Croft manner: Tomb Raider art director Brian Horton discusses Lara’s latest rebirth

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider

An origin story which adopts many of the textures you’d expect of a survival horror, Tomb Raider has faced stiff questions over both its depiction of Lara Croft and its cinematic gameplay. Provocative footage and some poor choices of words have inspired some rather psychic predictions of a torture porn version of Uncharted, the gloss and eyeliner of earlier games swapped for QTE-inflicted cuts and bruises. Assuming the full game won’t be quite so monotonous, what can its island – a series first in being the game’s one location – bring to the format? Art director Brian Horton explains.

Neil Marshall movie The Descent seems to have had a major influence on Lara’s appearance and ordeal. Has it?
Absolutely. Descent was one of those movies I saw at the theatre that absolutely blew me away. Not so much that it was a horror movie but it was the characters, they went through an amazing arc from the very beginning to the end. There was a lot of growth. We had very similar aspirations for Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. A lot of that was trying to imagine what it would be like for someone who was on her first adventure, and how to really tell a survival story. When we were thinking about how to do that, references like The Descent or 127 Hours – all these survival stories came up, with these believable characters facing incredible fears, finding the will to push on, and that was really our foundation for Lara Croft. For those that have seen The Descent there’s a relevance, even though I wouldn’t call what we’re doing anything like a horror, there’s a fear component to survival. You as a player have to fight to survive, and that’s where the action component comes into the game.

Expectations for action games are often based on the last successful action game that came out. How do you stop Tomb Raider losing its identity?
What we decided early on, when we’d finished up Underworld, was that it felt like we’d taken Lara to the end of that particular incarnation. For this, we knew we needed to innovate but retain the essence of why you love a Tomb Raider game. We’re just trying to make the best Tomb Raider game we can regardless of other games in the marketplace. The goal, though, obviously, is to be as relevant as we possibly can. And if we’re compared favourably to some of the best games in the industry then that’s only a good thing. We look at it like this: there’s a number of summer blockbusters every year in movies, and they all sit right beside one another. We believe we’re similar, but we have something special to offer with a unique focus on exploration. And I think people are ready to just fall in love with Tomb Raider again.

Will the exploration aspect be sufficient for series fans?
We’re not an open-world game but we definitely have freedom of movement. There are these hub locations you can revisit as the character gets more developed; you can explore them. We’re really trying to make sure there’s a mix of scripted moments and moments where you need to explore and really discover this island. The island is the second most important character in the game, and in a way it sort of moulds Lara. And the way we bring character to that island is that we don’t throw you down this linear pipe the entire journey. For the gamer out there that really wants a very action-packed experience, there is a way you can play this game that will satisfy you. If you’re really into exploration and being lost in a place, though, there’s a game there for that kind of player. There’s a lot for you to find. I’m not saying we’re a jack of all trades, but we have to satisfy a lot of different playstyles within the thirdperson genre.

Most triple-A games aspire to an eclectic range of colours, moods and locations, but the early Tomb Raiders ventured deep into their locations. What’s the right balance?
We put a lot of time and attention into the island itself, how we rendered it. It’s one location, whereas a lot of the earlier Tomb Raiders were globe-trotters. So this is a shift for the franchise in a way. Within this island there are different ecosystems and different elements, whether that be for interiors or exteriors. It really gives the player a feeling that they’re progressing through the game and that it evolves. The other thing we’ve invested a lot of time in is our weather system and our lighting engine. Our lighting is full realtime and very powerful in terms of being able to light and relight a space. So you’re going to see these locations in different contexts. You might see a hub space in one type of weather condition at one time of day, and come back to it and it’ll look different. We’re very emotion-driven, even though I feel the game is very realistic in its art direction. There’s a lot of emphasis on trying to parallel Lara’s emotional state with the island, so the island plays a role in how the player’s feeling at any one time.