When the second reboot to the Tomb Raider franchise was announced, it came across as a surprise to everyone. The exact nature and the far-reaching changes to the very core of the protagonist Lara Croft and the fundamental game mechanics themselves raised many questions for long-standing fans and patrons of the action adventure genre alike. What follows is a chat with Ian Livingstone, Life President, Eidos Interactive on what makes the latest Tomb Raider reboot tick.
The Tomb Raider: Legend reboot was justified because the franchise was in need of a major overhaul of the control system. What prompted you to reboot Tomb Raider this time around?
Tomb Raider, as you know, was released in 1996, which was a long time ago. After that we have had a steady release of sequels that followed Lara through her life. Now we have reached a point where you have to find out whether or not the story you are telling is still relevant to the new audiences. Crystal Dynamics had complete autonomy and control on this game. They have started to look what's happening elsewhere. Batman and James Bond have greatly succeeded with their reboots.
The decision was to make Lara Croft a prequel and not a sequel, and this new rebooted franchise will be like a new intellectual property. It tries to explore the new world of the young Lara Croft, age 21, being shipwrecked on an island facing terrible circumstances, and how as a survivor she became the Tomb Raider that she is in the later games. It is bold but it has proven to be a correct decision to make.
Drop it Zip, or I'll drop you!
Like I said earlier, the last reboot improved the controls. What's the major shift in this reboot?
This reboot still has the three pillars of the game—exploration, problem solving and combat. The console of this generation have such absolutely great graphics realism and enchanting cinematic experiences. If you want to do justice to the grittiness of the game and combat, then she can't have this armour plating that she always used to have. She has to be seen being able to sustain damage and be vulnerable, because when you're playing as Lara, you expect that during extreme circumstances. So the decision to make it a sort of survival action adventure game with gritty realism, which starts off with a voyage of discovery and ends with survival under extreme circumstances and reaching a point where it's kill or be killed. That's how it evolved.
I have been playing Tomb Raider games since the very beginning, and what I cherished the most is the excellent use of verticality in level designed as seen in St Francis Folly, which could really make your palms sweat. With the reboot embracing a sort of an open world system, this verticality seems to be lacking. Moreover, the strong angle of Greek, Egyptian, Indian and Norse mythologies underscoring the past games isn't as pronounced with the new Tomb Raider. Won't this alienate long-standing fans of the franchise?
I don't think it will, because the experience that they are going to have on this island is so challenging and visceral, and so colourful and extreme that they are going to be so immersed in the survival action experience that I think that's all they are going to care about. If you read on what people are saying about the game, it's the best of this generation of hardware. I don't think people are going to criticise it if they are being promised by other people previewing it that it is the best and most anticipated game of this generation. You can't always please everybody all the time, all you can do is try and please most of the people most of the times. I think anyone who's played this game is going to be rightly amazed at how incredible a job Crystal Dynamics has done.
Every Tomb Raider game until now had a real-life model, a living person, representing Lara Croft. Is there a particular reason why this reboot has done away with the tradition of unveiling a human Lara model along with the game?
Well, I think the world moves on and phase and fashions change, and the decision was made not to have a real-life model. In the early years, we found that was a real benefit to the franchise. However, as we as an industry become more mature and more of part of the mainstream entertainment industry, there's no need for such a model. I think it's a good decision too.
Not your ideal barbecue, this is
The video game industry traditionally doesn't have strong female leads. What do you think makes Lara one of the exceptions to this norm?
Well, she's strong, intelligent, independent, forceful, adventurous…she's a very powerful character. I think both men and women enjoy playing a character that's strong and athletic too. So she appeals to men and to women, and there's not many characters who do that.
Now that the game has a reboot, can we expect the movies to follow suit too? Will there be a new Tomb Raider movie now?
Discussions are taking place, but there's nothing been formally announced, of course. I mean, it will be great to have a new movie. I think, a new movie based around this particular game would be an amazing movie because it's such gritty realism, and the [theme of] survival action adventure resonates with everybody. I think we all imagine ourselves being stuck on an island and how would we survive and would make the same decisions. Well, playing Lara Croft you can find a lot about yourself because it's open world and you can make the choices.
Nathan Drake and Lara Croft are similar in the way they both have been derived, to some extent, from Indiana Jones. Until now, the distinction between those two was clear—Tomb Raider was a more mature puzzle-oriented game, whereas Uncharted was known for its QTE-fuelled cinematic flair than for its gameplay. What separates the Tomb Raider reboot from Uncharted, since they both have the same brand of cinematic narrative now?
I don't think we tend to look at other games. What Crystal Dynamics did is make Tomb Raider and Lara Croft the best that it could be, and we found through our research that the three pillars [of Tomb Raider] are exploration, puzzle solving and combat. I think until this particular Tomb Raider, the combat hasn't been as good as it should have been, and Crystal Dynamics just raised the standard of the combat to make it an integral part of the experience, instead of just being an attachment to the pillars of puzzle solving and adventuring. It's a consistent system to make the three pillars of equal value, but not really comparing [Tomb Raider] with any other game.
Among these pillars, which aspect does Tomb Raider focus more on?
I think they are all equally important for fans. There's certainly a lot of adventuring, there's an awful lot of puzzles to solve and an awful lot of combat involved in the game. So any Tomb Raider fan is going to be delighted by the challenge it's put in front of them.
Tomb Raider opts for an open world system this time around
What makes the British so good at making great video games?
I think we are perhaps the craziest nation in the world. If you look at our fashion, our music, our architecture, our design… did I mention fashion? [laughs] So we have a great sense of creativity, including—as I forgot to mention—our humour, our comedy. I think we know what resonates with people, our rich history of creativity through literature, art and with BBC, which has been a great focal point for creativity. Also at the same time making games is a combination of art and technology, so it's creative technology.
In the early '80s we had the BBC Micro as the cornerstone of computing in schools and homes. And affordable computers like this really contributed to the explosion in the interest of getting children into computing at a very early age. That in turn matched with natural creativity, which is one of the reasons why we came out full guns firing, with an explosion of early development. We built the tracks really early and we built a strong legacy, so it's no surprise in my mind that games such as Populous, Lemmings, Grand Theft Auto and Tomb Raider etc., all came out of the UK.
More recently, Rock Steady with Batman and new emerging studios like Playdemic and MMOs from Mind Candy like Mushy Monsters—there's a great independent scene happening as well, which is also very exciting being able to express oneself in new ways artistically and gameplay wise.
The puzzles incorporate physics and elemental phenomenon such as fire and water
It's interesting that you mention children, video games and learning in the same sentence. In India, the perception is that video games cannot contribute towards learning. Since you are the stalwart of this particular field, do you have any message for Indian parents?
Only 5 percent of games have an 18 rating, [whereas] 95 percent of games are family friendly. When you're playing games such as Angry Birds or Cut the Rope, or role-playing and console games, you're doing many things that engage your brain in a positive way. You're solving puzzles and problems, you're learning about choice and consequences, you're learning about using technology and communications, you're learning about narrative, story and creativity in main respects. Games like Minecraft tech creativity—it's like digital Lego.
In classrooms you can use games as a learning tool to teach mathematics. There shouldn't be a problem for learning to be fun in my mind. When learning is in context and there's an output of that learning, it resonates in a deeper and more meaningful way. If you're learning mathematics, for example, you just learn the computational part. It's hard to remember what calculus is, but if you put it in context like applied mathematics—what is the problem, how am I going to solve it. If you know what you must use to solve it and then there's a real-world output to that, I think you have a much deeper understanding of that, instead of just learning facts, regurgitating them and then entirely forgetting it all. Video games give you that sort of contextual learning.
You can also use games for training, like teaching the armed forces using simulations for tank battles or training pilots. You can train surgeons without any danger to human life. There are so many positive aspects of games that are never ever reported in the press. When we arrive in this world as babies, we interact with it through play. We are naturally playful and we learn better through play. Any animal, for example, learns though play. It is a wonderful learning experience, but somehow we are made to feel embarrassed or guilty about playing, and there can't be any value to be had if you are having a good time. I say that you're learning more when you are having a good time.
What open world game is complete without a bit of hunting?
This brings another huge argument to the fore. On one hand, it's being said that because video games are played by kids, they shouldn't have mature content—no violence or sex. Whereas in reality, the average age of a gamer is around 29-30, so it's argued that games should be accorded the same amount of maturity and freedom enjoyed by the movie industry. What's your take on this?
In Europe we have a rating system called PEGI, and the average age of a console gamer is 22. Like films, television and books, there is violent content, and why are games any different to films as long as they have ratings on them to give guidance to parents, guardians and teachers whether or not this is suitable for their children?! Having said that, 95 percent of games are family friendly, and there's no reason to ban mature content from mature audience. It's not happening in films, not happening in books and not happening in TV. Why the gaming industry of all things is being singled out? I don't understand.
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