We spoke to Heath Smith, lead game designer at Eidos Montreal, to find out what to expect from Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
*mild story spoilers for Rise of the Tomb Raider follow*
Despite Eidos Montreal taking the lead on development on Shadow, the game has been touted as collaboration with Crystal Dynamics. Specifically, what did they work on in the game?
HS: Eidos-Montréal has led the development of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, while maintaining an open collaboration with Crystal Dynamics. Eidos-Montréal been part of the reboot since Tomb Raider in 2013, and we know this world. While we don’t get into the specifics of who worked on which part of the game, we’re confident in the experience Shadow of the Tomb Raider delivers.
How do you balance the workload/communication with two different devs working on the same game?
HS: Open communication is essential during the development of any game, and this is true of Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Eidos-Montréal and Crystal Dynamics have fine-tuned communication, so that it is as if they work on the floor above and below each other.
What is it that you were trying to achieve with the third game in the trilogy that you thought Eidos Montreal were more suited to?
HS: For the team at Eidos-Montréal, it was really a natural progression – a lot of us worked on Rise of the Tomb Raider in collaboration with Crystal Dynamics, and some of us as far back as the Tomb Raider reboot (2013). We always knew we wanted to expand the stealth experience, which Eidos-Montréal is well known for. As we developed the story, it became clear we wanted to challenge Lara in a new way – social interaction. Shadow of the Tomb Raider was a perfect fit for Eidos-Montréal as we could apply our expertise from previous social hub titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided.
Where did you draw inspiration for the final part of the trilogy?
HS: For Shadow of the Tomb Raider, we drew inspiration from Lara’s journey, the new setting of the jungle and the legacy of the franchise itself.
We had the narrative momentum of Lara’s journey from the end of Rise of the Tomb Raider. At the end of that game, Lara learned that her father did not commit suicide, but was in fact murdered by Trinity. While Lara is nearing the height of her physical and intellectual powers at the start of Shadow, it’s this revelation and these unresolved issues that leave her in a dangerous emotional place – driven, capable and proactive almost to the point of obsession.
Since Lara is so powerful at the end of Rise, we knew we needed a location that would not only be visually different but challenge Lara like never before – pushing her to survive and thrive in a new environment. The jungle was the perfect match and it inspired us to create new gameplay abilities and challenges for Lara. It also spoke to the narrative themes of duality – life and death – that Lara must come to terms with in this final chapter.
Finally, we knew this was the game where Lara would become the Tomb Raider she was destined to be. So we looked back at the classic Tomb Raider games and asked ourselves the question – what abilities does she not yet have in this series that we could not only bring back, but enhance and re-interpret through the survival lens? With the new setting of the jungle, rappelling and underwater exploration were the perfect fit to ensure a unique gameplay experience for the final entry.
The walkthrough we saw at E3 looked spectacular. The Amazonian environment is a perfect canvas for your artists to embellish. Why did you choose to set SotTR in the Amazon?
HS: First off, we wanted to differentiate ourselves from Rise of the Tomb Raider – each game has its unique mood and palate and Shadow is no exception. The environment should also reflect the hero – in this case, Lara is struggling with her own duality – trying not to let the shadow overtake her and become the thing she is fighting against. The Amazon is a place of great duality – of life in the canopy and death on the floor below. Everything is trying to kill you in the Amazon – from the plants, to the animals to the scarcity of resources. But we also wanted to show that – with knowledge – this place of death can be a source of aid and healing. In essence, what can kill you can also cure you – if you know where to look – and who to talk to.
Also, our lost city – Paititi – is based on a myth of lost Inca city in Peru. We knew that we wanted Lara to find not just a lost city, but a living, breathing world full of people and the Amazon and the myth of Paititi was a perfect fit for that.
We also noted the improvements made to the stealth feature in the game at E3. Have other elements of Lara’s combat abilities been overhauled?
HS: Absolutely. In this game, we can see that Lara is becoming more proactive and less reactive. An example of this is what we call ‘Herbal Remedies’. In previous games, Lara could heal herself on the fly when injured. We’ve taken that system and expanded it into a number of different remedies from plants Lara finds in the Amazon. Now she can proactively use them to gain an advantage in combat. For example, slowing down her perception of time when aiming and even sensing enemies through the jungle environment.
In addition, players now have even more ways to approach combat via the skills and outfits they choose to equip. For example, Lara can now craft flare rounds to stun enemies and equip various outfit parts that make her more silent. She can even learn how to chain takedowns to take care of two enemies silently in a row.
What does the grappling hook and rappelling mechanic bring to the gameplay?
HS: We wanted to reflect the narrative theme of descending into darkness and fear in the way Lara traverses the environments. Also, we wanted to open up spaces and make traversal even more of a puzzle, bringing some of the classic Tomb Raider feeling back to the series. These tools also enable Lara to fluidly move around the jungle canopy in combat – a must in order to strike, disappear and reposition – becoming ‘one with the jungle’ against her enemies.
Overall, how does this Lara Croft differ from the protagonist in the first two reboot titles?
HS: The intention was always to show an arc of Lara becoming more mature throughout the trilogy. The Lara Croft of Tomb Raider (2013) was thrust into a survival situation – as she says “adventure found me.” She is much more reactive and trying to survive the challenges thrown at her. Emotionally, she’s younger and out to prove her Father was wrong. She comes away shocked at how capable she was.
In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara struck out on her own for the first time, now she knows her father was right, she’s looking to restore the family name, but she’s moving forward without a full awareness of the impact of her actions. At the beginning of Shadow, we find Lara the most capable, determined and proactive she’s ever been. However, this proactivity in her search for Trinity and for answers is bordering on obsession. So while we find her in a darker place, she has to learn to balance these aspects of her personality in order to become the Tomb Raider she’s destined to be.
Also, she’s beginning to realise that there’s more to Tomb Raiding than taking artifacts and dead things – true Tomb Raiding is balancing archeology with an understanding of anthropology – of people. Letting others in and learning from others could be Lara’s greatest challenge yet.
Can you outline what’s involved with the puzzle and tomb creations? Do you attribute specific tasks to individual teams? Tomb team and puzzle team etc?
HS: We do have a challenge tomb team and they are amazing. Puzzles usually start as a design sketch-up or ‘grey block’ in-engine. What is interesting is we then interpret how we can make those mechanisms believable and grounded regarding the cultures and materials involved. We have a technical artist on the project named Yann Régnier who we like to call our ‘Leonardo Da Vinci.’ He researches the cultures, materials and techniques they used and not only does technical sketches but often builds them in Lego!
The tombs themselves are often built around a theme e.g. claustrophobia, vertigo, etc., and iterated on from there all the way from concept art to final implementation.
What happens now? The trilogy is complete. Can we expect to see Lara Croft embarking on a whole new trilogy next?
HS: At Eidos-Montréal we have been totally focused on closing out this trilogy and making as satisfying of a conclusion as we possibly can. As for what’s next – who knows? Lara Croft is such a resilient character – I doubt that this would be her last adventure!