Controlling the Raider with Daniel Chayer-Bissan and Mario Chabtini at PAX West 2018
Tomb Raider as a franchise needs no introduction: there are few games that have made such an impact and even fewer characters as enduring as Lara Croft. With Shadow of the Tomb Raider just a little over a week away, PAX West 2018 was the perfect opportunity to ask the upcoming game’s Senior Gameplay Director, Daniel Chayer-Bisson, and its Senior Producer, Mario Chabtini, both with Eidos Montreal, about the game before it launches. The result is a whopper of an interview chock-full of tantalizing new info about Shadow of the Tomb Raider and the woman it follows. And the leprechauns? They’re in there, I promise.
Lillian King: How would you describe the gameplay of Shadow having evolved, not just from Rise, but from 2013 Tomb Raider as well?
Daniel Chayer-Bisson: I can answer in three words or I can answer in a long sentence: Being in Control. That is the most important thing in our approach for the design and our story. Lara needs to be in control. That also counts for the player. What I like to do is take the disc from 2013 and put it in, press play, and you’ll see a Lara that is insecure, that is vulnerable, that is being shaped by the world and doesn’t know what the hell is happening. You wake up, you’re upside-down and what the hell is going on? Put in Shadow, and you’re going to see the complete opposite. Lara will be in control. She starts in a situation of obsession, but you will see that she’s overconfident—I say over, not just confident—she’s powerful, smart, she’s powerful and she knows it. This is how the gameplay represents that. She has to communicate that to the world.
I was game director on Tomb Raider 2013. I was at Crystal before and I moved mid-production of Rise, I moved while I was there. I’ve been there for three games. So on this game, being in control means not stumbling like she used to. For example, in order to have Lara go down I had to have Lara fall, constantly. But that is a sign of not being in control. So now what is the representation of that being in control? Rappelling down. And once you rappel down, you don’t just hand there, you have to move, to start balancing, to start moving like that. And for that, the controls had to be top-notch, because we want the player to feel like she is in control. Underwater. Same thing. Lara will go underwater and she’s in control. Even though there are piranhas underwater—and people love being attacked piranhas, I don’t know why that is, the first time I played it I was like “Aarrgh!” but people love it—she is in control. The thing is being in control. When you see piranhas, you know what to do.
Being in control means multiple things. It means observing your environment, understanding what reading the environment is. Can I take the mud, I see mud…if you take it like Rise style, you’re going to end up [imitates sound of an automatic rifle]. But if you look in your environment—because you are Lara Croft, when you’re playing Shadow you have to think that you are Lara—you’re in a world that’s super rich, that’s very full of organic material with the jungle, that’s a mud bath, and you take it, and the feeling that Lara has, that’s empowering.
And we separated, like we were saying, the game into equal parts, or pillars. Rise was more 60% [combat] and 20/20 [exploration and crafting]. Now we’re more 30/30/30. Now you can tailor the Lara the way that you want. If you want to upgrade your skills, because there’s a lot of new skills, you can decide which direction you want to go. If you played Rise or 2013, and I know because I was a culprit on that, I was a designer and game director on that, you had to invest in combat because it was a lot of combat. If you didn’t invest in combat you were like “Aw, man.” Now you can decide to say “combat, I don’t need to invest in that, what I’d really like to do is exploring and getting 100% and now I can choose skills that will help me get that.” So there’s a lot of things with only three words “Be in Control” that are important and the gameplay shows.
And you’ll see everything’s changed from the skill tree and the crafting has changed is all being in control. In a puzzle you can slow down time so if there’s a pendulum [trap], instead of going to easy mode, you can use the focus mode to slow down the pendulum. If you played Rise, you know that hunting birds and rabbits is the worst thing ever. But having this focus, when you see this rare bird or rabbit you need to upgrade something, you can kill it without feeling like you’re torturing it.
Mario Chabtini: Being in control is not only in the game, it’s also in our menu, because we’re also providing the ability for the player to customize their own experience with difficulty settings per pillar. So you can tune down the combat if you’re bad and increase the difficulty for the puzzles and adjust it like that.
King: That’s perfect. I have a friend who’s played Rise (2013) ten times and she said to me, “Last time I played it on normal,” because she’s only ever played it on easy.
Chayer-Bissan: Oh my god. [laughter]
King: Settings like that would make her feel a lot better, a lot more comfortable, if she could tune them like that.
Chayer-Bissan: Playing this game on exploration on hard—that’s where the game changes because you don’t have the white paint anymore. You see the world as it is. I’ve called it the Yellow Brick Road since 2013. We’re building the Yellow Brick Road. I was always saying that—we’re leprechauns tonight and we’re painting dreams! We made the decision of doing that because people were lost. But now it was the opportunity for us to kill the leprechauns maybe, or hide them, and give them the opportunity to enjoy the world as it is.
King: It’s a gorgeous world. One of my favorite moments from Rise was the ship trapped in the ice, it’s graphically gorgeous and one of my favorite things to look at in the last Tomb Raider game. I wanted to know if you had similar moments planned throughout Shadow?
Chayer-Bissan: We have a ship. It is awesome too! So, yeah, the first time they pitched me the [ice ship] idea I was like, what the hell, that will never work. So, for me, there are moments like that. We call it the improbable-probable. That’s the thing, it’s the same thing with Paititi [city in Shadow], the Inca, the Maya, the Aztec, they never coexisted, they never met. Because we want something so unique, we want our player to discover something that had never been discovered, we went into the “what-if.” What if this had happened? What if they had spent 400 years together without ever talking to people outside of their bubble, their ecosystem? How would they evolve? These cultures would just—Some Incan architecture and some people are dressed like Aztecs and some of the things are Maya. The language, what would be predominant? There are a lot of things like that. We wanted to make sure it was super real, we worked with people who made it as real as possible. These are the things we love to do for tombs, with challenge tombs, everything we do with the combat, make you feel like you’re overwhelmed, outgunned, outnumbered, but if you look at the environment, you can take get the advantage over your challenge.
King: I know that you could interact with some NPCS like the Remnant in Rise, but not as significantly as Shadow is promising—do you have any details about Lara’s interactions with the local people that is going to be featured in the new game?
Chayer-Bissan: Building that world and making it as real as possible was hard. I’ll talk more about the emotion and he’ll talk more about numbers. He’s the producer, the number guy. So, what we wanted to do, because on 2013 and in Rise, it was Lara against the world, against the wild, and for her to become the Tomb Raider—when I talk about the Tomb Raider I’m not talking about how she dressed, how she behaves, it’s more about how she is emotionally, how mature she is, how ready she is to take that role. Because she’s not ready, emotionally she’s not there. For that, she needs to understand that she’s human, and there are other humans. She spends all her time with dead people. If you talk with Lara, she’ll be geeking out about this and this, and you say, “Hey, Lara, what about your weekend?” she’ll change the subject back to tombs.
King: I used to play Tomb Raider games before the reboot and get stressed out and think, “When do you take a nap? Take a nap! You just flew across the world from one tomb to another, go to bed!”
Chayer-Bissan: The question was: if Lara sits down and can’t talk about archeology, what would she do? And we didn’t know. And we said she doesn’t know either. We have a situation in the preview event where that happens and she’s super awkward. She’s going through the jungle, she arrives to the village, and she says “There’s a lot of people here,” to Jonah. “I’ll let you do the talking. She’s dressed in a jaguar skin that she just hunted, she puts some guns on the table, and the NPC girl’s like “…What are you here for?” “I’m an archeologist.” “What?” There’s moments like that in this game because we want to depict a more human side of Lara. It’s going to be much more funny, much more sad. We were a bunch of guys crying, because we tired and we had something in our eyes, you know? Certain scenes, because we’re guys, you know, we’re going “Are you crying?” and replying “Oh no, no.” There are scenes like that where it’s important for us to expose Lara like we never had before, so by the end of this trilogy we know her from the inside out.
Chabtini: Just to give you an idea, in terms of side missions and conversation outside the main path, we did a little side mission yesterday and we have over 19,000 new facial animations.
Chayer-Bissan: And she’s awkward there. Very awkward. And tons of animations just for the city, because everything is alive in there. One of the things we wanted to do, one of the pitches I did initially was that I wanted to create a city where you would go there, but you culturally be in a new place, like, “wow, what the hell!” Like if you’d never gone to Taiwan or something and we dropped you there, you’d be like “what the hell, I don’t understand them!” And we have an immersion mode, to be like, what are they talking about! So there’s a lot of animation there too.
King: I’ve heard that there are going to be significantly more challenge tombs as well?
Chayer-Bissan: There’re more, they’re bigger, and they’re harder.
Chabtini: More dangerous.
Chayer-Bissan: And when we’re thinking about tombs, we’re also thinking about crypts. Crypts, when you compare, a crypt in Shadow is the size of a tomb in Rise, just to give you an idea. And they are very unique, when they play people love them because they are very different, and because you get a lot of outfits from them.
King: A lot of what you’re saying hearkens back to pre-reboot Tomb Raider, with puzzles being more of a main focus, and the underwater too. I think the last significant Tomb Raider game with an underwater focus would have been Tomb Raider: Underworld. Is that a purposeful decision?
Chayer-Bissan: It was. Initially when we build the blueprint—a blueprint is like a treatment or a synopsis, and you break it down into what will be the flow of the game, how we’re going to separate the gameplay, the thing we talked about was, how we wanted this to be the most Tomb Raider game of the origin story. At the end she needs to become the Tomb Raider, so you need to feel this progression, so it’s less about survival than the previous two and more about tomb raiding. There are still some survival aspects to the game because it’s in the blueprints of the reboot, but it’s quickly about Lara reading the environment so she becomes it. At a certain point, our secondary character was the jungle, which has its own arc. At the beginning it doesn’t want you, it expels you, it treats you like a parasite. But the more you go there it accepts you and you’re part of the jungle. But all that, having a third [being puzzles] was part of the recipe of the older games, while Rise was 60% combat, even more in Tomb Raider 2013. In this case, its distribution was core to the experience, adding more tombs, adding more focus on exploration, focus on things that help you grow, not just being good at shooting and precision but also learning about the culture. Not just about dead people, but people who are still alive, that makes the transition even smoother.
Chabtini: Not only that, but it’s also the fact that even with the community and the fanbase, they were requesting more water and more tombs, so it was in line with the vision.
Chayer-Bissan: And no white paint!
King: With my last question, my aunt actually wanted to know something. When I mentioned where I was heading, she said, unprompted, “Can you make a version of Lara Croft that isn’t just a sex symbol?”
Chayer-Bissan: I think we did that! [laughter]
King: I told her that happened in 2013. She missed the memo, I think.
Chayer-Bissan: A lot of people love the new one because she’s still beautiful, but she’s strong. She still has the same charms as the previous Lara, but she’s more human. I think people relate to that, the fact that she’s more human, she’s got flaws, she’s got bad qualities, she’s obsessed, she wants to win at all costs. She’s living with the fact that her father told her “Extraordinary is not who you are but what you do,” so she’s always trying to do the extraordinary.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Rise of the Tomb Raider launches September 14th on PS4, Xbox One, and PC, presumably without leprechauns.