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Rise of the Tomb Raider: Is Lara struggling with her sanity?

Director Brian Horton and franchise creative director Noah Hughes delve into Lara Croft's headspace at the start of her latest adventure.

This week GameSpot is sharing a set of special features on Rise of the Tomb Raider. Come back each day for a new look at Lara Croft's latest adventure, set to launch on November 10. Today's story features an evaluation of Lara's psyche, a deep dive into what she's feeling and the motivations driving her at the start of the game.

Last summer, during E3 2014, we got our first glimpse of battle-scarred Lara Croft since the conclusion of her adventure in Yamatai; head bowed beneath a hood, legs nervously fidgeting, she looked nothing like the cool, confident Lara of Tomb Raider titles past. Rise of the Tomb Raider, the second title in the franchise's reboot, opens with Lara in a significantly different frame of mind, and will detail how she grew into the strong and capable archeologist-adventurer we know.

At the end of 2013's Tomb Raider, we left Lara in turmoil. The events on the island of Yamatai forever changed her; she had glimpsed a world stranger and more spiritual than ours, and learned that maybe every myth is not just a myth. Having learned to survive in the wilderness and defend herself made her a stronger person, but witnessing many deaths--including some of her friends--left her emotionally bruised.

The Lara we saw in that first trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider was shrouded in the darkness of a doctor's office, with what appeared to be a therapist peppering her with questions. These brief scenes were intercut with clips of Lara braving snowy wildernesses and dizzying heights, the light from a torch triumphantly blazing across her face as she entered stony ruins. I sat with game director Brian Horton and franchise creative director Noah Hughes to talk about this new side of Lara. Is she coping with post-traumatic stress? Is she upset that people don't believe her stories about the events of Yamatai?

"When we think about what Lara's gone through, she's suffered through these traumatic events, seen friends die, and come out of the situation forever changed," Horton said. "That obviously has an affect on her mental state and her psyche. The idea of her in the doctor's office was a way for us to express the idea that yes, she has gone through some stuff, and she probably is mentally affected by it. But that doctor wasn't necessarily helping her deal with those problems. In a way, that doctor was a construct for the people at large that don't quite believe her, and believe that she is in some way hallucinating or telling tall tales about her experiences in Yamatai.

"A lot of that tapping and fidgeting, while you can attribute to the stress that she had from the events, is more the unease that she has with being questioned for what she's saying is true," he continued. "There is a tension between what people think of her and what she knows to be true, and they're at odds with one another. Traditional therapy isn't what Lara needs at this point; what she needs is a way to reconcile the pain that she has suffered and also the draw that she has, this compulsion, to discover more of these things now that she's just glimpsed them on Yamatai."

The tension in Lara's life is so great--the desire to pursue the truth for herself and the inability to settle back into a normal life--that she has outcasted herself from society. Unwavering, unflinching, she's committed herself to the cause, offering us a glimpse of the daredevil Lara Croft of the series' past. But on her way to that point, her motivations aren't entirely altruistic; there's selfishness in her desire to leave conventional life behind, and in her need to find her secrets on her own.

"I break it down on two sides," Hughes explained. "Coming back from Yamatai there is a sense of: how can you return, after you've been through what she's been through? Not just the physical trauma, but glimpsing something that can't be explained, something that could change the world. How can you just go back to a normal job, right? So even if she tried to stuff that back inside, there's this little voice going, 'But what if this is real? Think of the difference it can make!' There's this burden of destiny that she can't shake, no matter what."

Square Enix

Horton noted that while Lara is intentionally putting herself in harm's way, it's not necessarily because she's seeking a thrill. Friends of Lara, like her adventuring pal Jonah, think running headlong into danger is her way of coping with her memories. After all, how do you stop acting like, well, an action hero when you already know you can be one? This social tension runs through Rise of the Tomb Raider in a big, obtrusive thread: Lara says she has the pieces to prove she's right, and those around her doubt she has these pieces, or her own sanity. Her willingness to put her life on the line and the fervor of her search is frightening to her companions, making them question her state of mind.

"The people around her don't quite understand exactly what's going on, and really see her as potentially doing some damage; it's not a healthy road for her," Horton explained. "Those that care for her want her to be safe, but ultimately Lara knows that this is a path she has to take, and she's slowly but surely convincing those around her that this is in fact something that is real."

Hughes added, "But I also think she's not an adrenaline junkie. There is a feeling of being part of something important, part of something that could change the world, that she does get caught up in. I do think there's a personal motivation that she can't let go of, and part of that is this idea of nobility and doing the right thing. But she is someone who has lost meaning in her life and is finally finding something that could have great meaning, and she could be the one to make that meaning. It's from this personal, visceral level of thinking, 'I can't just work in a coffee shop, I'm beyond that now, I'm almost damaged goods.' But there's nobility to it. We use [Terminator's] Sarah Connor as an example in that context, of someone who has glimpsed something which isn't believed by others, but if it is true, there's almost an obligation for her to see it through."

Lara is very much like Sarah Connor in that respect. She's compelled to scour the earth based on a goal wrapped in unproven facts-find the secret of youth and protect it from the ancient organization Trinity--at the cost of herself.

"You might think, 'Well, Sarah Connor is crazy,' but ultimately she's just burdened with the truth that others aren't aware of," Horton explained. "And Lara is burdened with this truth, with this knowledge, and also has this legacy. She's now seen her father in a new light, and she has a reason to believe now that myths are real. So those things put together help forge her destiny going forward. And it makes sense in context to what she's experienced and who she is and what she's meant to do."

In Rise of the Tomb Raider, we get a deep look at Lara's childhood and the slow deterioration of her relationship with her late father. We see her pick up the pieces of his research, and in finishing what he started she grows close to his memory; perhaps her motivations to move forward are tinged with guilt, a simmering unhappiness that she never supported her father's work while he was alive. She is becoming "that kind of Croft," which she vehemently protested against in the previous game. And to an extent, Lara is also motivated by the fear of failure. If she fails her mission, she also fails her father's memory.

But Lara's work carries a greater consequence: the flipside of this equation is Trinity, a group that has been searching for the secret of youth for centuries. Lara is racing them to the finish line, and every step of the way they give Lara more reasons to believe the secret would be devastating for humanity in their hands. Her reasons for thwarting them, however, still might not entirely be altruistic.

Square Enix

"There's this sense of wanting to make that difference, wanting to fulfill that," Hughes explained. "But as much as there is a nobility, there's that flipside which is finding meaning to her life, finding her place in the world. Yeah, there's a selfish piece of it; in the 2013 game she says, 'I'm going to make my mark,' and there's some sense that she's still looking for her opportunity to make a difference. This is that opportunity, which this is the chance for her to take everything she knows, her archeological and mythological and linguistic background and understanding, and her survival instincts and abilities she's learned... All of these come together to be the perfect package to solve this problem.

"And that's where the stakes escalate," he continued. "Unraveling these truths and revealing them and solving these mysteries of mankind have initially just an inherent nobility to it. But she begins this chain of events that ultimately won't stop whether she participates or not, and that takes what is initially a passion and a personal interest and almost turns it into an, 'Oh my gosh, if I set these events in motion now, either someone will do good with what they find or they will do bad with what they find.' Trinity doesn't have the best intentions, and they're the first to discover these ancient mysteries."

Horton added, "She's gone through a lot of different avenues to get where she's at. This really is the end of the road, the convergence of all the knowledge she has acquired, all the evidence she's picked up. If it's not this, she's thinking, 'What if this doesn't lead to the destination I'm hoping for?' There could be a tremendous disappointment after all of that work. She still has that belief in her heart that she'll find it, but the stakes are really high.

Square Enix

"Especially now that she's seeing others dragged into it and potentially bad actors [Trinity] involved, it escalates it from a personal drama to a potentially devastating global one if she doesn't achieve her goals. And I think that's the other brush to paint this with. If you can imagine that kind of power in the wrong hands, it would have devastating effects on humanity. So for all the good it could have, it could also be extremely negative. That's where the race also enters into the equation in addition to that personal drive."

Trinity and Yamatai aside, Lara's passion inevitably boils down to the spark passed on by her father. As a child, Lara accompanied him on digs and she inherited his passion for history and language. Years later, the people around Lara view her within her father's legacy--down to assumptions that she may be going mad. Her passion is called obsession, her research thrill-seeking, and every step of the way she becomes more like Lord Croft than she can probably recognize. According to the developers, viewing Lara through the lens of her father was the perfect way to understand who she is on the most granular, personal levels without sacrificing the importance of the strength and skill she inherits along her journey.

"Even as we're swept up in some global conflict, eventually it emerges that her attachment to this isn't, 'I need to save the world' or anything, she really just falls in love with archeology, falls in love with mythology, and ultimately begins to have this relationship with them," said Hughes.

"Her father begins to go down this path of, 'These aren't just relics and ruins, these are secrets and truths.' He almost becomes that crazy believer in what could possibly be the underlying truth of all these myths, and she loses her father to that; literally and figuratively, and she resents it. But she's never lost that passion for mythology, archeology, and unraveling these ancient secrets. Early on she does really define her relationship with those secrets as very much a scholar, as a gatherer of facts and a recounter of the details of these ancient societies.

Hughes continued, "On Yamatai, we see her realize just like her father did that these ruins and these artifacts and these stories are ultimately pointing to underlying truths that we really don't understand and have lost in the dark corners of the world. What was once a scholastic pursuit becomes a pursuit of the underlying truth about humanity and the meaning of life, and these become all-consuming.

"The reason we bring [her father] in is to genuinely understand where the beginning of her passion came from, and how her distancing from her father became potential energy for realizing that all along that she was pursuing something slightly outside of truth. If at the very highest level you summarize it as Lara finishing her father's work, it's a gross understatement of her personal investment; her father's role was to share that passion early on with her as a child and to fuel her relationship with these ancient secrets."

In this way, the trauma in Lara's life begins long before Yamatai, within her own home. Her losses add up to something, leading her down specific paths and guiding her towards her destiny as the Tomb Raider. Her father's memory represents her passion and her greatest qualities--intelligence, resourcefulness, and determination--but also the pain that keeps her grounded in reality. No matter what myths she chases, no matter what she unravels, that pain is what she comes back to keep her bound to reality.

"The experience of Yamatai rekindled some of those feelings she had when she was younger, and it set the perfect stage for us to tell the next chapter in her story," Horton said.

"She's reconciling this pain, she's on her own therapeutic journey, she doesn't need a therapist to help her with this. It's really about the pain of becoming someone who is unique in this world, and that is not something that you can put a resume down for. It's not something that you can train traditionally at a college for. It's something she needs to experience, and she's going to retrace her history as she's marching forward to her future."