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Interview: Can Tomb Raider balance narrative and gameplay?

Art director on gameplay vs. narrative, writing for a female protagonist, and Apocalypse Now

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The difference between the film length and the game experience is interesting. Some players will buy this on launch and burn through it in a night. Would you prefer Tomb Raider to be consumed episodically?

I think there are natural break points. What you played today, I would consider a premiere episode of that story - it had a beginning, middle and an end. It's almost like an episode. What's kind of cool about our presentation is that there's no loading screens except the initial loading screen to get into it, or if you die. What we want is for you to feel immersed from the beginning to the end, and that you will feel that pace yourself. You'll feel like it's time to take a break because you've accomplished something. You can power through the game but it'd be a pretty exhausting game to do that with because it's emotionally investing as well. The way we paced it though, we hope you'll feel the need to take a break and reflect on what you've done.

What are the challenges writing around a female protagonist?

In a numbers game, there's just not that many female protagonists in the games industry still. As much as Lara Croft broke ground in 1996, how many more female protagonists can you think of that are the stars of their game? I think that's what's really great about Mass Effect for instance: you can choose to be female Shepard. You can choose to make the protagonist a heroine, but that's not the way they market the game, right? It's marketed as the male Shepard. So for our game, Lara stands alone in an industry of AAA third-person action games, in that it has the female hero.

The challenge for us is, that now we're making it more realistic, it starts to conjures up different emotions in people. They're playing as Lara and she's struggling - you have a mixed emotion. Before she was really just an expression of male energy in a female body. Now she's both female and feminine, but at the same time very strong, has that inner strength, has those smarts - the things you associate with Lara Croft - but also with a little more texture. So that's the challenge for us: how do you get that vulnerability and still make people feel like we're not making her vulnerable because she's a women? We're making her vulnerable because it's her first adventure, and she happens to be a women. That's the distinction.

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Do you feel like you're walking a tightrope, writing for a woman protagonist? Following the outcry post-E3, with the confusion surrounding the rape aversion scene (which was clarified), do you feel there's more scrutiny because of her gender?

Yeah. I think in that situation, out of context the story was more salacious than the actual content. You got to play the demo today, and you got to see in context what the first kill is all about. What forms Lara is not what he [the foe] did to her, it's what she did to him, and that's the big distinction for us. The tightrope is how people perceive it, because she is a woman and it's a man in an overpowering position. He was over the top of her in a menacing way, but the outcome is such that you either pull the trigger or he kills you. It's a little more binary: it's not so much... "ooh I don't know what he did." [It's obvious] he would kill you.

I think it's weird that we view death as being okay. It's one of our things as a culture, in the video game space. We still have to be very very careful about how we deal with these issues. As an industry we've grown up, but not enough to do everything you can do in films or TV. We made a conscious decision to make a bold storytelling choice and gameplay choice, to give that scene more emotional weight. We don't shy away from the choices we made.

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What was your vision for Tomb Raider's visual aesthetic?

When we knew we had a reimagining of the franchise, the main goals were to make it more grounded, not only in the way the world looks, but the way Lara looks, We wanted to tell a survival story. That informed what the visual DNA would be, and it facilitated the decision to go darker and grittier. Still, throughout the game there will be a strong sense of colour - there's going to be a lushness to it, there's going to be history. There's going to be everything you love about a Tomb Raider game, but set with a more believable tone. When we do have fantasy elements they're as grounded as we can make them, almost like we're documenting something.

It has a very documentary aesthetic to it. Touchstones for me are movies like Children of Men or Apocalypse Now: these films dealt with very horrific things but dealt with them in a way that you feel you could have been there, and that they were real. So that's what we tried to bring across with the aesthetic: you had to feel immersed, it had to be atmospheric, it had to have a tactile quality. The island itself has a presence.

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