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Savage beauty: Horton on redrawing Tomb Raider

While Crystal Dynamics is preparing to put Lara through the wringer on a harsh and volatile Pacific isle, VG247 talks to the man behind the visual reinvention of both icon and environment: art director Brian Horton.

In preparing to interview Crystal Dynamics’ art director, Brian Horton, at this year’s Eurogamer Expo, I came across some notes I scrawled during a previous Tomb Raider preview session:

“Savage beauty of island setting. Striking use of light and shadows. Aesthetic appeal is such that it’s almost a shame Lara has spent so much of her career stuck indoors raiding tombs.”

Of course, without those iconic crypts there’d be no vintage franchise to reboot, but the sentiment is clear: Tomb Raider is a visually arresting game and the kind in which it’s easy to spend time admiring the scenery. While much of this appeal comes from the engine and the technology powering Lara’s latest adventure, it rests more so with the creative vision that informs the visual identity of Crystal Dynamics’ reimagining.

Established by Horton and his team, Tomb Raider’s art direction helps turn a potentially passive environment into an active participant in the story. Where in previous titles the environment was something over which Lara could claim mastery, it is now something she must respect and perhaps even fear but, above all else, it's something she must survive.

“We’ve been explaining the island as the second most important character to Lara,” explains Horton. “The island itself becomes a character and it’s really it’s your biggest adversary. Yes, there are enemies that Lara will be fighting, but fiercer than those is the weather and the nature of the island. It really is the most compelling aspect of the game, for me.

“Going into this we were asking ourselves, ‘What can we do that will be different from past Tomb Raiders but will still have that sense of wonder that people fell in love with when they first played Tomb Raider?’ I don’t know about you but when I first played Tomb Raider I just loved going into a place, looking around and taking it in and feeling like you’ve stumbled upon this amazing location.

“It was the first game where I really looked up, and ever since I played Tomb Raider I’ve wanted to make games where you really have to use your three-dimensional space. That’s been our biggest drive: to create a space that inspires exploration.”

Exploration is a core design tenet of the franchise, but a key differentiator between the Tomb Raider of 2013, its predecessors and other adventure titles is the notion of a progressive skill and equipment set that opens-up more of the island. It does not demand that you stay on the straight and narrow but instead enables you to venture into previously unmapped and uncharted areas of the game world.

The one element that I’ve seen so far to undermine this desire for exploration is the ability to fast travel and to use Survival Instinct, which highlights objective waypoints and items of interest. Better to resist these optional temptations and fully immerse yourself in the fiction of a grand, sprawling island to be explored the old fashioned way.

An icon reborn

The visualisation and construction of Lara’s new habitat is arguably more straight forward than attempting to redesign the woman herself. While artists and level designers can indulge their imaginations when it comes to her savage playground, a certain amount of restraint must be shown when attempting to create a believable Ms Croft.

A mix of old and new is called for, to create a spirited, adventurous 21-year-old woman embarking on her first expedition in harrowing circumstances, while at the same time exhibiting familiar characteristics. Thus, the portrayal of Lara as a young adult is juxtaposed with a character that has matured greatly in the 17 years since her inception.

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Lara Croft. Killing time.

Says Horton: “Our thought was, ‘How do we come up with a vision of her that feels believable but still iconic?’ We arrived at the idea of what identifying what a 21-year-old would wear on her first expedition. For that, I went to Old Navy and found, like, dual tank tops and cargo pants and we got some boots.

“When we brought it all together, we thought ‘This is what a girl would wear in this situation’ and then when you look at it you think ‘Well, this kind of looks like Lara Croft.' So, using these small tweaks we’re able to both ground her in reality but still make her look like the Lara Croft that people know.”

At this stage it is not known whether Lara herself will undergo any aesthetic transformation during her adventure with regard to changes to hair or clothes, but there’s evidence to suggest that her equipment most certainly will. Tools and weapons can be upgraded using salvaged material, with each component visibly strengthening or otherwise improving early gear.

“A lot of what we do for the weapon and tool upgrade is to take the components from an old thing and add them to the next thing,” says Horton. “So, it’s almost like it’s been disassembled and reassembled using some new pieces. The axe blade of a metal piece lashed to a wooden piece and all bound together: it looks fairly weak but it can get Lara through certain obstacles. As it gets upgraded and more metal pieces get incorporated it’s clear by looking at it that it’s much stronger.

“We try to make it look like you’ve salvaged stuff and got new pieces, so that you can imagine that she’s found these pieces in the environment and reassembled something to make it stronger. The idea is that it’s something that you would really have to do in a survival situation; the notion of improvisation.”

It looks as though the dense vegetation of the island is set to yield a surprising amount of salvage material for the cause, but this physical manifestation of the survivalist mentality serves to further the narrative fiction of the title as a whole.

When Tomb Raider launches in 2013, it will be almost five years since Lara’s last full-blown adventure outing. Much has changed in the time that she’s been gone, yet there remains one constant: irrespective of the layers of discussion about whether she’s portrayed as a positive female lead or a sexual object, and quite aside from the bold new artistic and narrative vision put forth by Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix, Lara Croft remains an iconic adventurer. It will be good to have her back.

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