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Tomb Raider Interview with Karl Stewart

Taking place in potentially one of the quietest areas available at this years Gamescom in Cologne, Germany, TheGamersHub got a chance to sit down with Crystal Dynamics’ Global Brand Manager Karl Stewart and chat about the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot.

If you haven’t already gone and read our Tomb Raider preview then we suggest you go away and read that first as there may be a couple of spoilers tucked away here.

TGH: You took over the franchise from Core Design in 2003 and moved the series back to its core of tomb exploring and puzzle solving. Was this shift an experiment of ideas and a build up to the Tomb Raider reboot coming now?

Karl Stewart: When we inherited Tomb Raider and created Legend, Anniversary, Underworld we actually began seeing it as a trilogy. We wanted to tell a unique story at that time, but it was always in the back of our mind that we had a unique chance and opportunity to do something special with the franchise.

As we started to get through the series of games, we were just living off a canon that was already started by Core, and soon enough we realised that it was a chance that needed to be taken; that we could actually reimagine the franchise and make it relevant for a whole new audience, as well as create a story and reimagining that the Tomb Raider fans would feel is as relevant to today’s entertainment medium.

TGH: This leads reasonably well into our next question: The old Lara was loved by fans, is it hard to get that across with a new – and still developing – Lara?

KS: We spent a lot of time researching before we made the decision to go down this road. We asked a lot of questions not only to gamers but to Tomb Raider fans to find out what were really the highlights and the lowlights of the Tomb Raider franchise.

It became apparent pretty quickly that there was a format that made Tomb Raider pretty special: the exploration, puzzle solving and the combat. Once we made sure we kept those three pillars intact, we could build a wrapper of survival around it and go down that road of reimagining it in a whole new way, but you couldn’t forget who we were. The pillars are still there today, but they’re enhanced in such a way that they feel right for today. Exploration used to be jumping from ledge to ledge, but now we built a hub system for players to truly explore space and keep the narrative and move to the next area, but always come back in and feel like ‘if I’m an explorer, I should have the freedom to explore.’

So it was important that when we began the research we acknowledge pretty quickly that we couldn’t just throw the baby out of the bathwater and say: “forget about it, we’ll just keep [Lara’s] name and the words Tomb Raider, and we’ll just do our thing,” we had to make sure it fit with the franchise.

TGH: With this ‘new’ Lara as the protagonist, will she grow to become the Lara of yore, or will she be a ‘different’ Lara altogether?

KS: She’ll have a different take on Lara Croft, but still have the essence of Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft.

The way we see it is, if you watched Batman Begins and at the end of it in The Dark Knight it was Michael Keaton again. You could never imagine that happening again. So for us, once we set the foundation in this game we’ll continue to the next one with this world, but the goal is that when you finish the game you’ll feel that this is the Lara Croft of today.

TGH: Seeing as we touched upon it before I’ll dive right in and ask about the Map. We were wondering if the expansive map seen in the demo means that it’s a complete open world, or if it’ll be more akin to Metroid in how you traverse it.

KS: We took a lot of inspiration from a lot of different properties and from the beginning we said we don’t want to try and build an open world game, we want to create a world where the player has some choices and exploration opportunities but we want to keep that narrative going.

You’re right in terms of Metroid as we used things like ‘gear gating’, were you come into a space and you’re able to explore that space, move through that space following the story and picking up collectables but you’ll see there’s things you can’t do as you don’t have the right equipment; there’ll be ledges that are too high and you can’t get to.

As you continue through the game you’ll start to get new equipment or upgrade the equipment and at the base camp system you’ll be able to teleport back into any area that you’ve been, at any point in time so you can explore, find new tombs and then re-equip and move on.

TGH: So it’s linear to start before exploding and allowing you to explore.

KS: Yeah, exactly. The linearity at the beginning is really there just to make sure that we keep the story and set up the narrative.

TGH: We saw in the demo some RPG elements in the game, such as the upgrades and Ingenuity system. Does this Ingenuity system mean that players can craft their own Lara, or is it more tailoring her to particular gameplay tastes?

KS: It’s more that you’re building up a set that you feel accustomed to playing than choosing to take her in a different direction.

It’s important to us that the player not only finishes the game and follows the narrative path and immerses themselves in the world, but also that they can make some choices. For instance if I felt that I’d like to be able to fire arrows faster, I can choose that Ingenuity skill and fire arrows faster. Or I could trade that skill point in and say “I’d rather have retrieval” and now when I run out of arrows I can run out and get them from carcasses and dead bodies much faster.

Each [skill] just helps as the building blocks of getting Lara to be that motivated action/adventure hero that we want her to be, but it gives the player a little more investment and involvement in how they want her to be.

The game will always end in the same way, but you’ll be shaping her combat style along the way.

TGH: In the E3 demo, and the one shown on the Gamescom floor today, there are two distinct parts on show. The second section is a lot more action oriented, is this the way the game is going to become or is it literally just a picked up section to show off combat?

KS: It’s moved much further into the game and you’ve realised that Sam [Lara’s friend and focal point of the demo shown] has been taken to the Scavenger den and you have to make your way down there pretty quickly. You’ve also encountered them a couple of times before and you’ve uncovered a little bit more information about them than you knew before. Therefore you’re more motivated to attack.

We’ve also made a couple of changes to that space since the gameplay demo shown today and at E3, purely because it’s five and a half minutes, yet when you play that section it’s around 20 minutes, we had to truncate it down for keynotes. We really give the player a couple of extra choices now that isn’t in the demo.

It was an interesting piece of section for us to show as it really allowed us to let players say “ok I can see some combat, I can see some melee, I can see her thinking tactically about things” and when you play it you’ll realise you have a few more choices than are on show.

TGH: Obviously it’s quite the juxtaposition from the slower, darker and more survival based ‘hunting’ demo that precedes it.

KS: It definitely is, and when Lara kills for the first time she starts to become really more motivated to go and find her friends, that’s when you begin to see the tone of the game changing a bit more.

TGH: Yeah, as the game moved on it seemed to brighten up and seem less oppressive like the stormy beginning.

KS: Yeah, as we move forward it brightens up and we start to have a little more variety in location.

TGH: Will there be dynamic weather across the map – as we see changing weather between locales?

KS: No, the idea that we had was because you have this fast-travel back and forth, if you are in a space and it’s daytime then it’ll always be daytime as long as you’re in that space; but if you move forward to a space that happened to be raining then come back to the area you were in previously, then it’ll be raining.

So it’s persistent at least, but it’s not dynamic in a way that means if you stay in an area for four hours it changes.

TGH: In an Edge Magazine interview with Art Director Brian Horton, he said that Tomb Raider “isn’t a game about a girl.” Has it been hard to put forward the idea that it’s a tale of survival where being male or female is largely irrelevant?

KS: It’s hard, especially when you try to bring in a level of emotion. There are things, though, that any human would find hard – the moments of having to hunt and kill a deer, defend yourself from a wolf and kill a person too. These are things that are irrespective of being male or female, these are things that will strike you to the bone and effect you in many different ways. It just happens to be that we’re telling that tale through Lara Croft.

For us, we didn’t just set out to say that “oh just because she’s Lara Croft, we have to create this unique female story” we basically said “she’s a character and she’s going to go through this tale of survival.” In order for any character to go through this and come out the other side they have to be willing to fight, and they have to be willing to mature and develop.

Like I said, it just happens to be Lara Croft that we’re telling that tale with.

TGH: Obviously you’re more than aware of the controversy that came from the demo, and after having seen it – and played it – for myself I have to say that I don’t really see that tone coming across.

KS: That’s generally what people say that when they play the demo, or see the demo being played from start to finish, they generally walk away feeling that ‘that’s not as hard as some may have said’

Unfortunately, from our perspective, somebody misspoke and as a result of that it just escalated. It was a bit of a distraction to the team at the time too.

I think that anybody who’s played the demo can see what [Crystal Dynamics] are trying to achieve.

TGH: You mentioned in a previous interview that a Wii U version wouldn’t be coming, as you didn’t “just want to make a port”. Do you reckon there could be any plans to make a Wii U version in the future?

KS: Um, there are no plans right now. We’re pretty focused on our three platforms. That’s not to say if some day, somebody higher up – such as our head of studio – decided it was a good thing then we’d look at it, but it’d have to be built from the ground up for that platform to make sure it felt worthy of it. We’re not into just porting things across.

Certainly, as of right now, there are no plans to do anything.

TGH: Have those platforms interested you though?

KS: Well of course, in general those platforms do – maybe not for this style of game, but we do see those platforms evolve.

When the Wii came out people all said “what kind of games can you play on the Wii, what can you do with this crazy lookin’ thing?” but quickly they developed a range of games that made it the success it is, it was the same with Kinect and it was the same with Move.

At first when they come out people challenge them and don’t understand them, but when you actually get under the hood and start thinking about it creatively, you start to realise that there’s something really special about them and that there’s a lot of potential there too.

TGH: Finally, this is more my own hope really, will we ever see another Lara Croft spin-off like Guardian of Light?

KS: I would say ‘never say never’, but there’s really no focus right now. We’re trying to get [Tomb Raider] finished and get it on the shelves.

We enjoyed that process, it was really, really fun time to be able to have that side game amidst the development of [Tomb Raider] and have the studio really feel they could get behind a cool little project.

I was there from day one and I absolutely loved it.

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One Comment to “ Tomb Raider Interview with Karl Stewart ”

  • Ostercy August 22, 2012 at 11:20 am Like or Dislike Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    This is the best avoidance of answering the question I’ve ever seen :)

    “TGH: This leads reasonably well into our next question: The old Lara was loved by fans, is it hard to get that across with a new – and still developing – Lara?

    KS: We spent a lot of time researching before we made the decision to go down this road. We asked a lot of questions not only to gamers but to Tomb Raider fans to find out what were really the highlights and the lowlights of the Tomb Raider franchise.
    It became apparent pretty quickly that there was a format that made Tomb Raider pretty special: the exploration, puzzle solving and the combat. Once we made sure we kept those three pillars intact, we could build a wrapper of survival around it and go down that road of reimagining it in a whole new way, but you couldn’t forget who we were. The pillars are still there today, but they’re enhanced in such a way that they feel right for today. Exploration used to be jumping from ledge to ledge, but now we built a hub system for players to truly explore space and keep the narrative and move to the next area, but always come back in and feel like ‘if I’m an explorer, I should have the freedom to explore.’
    So it was important that when we began the research we acknowledge pretty quickly that we couldn’t just throw the baby out of the bathwater and say: “forget about it, we’ll just keep [Lara’s] name and the words Tomb Raider, and we’ll just do our thing,” we had to make sure it fit with the franchise.”

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