play is a tough challenge.”
Luckily it seems to be a challenge they’ve licked; I didn’t notice any moments of dissonance in my time with the game.
A unified direction
I asked Hughes how the team could measure a player’s investment in Lara. If the goal is synchronization, you have to know what the audience is feeling, right? “When we see game play breaking down, it’s very obvious. You see people failing over and over or trying to do something they can’t do. When you’re looking over their shoulder, that shows up quite a bit, but how they’re feeling doesn’t necessarily, so it’s hard to playtest,” he admitted.
“I didn’t want to rely entirely on her. I didn’t want to say, ‘Well she feels scared, you should feel scared.’ I wanted to say, ‘Everything around her is making her feel scared, so we should do everything to make you feel scared.’ In a lot of ways, she crystallized the emotion you should be feeling, but our job is to tip everything in the direction you should be feeling,” Hughes said. “It’s making sure everything is pushing in the same direction.”
So imagine a dark cave, where the spaces are a little too tight. If Croft is scared but that environment isn’t convincing to the player, the effect falls apart. If the development team is able to create a space where the player feels claustrophobic and scared, and Croft mirrors those reactions, it can almost act as an amplifier. She’s reacting alongside your feelings. You’re in this together.
“That’s a lot of what my job really is, is to say if we’re trying to feel this way, the game play should be feeling that way, the music should be feeling that way, the lighting should be feeling that way, the camera framing can, you know… any of these threads of the experience can be trying to evoke an emotion and really, all we can do is push them all in the direction that we want the experience to deliver.”
It’s a coordinated effort to make a game tells its story outside the box of cut scenes and restrictive scripted events. Everyone needs to be involved, from artists and actors to animators and writers, and everyone needs to be facing the same direction.
Gaining XP and upgrading Croft’s skills and equipment are the most game-like parts of Tomb Raider. While attempts were made to make these systems contextual, the illusion falls apart when dealing with floating notifications, menu options, and other information.
Still, the attempt is being made: Campsites aren’t just checkpoints and upgrades, they’re an opportunity for exposition. Collectibles aren’t just means to an achievement, they provide plot details. Overcoming an obstacle isn’t just pressing the right buttons, it’s a chance to make you feel the same emotions as the character. I asked Hughes if it was worth the effort.
“We really felt there was some excellent storytelling evolution over this generation of games. I think that’s one of the things that’s evolved as much as anything. We wanted to do the best we could to not only modernize the game play but wrap it up in something you could believe in. We don’t really chase realism per se, but we do want that sense of believability. We want an illusion that holds up. When we do something fantastical, or something bad happens, we want it to feel amazing because you believe it,” he said.
“That idea of not just storytelling, but the sense of creating an immersive experience that you kind of… the outside world just melts away.”