E3 has been a somewhat hectic time for the Crystal Dynamics team but Rise of the Tomb Raider’s Creative Director Noah Hughes managed to find some time in his busy schedule to take part in a community Q&A session with the E3 Ambassadors earlier this week.
You can find a transcript of the Q&A session below courtesy of Senior Community Manager Meagan Marie. Find out what Noah had to say about Lara’s character development, TressFX, gameplay features, and in-game mythology.
Can we expect any nods to classic games as Lara becomes a Tomb Raider?
Noah Hughes: Yeah, one of the things we always try to do is evoke elements of the classics and that comes in more abstract and more literal ways. Probably my favourite of the general themes is really just tombs and trying to evoke those same feelings you’d get in the classic games when you’d come into these giant vertical spaces and really wonder how you’re going to get through them. So for me a lot of it is just that feeling that you got in classic games and just trying to really conjure that same sense of awe-inspiring discovery. We also try to find ways to evoke the classic games a little more literally but with that I think it’s probably a little spoilery, so I will say that we have tried to evoke not just those feelings but actually gesture at some of the classic things from Lara’s history. Even the bear I remember going to toe to toe with the bear in the first game which was really memorable for me, so even things like the bear are an important part of the survival ecosystem but they also have that nostalgic flavour to me.
Will there be a multiplayer mode?
Noah Hughes: Well we don’t have anything to announce in terms of multiplayer, but certainly we heard feedback from the last game and so as always we try to distil any feedback we get and make sure whatever we do, we’re informing it with what people would like to see.
Will there be any kind of summary of the comics and books?
Noah Hughes: That’s a good suggestion. We currently have set out to make a story that does stand alone so we don’t want people to be confused if they haven’t read the comics or book. But at the same time it does add a certain amount of understanding about Lara’s character and what she’s been through between the two games, so even if we don’t include it on the disc, I think it is something that adds to the experience. But we are committed to making sure people don’t feel left out if they haven’t experienced all of them.
Will it be possible to combine equipment to create new equipment or gain new attributes?
Noah Hughes: Yeah, we definitely have more equipment that for Lara in this game and in some cases that equipment sort of progresses over the course of the game. So in that example she takes her climbing axe and is able to use it in new ways, and one of the most important things about that is then she is able to get to areas in the world that she wasn’t previously able to. So one of the things that we like is coming back to hub spaces that you’ve been to before and making sure that that new gear is making it increasingly fun to get around, but also giving you access to more and more things within the world. So gear is still a very important part of the game and we have some new gear to introduce.
Are there vehicles?
Noah Hughes: We don’t have anything to talk about as it relates to vehicles. A lot of what we do focus on is Lara’s traversal mechanics – the platforming and the gear is something that’s really important to us, so that’s certainly the primary mechanic set that we wanted to focus on this time around. But we wanted to expand it, so for example swimming is a new way for Lara to traverse even when she may not have a vehicle. So for us it’s sometimes more interesting to give Lara new mechanics, new skills, and new ways to get around.
Will there be any hand-to-hand combat?
Noah Hughes: There are some additions to Lara’s close quarters combat move set, but we do feel like it becomes a bit of a different game, and in some ways becomes a little bit out of character, when hand-to-hand combat becomes your primary means of interacting. So in a lot of cases it is a last resort to some extent. Lara tends to take advantage of her bow obviously and she can use her axe in close combat, but it hasn’t been a focus of combat evolution. Instead we’ve tried to give more ways for players to use the environment and especially in the context of stealth and pre-combat, and we feel it’s in character to give Lara that resourcefulness and that intelligent approach to combat, and the ability to use her bow as a star and give the bow new mechanics. So yes there’s been some slight enhancements but it’s not necessarily the focus of Lara style combat for us.
Will we see the dual pistols, the ponytail, the swan dive, and more familiar elements make a comeback?
Noah Hughes: We have some small details that make a reappearance, but in a lot of ways it’s more those thematic elements. It’s the tomb feelings and a lot of those aspects. Having said that, there may be at least one of those things in that list that makes an appearance, so I’ll let you guys figure that out.
A lot of people want to know more about the final boss.
Noah Hughes: Spoiler alert! [laughs] Yeah, we do have bosses in the game, and on a smaller scale we even think of the first bear as a mini boss encounter and those sort of escalate between human and animal enemies. We do have a final climax at the end that may qualify as a boss fight, but for us it’s more about creating a memorable experience that allows you to test all of the skills that you’ve gained over the course of the game and ultimately feel that sense of accomplishment. And there is a narrative showdown between you and the main antagonist in the game.
What can we expect in terms of the graphics engine over the Definite Edition?
Noah Hughes: The Definitive Edition was a great opportunity to push the content we had made with some of the resolution and performance of the hardware, but it also allowed us to understand how to make better content from the beginning as well as enhance our engine to take advantage of that hardware. This time around I think even if you played the Definitive Edition on the Xbox One that even though it’s the same platform you’re going to see a notable improvement. Some of my favourite things are Lara’s facial animation, and I think she really is coming to life and more importantly showing her emotion in ways she hasn’t in the past.
I think also even just things like her hair are great, and for her to have all that secondary motion – as she moves all the things on her outfit are jingling around. But also gameplay benefits as well, as with the scale of the hub spaces. One of the things that’s interesting about that, as spaces get bigger you can actually sort of get lost in them, and talking about evoking some of those classic Tomb Raider feelings, that is part of it. I remember almost being panicked, like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know where to go!” and so I do think even just scale adds a certain amount of feeling that we couldn’t evoke in the small-scale environments.
And then just little things, like the snow and Lara’s ability to make trails in the snow or get snow on her. There’s any number of things both gameplay-wise and aesthetics-wise that I think we’ve been able to do because we were making it for the hardware, and Microsoft’s been really good about giving us the geniuses behind their hardware, and we can send them code and they can profile it and instead of pulling back on the aspiration they really figure out how to get the system to do that for us.
Will there be any paid DLC?
Noah Hughes: I think that is a common request that we very much take to heart, but we don’t have any announcements for PDLC. It is something that like you said we want to provide to allow players to continue to play in the world and that starts with just the on-disc replay. As soon as you’re done with the story, chances are there’s quite a bit more to do in the world. But then we recognise that beyond that it would be great to have more fun in the game so we’ll look at ways to do that.
Did you have Rise’s story in mind before developing it?
Noah Hughes: Yeah, we had on a couple of levels. So one is trying to understand Lara’s arc as a character that we had a very broad strokes understanding of where she would go after the first game. And so there were some facets of character arc that we were excited to do after this game, and then beyond that I think you get inspiration for things that worked well in the first game so before you even finish you start to imagine what you could do. So you not only have this broad sense of where Lara would go, but in the end we don’t know the details like what exact location she is gonna go, or who the bad guys are, but it helps to have sort of a broad strokes sense of Lara’s journey as a character.
How did you choose the location, and why the myth of Kitezh?
Noah Hughes: That’s a great question. We choose our locations based on a lot of different facets, but one of them is very much the myths and inspirations that we can take for the actual tomb raiding that Lara is going to do. And in particular when we did find the myth about Kitezh, this idea of a lost city but not just lost, but the idea that it sank beneath a lake, was captivating to us and there were some great themes in the story. But for the most part it also becomes a decision about location and what types of environments we want to explore, and making sure we’re taking Lara to different places. So it becomes a combination of being inspired by the myth as well as the terrain, and situations that we can experience, but I think it was a very fertile land for both.
Does it matter what order you do side missions in and can Lara influence the day-to-day lives of NPCs?
Noah Hughes: Well I don’t think we are talking much about the NPCs and generally as a game we do find it difficult to express changes in the narrative flow based on the player’s actions. But at the same time what we try to do is express a lot of play-style advantages to how you play, and there may or may not be some secondary effects. But for the most part, the main story will play out. A lot of what you’re allowed to do is sort of tell your own stories on the side. So in some ways, I kind of think of it like a tree where the trunk is the main story, but when you get out on to the branches and leaves you really do feel like you’re progressing your own story, and we tried to involve more characters in that as well. We do try to make sure that’s a narrative backdrop for a lot of the secondary stuff that you do, but again that sort of becomes the story that you tell along the way.
Will Jason Graves be returning? Will the soundtrack be released on a CD or vinyl for collectors?
Noah Hughes: Again I think that is one of those questions that we…
Meagan Marie: Jason has actually said publicly that he is not involved. But we don’t have any announcement for who the new composer is. I’m sure we’ll blow it out when we do. I think that the answer to that is we know how much fan loves music, and that you guys loved the CD last time, so I would expect we’ll do something very similar. That’s not a formal announcement, but we’re definitely looking into options and we’ll let you know as soon as we have details.
Noah Hughes: I should clarify then in that context that I really enjoyed working with Jason and I think we’d enjoy working together again, so it was something where we very much respected each other’s work. This was more a decision about this game being an evolution of the last game, and really trying to capture a new personality, so part of it was saying from the ground up that if we want to score this experience, how can we best show this transition in Lara’s character?
Will Jason’s theme come back?
Noah Hughes: Yeah, it’s fair to say that we really loved the theme work that Jason helped us establish with the reboot, and so we like themes as a style of scoring the game. We try to make sure those themes take on the tone and emotion of the moment so they are very portable but we do work with common themes to help get that sense of identity.
Will TressFx be applied to other characters in the game?
Noah Hughes: That’s a good question. We do focus on Lara’s hair and TressFx for anyone who tried to played the last game on an old PC, knows that hair simulation is pretty greedy as it relates to performance, so we do have to be modest to how much we apply that to other characters. But we do try to make appropriate hair styles where that doesn’t become a noticeable shortcoming. and it really is Lara’s long hair that begs for that simulation the most.
Once Darrell Gallagher said “forget everything you know about Tomb Raider. I know that there are many forms of retaining the spirit of tomb raider to respect the spirit of what came before, while going new directions. After all of it, what should remain?
Noah Hughes: The shortest answer is Lara and who she represents, and the reality is that we didn’t throw everything out. It was a mental exercise to basically strip the franchise back to its very core but ultimately rebuild it with the same sensibilities and intentions and I think for me that becomes an expression of Lara’s adventure. As a character, she’s a brilliant archaeologist, she’s athletic in traversal, she’s competent in combat now, but most importantly she’s this driven explorer and discoverer and a lot of that embodies what’s great about action adventure games, and so we kind of took these two ideas of Lara Croft and everything she represents and what is fun to do in an action adventure game and we rebuilt with those same ideas our new vision for it. So it’s really a combination of being willing to put everything aside, but trying to put something together that’s a modern expression of everything that you did love about those classic games.
Good question, by the way.
Are we going to see Lara’s apartment in Rise of the Tomb Raider, or be able to play in her apartment?
Noah Hughes: Unfortunately we’re trying to not necessarily speak to everything you’ll do outside of the demo content. Mainly I can expand on what we’re showing right now. But it was fun to work on Lara’s apartment and showing her personality in different ways, and get inside Lara’s head by understanding what her desk looks like and things like that.
What is driving Lara this time around?
Noah Hughes: That’s a good question. We could play a whole game’s story to answer it fully, but to summarise we probably start with trying to get into Lara’s head after the last adventure. She glimpsed something supernatural that she couldn’t explain but she believed it was real, however she came back to a world that didn’t believe it was real. So she suffered a certain amount of trauma on the island but probably the hardest thing about coming back to normal life was trying to get that out of her head — that idea that if this myth was real what else could be real? And she started to begin to realise that her place in this world isn’t just digging up pots and relics and things, but she really felt that there were truths lost to humanity that were buried in these secret places around the world. If something like immortality was real it could make a difference, so you have a character that is both out of place in her world in search of an identity, but ultimately fuelled by a passion to understand and discover and make that difference in ways she never thought she could. So we get deeper into Lara’s past to understand where that hunger comes from, so it’s actually a fun part of the storytelling this time around.
Another good question!
How will transitioning between locations work as relates to fast travel?
Noah Hughes: It is important for us to allow players to replay areas for completion’s sake, but certain mechanics sometimes make that travel not available. So you won’t necessarily be able to freely travel between every location, but we will provide fast travel for players to strive to be completionists.
What percentage is the action-adventure versus puzzles?
Noah Hughes: Percentage is always a hard thing to give but generally we’ve tried to maintain a similar balance to the last game with a few major adjustments. The most important adjustment is more tombs on the main story path along with challenge tombs in the world that are truly ancient spaces. Puzzles being a big part of tombs so I’m hoping there’s a bit more classic tomb raiding in there.
The second facet would be as it relates to combat style. I know some people would like if there was a lot less combat but certainly it is an important part of our pacing and mechanic set, and so we’ve tried to provide more ways for Lara to engage and sometimes be able to not engage in combat. When she does, there’s more opportunities to be clever and resourceful and win because she’s outsmarting her opponents instead of just outshooting opponents. So it’s not entirely a different mix from the last game, but I think those were two pieces of feedback we got especially from the fans. As you know I’m always trying to broker a peace between some of our classic sensibilities and some of the more mass market pacing requirements and stuff, but I do think we have dialled the knobs a bit to try and cater to that.
Are there difficulty settings and will they affect puzzles at all?
Noah Hughes: Yes, there are difficulty settings in the game but it’s very hard for them to affect the puzzles specifically, so one of the ways we choose to address that is to put some of the harder puzzles off the main path in some of the challenge tombs. So if you like harder puzzles you’re going to seek out the challenge tombs.
Having said that it does affect resources, so one of the things that does is asks you to play a bit more carefully. When we talk about smart resourceful Lara, that’s not necessarily just puzzle solving but it’s also catering to succeeding by out-thinking rather than out-twitching.
Do the actions you take have a persistent impact on the game?
Noah Hughes: Yes, there will be some reflections of things you do in the world. We try to make sure there’s a certain persistence to the world so those things that you can do in different orders is generally respected across the game.
Will Rise of the Tomb Raider be harder than the previous game?
Noah Hughes: The goal is to allow players to use difficulty settings to make it harder, but we’re pushing to make the hardest difficulty setting a greater challenge by a decent amount than the last game. The normal setting is really about finding that sweet spot where the majority of our audience can really enjoy it, but for a lot of us – myself included – I like a greater degree of challenge, so we’re trying to make sure the game is challenging even hardcore players at those higher settings.
Will Jonah be with Lara during the whole game?
Noah Hughes: We don’t have any specific details on other characters, but we do focus on Jonah as the main Yamatai survivor featured in this story. As you saw in Bear Valley, Lara gets separated from Jonah. You will see him later in the game but at the same time we create these periods of separation to get back to some of those Tomb Raider flavours like isolation and Lara’s independence as a character. Having said that, human interaction is something that really allows you to understand a personality a lot more, and we create large periods of separation from the other characters, but it’s great to see Lara’s relationship with Jonah and he’s featured various times throughout the game.
Now that Lara can swim will we see more of her acrobatics like the swan dive?
Noah Hughes: No specifics for anything we didn’t see today, sorry.
How do the things that happened to Lara on Yamatai affect Lara in-game?
Noah Hughes: We learn a little about what Lara was going through, but in a lot of ways that state of mind plays into Lara’s motivation, the idea that it’s not just coping with the trauma of the event but her whole belief system was turned upside down. The idea that things exist in this world that she can’t explain and she came back into a world that questioned what she saw and doesn’t believe her and so she feels unable to fulfil something important, and so we do see her state of mind play into that a bit.
A huge thanks to Noah Hughes for taking the time to answer these questions and to Meagan Marie and the E3 Ambassadors for putting forward these questions from the Tomb Raider fan community.
If you’d like to learn more about the in-game mythology of Rise of the Tomb Raider, check out my earlier article Noah Hughes on the Mythology of Rise of the Tomb Raider.