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Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider Interview: Karl Stewart

With reinvention comes question: and for the worldwide fan-base that has kept Tomb Raider alive for the past decade, there's plenty to ask after Crystal Dynamics debuted the new-look Lara Croft. Luckily, Global Brand Director Karl Stewart has a lot of answers.

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We're meeting Karl after seeing a pre-E3 presentation demo of the game, an expanded version of the glimpse shown at Microsoft's E3 Conference last night. Such changes require in-depth explanation: hence we present the interview unedited, uncut from it's original transcript.

K.S: We've been working on this quite a while in trying to make sure we get it right. Because obviously it's a goal of ours to say, if we were going to reimagine the franchise, do an origin story, you're going to have to set the foundations. And human emotion, creating a character you can relate to - i'll look at this girl [motions to the Tomb Raider poster over his shoulder] rather than that girl [he points at a life-sized 'classic' Lara Croft statue from Legend behind us], that girl's not the one we're talking about. Someone you can relate to, and feel every emotion she's going through. And every single situation that we mapped out in the game from day one was about, if you're going to take that emotion and that experience how can you really bring it to the point that the player feels like "whoa, holy shit. I've never felt that before."

I can remember the first time we said to do claustrophobia, and everyone said "well, we just put her in a tunnel..." and I said "No, no no no....." because there's so many things going on in that space, and in that complexity we do that with every other space we go through, the same kind of experiences, and bringing in a cinematographer was key for us to be able to say "right, now we're going to break the camera off and bring in seamless cut-scenes..." do all the things that the player feel like "fucking hell I feel like..." [he tenses his body].

We've done focus-testing were we have the camera on screen, and another on the player and you'd be amazed at the amount of times that [tenses his body once more, shrinking in on himself]. Their whole body changes, because they're like "fuck me, forward forward forward", they get out and all of a sudden they're [emits a huge sigh]. And you think - "that's emotion, that's what it's all about."

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Did you look to films for inspiration? That whole opening sequence is evocative of The Descent...

K.S: The foundations that we set, using the same pillars that Tomb Raider means is that if we're going to go into emotions, how do we do that, how do we portray it? Movies do it very fluidly. They just shoot, do a scene and decide what does the job and what doesn't. In all the areas we've built we've taken inspiration from all over. Descent was a huge inspiration for us. But there's actually two others in there that people haven't gotten yet, which is awesome. I don't know...I might tell you in a second.

There are other things in there that you watch, and there's the subconscious feeling that you've seen or felt it before, or experienced it before, and now I'm going through it with a character, who I'm just starting to understand. Someone I know, who i'm going to be with for a long period of time. So we take inspiration from a lot of spaces.

TV shows are great, because more than movies shows are spread over a long period of time, there's more story and depth, sort of evolution of different things. Whereas a movie in ninety minutes can make you laugh and cry, bring you real depth of emotion that a TV show can't. So we take a lot of experiences from different things for different reasons and places.

We wanted to talk about Lara's voice actress, who you've stressed you can't name, but in that voice-acting in games have seen a massive improvement in the past decade. Were you looking for someone that could convey that journey Lara makes from young girl to confident adventurer?

K.S: When you see that den section [at the game's opening] and her interacting with Roth in the cinematics, a lot of the experience and emotion you go through is purely by listening to her talking. This game more than anything you're going to hear her talk to herself a little bit more. It's natural as she's going to go through those emotions of loneliness, loss and fear, drive and becoming the person that she's wants to be.

So when we start looking at the character actress, so one, you want to find an unknown. You want someone that can act, she's accomplished and got a future, a really strong future and she's able to do the job for us. Someone that understands the performance and not just keeping that consistent all the way through, the game is broken up into sections and that first section is a girl who is alone and afraid and trying to find herself. As you start to grow your whole voice changes.

And its imperative we found an actress who embodied that growth. And you go "okay - act one you're this person". You're sitting in a test reading and you say: "imagine you've gone through all this, to become this person". Now let's start to work on that. And suddenly she comes back with something else and you're like "oh, there's a little but of growth."

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You've got to have that arc, you've got to have that feeling that you're growing with her. So it's really key to us to find the right person. We're very happy that she's come through and its an important facet of the franchise.

I had the meeting with her agent last week and we sat and had the conversation and I said "look, I'm going to tell you now - yes. I've said yes, the team has said yes and we've come to this decision. But, before she says yes...we have a lot of fans and we have a lot of people that are hardcore and you're going to have to appreciate that certain things are going to come with the territory." And she said she was up for, she was ready.

It's a very important factor for the game, because this one more than any other you're going to hear her than you have done in the past. And she's going to interact with people in a way you've never seen Lara interact before. And that's were some of the real emotion and personality come out.

And how do you feel the hardcore Lara fans see this game?

K.S: So we've been really cautious about this from day one. As soon as we came up with the concept with the remaining and origin story there's certain things that we've done to make sure that we've got to right. One is, picking an outlet. And irrespective of what the outlet was, picking one outlet to announce and announce with one vision, one story. And setting the foundation of the future.

So for us, in order for people to understand, we had to have that one outlet, and when we had that one outlet we went in and spent a lot of time with community, what they thought for the vision. There's an affinity with the character, of course, that people will tell you if you're breaking that. But there's also the feeling like you will get stale if you don't make those big changes and decisions. And we're very open with the fans and saying "we have to try something new on this journey of bringing you a story you've never seen before or heard before".

This feels like the studio's first Tomb Raider game, in that previous titles have been a reflection of someone else's vision.

K.S:This is certainly our vision. We've communicated that. Darrell Gallagher who is the Head of Studio, who was art director on the past three games, and then when he took over the mantle as head of studio one of his key things was we wanted people to look at Crystal and feel like it's not that one trick pony and continues to make the same game.

There's some very creative people in the studio, people who are passionate to see Lara and Tomb Raider get back to where it was. So everyone's got the same shared vision. We want to do something fresh and new and get it to a new place. And yea, we had to make it our own, and i think there's an element of the first six months of going back and forth with story and vision and experience that you challenge yourself constantly and ask whether this is the right thing to do. But eventually you realise you've got to be bold.

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It's still at the end of the day, if you start the project by saying that "we have to make sure that we keep those pillars, we keep the foundations of what it means to be Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, although invested in a different experience, you know you're going to go down the right path. If you do as I said throw the baby out with the bath water, eventually you're just trying to be somebody else, and end up being compared with another game. Because you were trying to copy someone else's experiences. For us, over time, we can only talk about different phases right now, but over time you'll get to a position were you'll go "that's it, that's Tomb Raider. That's Lara Croft."

You say comparisons to other games. Obviously what we're talking about is Uncharted [Karl rolls his eyes and nods]. But what I find interesting is there that comparison to Bourne/Bond, it's not replicating an experience but reinvigorating it as a franchise. Would that be a fair enough comparison?

K.S: Actually...that's a great comparison [laughs]. That's the first time I've heard it that way. I'll use that - thank you, I'll give you credit for that one. If you were to take two IPs, Bourne and Bond are very good examples. Bond has been around an extremely long time, it needed re imagining. Bourne came round, stole its mantel, although Bourne is gone now and they're trying to find somebody else to replace Matt Damon - three's enough. Wonder if that's going to be the same with....[laughs] But for us, its about....we did our research and our studies, and i've pulled apart different IPs and really gotten to grips with what it is that is part of your heritage, and what is inherently you, and what you can't let go of but what you have to break away from and feel fresh. I think that James Bond is one that we've studied a lot and when you look at the timeline of James Bond, it got back to one core thing - being culturally relevant.

You have all these splays of experience all the way through his path and you have different actors who potrayed that character and you start with the Roger Moore, and with that period of time, that was right. People went - "that's my character". He's a womaniser, licence to kill - it mean something solid back then. But as you start to go through time, you get to the Roger Moores and Timothy Daltons and Pierce Brosnans and they still tried to keep on to the licence to kill. And people started to say "dude, my granddad has a licence to kill now" and suddenly it was relevant to people anymore. But he was still a womaniser, he was still going after bad guys. All of a sudden you had Bourne come along and you had this hardened guy with a creepy past and you just wanted to tell a story. And then this James Bond came about.

He's written off his Aston Martin and he doesn't give a shit about what he drinks and he's a womaniser, but he's got a heart, because when she dies it breaks him, he wants revenge. But it still gets back to him sitting at the bar in the airplane and he's got his drink and you're like "that'a Bond". He does things that you feel like that's James Bond and they haven't lost what it is to be him, but it feels more relevant to me today. I think Batman and Bond have done it, Superman and the Hulk, haven't been that successful...but the comparison of Bourne and Bond to Uncharted and ourselves is similar. That experience is very unique, very pulpy, high-octane driven, while ours is more about the embodiment of the character, the psychological aspects, the emotion that goes with it. It's two very different things, but they compliment each other in a very good way. I've watched both, and its not to say that people will play Uncharted then play Tomb Raider.

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You said there's a mystery surrounding the island, but is that links to mysticism? Are we to see another artefact, another Indiana Jones-style MacGuffin here?

K.S: There's always going to be that element, something you're working towards. What we try and do at the start of the game is that we portray the mystery. She's been hit by this storm, she's woken up in a strange and unusual place, steps out onto that cliff and all of a sudden you see a Spanish armada beside a Viking ship, beside a World War II Destroyer.

To us it's unusual, because we were trying to find locations and venues. It was only after we decided that we wanted to portray the range of emotions for the character to help build the foundation. In the past Lara's moved from place to place, been around the world and we've recognised very quickly you couldn't build a foundation of emotion and her interacting with loads of people, she almost has to interact with herself first. so when we came up with idea of setting it on one location it was like "we need to have that blank canvas."

It is set in what is, fictional known, as The Dragon's Triangle, off the south-east coast of Japan. Its sort of pole opposites to the Bermuda Triangle, so it allowed us the opportunity to go "this is an island and all these things appeared." What could we do? This allows us to explore a whole range of things we've never been able to do before.

So there are mysteries, there is something to work towards. which we'll get into over the course of the campaign. But I think you can see from the beginning, rather than us leave her in a den and go "it's great experience", to finish that off and realise she escaped from this assailant and its this terrifying situation and now she's stepped onto this beach and it's "holy shit - what have I gotten myself into". It's just a great canvas for us to be able to build the foundations of mystery.

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This is the beginning of Lara Croft. But you've a situation were come the end of this story, she's now got the confidence and zeal of her predecessor. Or is there a plan to continue her story arc, her growth, beyond the end of this game?

K.S: We will never intersect with anything of the previous Tomb Raiders. This is setting the foundations of her going forward. She'll never adorn the shorts and the tight top. In terms of personality she will always be human. She'll challenge herself and debate as she starts to feel more confident, but certainly she'll never become the caricature of the person she once was.

Because that was one of the foundations of moving in this direction in the first place, is that we get away from what she became. Which was unrelatable in a way. Successful, but you never really felt there was some depth. That's where, right now, we feel experiences both in movies and TV, where in a movie in ninety minutes you can laugh and cry and in a videogame of ten hours you're literally going through the motions. We want something people can feel like I can latch onto.

There's a draw to come back to, to play the game and see what happens, to feel the experience. I want to be there and go through that. And we couldn't do that with the old Lara. There was no affinity there. We'll never get back to that [motions towards the statue]. Nor will we get back to the story elements. There are key things that are part of the heritage, that we're going to proud of so continue, carry on. Won't mention what they are of course. But, we've broken away from it.

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We expect the answer is "no comment", but any chance of a sequel to Guardian of Light, or continue down that digital path?

K.S: I can comment on that. We made a decision early on that Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider franchise could coexist in different worlds and different spaces. Guardian of Light was a huge success for us, we were very happy with it, new endeavour, very creative. For now, our focus is on this. We want to make sure we get this vision done, and done right. To do that we've got to have clear communication path.

When this is done there's nothing to say we don't break off and go through explorations. This is the disc-based experience of the future. That [points at statue] could be the endeavours into different mediums. Again, in all the studies that we've done we've seen a Batman can exists as movie, comic, TV show, whatever. We believe that that Tomb Raider and lair Croft as an IP could be that in the future. But for right now its about setting a solid foundation, making sure we get this right.

See the massive gallery of Tomb Raider screens and artwork <a href="" target="_blank">here, and the Tomb Raider presentation from Microsoft's E3 Conference below.


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