Lara's New Look
Issue: Volume 36 Issue 5: (July/August 2013)

Lara's New Look

A REVAMPED Lara Croft appears in a re-booted adventure sim-ply titled Tomb Raider, which puts her survival skills to the test.

Ever since she burst onto the gaming scene in 1996, the aristocrat/archaeologist/adventurer Lara Croft commanded – and received – attention, becoming one of the first, and then one of the more popular, female heroines in the gaming world.

Over the years, the pixelated game character morphed into a slick action hero during her many escapades on the screen while starring in the Tomb Raider game franchise. She was brought to real life, too, in her movie debut via actress Angelina Jolie. (In fact, she is a multimedia sensation, also the focus of comic books, novels, and even a theme-park ride.) Recently, though, Lara – and the game franchise in general – received a reboot, thanks to the team at Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix.

“Lara is one of the most iconic characters in video games. She has fans all over the world, and it was our responsibility to bring her back to relevance,” says Brian Horton, senior art director at Crystal Dynamics. “The third-person, 3D action-adventure formula that Tomb Raider established in 1996 was still viable, and we were excited to bring new ideas to the formula.”

Crystal Dynamics has been Lara’s (and the franchise’s) “handler” since 2003. Prior to that, Core Design developed the franchise and released six Tomb Raider titles with Eidos Interactive. After handing over the reigns to Crystal Dynamics, Lara was resurrected and four other Tomb Raider titles were made, including the latest, simply named Tomb Raider. Initially, this latest release was to be a sequel to Crystal Dynamics’ 2008 Tomb Raider Underworld. But, after the mega-success of the reboots of Batman and James Bond, the studio decided it was time, too, for Lara and the franchise to get a makeover for a new generation.

And that is indeed what happened, as the project went through multiple phases of discovery. According to Horton, at least a year was spent exploring difficult concepts before settling on the survival origin story of the new title. They decided to rescript Lara from an invincible, dashing action figure to one showing her as younger, more vulnerable “survivor” type of character.

TOMB RAIDER INCORPORATES classic elements of the series, such as puzzle-solving, into the new title.

“This is a complete re-imagining, so our game takes place in 2013, and this is Lara’s first adventure,” Horton says.

According to Horton, the studio believed that Lara’s story had been taken to a logical conclusion with Underworld, and that she couldn’t really grow much as a character from that. “The modern gamer is looking for emotional depth in their heroes, and this inspired our survival origin story. We redesigned Lara as a 21-year-old novice just out of university on her first expedition,” he says. “She’s much more grounded and believable in this incarnation, both in look and characterization.”

As Horton explains, Lara’s new look had to feel relevant. The group started with her biography and character. “Our Lara is more emotionally rich. We see her transform from an unsure novice to a capable survivor throughout the game,” says Horton. "She is a more flexible, nuanced, believable character.”

Once the direction of the game was nailed down, the team spent approximately three and a half years from preproduction to delivery. During that time, the crew at Crystal Dynamics took a hard look at Lara and started an extreme makeover, ferreting out which elements would stay, which would go, and which would be tweaked, before proceeding with development. Gone are Lara’s trademark hot pants and pistols strapped to her legs. Instead, she is dressed more practically, as one might expect from a shipwreck survivor, and her weapons of choice – shotgun, ax, and bow – are more practical as a result of her situational circumstances.

THE GAME ENVIRONMENTS play a major role in the title, as Lara must conquer the challenges they present.

Lara’s World

Tomb Raider explores the intense, gritty origin of Lara Croft. The game opens as Lara sets off on her first archaeological expedition, only to be shipwrecked and washed ashore, alone, on a mysterious island. Far from paradise, the island proves to be a hostile place that tests Lara both physically and emotionally.

According to Darrell Gallagher, head of studio at Crystal Dynamics, the effects system brings the world to life with fluids to fire, and everything between. “It encompasses all the techniques we developed over the course of the game to make the island feel like a second character in the game,” he says. “Lara is battling this island, overcoming insurmountable odds – that was a big part of the story, and this foe needed to be larger than life. It couldn’t be just a static, gentle ride for her.”

Noah Hughes, creative director at Crystal Dynamics, points out that Lara is often a product of her environment in the game: If she is in a spooky, dark, scary, claustrophobic place, she reacts by looking around nervously and expressing that emotion.

“We weren’t just animating each move; we wanted core animations so the animators could really bring her to life and ground her in the world by overlaying different emotional states and physical awareness for Lara,” says Hughes.

And that was no simple task, Gallagher points out. Everyone knows what a human should look like and how they should react in the situation they are in. So bringing the character to life when the viewer is an expert is tough to do, especially when the artists and animators are dealing with a variety of gameplay scenarios. Therefore, modeling, animation, and expressiveness were paramount. “The pixels have to make the player believe the character is real,” Gallagher says.

The New Lara

Complicating the character creation process was the fact that Lara Croft is a well recognized character, so from a modeling perspective, the team had to retain enough of the “old” Lara while making her feel like a “new” Lara – one that players come to think of as a real character. As a result, the creative team spent countless hours determining which elements of Lara’s appearance would be changed. “We just chiseled away at her until we felt we had retained the qualities of the original character but with an updated look for today,” says Gallagher. “We had many Laras, or Lara’s relatives, that we threw out in the process.”

Hughes adds that when they broke down the character and rebuilt her, they had to throw away a lot to get to the core. “You can’t throw away too many things or you don’t have the character anymore,” he says. Her look is more functional, and she wears practical clothes. For instance, the iconic ponytail remains, as does her brown eyes and athletic physique, though it is more realistically proportioned. She still wears boots and a tank top with a natural fit as opposed to the body-hugging version she wore in previous iterations. And now she wears cargo pants instead of hot pants, while a slim belt hangs from her waist, replacing the large, thick version she once wore.

“We kept these things because we wanted her to resemble Lara, and felt these were important elements to achieving that goal. We feel the spirit of her original outfit is present with her boots, cargo pants, and gray tank top,” says Horton.

According to Horton, Lara gets cold, wet, muddy, and bloody throughout the game, and her clothes show distress over time from the harrowing events she survives. “All those changes were essential for our player to feel an emotional connection to her as a believable person on a hero’s journey.”

Hughes agrees. “She held up with those changes. From the physicality sense, if you look at her face – that is the first thing we do as humans – she appears natural, whether in the game, in cut-scenes, or on the box,” says Hughes. “And that was the most difficult challenge, making her into that new model version but still being able to look back at the older version and see how we got there and have the DNA still intact. It’s just as much an art as it is a science.”

Indeed, artists had to sculpt the new 3D model in such a way that it retained the previous model’s basic facial structure and physical proportions – for instance, the relationship between her eyes, nose, and mouth – while modifying the sizes to make them more realistic. “It was taking those things that were exaggerated to the one-millionth extreme of realism and making them belong in the realm of common variation that you might see [in real life],” says Hughes. “They are the same proportional exaggerations but dialed in to a natural deviation of a human, with the goal of bringing her close to the real-human version of herself.”

The artists started with a costumed full-body scan so that the proportions were true to life and the clothes felt realistic; artist Kam Yu then spent months iterating until the new Lara was born. The rig contains hundreds of bones so that the model deforms correctly. Animators employed a combination of full-performance capture for the cinematics and keyframe animation for the in-game motion. To ensure that the movement was realistic, they referenced video and performed moves using an in-house Xsens motion-capture suit. Lara’s emotional journey is at the heart of the game, and to this end, the animators applied full facial animation to the character, along with wrinkle maps so she could express her emotions.

“We also have an amazing piece of technology that allows animators to use hundreds of blended animations that allow Lara to do procedural animations, such as touching the walls when she is close to them, clutching wounds, head tracking on points of interest, and so on,” says Horton. “This technology brings Lara to life so you never see repeated animation cycles while playing the game.”

The team applied textures in Pixologic’s ZBrush, creating a model with millions of polygons and baking out the normal maps. Diffuse and specular maps described the color and shininess of the surfaces, and special shaders helped define skin, hair, cloth, leather, and metal. “The textures and shaders procedurally change when she gets wet, muddy, and damaged,” says Horton.

A dynamic cloth model was used to simulate Lara’s hair, ponytail, and fringe on her clothing. According to Horton, the group worked with AMD to create TressFX, a revolutionary process that allowed the artists to render thousands of translucent strands of hair that simulate with wind and other forces, and will exhibit different behaviors when wet and dry.

The Way She Moves

In addition to updating Lara’s appearance, the team revamped her physical abilities. “Lara’s growth as a character is manifested in our new survival skills and weapon upgrade system through basecamps,” Horton says. The studio retained the classic elements that popularized the Tomb Raider titles (traversal and combat moves, along with puzzle-solving) but added a modern twist.

The team completely reworked its combat mechanics, transitioned from a lock-based system to a full third-person aiming system, but retained the “survival” theme. (In this game, Lara uses her intelligence to outsmart enemies, rather than simply outgun them, as she had in previous titles.) She collects weapons during her adventure, including a bow and ax, which replaced the pistols.

For this, Crystal Dynamics developed the concept of a gear box, whereby Lara unearths new equipment to enable further exploration (and survival) capabilities as she traverses the environments and reaches particular “hubs” (large exploration spaces) in the world. The hubs were important from both a technical and gameplay perspective: They give players the chance to “get lost” and discover unique items and opportunities within the game.

The game also supports dynamic traversal, so for the first time players can control Lara all the way through a jump and select their own path through the world, using some of the new tools built to facilitate the traversal. Hughes notes that this helps the player maintain a connection with the character and not feel as if canned jumps were involved.

“We tried to celebrate Lara Croft as a character, so her movements were important,” Hughes says. “We didn’t want [the player] to just hang out behind covering, but to really flow through the environments – to climb around and use traversal to get better opportunity. We want them to be able to use the environment in a clever way.”

EFFECTS, SUCH AS FIRE, emphasize the dangers the island presents (above, left), as do some of its human and non-human inhabitants, including the wolves that stalk Lara throughout the game (above, center). LARA'S PHYSICAL proportions are now more realistic. Gone are her hot pants and pistols, replaced by more plausible items (above, right).

Environmentally Unfriendly

The island contains large hub areas and semi-open world spaces that are approximately a mile square in size – rendered at 30 fps in real time with the game engine. The artists used modular architecture and set dressing to create the detailed areas. They often feature vast vistas and can be traversed from one end to the other without any loading screens. To accomplish this, the studio developed a special method of streaming that allowed the artists to manage assets dynamically depending on where the player was at any one time. That, along with level-of-detail mesh and materials swapping, present a convincing illusion of a large, contiguous island.

The environment is teeming with rich wildlife (crows, gulls, chickens, rabbits, deer, boar, and wolves) and plant life created and placed by hand. The wolves are the only combat animal in the game, and they stalk Lara and work in packs to flank and attack. If Lara gets to an area they cannot reach, they have to intelligently exit the area. The animals are fierce, but the humans are more so, thanks to revised enemy AI behavior.

Effects – which Horton calls “the glue” that brings the game aesthetics together – help sell that this is a raw, hostile place where Lara will have to fight to survive. “The FX artists created everything from large weather systems to triggered effects, such as muzzle flashes and blood sprays,” he says. “The most exciting are the elemental systems, like our dynamic rain and fire system. We used our deferred lights to create interesting effects, like cascading water or burning embers on wood, to allow the artists to quickly ground their effects in the world.”

Lara uses fire as a tool. Thus, the team needed to show objects transition from a neutral to an on-fire state, which included custom shaders and design scripting to ensure the items had heat logic and could light other neighboring, burnable items on fire in order to propagate, Horton explains. Mike Oliver, principal VFX artist, relied on his film background to create many of the effects using traditional techniques, such as video capture for blood and dirt. The group also used some technical software, such as Sitni Sati’s FumeFX, to simulate fire and smoke into loopable animation flipbooks.

Shaders made the grass move in the wind, and a more sophisticated technique, called benies, moved the plants when the player or an AI character intersected the location; this approach also moved larger trees during storms.

Various techniques were used to create the water. The ocean contains a special shader that generates small waves, large waves, light transmission, and foam on the peaks. A cube map created the illusion of reflections, and all lights create highlights on the water. On smaller bodies of water, a shader makes ripples when Lara or a dynamic object interacts with it. Waterfalls are a mixture of polygonal sheets and particles made to create the feeling of falling water and mist.

In fact, the game contains a rich ecosystem that is made to feel persistent.

“We were always looking at how we could bring the world to life. Sometimes that is through weather effects, like wind, rain, snow, and sun, or time of day,” says Gallagher. “We pushed the lighting and atmosphere so it doesn’t feel like the character is just pasted on top of a CG world, but truly integrated into that world.”

According to Hughes, the artists pushed the physics system to bring the world to life, enabling players to solve physics-based puzzles by taking advantage of simulation and effects, such as buoyancy and pulleys, and having the world react the way a person would expect – and then challenging them to use that understanding to solve the puzzles in this physically rich world.

The engine is one that Crystal Dynamics has been using for quite some time, though updated continually for each subsequent title. The tools and workflow were completely rebuilt for level and art design, and for handing the assets faster and more efficiently. The engine was also tuned from a lightmap baked model to a deferred renderer so the lighting in the game is real time. This allowed the artists to place hundreds of dynamic lights to illuminate the world, props, and characters.

Not many franchises can successfully pull off a reboot, but Crystal Dynamics has done so with Lara Croft and Tomb Raider. And while it seems like a contradiction, the studio was able to look ahead while also looking behind, and in the process, turn Lara into a heroine for a new generation.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.