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‘Rise of the Tomb Raider’ Narrative Designers Talk Tombs, Tomes, & Treasures

Two narrative designers who worked on Rise of the Tomb Raider recently talked with the guys from Spawn on Me podcast and shared their thoughts on working as writers within the game industry as well as some personal stories about the game’s development process (their segment begins at approximately 00:16:50).

John Stafford (Lead Narrative Designer) and Cameron Suey (Narrative Designer) are no strangers to the game industry. As they told the podcast’s presenters, they’ve worked on a dozen games throughout their careers and had previously worked together on two major projects: the 2008 game Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and its sequel.

Although Suey was not involved in the development of the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot due to a stint (or, as he calls it, “dark period”) as a mobile games designer, Stafford invited him to join the Rise writing team a couple of years ago and the rest is, ahem, history.

Over the space of an hour, the two writers talked about the challenges of collaborative writing, their close working relationship with the game’s level and gameplay designers, the importance of user testing throughout a game’s development, and some of the research that went into crafting the game’s main narrative and additional dialogue.

Due to the sheer length of the podcast, I have not been able to provide a transcript but have put together a summary of some of the key points they raised during their hour-long talk with the Spawn on Me team. Please note that there may be some minor plot spoilers below so if you haven’t already played the game, **proceed with caution**.

The Pantheon in Rise of the Tomb Raider (Image credit: Kelly M)

The two narrative designers also had a lot to say about the game’s historical elements and cultural influences. Suey explains how the in-game relics and documents allowed him to tap into his prose writing skills and how he was given the freedom to work on several self-contained stories and mini arcs so long as they all tied back into the main story, pointing out that one series of documents, “Heart of Darkness”, was essentially his attempt to shoehorn a horror story into Tomb Raider.

Suey also talked about the concept of what Creative Director Noah Hughes called “plausible Googleability”, which essentially boils down to creating a setting and story with just enough true life detail that will make the in-game lore seem real but taking some artistic license here and there. The writer described one particular incident where he stumbled upon a reference to an elite Byzantine army consisting of young men of noble status that seemingly vanishes from the historical record following the death of Emperor John I Tzimiskes in 976 AD, a time period that roughly coincides with the Prophet’s escape to Syria in the game’s lore. By simply changing a few details, he was able to give the in-game army a plausible back story that was largely grounded in historical fact.

Last but not least, The Archaeology of Tomb Raider got a shout-out at approximately 1 hour and 13 minutes into the podcast. Stafford brought the presenters’ attention to the timeline I had created based on Rise’s in-game documentation and relics, remarking that it was astonishingly accurate and very close to the team’s own documentation. *pats self on back* He also went on to mention my propensity for picking at holes and highlighting the differences between the “real” myth and the game’s interpretation, no doubt in reference to this tweet…

Well, what can I say? I’m a sucker for details. 🙂

If you’d like to listen to the full podcast, head on over to the Spawn on Me website. Both writers can be found on Twitter under the usernames @jstafford (Stafford) and @josefkstories (Suey).

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