Not Enough AAA Games Have Strong Emotion: An Interview With Brian Horton

tomb raider feature

With just over a week to go, Tomb Raider’s release is drawing ever nearer. The reboot for Miss Croft has certainly garnered its share of attention and rightly so – looking like one of 2013’s premier action titles. While you patiently wait to get your grubby little hands on the game, though, check out our sit-down conversation with Brian Horton: Senior Art Director at Crystal Dynamics.

Tell me about your role in Tomb Raider?

I’m the Senior Art Director of Tomb Raider and that involves everything from the look and feel, characters, environments, effects, graphic design – all that works through me. I work with a very talented group of artists to make all that come to life on the screen.

We’ve heard a lot about Tomb Raider being a very emotional experience. Are there any other games you guys look up to as an emotional experience that you want to emulate through Tomb Raider?

We think we have something unique in the marketplace right now. There are very few games in the mass market media that rise to the challenge of creating a truly emotional experience. I would say Journey was one of those games for me that had this really great emotional ingredient to it. The characters didn’t speak, yet the emotional depth and affinity I felt for my character was very strong. For Tomb Raider I would say our biggest influence was there wasn’t enough AAA games that had strong emotion and we wanted to bring that.

Obviously Uncharted’s borrowed from Tomb Raider. Is Tomb Raider borrowing anything from any other games: gameplay mechanics, shooting mechanics?

It’s a very story driven game which has parallels to Uncharted, but the way we tell our story is a little bit more grounded and mature in tone; theirs is more jokey. We also have this cool weapon and skills progression system that doesn’t exist in many other games of the genre.

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Bad doggy!

I’ve heard you guys say you looked at Batman Begins, Casino Royale and Lost for story inspiration. What did you want to bring out of these television shows and movies?

The thing that’s great about the Bond re-imagining or Batman is they treated us as if they were real people. They were respectful to the core franchise or brands. It still feels like Batman or it still feels like Bond but you feel like everything they have gone through or are going through to get to where they are was a trial by fire. The sort of painful journey as they try to find out who they were. We’ve definitely gained those aspects for Tomb Raider and Lara goes through serious trials to become a hard survivor and ultimately a hero.

From what I’ve played, the game is very linear. A couple of QTEs and a lot of cutscenes. Does that decrease as the game goes on or is that something that follows through?

You’ve seen the first two hours of the game and there is an introduction of character, mechanics and story – there’s lots of tutorialisation that goes through that first part. As you reach the HUBs you start to open up the game. It gives you a lot of options of how you choose to play it and what you want to explore. By the time you heal Roth (your mentor in the game), there’s a moment where it’s like ‘just climb’ and at that point there’s a lot of options that the player gets to do. The other thing that’s kind of cool from an options based standpoint is they can upgrade their tools, their weapons and their skills in a fashion they so choose. For your skills, if you want to upgrade your character’s ability to perceive the world and find things that are going to help you, you can upgrade that way. And if you want to put your skill upgrade into your offensive skill abilities you can do that as well. And I think it’s those extra levels of choice that take us away from being a purely linear experience and gives the players a lot of replayability.

What kind of stuff can we expect to find in these HUB areas?

In the demo that you played there’s a side tomb that you can find and explore. In those tombs there’s another opportunity for us to present challenges that are in a puzzle variety to acquire some really cool stuff. The hope is that you’re always rewarded for your exploration and the side tombs are a really fun nugget. Something that tells a little bit more about the story and tells a little bit more about the fiction of the world.The hope with the HUBs is as you visit them each time you experience them in a new way using your tools and upgraded weapons to access more areas. When you leave it, you hopefully feel like you’ve mastered that HUB. So it’s that loop of going in at the beginning and feeling that you’re at the bottom of the barrel and you’re really feeling that as you progress.

Rather than going for the information based puzzle system which Uncharted had, Tomb Raider is more physics based. Why was the choice for that made?

We have a lot of love for the potential of physics to be a much more intuitive means to solving puzzles. Traditionally Tomb Raider has been find your way through a maze of some kind. Acquire the missing items, put them in the right place and flick the switches. We wanted to come up with puzzles that were much more built around rules that we understand inherently. We understand the rules of fire and water and weight transfer, how wind works. All of these things will bear into how we solve puzzles in our game and we call that pillar our smart resource for Lara. The goal was to use these things to fit really well with survival. Those were the themes of survival. If you think about fire, it’s your first survival tool. It also fits with our goal of trying to make our puzzles much more about tinkering with the environment and playing with systems instead of looking for that one binary path. We look at games like Half-Life 2 that use physics in that way and think that it was very successful. Some of the best puzzlers out there have a physics component to them.

Environments wise, what are we going to get treated to? Tombs, obviously, forests – are there any other?

The game takes place on Yamati, it’s this fictitious island based in some myth, this lost Japanese civilisation. It’s the first Tomb Raider that really situates itself in one place. We wanted to do that because we felt it gave us a lot more latitude for her to tell a more intimate and personal story. The great thing about the island though is there is going to be different ecosystems all throughout. There’s the caves, beach, forest and the shrine area. The demo ends with this WW2 layer of history with these bunkers. The hope is every time you progress through the island you’re getting a deeper understanding of what this place is. Each area has this sort of aesthetic component to it and it’s usually tied to some kind of force of nature.

Rain became a big theme for us through the first HUB, wind will play a role in other places. There’s going to be other themed areas with their own colour palettes and their own set of aesthetic attributes. We showed at E3 the hint of this village built inside the bowl of this ancient Japanese palace with a shanty town location. Tomb Raider fans that are looking for that variety will have all that through the types of landscapes, the architecture styles we use and the different types of day. You’re going to feel like you’re really getting a different flavour every time you progress through the game.

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Creepy murder house? Check.

So it sounds very mysterious. I keep on thinking of Lost in the back of my head. Is there going to be lots of mysteries on the island?

Yeah mystery is definitely a huge part of the game. The narrative that goes along with the gameplay is built to parallel. As you progress as the character and gain new abilities you’re presented with new areas and challenges. Those challenges tend to be tied to some kind of mystery. You won’t know what’s going on in the beginning then as you progress you’re going to learn more about it and who your foe is.

What kind of DLC will there be?

We’ve announced some costume DLC and there’s going to be a weapon pack. What we haven’t talked about in detail is anything else. There is going to be additional DLC ingredients but we haven’t talked a lot about the details of that.

And confirmed for PC, XBOX 360 and PS3. So there’s no Wii U, why not?

When you think about the consoles that you’re going to do, you have to make sure that each version you do is taking advantage of that console. Our commitment and as we were developing this game was Xbox, PlayStation and PC because they all have similar control mechanisms. We wanted to put all of our efforts towards that so that’s been our focus from the very beginning – those three consoles.

Make sure you stay tuned for our full review of Tomb Raider, live on the interwebs tomorrow!

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