Lost, Apocalypse Now and the Hudson River School – Brian Horton on Tomb Raider's 'weird influences'

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We speak to Crystal Dynamics’ Art Director to find out how the Tomb Raider reboot is shaping up, and delve into what has inspired its artistic direction.

Tomb Raider: Not only one of gaming’s biggest franchises, but home to unarguably gaming’s most famous female icon in Lara Croft… so no pressure when it comes to remaking it then.

Crystal Dynamics’ Art Director, Brian Horton, has been working on the game since its inception, so will the game opt for more for a more considered, shall we say 'less is more' approach, or look to return to the wanton pyrotechnics and swollen polygons of Tomb Raider’s past?

Q: What were your goals for the project as it was in its formative stages?

Brian Horton: We wanted to create something that was a Tomb Raider game at its heart but re-imagined for a modern audience. We came to the idea of an origin story, as we’d never really seen that fully expressed, and we wanted to make Lara and the world around her as believable as we possibly could. Survival seemed like the right tone to go for, so we used survival as a theme, origin story and then the island.

All those things came very early in our process and when I came on board three years ago it was our responsibility as a team to come up with a vision of Lara which was going to match all that. So what we see on the screen is a product of many layers of iteration, but the hope was to try to make someone who you see as Lara Croft, but more believable.

Q: So as art director were you given carte blanche to go with whatever you wanted from a visual standpoint, or did the studio already have a vision for the look of the Lara and the game?

BH: I work with a very talented concept artist called Brenoch Adams and he had some really rough sketches that were already very close to this vision. I came in and we worked together with the character artists, our principal character artist Kam Yu who has been on all our Tomb Raider games, he’s a veteran (laughs), so we all got to work together to collaborate on this vision of Lara. It was very Crystal Dynamics born, no one was telling us how to do it, we just said ‘hey, this is want we want to do,’ so that’s what we did.

Q: This new Tomb Raider features a much younger, 21 year old, version of Lara Croft, what sort of visual cues do you use to signal that here she’s less experience, perhaps more vulnerable, to draw the player in?

BH: We have this amazing animation system built up of many, many layers, so what we did is we crafted performances, it’s not just that she’s going through on a normal run cycle; instead if she’s injured she’ll clutch her side, she’ll lean up against objects in the world, she’ll touch the world, she feels connected to the space she’s in and when she’s been hurt or injured you’ll see it, it’s expressed in her face and expressed in her body language. A lot of that is ensuring anything she’s doing feels connected to that space; that was our number one thing, to ensure you saw her experience on her model and in her moves so muddiness, bloodiness all those things get reflected on her character [model].

Q: So when she does get muddied and bloodied will that occur in the same way for each player or are spatters and tears unique to each user’s run-through?

BH: Sometimes there is scripting but if the player does something on their own to affect the outcome they’ll get bloody on their own right? So a lot of that is systemic to their experience.

Q: A feature of what we’ve seen from the footage released so far is that there’s a lot of quick action in Tomb Raider, sections where she’s running, falling and running some more. How challenging were these sequences to get the speed and feel just so?

BH: There is a heavy attention team that’s put into fluidity of motion; we want the player to feel that when they move the sticks and hit the buttons it’s responsive. So we create challenges that require fast reflex, but we’ve given you a system of control methodology that allows you to successfully navigate those challenges. We feel that in order to reflect the controls we’re going for we need to make a certain case, so there are certain part of the game that require that fast reflex.

There are other parts of the game like our forest demo that’s much more meandering, it requires you to go and organically explore your environment and really takes advantage of some of the attention we put into fluid motion and how she can easily navigate up and around the space in a very realistic way.

Q: There’s a lot of talk right now about next generation, the likes of Unreal Engine 4 and the new consoles inevitably in development, in terms of the animation and visual effects in Tomb Raider do you feel you’ve pushed the current gen systems as far as they can go now?

BH: I think we’ve expressed [the animation] as best we can right now, but I think we feel there’s always room for improvement. Our goal, always, is to make sure we focus on the highest, more powerful experience we can and something that, even though it’s very responsive and play-centric, it looks like something that you don’t normally see in a videogame. So we putting in that attention to detail, those small nuances, is something we’re going to continue to evolve as we develop our craft.

Q: This reboot of Tomb Raider is the journey of Lara from being a young woman to the woman we know from the established franchise, will we see her change visually as she starts to gain confidence? Will her stride pattern change say as she starts to grow stronger and more confident?

BH: One of our goals is we wanted to make sure that the character growth is expressed in not only the way she looks, but the way she moves and the abilities she has. We showed a little bit of this in the E3 demo, how you use this campsite interface where you can upgrade her tools and weapons. That instantly changes the how she moves and how she expresses herself, so as you’re upgrading her the choices you make will actually play a part in how she moves in the world.

Q: So towards the game’s latter stages will she be more like the Lara Croft we know, or will she still be that younger version with more growing up to do?

BH: I mean she’s a younger version, but it is a birth of a hero story so, you know, you’re going to see her change from the idea of being someone inexperienced and vulnerable to this island, this experience, sort of moulding her, creating her. The island is the second most important character in the game and in a way the trials we put the player through make her a hero.

Q: Let’s talk about the island, what were your influences in its creation? To me it looks reminiscent of the island from Lost, especially with the ideas of ‘Others’ being on the island too, is that the case?

BH: OK, so I’m going to throw a couple of weird influences out. So, Apocalypse Now, you know, it’s a Vietnam movie, [Tomb Raider’s] nothing like Vietnam, but the colour palettes, the way sort of permeated through the space was very much a big influence on our art team and something I would always put in front of the team; I’d have tonnes of screen captures from that movie. Also, there’s a school of artists, early American painters, the Hudson River School, and they painted these gorgeous paintings of America and the West at the turn of the century and that was a big influence on us.

And then Lost of course, from a story perspective but not so much a visual perspective, I think the one thing that was cool about Lost though was the weather would always change so we put a lot of time and attention into our weather system. You see the environment in one setting, one time of day, once weather system and you come back to this hub and it’s a totally different context, and you see that dynamic aspect of the game, the fact we put so much time into the weather and dynamic lighting really makes the island feel alive.

Q: And the weather is dependent on what stage of the game you’re at, or can it change at any time?

BH: We attune it to the emotional experience she’s going through, but there are times when you’ll be able to revisit parts of the island in a systemic way and we can really change those ingredients up.

Q: I know there are time of day too, changes from day to night, how do you handle all of these aspects, the light, the weather, etc., to make us start caring about Lara’s well-being? Is it a case of night is danger and day provides the odd moment of respite?

BH: We think of it as every day she survives is another victory (laughs), so if she makes it through a night and you come to that sunrise you feel that exuberance of ‘I made it, I made it thought another night.’ And some of those scenes are very specifically done to help the Lara’s character reflect whatever she’s achieved. I think time of day plays a huge role in how you perceive your progress in the game.

Q: Without going too far into the Lara controversies that arose after E3, are you conscious during your design of the character that she’s a strong female role model – are you keen to avoid deliberate cleavage shots, etc?

BH: Yeah, I think one of our main goals was to build her as a character, not so much her physical attributes but her inner strength; who she was at her core. Yes she’s attractive and alluring and she has an appeal to her, but it’s all through a filter of what she does, her wits, her smarts, her ability to be able to see through and find a pattern. We think that’s the most sexy part of Lara, that she’s resilient and intelligent and we hope that the vision of Lara we’re putting forward is someone we’re taking a little more seriously than the way she looks.

Q: When you’re killing animals and eventually people – and this is the depiction of Lara’s first taking of human life – how do get the inherent emotion across?

BH: Well the demo we’ve shown actually shows her first kill of an animal and a human and both of those are pivotal points in her character arc and they’re both important. We didn’t want her to kill a human being right off the bat right? There’s a flight part to the beginning of the game and then she has to make choices, she has to act, she has to hunt to survive, to eat – that’s the number one thing. Then she has to find shelter, find food and then she gets to the point where she’s confronted by dangerous people on this island and she has to fight to survive.

So all of those things are the first building blocks towards forming who she becomes as a character, so we’ve treated them with a lot of weight and gravitas, maybe more so than you would in most videogames, but the idea that she takes a human life is a big deal to us and we put that into a context that we feel brings out the emotion and begins a journey for her that she has to look at and make choices to move forward – she knows what she has to do to survive.

Q: Do you think that in games such as Tomb Raider, Uncharted, etc. there is almost too much killing. I mean comparable movies might be Indiana Jones, or James Bond and in comparison there’s nothing like the amount of killing in those films, do you see that as an issue that makes it tough to engage with a character?

BH: It’s something we’ve definitely spent a lot of time on, when we decided to go with the first kill as a concept how do you ramp up you know, there still has to be gameplay. We put a lot of time and attention into figuring out what that right threshold is and we do try to make sure that these enemies have dimension, they’re not just your mindless grunts, they actually have a purpose and story on the island and, while they have ill intent, you realise they’ve been put into a situation very similar to yourself. They’re castaways, they crashed on this island and they just happened to join up with the wrong guy, a mad man, and that’s where the Apocalypse Now reference comes in. If you’ve ever seen that movie you see that basically good people can go one of two ways when hit with adversity, and that’s what the story tries to express.

Q: Much of that early killing is done with the bow and arrow, Lara’s new weapon of choice. How much work went into the feel of it to make it just so?

BH: We would use a term ‘we’ve got to make it feel “bowey.”‘ Not David ‘Bowie’, that’d be a whole different game (laughs) but the idea of it feeling like a bow, having its own signature flavour, we experimented with everything from it feeling ‘super-actiony’ to then what we thought is natural which is that it’s our pre-combat weapon, it’s a weapon that you can choose to be silent with, but it also can be very powerful at the same time. As you go throughout the game the bow will evolve with you and it’s something that we’re very excited about, it’s our new signature weapon, it’s something that we think is not only good for this game but is good for this franchise and we see it as both a weapon and a tool. As we show more of the game you’ll see how the bow has a very significant role.

Q: Just to finish off with, I wanted to ask again about the next generation, if you do go ahead and make more titles in this franchise and they’re on this much fabled next-gen, could you see development times doubling or tripling as more and more detail is demanded?

BH: We’re not really concerned about new technology at this point, other than just that technology in this industry always evolves and we evolve with it. Really what I’m most excited about is delivering a deeper gameplay experience. You know: what can we do to take interactivity to the next level; to take our world interaction to the next level; to take our character development to the next level. Those are the kind of challenges we confront ourselves with whether it’s on this technology or the next. You asked if we thought we’d done enough with this generation. No, we know we could do more on this generation of console, and as a studio our goals don’t change even though the technology does.

Q: So for you it’s the gameplay that needs to change more than the aesthetics?

BH: As an artist, new tools and new technologies offer us more possibilities for graphics; I hate to say it’s a given but all that will come with the next generation of technology. What I’m more concerned with is how do I bring more emotion to my character, how do I make it more believable, how do I make my worlds more lush and interactive?

I really want to make games, our studio wants to make games, that has a synergy between that character and the environment they’re in. We love the third-person action-adventure genre because it really forces you to think about your world as more than just a venue, it’s something that really is a big part of the gameplay: that world and how it’s expressed.

Tomb Raider will be available on 5th March 2013 for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.

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