The most professional, empowered Lara Croft you’ve ever seen — Shadow of the Tomb Raider interview at SDCC

With the release date for the much anticipated Shadow of the Tomb Raider fast approaching, I got to sit down Jill Murray, Lead Writer for Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and Heath Smith, Lead Game Designer, to learn more about the final game in the trilogy.

I’ve been lucky enough to play two different demos of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, one at the very beginning of the game, and the Jungle Warfare demo, which is set late in the game, and you can definitely feel a shift in Lara. As lead writer, can you tell us a little bit about Lara’s development and her character arc in Shadow of the Tomb Raider?

Murray: Sure, so we started out with Tomb Raider in 2013, Lara was fresh out of school, less experienced, and she was in survival mode a lot. And then Rise of the Tomb Raider she became more of a hunter, and then, in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, we find her already at the height of her abilities, all of her weapons ready to go, ready to race ahead, beat Trinity to the artifact, make sure they can’t get it, can’t use it; but this time she discovers, quite quickly, that all of the skills and power that she’s built up also enable her to make some pretty enormous mistakes. So, she takes the artifact, perhaps sets off the apocalypse, and then her real challenge in this game is how do you recover from a mistake like that? And we get to have a look at how heroism is defined by our response to realizing that we did something wrong.

So, part of the game that you described, later in the game, where she’s quite, uh, she’s in quite a dark space, that’s not quite illustrative–the idea isn’t that Lara is going to a dark place as much as that particular section, she doesn’t know how her best friend, Jonah is, if he’s alive, um, so she’s very much in a state of worry, and almost panic. She takes it out on Trinity in a big way. But, overall, I’d say the game is optimistic in the way that it looks at our ability to reconcile ourselves and make something great out of our mistakes.

Characters and relationships are clearly important, between Jonah and the characters in the Lost City. It feels like Lara’s circle of interaction has expanded a lot.

Murray: I’d say that– we actually have a narrower cast for the core story, and what that has enabled us to do is spend a lot of time within relationships, particularly in the friendship between Lara and Jonah. We really get to see the dynamics of how they’ve grown together over a few games. You know, he is that reliable best friend that always has her back, but is also the one person who can call her out when she’s maybe going off the rails. And we can see how they sort of need each other, have served each other, but how they’re maybe coming to a point of tension, and their relationship is really tested in a way that we really haven’t seen before.

And then on the other side of the coin, when she comes to the Hidden City of Paititi, which is the biggest social hub that we’ve ever had in a Tomb Raider game, we see Lara, instead of being able to just adventure around in caverns and tombs by herself, like she’s accustomed to doing, now she has to work with people, which is really interesting. It is something of a challenge for her.

There’s a lot of politics within that city too, right?

Murray: I don’t know if we wanna go too in depth in that, we wanna leave things for people to discover for themselves, but there is.. The Cult of Kukulkan has come into control, and they have one vision for how they want everything to go, and then the Rebels believe that the leader will use the power for more selfish means, and they want to make sure the city belongs to the people, and that its future is decided by everyone. So there’s that tension there that Lara gets wrapped up in, as well.

I was really impressed by, while the Jungle Warfare demo was quite challenging, how easy it is to pull off the really impressive combos and moves. How did you approach making it both challenging and rewarding?

Smith: Actually, one of the things we brought new to the series for this entry is you can customize your difficulty level for the three pillars of the game. So the combat, the traversal/exploration, and the puzzle solving. So, depending on what sort of Tomb Raider you like to play, depending on how you enjoy Tomb Raider, you can focus really on those aspects, and you can have Lara and the environment help you less or more. For example, with the traversal, everyone knows the classic white paint that you see on the ledges and things, you can actually choose to dull that down or even completely remove it from your play. So if you want to be really challenged on a hunt by the environment, you can. And the same thing for the combat, and the same thing for the puzzles; she’s going to give you more hints, or even, at the lowest difficulty, almost solve the puzzle for you, because everyone has different tastes, and they can play the Lara they want to play.

You mentioned that Paititi is the biggest social hub in a Tomb Raider game, can you talk about some of the challenges you faced in building something so different from what we’ve come to expect from Tomb Raider?

Smith: Sure, I mean, looking at a space that large, it’s making sure that you don’t make it large but empty, that’s the first thing. And also, just it’s not just uh, space, a horizontal space, but also making it deep. So, verticality and really that’s why we designed this hub, is to celebrate the new–hubs are a celebration of the new gameplay that’s in each entry. And this gameplay, it’s really focusing on the canopy, because she’s in the jungle, and it’s focusing on underwater, and these are the two new elements that she is out of her element. That’s why we take her to the jungle; she’s very powerful inside of this game; we need to challenge her again to get her to be fully powerful. So, to be able to do that, you need a lot of space up and space down. And so a hub– when you develop a hub, you have to be careful to feature all the layers of traversal, and have the player get bored or not have things to do. So that was one of the biggest challenges, was designing an environment that was not only believable and have citizens inhabiting it, but also be like a playground and a celebration for these new mechanics.

The characters within Paititi all seem pretty diverse, especially in the way they dress. Can you tell us a little about that?

Smith: I can handle that. So, yes, they all have different outfits based on their heritage. Because this place is, as we’ve mentioned before, it’s a refuge for–

Murray: Historically, the way it began, is people came there seeking refuge from as far North as Mexico, so we see echoes of influence from Inca, Maya, and even Aztec cultures.

Smith: And actually, Lara herself can find outfits, what we call vestiges of outfits in the environment, she can purchase them, she can find them in crypts, and she can restore them to their former glory, and each one has a– As always, knowledge is her greatest reward, so her knowledge of these things means it gives her a gameplay benefit. So you might find a cool looking outfit, and not only does it look cool, but it means you’re quieter in stealth, or you can take more damage.

Does that visually change when she equips it, or is it a stat change only?

Smith: Yeah, so, it’s [a visual change] when she equips it, and also it’s split between her torso and her legs, so you can customize–again, the Lara you want to play. So you might be half-half, you might sometimes might want to go into assault, sometimes you want to be stealth, you can go half-half, or you can go full one or full the other.

Can you tell us about sidequests? How integral are they to completing the game? How content do they add to the game?

Smith: Ah, well, the main story is around the same length as previous games, but there’s a–because of the social aspect–there’s a very large amount of secondary content in this game, and it can take you quite some time if you want to dot every I and cross every T, and really explore everything there is to do.

Murray: It’s the best way to understand the world we are sharing, to get a deeper understanding of the story is to play it. But you can also just charge on through, it depends on your style.

Smith: I like to think it also brings a deeper understanding of Lara, and the struggle that she’s going through, and what she’s learning in this game. Because each narrative and each quest is designed to reflect back on her, and the challenges that she’s facing. There’s challenges that she faces and the challenges that the characters face hold up a mirror to her challenges.

Do you have a favorite part of Shadow of the Tomb Raider?

Murray: Yeah, I really like the arc of the friendship of Lara and Jonah. And I think that, you know, people from the community have written to me on various parts of social media to let me know that they feel like there aren’t enough stories where friendships between men and women are being on screen in general, let alone in games, and how much that means to them. And so I’m happy to participate in sharing that, also.

Smith: I’m just, for me, I’m really excited for it to be set in the jungle, because it offers so many new opportunities for gameplay, as opposed to the previous two settings. So, for example, the water’s no longer frozen, so you can explore in the water, and you can be attacked by piranhas and moray eels. So, I’m loving the jungle, loving the fact that she’s going one with the jungle, becoming the ultimate predator, and the fancy that provides. And, also, something we haven’t talked a lot about, but we’re deepening also the crafting systems, and one of my favorite things, it’s a small thing, but it has a big impact on your gameplay, is that she has knowledge of the plants and animals, creatures, in the area; she can translate that, as well, into gameplay. So when you see a spider or a beetle, it’s not just dressing, you can harvest it, you can take it’s toxins, and you can use it to make fear arrows. Or you can use it to make herbal remedies, so you can gain, let’s say, slow motion focus aiming, or sensing things through the environment. So it’s really bringing that ultimate jungle predator fantasy, and that’s my favorite part of the game, because it’s such a strong fantasy to play.

When I played the jungle demo, my favorite part was just being able to in a tree, knock a fear arrow, and watch a Trinity goon take out all of their comrades. That’s a new and interesting approach, what was it like coming up with that?

Smith: Right, well, I mean, one of our earliest pillars of the game was fear. Fear of one’s self, fear of the unknown, fear of the jungle, fear of things that are are to kill you, so it’s about, when you conquer that fear, how do you turn it against–how do you use it? And then, also, how do you stare that down, and make sure that you don’t become the thing that you fear? How do you not go over the edge? So we like to play with that in the mechanics, you know, Lara is struggling with that herself in this game, so we give the player all that power, that she feels, so that you feel connected with her on her journey.

When I played the first demo, I was really impressed by the tension you built when diving and trying to wriggle through small spaces.

Smith: Again, that’s the fear! Fear underwater, claustrophobia, drowning…

Has anyone working on the game done dives or had a similar experience to some of Lara’s underwater exploits?

Smith: I don’t know if they specifically went through a drowning–near death experience, but I know members of the team definitely went to the caves in Mesoamerica at some point, and did a lot of research, yeah. And that’s where a lot of that stuff comes directly from, is their experiences there. Obviously when you– I’m not saying go a tour in Mexico and you’re gonna almost drown, but I’m saying you can imagine. If you go there, and you can imagine apply Lara Croft in that situation without a trained diving group exploring something no one’s ever touched for a long time, and all the dangers that come with that. So we really wanted to bring that to the game.

While this isn’t new to the series, I’m continually impressed by the cinematics in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. How did you go about building something so thematic?

Murray: That’s all up to the genius of our cinematics and animation teams. We have a really great, rigorous process that starts with storyboarding and animatics, right from the moment that we have drafts of scripts. They’re iterated on over and over again, like, we can plug the sort of early, sketchy animations right into the engine so we can actually play it through in the game and we have a cinematics director who comes to us via Dreamworks, and has a really solid grounding in just like, how animation studios put films together, and I think you can really see that in those big set piece moments. And I know that their focus is really on the big wow moments as much as on the intimate moments between characters, and those are two areas where Shadow of the Tomb Raider really shines.

Smith: Yeah, I think, I’ve been speaking with [Cinematics Director Robert Darryl Purdy] about that stuff, like the intimate moments? One thing I love about this game is… You feel the connection between the characters, I feel it’s the strongest, for me. And it’s something Eidos brings is like an intimacy there, and I believe that they do an improv–improvisations, that led to, well, at least, listening to the actors feedback, and they incorporated some of the actors feedback into their performances.

Murray: Um, yeah, I was at all of the performance capture sessions, which means I’m able to listen to how they’re delivering the lines, and if something just flows better, if they say it a different way, then I can be there to say “yeah, that’s ok,” if it doesn’t work then I can let them know why so they can keep working, but overall we tried to give them a lot of room for how they interpreted scenes, and to bring their– You know, if they have their own idea for how they would play through the scene, I’d throw it out there and let them try it out. So yeah, I don’t know if I would call it improvisation, but certainly there was a lot more of there–there was a lot of room for actors to really do the work of acting, and to bring something extra to bring each scene to the next level through their craft. It wasn’t just dictating what they needed to do, it was really collaborative.

Smith: You really feel the friendship between Lara and Jonah.

Murray: And Camilla [Luddington] and Earl [Baylon] have a friendship, having worked together on each game… they’ve been working together seven years at this point, I think it really shows.

Anything you’d like to say to your fans?

Smith: We really look forward to showing you Lara Croft’s defining moment, this is the end of the beginning, we call it. This is her becoming the Tomb Raider she was meant to be, and we really believe that this is a perfect jumping off point, not only for the long term fans who are gonna get a lot of great stuff out of it, from playing the first two, they’re going to see a lot of things, but also brand new people, that maybe have never played the first two. This is the ultimate Tomb Raider experience, where we’re delivering the most professional, empowered Lara Croft you’ve ever seen.

Murray: Yes, so this is a great place to start playing, if you never have. And, don’t forget to pet the llamas!

Thank you to Jill Murray and Heath Smith for taking the time to chat with us! Shadow of the Tomb Raider will be available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on September 14th, and you can learn more about the game at the official Tomb Raider site, or read about our time going hands-on with the original and the jungle warfare demos.

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Chaotic wholesome. Dice-maker. DM and TTRPG performer. Shiny Pokémon hunter. Kay works in video games during the day, speaks at conferences during the weekends, and pretends to be an orc, tiefling, android, etc by night.

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