Tomb Raider, a franchise with an iconic look dating back to 1996, is due a makeover. We chat with art director Brian Horton about the process of refreshing such a closely-guarded property.
The Leading Lady
Over the last few generations games have become a highly visual medium. Redesigning such a prominent and lasting figure as Lara Croft is no small task; art director Brian Horton says it was the first thing he turned to when he joined Crystal Dynamics' reboot team more than three years ago. It was a challenge to find a vision of our hero which was new, believable, younger - and still felt like Lara Croft.
"It took three or four months of iteration to get to a concept that we felt really comfortable with," he told me. "And then that was another four, five months of iteration on that model itself."
Every aspect of Lara's new look has been very deliberately, consciously chosen, and it pays off. As a long time Tomb Raider fan, I was ready, at best, to tolerate the new "actor" in my favourite role, but was surprised by just how familiar it seemed. There's just something there, some bare-bones essence of Lara Croft, which shows up particularly well in-game. Like the way baby birds will cheep for their mothers, or for a simple cross, but nothing in between. It's not the braid, or the guns, or shorts, or the boobs - because they're all gone ("They've all been changed but they're still there," Horton protests,) and only Lara remains.
"We call it the triangle. There's a certain relationship of eyes, nose, mouth that even though it's not the same, you know? We put a conscious effort into maintaining an element of that," Horton said. "that even though more believable and in proportion still has a relationship to a classic Lara.
"I think it's even less about her look and more about the fact that she's a smart, inquisitive, capable woman and when you look at her silhouette - " We both turned to look at a banner set up in the interview room. " - the braid is there. The boots, cargo pants and tank top, you can sort of squint and feel that essence of Lara Croft. Those are the ingredients that we thought were recognisable."
Horton said the relief of a positive reception for the new look's initial debut was immense, and gave Crystal Dynamics a starting point to show off other aspects of the redesign - Lara's moves, and her personality, which he hopes also reflect something new while maintaining the familiar.
I get the sense that Lara will only grow more familiar as the game progresses; there's a scene with Lara's mentor, Roth, which is eerily reminiscent of the opening moments of the original Tomb Raider. I won't spoil it.
"Roth is a very important character to Lara, and some of his, uh, signature will be important to her," Horton said, diplomatically refusing to comment any further.
Setting the stage
Horton became more animated talking about an aspect of Tomb Raider which while less scrutinised is arguably even more important - environmental design. The exotic locales and mysteriously lit tombs of past games are as much a part of Tomb Raider's DNA as Lara herself, as Angel of Darkness's mostly urban settings sadly demonstrated. The island of Yamatai, or what the player certainly believes to be Yamatai in the opening hours I've played, is one continuous environment, a quasi-open world, which still packs in a wide variety of landscapes.
Once Lara escapes the very unpleasant cave system in which gameplay kicks off, she finds herself on the borders of a forest, which leads into a Japanese-style temple village. The forest is a rocky, dripping hollow filled with starkly vertical vegetation, and the temple structures cluster on ledges, crowding into all available horizontal space. It made me nostalgic for Japan.
"It's definitely referenced and researched from a village in Japan called Niko. It's a mountain village steeped with history; there's ancient, wooden temple or shrine structures, in amongst all of this beautiful forest and rolling mountains and hills," Horton said. "The feel and look of the forest and trees is very much taken from real flora and fauna from Japan."
The structures Lara climbs through during an escape from hostile inhabitants of the island are all drawn directly from one of Horton's research trips to Japan.
Unfortunately, Horton wasn't able to make a reference trip to a research vessel, so the ship Lara and her company of fellow survivors arrive on, the gear scattered around the island by its wreck, and other sundry naval items were based on other forms of research.
"One thing's that great it that the Internet is so much better than it was even ten years ago. Reference trips even ten years ago were hard, and the Internet just didn't have that much stuff," he said.
Living in San Francisco, Horton couldn't visit a WWII base to gather reference, but compromised by visiting Alcatraz, the famous island prison in the bay.
"It had this amazing distressed architecture and chipped concrete walls; that feeling of an old place, and I was able to take reference from that," he said.
"What I couldn't find in reality or that wasn't a real place on my trips, we were able to augment with stuff we found on the Internet or other research trips which seemed appropriate enough."
We have plenty more to share regarding Tomb Raider; keep an eye out for upcoming coverage as we stagger, leap and climb towards its March 5 release date.