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How Rise of The Tomb Raider features player choice

Designer Michael Brinker explains how developer Crystal Dynamics has overhauled the player choice system in Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Crystal Dynamic's Rise of the Tomb Raider is the second entry into Lara Croft's new journey, following on from the events of the 2013 reboot, Tomb Raider. The game promises a deadlier, more seasoned version of Lara, having been shaped by her experiences of the previous game. I spoke to senior designer Michael Brinker about how much player choice Rise of the Tomb Raider offers in its gameplay, toning down the insurmountable physical challenges Lara will face, and how the team chooses what landscapes Lara will face.

Zorine: I really liked the stealth take on a level that was shown a month ago. How much in the way of stealth areas can we expect in the game?

Brinker: We've really done a big overhaul on what we want players to have as choices. In the last game, there were a lot of encounters where Lara could distract the enemies, but usually you ended up in a fight. This time around we're allowing players to really focus on what they want to choose. Do they want to avoid the situation entirely? Do we want to make stealth options where they can choose to take down guys stealthily? Or do they want to go in for a full-on fight?

You're looking at most of our options in the game being, "I want to choose how to play this based on who I think Lara Croft is, and how I've upgraded her skills, talents, and her gear."

You're going to get lot more of the A.I. systems. For example, we have a system called "Lost target and glimpse" where if we shoot an arrow over to the side of a guy, he'll go in and investigate it. In [Tomb Raider], he'd know right where you were after that. In this game, he goes over and is like, "Someone's here, fan out!" So now, they'll actually take a look and try and find you. If you're stealthy enough you can avoid that, and they'll go back to what they were doing.

We have objects that you can craft that allow you to do distractions, and some options for taking guys out silently. There's a lot of choice there. It's one of the big features of Rise of the Tomb Raider that I'm really excited about.

So I could go through the entire game start-to-finish avoiding every single fight?

For the most part, yes. You saw that released version of the advancing the storm level that we have, where people get to play through it all in it's action level. You can go through the whole thing stealthy without killing everyone. We do have a lot more of those options in the game. A lot of fans are like, "I don't want to kill anyone" and well, you don't have to in that section if you don't want to.

When you're creating levels or areas, what comes first? The setting, or what you're wanting the player to experience, gameplay wise? Do you say, "We want to have Lara climbing up something, we want this level to be vertical," and then you decide that it'll be snowy, or does that get chosen first?

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Square Enix

Neither! The way we work when we talk about building levels and building the game experience, we first talk about the larger structure. Like, what is the story of Lara Croft, what do we want to tell? That narrative line is very important, because we start with a layer of history, and that really grounds our character.

That's one of the iconic things about Rise of the Tomb Raider, in that we're really focusing on building a game about some of those ancient layers of history that have some universal truths that Lara is trying to uncover. When we start talking about level design and building a game, we look at the narrative side of it first. We spend a lot of time with our narrative team and ask, "What is the story that we want to tell?"

From there, we start to pick apart that this layer of history is going to take place here because it makes sense, we'll do some real world research. Our game director Bryan Harden got a chance to go to Turkey and take some photos of the architecture. We incorporate elements like that and layer it in.

Now that we know the story that we're trying to tell in the area and that layer of history that we pick up. Then we start to layer the gameplay elements and say okay, this is the experience that we want to have here. We chunk that into three core categories which we're really focusing heavily on for Rise. All the traversal elements that she has, the puzzle-solving in the ancient deadly tombs that are coming back, we have our action elements that are more of the RPG stuff, and the combat, which has stealth gameplay which we're focusing on too.

Rise of the Tomb Raider introduces a crafting system as well. If I was more the action-focused gamer who wanted to climb mountains and shoot things, how far would I get in the game without gathering resources? Is that something that I'd need to get into to progress?

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Square Enix

Part of what we're focusing on is in telling her story, the evolution of Lara Croft, and what it means to be the Tomb Raider. She's now raiding tombs. That through line of her wanting to go and do that is now her driving element. But in order to do that, she's going to be inside of some really harsh environments. One of the things that we're trying to show as far as character is concerned is how we grow that character. It really is about being smart and resourceful. So there are going to be some situations early on in the game where we train you in those things.

It'll allow you to understand and be like, I need to use the elements in the world and put them together to survive. There are going to be a few things which you play where it's going to be very advisable to do that. It's not entirely dependent on crafting, there will be some things like pick-ups and items you can grab along the way. But we do encourage it because it'll make your experience a lot easier, and grounds our character a lot more too.

Do you ever feel like you're putting Lara through an unrealistic amount of physical stress in the game? I mean, she's climbing up mountains, falling off cliffs, being swept down rivers, falling onto sharp objects, and still getting through it all while maintaining her energy. Have there ever been moments when you're like, look, that mountain is way too steep for any human being to conquer. Let's make it a little less dangerous looking, a little more physically possible for a human being to do?

I get that question a lot; fans go back and forth and ask why we do this and that. You look at telling that through line for her character, and what the stakes are. Not only is she out to uncover ancient truths and mysteries but she knows that it's going to be difficult. We know that the stakes are only going to feel great for the player if they're high.

There's a great scene in the beginning of the game where Lara and Jonah, her sidekick and friend, have this tete-a-tete where Jonah is very forward with her and says, "You know what you're sacrificing? Look around you, look at the people you're putting at risk, and even yourself--just to go after these mysteries."

It's important that we realise that as storytellers, as part of what Lara Croft is in the Tomb Raider franchise, it's about her making and taking those risks. Those stakes are high. When we look at that when we're building those experiences, we do tend to say okay, what makes sense for her as an adventurer, but what's also intense, risky, and has that life-or-death element to it? We always try and make sure that it's grounded in a real world situation, but also yeah, that may be too much in some cases, so we do tone it back once in a while.

But for the most part we want the stakes to be high, we want the people to really feel like they've accomplished something when they've solved that puzzle, or conquered that combat encounter. All that is important in making sure that it not only feels good as a game, but makes sense with her story.

Do you have a specific example of something you had to go back and tone down?

I don't think there's any one specific thing, but I think if you look at what we're doing for the opening of the game, and what we're really trying to tell with this adventure... Lara, at first, when we started building that experience for the avalanche and for her climbing this large mountain, we look at what people were reacting to.

Some people were like, "She's crazy!" and "She's not acknowledging some of those things!" So when we refined that experience we started talking about what it means to be not only a character that people can latch onto and understand, but someone with which the stakes make sense. It's not just in an absolute, she's just going for it way. That's what we had a refinement on. I think based on focus testing, we were really able to look at what people were glomming onto and understanding that it makes sense she's doing these things, jumping over cliffs, and avalanches are coming after her.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a sequel to Tomb Raider, which was a reboot, and got a lot of the formalities like introducing characters out of the way. What sort of liberties were you able to take in designing Rise of the Tomb Raider because it's a sequel?

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Square Enix

I'm so glad you asked that, because that's where I tell people this is the tomb raiding experience we wanted to make! Now that we have people understanding where we're taking the character, where she comes from, where she's headed, now it's about uncovering ancient mysteries. Solving those mysteries. Uncovering truths, and exposing those to the world. That relies heavily on the tombs. We have a 20 year franchise, with a lot of history. We have a lot people saying that they want the tombs back, with epic ancient spaces, and we've done that.

We've also added that layer of deadliness to it, and having a massive puzzle formula that makes them trickier to solve. To me, it's trying to get into the heart of what Tomb Raider really is, and we've been able to do that with Rise by bringing back those tombs. It's one of the core things that I will always latch onto that I think we're doing so well.

What in particular can't you wait to see people react to?

I'm excited to see what people's reaction is to Lara's evolution as she gets towards the end, and what she has to experience for uncovering some of the secrets to immortality, so to speak. I'm excited for those plot lines and plot twists she goes through as an adventurer, and I'm excited for what those experiences are going to be like as an overall element of a larger game. So, 30-40 hours of an experience is much bigger, so for people to able to go in and choose an adventure around it, and complete the main story, to be able to be a full completionist and collector, that to me is going to be fun to see.

I'm really looking forward to seeing people's eyes light up with the gameplay loops that we've established, and the tombs are going to be the core elements of that.

If I was to be a full completionist, the game would take me 30-40 hours?

At minimum.

What would you say is the maximum?

I personally like to take my time, I like to look at stuff, read things. People could easily spend 50-60 hours. There's a lot of time to be spent. I think that people really respect that, because we do spend a lot of time with that layer of history in each of the tombs. It plays into the main storyline. Each of those tombs has a history, each of those tombs has a layer that focuses on this myth of immortality. You could spend a lot of time with the game.