At SDCC I was lucky enough to talk to Jill Murray (Lead Writer), and Heath Smith (Lead Game Designer, about the upcoming release of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the third game and the end of the newest Tomb Raider trilogy (releasing on September 14th!)
At the end of this piece I’ll talk about some of the gameplay I experienced as well, but it’s clear that as the final piece in the trilogy, everyone involved is trying to elevate Lara’s story to the next level, thereby creating a compelling, dynamic story and gameplay environment.
Q: Can you talk about what you wanted to accomplish with the writing for Lara, as it’s the culmination of the past two games in the trilogy coming together?
Jill Murray: We’ve seen her go from a survivor in Tomb Raider to become more of a hunter in Rise of the Tomb Raider; so we meet her in Shadow of the Tomb Raider already at the height of her power. What we soon realize–what she soon realizes– is that with those high level of abilities she is also capable of really making some enormous mistakes very quickly. So she accidentally sets off the apocalypse and then must figure out what to do about that.
I think for this game we really want to do is take a more mature look at heroism and sort of question is heroism just that you’re the chosen one and you have all these skills, and you have to make the right decisions and save the day, or does heroism come about your approach going forward after things have gone wrong. After you’ve made a mistake, after you’ve made things worse instead of better, how did you come to terms with that and then find a way forward?
I think also depending on your perspective the hero could also be a threat or an invader. So with all the tools at her disposal, Lara really has to think through what about she’s going to be.
Q: I think Lara is one of the strongest female characters in video games; what is it like writing that from a female perspective? I think often female characters aren’t always allowed to make large mistakes, but it seems this game is creating that opportunity.
Murray: As I think because of the scarcity of women characters, we’ve seen a lot of discussion around the ‘strong female character’: what does strength mean in that context and does that leave people out? Also, how do you have a textured character if they always have to be strong? The version of strength that we’re looking at here is really more in depth and being able to find power through vulnerability. I don’t actually I don’t even like to use the word ‘vulnerability’ because I know there are people that will take that in a different direction than I mean it– but it’s important to have a willingness to reconcile with those difficult emotional parts of us.
Q: We’re bringing in this idea of being ‘one with the jungle,’ and I think there’s a fluidity in her movements that we haven’t seen before. Can you talk a little about working through that and bringing that into the game?
Heath Smith: Absolutely. We first determined what sort of emotional story we wanted to tell. We knew we were trying to tell a story about a Lara that comes in at the height of her powers. You know she has all the skills and abilities, so how do we challenge her? The jungle was the natural place to do that. It’s the place she had yet to survive, and it tested her on things that she hadn’t yet had to prove. In a way we’re working towards competing her skill set.
We look at the jungle and what it could provide. We looked into a lot of descent which is riffing on that theme again– descending into darkness. So we will reintroduce the repelling, reintroduce underwater swimming, and then the combat extension of ‘becoming one with the jungle’. So she’s up against the toughest Trinity Force she’s ever faced–including their leader. He’s brought the elite and she’s out of her element, so she has to adapt in order to survive and thrive in that environment. You will see her using mud to camouflage herself, and using the walls vines to camouflage herself.
She also has a knowledge of the herbs of the amazon. She can use those abilities in combat as well as well in other areas of the game to enhance her senses. Lara has an encounter early on with a Jaguar and I think through that encounter she realizes she has to become the ultimate predator to survive.
All the gameplay mechanics of the combat focus around that– and the big one of course is the combat loop. In the previous game, when you mess up and they spot you, that’s it. You have to shoot everyone dead. Now what you can do, when you mess up you can escape. That’s why we have mud, that’s why we have these vine layers that Lara can blend back into. It allows us to show that she’s become more professional and she doesn’t just have to go in guns blazing.
Q: When we were looking at the challenge tomb [part of the demo we played], everything’s very detailed. How do you go about developing these immersive environments that are both functional and beautiful?
Smith: We work closely with a very talented environmental artists. It’s really about speaking with the level designers about the intent of the space; obviously the intent is that within these places, everything is trying to kill you. So through the environmental storytelling, you want to let the player know that these things are deadly. We also use lighting to attract the players to the right place. Normally the places Lara goes are the places no one else would go–because she’s the Tomb Raider. No one wants to go into that spikey place, so we have to make sure we use environmental storytelling (blood trails, lighting, etc) to say, ‘that is where you want to go’.
Q: This game will be dealing with a fictional minority indigenous group; how did you approach that decision?
Murrary: This is something that the team started working on a long time before I joined the project; it was very much a case of what if these three interesting cultures (Mayan, Incas, Spanish) had come together in one place and how would they have grown and evolved together after that.
There are also some very good reasons for making it a fictional people. The First Rule for making anything to do with an uncontacted or contact-resistant tribe is don’t; you can easily bring danger on people, so that’s the very reason it needs to be fictional. For me the most important thing is to stay away from the trap of thinking of these people as being trapped in the past, or that Lara has just stepped into history because these are people that are alive today. That means even if they’re not industrialised, they are contemporary and they need to be acknowledged as such. That’s part of our world and I think that’s really important. All of the different societies that currently exist on Earth today have value and need to be accepted as equals as they are.
Smith: On the gameplay side we experimented a lot with language. Lara has a basic knowledge of each one of these languages because she’s an archaeologist and has studied ancient languages, but she can also level up in the game. She can decipher the monoliths which will allow her to solve riddles and all sorts of things. In addition to that, we wanted to allow the players to feel a greater sense of immersion when it came to language. So although Lara can understand what people are saying, you can switch on or off ‘immersive mode’, where either they can speak English or their native dialects with subtitles.
Q: You’ve mentioned that they speak multiple languages besides English. Can you tell me what languages they speak, and kind of what process you went through finding voice actors to play those parts?
Murray: It’s predominantly Yucatec Maya and also occasionally in the background there might also be some Nahuatl– some of that was improvised by actors in their native language. All of this was recorded in a studio in Mexico. For certain lines that directly pertained to the story and gameplay we wrote it in English first and translated it into Mayan, which was then recorded by our actors who speak the language.
Q: To conclude, this is the culmination of Lara’s story–the finale, as it were. What do you hope players leave the story with?
Murray: While the ending isn’t choice based (and follows the typical Tomb Raider game structure), I think the choices that she is forced to make, although they feel like the right choice at the beginning–they set off the apocalypse. Right at that moment it feels like that’s a thing she has to do. So even though the choices that she’ll make in this game feel like the right thing, I think they also are going to leave you really thinking about their meaning– perhaps there could have been another way to do it. Hopefully you will be left contemplating the choices and your feelings about it, long after the story has ended.
We at WNA were also able to play another big snippet of the game, and got to experience some of the game play mechanics spoken about in the interview here.
Overall, the more I play Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the more impressed I am with it. This section took us through an infiltration mission with Lara, allowing us to see how the stealth aspects worked; I was found out multiple times, but I was also able to hide myself back into the foliage or other aspects of the jungle to lose those that were trying to find Lara. We also got to see how some of the items in the jungle could help her, including some herbs she could coat arrows with, causing paranoia and fear in her attackers, causing them to turn on one another.
The landscapes in the game continue to be immersive, and the way that Lara moves within them is seamless. The graphics continue to grow more impressive between each game, and watching the way that mud smears over Lara’s skin, or how she effects an area of tall grass is great as well. As the section I played moved into a more active, high-paced setting, the reliance on my skill to time jumps and execute ice-pick actions became imperative–I died more than a few times because I mistimed something. It isn’t frustrating, however–it helps you learn where you went wrong and do better the next time. Lara’s deaths seem a bit less garish this time around as well, less focused on the gore of it all.
I don’t want to give too much away, but given everything I’ve seen, I think this game is shaping up to be the best in the trilogy, and a great end to Lara’s story.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider Releases on September 14th on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.