Lately, it seems everyone's been talking about Lara Croft. The iconic star of the Tomb Raider franchise is getting a makeover in next year's Tomb Raider reboot -- or rather, a makeunder. The new game is a combination reboot and origin story, focusing on a young Lara's fight for survival on a terrifying island lousy with hostile wildlife and human-sacrifice aficionados.
At E3 in June, Tomb Raider executive producer Ron Rosenberg set off a firestorm of debate when he told Jason that Crystal Dynamics' goal was to get players to "want to protect" this new, younger Lara. He made matters worse by referencing what he described as an attempted rape early in the game.
I recently went down to Crystal Dynamics to play through the first couple acts of the game. Afterwards, I spoke with creative director Noah Hughes about the many changes the writers have made to Lara and the delicate balancing act of re-creating an iconic character.
"I think a lot of perceptions out there sort of focus on the dark side of the island, and the vulnerability of Lara early on," Hughes told me. "And really, our goal was to create that distance between experiences, distance between Lara at the beginning of the story and at the end of the story."
Hughes was seated across from me in a conference room in Crystal Dynamics' Redwood City offices. He was sporting the tell-tale signs of a video game developer neck-deep in crunch-time: Puffy eyes, somewhat sleepy demeanour, inside-out shirt. But when he talked of the game he was shepherding across the finish line, it was always with a smile.
Several times Hughes came back to the notion that this game presented a narrative arc, and that was crucial to understanding how they're presenting the character. Lara may be desperate, scared, and fairly weak in the early goings, but by the end of the story, she'll have grown.
"Tonally, you look at the early bits, it's almost survival horror," Hughes said. "But then you saw the tower, and it's supposed to be this emotional high, this open vista. And that other aspect of it, as much as you see Lara challenged, what we really celebrate is Lara's growth, and the player becoming more powerful. Going on the journey with Lara, what is it like to become a hero. It pushes you to change as a person, as a character."
But in order for the game to convincingly give you that feeling of growth, it has to start at a low point. "There's an aspect of a survival story that tries to remind you of your vulnerability, or at least your mortality," Hughes said. "We don't want the island's lethality to melt away, but at the same time it's sort of an escalation. At the beginning of the story it is very much a survival story, and you see Lara teased with snippets of this island's history, but there's an aspect to surviving this island that is more than just shooting guys. There's an aspect of getting to the bottom of the mysteries. Lara and her friends are going to have a tough time getting off the island."
Surely the story will benefit from a clean slate. I've played just about every Tomb Raider game, but by the time I played 2008's Tomb Raider: Underworld, I had no flipping idea what was going on. There was a crazy super-powered bonde woman, and an evil, supernatural version of Lara, and at one point I think her mum came back from the dead as a zombie… it was crazy, and had nothing to do with the other reasons I liked the game. The new Tomb Raider gives Crystal Dynamics an opportunity to start fresh and lose all that needless junk. (My words, not Hughes'.)
"For the most part, we're wiping the slate clean as far as the events that transpire in Lara's life," Hughes said. "As we go through future adventures, one of the things that's fun about a well-known property is echoing the canon that has gone before it. That's an aspect that's great -- audiences who know the characters enjoy seeing that. But it is a reboot -- we are saying those things didn't happen."
This does raise the question of what makes this a Tomb Raider game at all. "The answer is Lara," Hughes said. "I would say rather than re-architecting Lara, we looked at Lara through a different lens. She's young in this case, but she's still a brilliant archaeologist. Part of her strength against her opponents is her ability to use her wits and her intelligence, and that aspect of how her indomitable will. Lara as a character, has always been really admirable in the way she'd… well, I guess it's best expressed to me as: You look at this island, and she has no business surviving this island.
"And it's not purely gunplay that's going to make her succeed. It's that brilliance; it's the athleticism, it's the gunplay, but it's also being smarter than her opponents. So we tried to capture everything that has always been true about Lara, but deliver it in a sort of a way that felt a little more dimensional or textured. In the context of becoming too iconic, if that's possible… that people [would] purely describe her based on physical attributes, a braid, or a pistol, or whatever. And we're really trying to tease out the character that is Lara, too. And those things are all taken from what's implied by the games that have come before."
So what would Hughes say to someone who, despite these assurances, still felt unsure of what they've done with Lara? "What's important to me on some level is that people sort of judge it for themselves," Hughes said. "The only thing that frustrates me is people's second- and third-hand perceptions of it. Our game really is about empowerment, it's about becoming a hero, we tried to treat our subject matter as respectfully as we can."
In the demo I played, I did go through the sequence where Lara is suggestively/sexually assaulted while tied up, then fights back and brutally kills her assailant. In the context of the game, it worked. It was troubling and intense, but didn't feel gratuitous or disrespectful. But that's just me; I could imagine a rape or sexual assault survivor reacting differently.
"We can argue whether it's respectful or not," Hughes said, "but a misperception is that this is a game about a vulnerable Lara. It's a game about a young, naive Lara like you or I, put in a situation where she has to grow as a character to survive. We try not to arbitrarily create adversity for her, we don't throw the kitchen sink at her, if you watch a survival movie you're going to see the character confronted with life and death situations. That's just the inherent starting point. What's exciting about the story, what's rewarding to experience along with Lara is that sense of growth. But without that starting point, we can't show that."
In the demo I played, Lara had a single pistol, but never two. Would we ever see her whip out a second one and go the full Woo? Hughes would only give me a cagey smile. "Part of the fun of a reboot is that people know and enjoy the character, and we enjoy our history too. Not necessarily a dual-pistol, but you want those moments where people say, 'Yes! She's becoming Lara!'"
Well, I'm interested. I like the idea of a Tomb Raider or Uncharted-type game where the character has an actual arc, and from what I played, Tomb Raider seems to be handling its version of Lara Croft pretty well. As always, we'll know more once the game is out.
You can check out my more in-depth impressions of the game itself here.