No Tomb Raider reboot has been as substantial, none could be as meaningful. In delivering to gamers a young, inexperienced Lara Croft, Crystal Dynamics doesn’t seek to just reboot the series, but to make it’s heroine into something we as gamers connect with emotionally.
It is a gamble, but when that looks like it will pay off judging by what I saw of the game during a press screening last month.
It isn’t just that Crystal Dynamics are giving us a more naive, more innocent Croft to guide through the single experience that helped forge her into the heroine of later adventures, it is that they are meticulously building into the game encounters meant to connect you with Croft on a deeper level.
Take the opening of the demo shown to press. In it Croft awakens being dragged through a cave littered with skulls, and then hung by her ankles next to body-sized sacks facing some sort of candle-filled alter.
It’s as Croft looks around, shivering, that we get our first look at the future adventurer. She is young, her soft features seemingly untouched by the concerns, the experiences that made her the Croft gamers have come to know.
Cocooned in canvas, her feet tied together by rope, Croft gasps, shivers. Then hesitantly begins to struggle, worming around in the sack until it starts swinging and knocks into one of the other sacks. That sack, in turn, brushes a candle, and catches on fire.
The sack ignites, spilling bones to the ground as Croft continues to swing. It’s clear that the player is controlling the action, directing Croft to do the only thing she’s able.
“This is going to hurt,” she says as she swings herself into the flames. The flames burn through the ropes holding her and Croft, screaming, plummets to the ground.
The angle shifts as we see Croft fall toward the ground, impaling Croft on a piece of rebar. Croft yells, gasps, clutches her side. An icon for the blue X button hovers in the air until the player, a Crystal Dynamics developer, presses the button.
As Croft pulls the metal from her side her vision blurs momentarily and then she steadies herself.
That moment when the gamer and Croft work together to pull a piece of rebar from her side is important, symbiotic.
“We want you to feel what she is going through, so you need to be the one to pull this spike out and go through that pain with her,” said Karl Stewart, global brand manager of Crystal Dynamics.
It’s through moments like this, moments of personal pain, that Crystal Dynamics hope they can grow a relationship between the player and Croft.
And there are other things that the developers do to try and build that bond.
Later, as Croft continues to work her way free of the cave she slips into a crevice nearly filled with water. She doesn’t want to proceed, we as gamers can feel her discomfort. The camera, as she pushes forward, water rising up her neck, and then chin, closes in on her face until the proximity is almost uncomfortable.
Her responses to these situations seem more real, less full of quips more filled with anxiety, self-doubt and fear, the emotions of any of us when faced with an unreal situation and frightening conditions.
When she jumps crevices she scrambles on hands and knees to get away from the looming drop behind her. When she finally clears the cave she doesn’t looks like she did when she started. Instead she is coated in mud, cuts and bruises, her eyes slightly haunted.
Her movement, acting and the cinematography of the game are so noticeable that when I have a chance after the demo I ask Stewart about them.
They voice and motion capture, it turns out, were done by the same actress. Stewart tells me that in doing the motion capture for the game they also used a famous, though still-not-named, cinematographer to record the actress using a camera as well. That way the developers were able to refer to the real-world footage when they were putting it into the game. It’s the same method that was used in the creation of Avatar, Stewart says. The results are amazing.
The premise of this character-defining journey is that a 21-year-old Croft, straight out of college, sets out on a journey with her mentor on a ship called the Endurance. On the hunt for the lost fleet of Kubla Khan the ship gets caught up in a storm and sinks off the coast of Japan.
There is a lot about this game that is different. This Tomb Raider won’t be a game of gunplay and artifact hunting.
“She is not capable, not equipped to kill something,” Stewart says. When she finally does, it will be a pivotal moment in the game.
The demo jumps us to the scene when Croft rediscovers her mentor, wounded and fighting off circling wolves in a clearing. He’s wearing a gun strapped to each leg, one of which is mangled and bleeding. Croft watches as he scares off the wolves with his guns and then comes to his aid, asking him if he’s heard from “any of the others.”
When the man passes out, Croft panics momentarily, but then grabs hold of him and slowly drags him to a makeshift camp as she cries and pants.
This later section of the demo shows us Croft with a bow worn over a shoulder, exploring an abandoned mountain village. A special view, a form of Croft’s natural survival instincts we’re told, allows Croft to see the trails the wolves took and a few other things. Croft quickly free runs through the village, making her way to a cavern. Lighting a touch she goes inside, apparently hunting for some sort of beacon. You can hear it beeping, the sound getting louder as she draws closer.
We watch as Croft confronts a large wolf, killing it with a knife stab after the player controlling her taps a button in time with an icon flashing on the screen.
“Sorry, it was me or you,” she says to herself.
She returns to her mentor and uses the medicine she found with the beacon to revive him. She knows she has to face the mountain if they are to survive, her mentor tells her so, even hands her a climbing axe.
“You can do it Lara, afterall, you’re a Croft,” he says.
“I don’t think I’m that kind of Croft,” she replies.
“Sure you are. You just don’t know it yet.”
“The game’s real emphasis is about survival,” Stewart tells us as the demo wraps up. “It’s about the making of her as a character.
“You will see a massive character arc, one that will make her culturally relevant. When you get your hands on the controller you will think, ‘That’s the Lara Croft for my generation.'”
Doe-eyed and unsure, trembling as she approaches a challenge, this isn’t the Lara Croft gamers may be used to seeing.
After nearly 15 year of gun-toting exploration and archeology, Lara Croft has finally met her match
Five minutes of gameplay made me care more about Lara Croft than 15 years of previous titles.