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An interview with Noah Hughes on Tomb Raider

Crystal Dynamics' creative director reveals the thinking behind the reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise.

At a press conference at the Grosvenor House Hotel, Dubai, on Wednesday January 23, gaming journalists had a chance to play an extended demo of the forthcoming Tomb Raider reboot, covering considerably more than the public demo shown at Games12 last September.

Following the demo, I had a lengthy chat about the game with Noah Hughes, creative director of developers Crystal Dynamics, who took over the Tomb Raider franchise after the initial trilogy by Core Design.

The following is the full transcript of the interview.

Andy Staples: It’s obvious from having played it – and I played the demo at Games12 a few months ago – that you guys are fans of the original.

Noah Hughes: Absolutely. When we took over Tomb Raider at Crystal – Legend was the first one that we did - we came at it with a respect for what Core had done. We tried to carry that torch forward. But then, living with the franchise for four games now, we feel even more intimate with it, such that the hope is that we can play that precarious balance between making it fresh enough to make people take note, and say it’s worth looking at Tomb Raider again, but still being true to that Core DNA of the franchise. That’s a balance.

AS: Playing this one, it seems very different from the more recent output. I forget which is the most recent one I’ve played, actually. I’m losing track of the names. I think it was Underworld, the one that came out, was it early last year, late the year before?

NH: Well, we had the digital… the most recent one that we did was the Xbox Live Guardian of Light, that was a digital co-op offering, and the last pillar title was Underworld, but that was a few years ago now.

AS: It might be. I’m losing track.

NH: But it is different. That was intentional. It was that idea that we did want people to sit up and take note and say, ‘Wow, Lara’s back.’ You have to make some bold choices to do that. But we felt that we could do that by, rather than changing who Lara was, by looking at her through a new lens. So she’s still a brilliant, athletic, driven archaeologist - and she’s always been - but she’d sort of been reduced to a one-dimensional icon in some of ways for a lot of people, that she was a braid and two pistols and whatever. The opportunity was to peel back those layers and see a human dealing with extraordinary situations. That was the take on it. Don’t change Lara, expose her as that human character that she can be.

AS: You never quite see Lara going out with a resistivity meter, do you? She never records her sites. But she has changed, very definitely. I mean, over the series, from the first three and on to the follow-ups, she’s gotten, um, smaller. She’s not quite got that much T&A.

NH: For us, that was part of dialling back caricaturisation in general. If we wanted to show the real, human version of Lara, that was a matter of turning down the volume knob on all the over-exaggerated aspects of her character.

AS: The secondary sexual characteristics are what we’re talking about, I think, isn’t it?

NH: So we looked at that physically, and we built a Lara that we felt still was recognisable as Lara and, having said that, felt like a different take of the character, in the direction of a real human that you might know or relate to more closely.

AS: The first three games were very much puzzle platformers, and very cartoon-like, and Lara herself was very cartoon-like. As the games have gone on, the cartoon element has stayed a bit, but she’s gotten slightly more realistic. But the cartoons have been there in the choice of textures and shading has been very much… we’re still kind of… The level of realism you’ve gone for in this is pretty much staking out a new claim, isn’t it?

NH: Yeah, and that’s looking at the world. It’s a similar thing, that’s tuning the degree of stylisation. It is still an exaggerated reality, right? We still push emotions across, we will make the world have an attitude, we’ll make the island feel threatening and feel alive in some ways, and that’s pushing it a little, but we feel that everything we do is more effective if we can get you bought into and believing the illusion that we’re painting on screen, so for me a lot of what we tried to do is you can, hopefully you can, lose yourself in this game and you can lose yourself in this story. And part of that is making it feel real in some ways. I guess for me, real probably is a dangerous word. It’s more about grounded and credible.

AS: Suspension of disbelief?

NH: There is still absolute suspension of disbelief that’s required, that we ask of the audience, but we try to paint an illusion that has that credibility such that you do buy into it.

AS: Obviously, since the first Tomb Raider came out – it’s nearly 20 years ago now – there’s been a huge shift in our lives. I was old enough… I was in my early-20s… no, God, my mid-20s when the first one came out. The world’s changed. Things that we’re interested in have changed. I’m seeing a lot of Bear Grylls in what’s going on with Lara in the survival section. Has this kind of thing influenced you? Lost, Survivor, all the survival programmes on NatGeo and Discovery?

NH: Not as directly as you might think. But having said that, all of those things do, in the same way that we have a lot of examples of survival. Also, in reboots and in characterisation we looked at Bond and we looked at Batman as franchises that had taken a look at their property and re-envisioned them for a modern audience. But it’s less about chasing those things directly.

Like, we didn’t say, ‘Survival’s hot, so let’s make a Lara survival story,’ we said, ‘If we want to expose the humanity of Lara, we need to take her away from everything that she can depend on.’ In the past she had all the money she needed, she could win any fight she started, pretty much, and we wanted to take her away from that comfort zone, isolate her, put her in a situation where if she didn’t grow as a character she was going to die, and that became the impetus for her to grow as a character.

And then, you know, we looked more directly at real-world survival stories, like Aron Ralston’s story [Ralston amputated his own arm to free himself from a dislodged boulder], this idea that a human capacity to overcome adversity is an uplifting tale, but it is also something that changes you. For us that goes beyond the entertainment properties out there. That is, survival and its effect on human character is something more fundamental and something universal and we wanted to use that to force Lara to grow.

Our goal was to tell an origin story and for me that is about an arc, and it’s a great opportunity in a game, because a lot of times you have a consistent portrayal of a character through the course of the game, and for me it was very exciting to say the character you end this game as will be absolutely different from the character you started as. That idea of taking you on that journey was the most important thing for us.

AS: Gameplay. I mentioned that it’s very clear from it that you’re fans of old. I know you’ve done a few games now, but I am seeing stuff from the first three. It’s much more heavily disguised – we’ve got far better graphics now and the capabilities are much more - but I’m still pushing blocks around and climbing up levels.

Interesting about the stuff that’s changed as well. First of all, we’ve got far more cinematics, and there’s touches of Japanese style about some of the ‘roll left, roll right’ as part of a cinematic scene. There are the hints of an RPG system, and no auto-lock for the weapons. There’s a lot that’s similar, there’s a lot that’s very, very different. What was the reasoning behind keeping the bits that you kept and changing the bits that you changed?

NH: In the same way that Lara is both the same and different – at the core she’s still the same character, but she’s looked at through a different lens – gameplay went through a similar evolution, which is to say, at its core it still is about puzzle-solving, platforming and exploration, combat, these are all the pillars the franchise was built upon, but that we needed to deliver the most modern, relevant, competitive version of each of those.

You pulled out a lot of them. There’s even other things that I would throw into that mix, such as our puzzles – we tried to make them more physics-based, we tried to make the fire and the water and mass and pulleys, and all these types of things, allow you to bring your understanding of how the world works into the puzzle situation.

On the platforming side we went to a full air-steer – you have continuous character control. Previous Tomb Raiders, once you started the jump it knew if you were going to make it or not, and that lack of control throughout the process was detaching for the player. So in each of these cases, whether it’s puzzles or the combat or the traversal, we really tried to look at what’s the best version of these pillars that we could deliver.

AS: That must be really subtle, because so far I haven’t felt that I’ve been in control. I have felt more like it’s been a leap. Maybe it’s just the way I’m playing it.

NH: It becomes more apparent when you get to the hub, and the hubs really are where we showcase that sense of player-driven exploration. The system’s always there, but especially early on we really are running you through a more linear experience, but what’s important to us is to allow you to explore off the rails, so to speak, that idea that in a Tomb Raider game, I kind of want to be lost, I kind of want to feel like I’ve found something that no one else found, so we open up into spaces that really are more player-exploration driven than we’ve ever done in a Tomb Raider game before. And it’s in those spaces where the paths branch and fork and you basically can go where you want to go, and you feel that control. You’ll be heading for one ledge, and you can steer and grab onto that other ledge.

Having said that, like you pointed out, early on we really wanted the cinematics and the quick timed events, you know, the rock-dodging and stuff, a lot of that is trying to really build an investment in the character, the characters around you, the situation you’re in and, though that initial investment, once we do let you off the rails a little bit more, the hope is that you understand the character more, you understand the threats on the island, that you’ve been exposed to some of these in a little bit more of a directed way.

But the gameplay mechanics really are most fun when you’re off doing your own thing.

AS: It is a reboot, and a new origin story. Lara’s involvement in archaeology is very different from the snippets that we got in Tomb Raider III, for instance. How much creative freedom have you had to re-write the background?

NH: There’s two pieces to that, which is it’s important to realise that Lara’s most different at the beginning of this story, so she doesn’t survive on this island just because she’s willing to kill, or whatever these first steps are, that ultimately there are ancient mysteries on this island and she’s going to need to get to the bottom of them in order to survive and escape, so to acknowledge that her archaeological background does come into play more as the story evolved.

It is also true that we have taken a lot of the opportunity to deliver things in a new way, and for me there’s been an incredible amount of support within the company to do that. I’m kind of amazed at how much Crystal has been a little bubble of creative exploration that really doesn’t get popped by whatever business considerations are out there.

Having said that, we’re sensitive to the fact that Lara’s not ours. Lara’s the whole world’s, like everybody cares about her – well, not everybody but… uh…

[AS laughs] A sufficient number of people?

[NH laughs] …a sufficient number of people are invested in this character, so as much as we feel creative freedom from a business perspective, we also feel that obligation to deliver people, as much as it’s different, something that feels true to Lara as a character and Lara as a franchise. Again, that really is the balance, to make it fresh enough to make people take note of Lara, but have the takeaway at the end this be that, yep, that really was Lara Croft and that really was a tomb-raiding story, not just a survival story.

AS: I don’t know whether we find out the answer to this during the course of the game. Perhaps you can tell me, perhaps not. Lara’s dad, Henshingly or Richard? Which of Lara’s backgrounds are we using?

[NH laughs] We’ll get to all of that. Lara’s dad is referenced in passing in this story, but we don’t really get into all of that. That’ll be some of the fun things that we get to explore down the road.

AS: How much, now that you’ve had the reboot, how much influence have the movies played? The franchise itself has had a kind of bizarre history, hasn’t it? That’s one of the reasons for the Henshingly or Richard question. We have the first three, they’re almost standalone; the movies; we have the subsequent follow-ups, which were very different from the first three. It’s been something of a hodge-podge.

NH: Yeah. That’s one of the reasons for a reboot. This really is… People sometimes reference the transition from Core to Crystal as a reboot, but it wasn’t really, in the way this is. Part of the motivation for a reboot is to clear the slate and be able to establish a more cohesive re-envisioning of Lara and her world.

But that wasn’t the initial impetus, that’s more of a good by-product of rebooting. Our initial impetus was, ‘Let’s do a fresh take on this game,’ and telling Lara’s story from the beginning was the easiest way to re-form her as a character in people’s minds.

AS: Looking in from the outside, I would say that it needed a reboot. In some ways it had lost its way. The last game was trying to get it back a bit. You being involved in it from the inside, how long have you been wanting to do this? It felt a little bit like the earlier games, you weren’t finding your way with it really.

NH: I think, yeah, in some ways I think there were a lot of things that added up to it. I’m really proud of the games that Crystal’s done, and I’m amazed by the work that we inherited from Core, um, but… [pause]

AS: It feels like there was a constraint.

NH: Yeah. That conservatism can… you can have a continually reducing relevance, right? We were almost losing fans more than we were gaining fans. I don’t know if that’s true, that’s not a statistical thing, it’s just a sense that you didn’t have even mind-share, without unit sales, just this idea that you had a reduced mind-share of Lara being part of the collective consciousness.

AS: Almost like everybody who was buying the current games had played previous games, but fewer of them were buying them?

NH: Yeah. And again, it’s less about pure sales for me and it really is more about just… You know, I want to see Lara being a top-tier creative brand, so I think we did need that, we needed a breath of life, so for me this game was about taking that opportunity with everything. It wasn’t a continuation of one or the other, we didn’t work back to 1, 2, 3 and try and carry on there, we didn’t carry on from the Crystal ones, we didn’t reference the movie most heavily. We took all of that, that creative soup that was the Tomb Raider franchise and tried to re-envision it in a modern and more tight expression of everything it once was.

AS: I think it’s interesting that you’ve talked of Batman Begins and Casino Royale. Casino Royale is the Bond origin story, even going back to the book: Bond is given his double-O status and has to learn how to use it. Batman Begins, very much a reboot – obviously he has a huge comic-book history, and we have the movies from the ‘80s. This does feel to me very much like a reboot in the sense of both movies. It’s far darker, far more stark than we’ve come to expect from Tomb Raider. I mean, she’s an exotic… er, ‘playgirl’ is the wrong word.

NH: Jet-setter.

AS: Yeah, jet-setter, adventurer.

NH: Yeah. I think those franchises were dealing with similar challenges that we just talked about that motivated our reboot, so there’s a lot of parallels there. And I can’t speak for them, but I know that we didn’t… [pause]… You don’t start with dark being the answer. You start with the idea that, in our case, we wanted to make her feel human again. I guess we explore both the downsides and the upsides of that, so it’s not about, ‘Let’s beat Lara up for a whole game,’ or, ‘Let’s have gritty be the lens.’ It’s, ‘Let’s have human be the lens,’ and take you through the highs and the lows of that.
If Lara couldn’t be afraid before, never got hurt before, then to show that contrast, that’s an important part of being human, and an important part of a survival story is feeling mortal, feeling close to death, and clinging to life by your fingernails.

That was an important part of exposing that aspect of her humanity, which was a contrast from where she had come, and it was important because the old Lara, I know she’d get off this island, I know she’d win. You could find T. Rex down the road and she was going to win, right?

AS: You know, I’d almost forgotten the dinosaurs. [We laugh]

NH: And we need to dial it back and go, ‘Wow, this girl doesn’t have any chance of surviving on this island, she really doesn’t have any chance of escaping.’

AS: From what I’ve seen so far – obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this game so far – but from what I have seen, we’re not seeing anything in the way of swan dives. It’s far less about moves, isn’t it?

NH: Yeah, and a rougher style, right? There’s an aspect of being less evolved in that move set. We didn’t want to portray her as a world-class gymnast or a competent fighter, that this is a scrappy young woman determined to do what it takes to survive, and swan dives aren’t part of that.

It is fun, as we get further along this character arc, to start to gesture at some of those classic Tomb Raider elements and start to see her gain confidence in herself and start to become more competent in her move set, but not to the point where she’s so equipped and so evolved that nothing’s going to faze her.

AS: Back in the old days, I think the male gaming population was universally appreciative of Lara – ‘Go on, make her crawl!’ The female gaming population seemed to be kind of divided between strong female lead and the exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics. Are you hoping that this will appeal much more to female gamers?

NH: Um, not necessarily. I mean, we’re conscious of the fact that, as much as they may have been divided, Tomb Raider has traditionally had a much higher ratio of female players than the average game. So for me, for the most part, already she was seen as a fairly aspirational character, the idea that as much as she was exaggerated in some ways, she was portrayed beyond just her physical appearance, she wasn’t just there to look at, that she was a smart and powerful and inspiring character, and I think male and female gamers have appreciated that.

And so our motivation with any redesigns in Lara this time was less about catering to males or females, and more about just relatability – gender-free relatability. The idea that by turning down the exaggerations we could make her feel more relatable and more credible as a character was more just a stylistic choice than it was a gender-driven choice.

AS: It was not a marketing, focus group kind of thing?

[NH chuckles] No. I mean the marketing… Focus groups, they help us understand who our audience is, and it is important to me that we don’t alienate our male gamers or our female gamers, but, like I said, those answers aren’t different for me. We chose a set of answers that was hopefully being true to the creative intent of the franchise.
Having said that, certainly some people expressed disappointment at her physical changes or whatever, so, you know, you can’t be everything to everybody.

AS: You can’t please all of the people all of the time. For what it’s worth, I’m really looking forward to it. I think you’ve done an awesome job from what I’ve seen so far, and I speak as somebody who loved those first three – and I’m probably one of the people who tailed off over the course of the subsequent releases. I certainly haven’t played all of them.

There’s been a lot of controversy over the attempted rape scene. Now, I can see from the start of this that you’re going through a whole lot of, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ but the rape scene has been very, very much a bone of contention. How necessary do you feel that it is to the story? Could it have been omitted and still been a powerful story?

NH: Um, sure, yeah. I guess nothing has to exist there. This has been spoken about a lot, so I won’t get into the details. Rhianna [Pratchett, storyline writer], from the writing perspective, has talked about it fairly competently. From my own perspective, I’ve answered the question.

AS: But you haven’t answered it to me.

NH: My answer is that it’s important to me that people play it and experience it for what it is in context. I do believe that it is hard to take out of context and understand its role in the story, and my hope is that when people experience this story it doesn’t feel out of place, it doesn’t feel out of context.

And I’m allowing you to characterise the scene as you’ve said, but really it’s… Lara’s dealing with a life or death situation there. It’s clear if you fail in that situation you’re killed, and Lara must kill or be killed, and that that’s the conflict that we present in that scene.

Now, we characterise him as a very creepy and domineering male. It was a sense of dominance that we were trying to portray in that scene.

AS: A number of psychologists would say that that is what rape is, that it’s a dominance thing.

NH: Rape is not the threat of being killed, though. I mean, she is in a kill or be killed situation. Like I said, my hope is… we’ve tried to deliver a very honest portrayal of the things that she would experience on an island in this situation and I hope that people who experience the game in the context in which it was meant to be experienced appreciate that scene and every other scene that provides those obstacles that Lara must overcome and essentially change her character in order to survive. The idea of having to kill someone in order to survive is a big step, and that’s what that scene is about.

AS: I haven’t seen that scene, and so you say you’re allowing me to characterise it... When it was first reported it was being talked of as a rape scene, and she was a rape survivor. I have noticed more recently people are talking about it being a rape attempt. But we haven’t seen it. You know what it is, I don’t. What about trigger factors?

NH: Uh, about what?

AS: What about triggers? Triggers are, for people who’ve survived rapes or attacks, a trigger is something that would remind them of the situation and can bring flashbacks. Given the proportion of women who have… who are rape survivors, do you feel that even including something that could be a trigger factor into the game could turn women off?

NH: Um, again, we really tried to portray all of the scenes with some amount of sensitivity. Lara’s put in life and death situations which, I assume, other people have been in also and we do it anyways. This is a mature title, and our intent is to tell a story that’s true to itself and feels honest in its expression of an adversity that a human might encounter in these situations, and any number of these situations could be close to home for some people, but we try to deal with all of them with honesty and sensitivity, and I think that for a mature title that that’s… it is interesting to explore the challenges of being human and the effect on a character to deal with these things. And, you know, that’s not all we’re doing in this game. We’re also just… we’re making a fun adventure. Like I said, Lara really does embody adventure, but we start with this idea that she has to grow first. And for me, any number of those things can feel real for people and I hope that we’ve done it in a sensitive way.

AS: Do you wish that that piece of the story hadn’t been revealed so early in the development cycle of this? It seems to be something that people have focussed on, particularly last year when…

NH: Focussed on out of context, right? So I will remind you that I’ve entertained this line of questioning and my statement really is, you’ve mischaracterised it from the start and it is important to me that you don’t mischaracterise it for people. What I hate is an echo chamber of impressions of other people’s impressions, right? If you sit down and you play that scene and you think it’s insensitive, then write that, but until you do, I don’t know what you’re writing about.

AS: No, absolutely. And also, be fair to trust me to do my job. I’m asking you about it because I haven’t seen it. It is one of the big contentious issues, and I want to know what your take on it is, and trust me to reflect that.

NH: I’m not telling you how to do your job. Your question was an impression of ‘do I wish’, and what I meant by saying that wasn’t directing it to you, it was to say to anyone out there who’s jumping at a characterisation of something they haven’t seen creates an echo chamber that isn’t true to the actual debate that’s going on. So for me, yes, I wish the debate… I think it’s a healthy debate. I’m not… for me, I don’t wish this didn’t happen, I wish it could happen with everyone being aware of the content and the context, and I think it is important to talk about things like triggers and responsible storytelling in games, but that wasn’t the conversation we had, we had a conversation about a scene that never took place in our game and having implications about it that really weren’t real, and that is frustrating. And that’s on us, to your point, because we controlled what we put out there, and I do regret that. I wish we could have had the conversation in a more informed context is all.

AS: And that’s really the question that I was asking. I’ve got to wrap up, so I’ll just say thank you very much. From what I have seen of the game so far, I’m really looking forward to this. May the rest of the game continue the way that the first hour or two hours of it has started, because I can’t remember being this excited about a Tomb Raider game since… Tomb Raider 2, I think.

NH: And you’re not alone, right? I think as you mentioned, sort of the lapsed fan, right? A lot of people appreciated the early Tomb Raiders and then really just kind of, ‘Yeah, another Tomb Raider, whatever,’ right? So I do appreciate the kind words and, like I said, our intent was really just to have more people enjoy Lara and tomb raiding again.

AS: There’s an interesting world of gameplay and graphics here. I think you’ve hit a very good balance with that.

NH: And it’s tough. All the things you bring up are challenges with dealing with something that’s so high profile. With a new IP or something we could quietly make all these choices in a vacuum, but with Tomb Raider it’s on the world stage.

AS: Is there a higher profile IP? It’s either this or Metal Gear Solid, isn’t it? Oh no, Final Fantasy – I keep forgetting that because I don’t play it.

[NH laughs] That’s good and bad, right? For me, mostly it’s good. I’m excited, and I do feel proud of the job we’ve done in trying to realise our goals, so as much as I’m frustrated by the conversation surrounding that scene, it’s not a conversation I regret. I can’t express enough how much I feel that we’ve, we really have tried to be true to the franchise and tried to evolve mature storytelling in a game, and I’m proud of what we’ve done in that respect.