How Square Enix Montreal Brought the GO Experience to Tomb Raider
Lara Croft GO is the second instalment in the GO series, following Hitman GO. When we began development, we felt that it was critical to understand what defines a GO game. As it turns out, the answer wasn’t as simple as we thought. In fact, it took us most of the project and many iterations before we understood how to translate Tomb Raider into a GO game.
How it started
The pitch for Hitman GO raised a few eyebrows: the world of Agent 47, boiled down to a turn-based mobile game inspired by dioramas, board games, and architecture models. However, upon release, it became apparent our bet had paid off. The game was critically acclaimed and praised by fans around the world, and although we thought we had something good on our hands, we weren’t expecting such a high level of success. Our next step was to create something that would take this experience to the next level.
Early on, we focused on identifying what defined a “GO game”. Was it the fact that it looked like a board game? Was it the turn-based puzzle mechanic? We had a really hard time pinpointing it. So, instead of theorizing, we tackled the problem hands on: by making a new GO game.
Enter Lara Croft –With more than 15 games over the course of almost 20 years, she is one of the most iconic video game characters ever created. It didn't take us long to put two and two together …
When we started working on what would become Lara Croft GO, we knew as both players and developers that we didn’t want to simply create a sequel to Hitman GO with a Tomb Raider coat of paint. We wanted a more compelling proposition, but it would take many iterations for us to find exactly what to change and what to keep.
The first thing we questioned was the board game aesthetic of Hitman GO. It made perfect sense for Hitman’s universe: a sterile world, elegant and classy, where every enemy is just a pawn in an elaborate thinking-man’s puzzle. But it didn’t resonate with Lara Croft.
We began to play around with different ideas. What if levels were dioramas from an archaeological museum? Still too close to Hitman. What if we took inspiration from other toys, like popup books? Interesting and definitely less sterile, but we couldn’t see a compelling fit with the Tomb Raider brand. We needed a core visual theme that made sense for a Lara Croft game.
Back to the roots
Back in the days of the first Tomb Raider, hardware like the original PlayStation couldn’t display too many polygons in each frame. While working on those first instalment of the series, artists had to find ways to work with those constraints and it gave birth to this instantaneously recognizable “blocky” style. Low-poly was a hard technical reality.
This sparked our imaginations. What if we could make a modern version of this low-poly art style? The “blockiness” of the old Tomb Raider worked really well with our node-based puzzle mechanic.
To create this “blocky” low-poly look, we decided to work with flat coloured surfaces rather than textures. The results were interesting but felt generic. Through a long iterative process, we worked to define our own take on low-poly, finding the proper ratio between hard and soft edges, balancing flat surfaces versus geometric details, and establishing a framework for scene composition. The addition of foreground silhouettes and foggy backgrounds were key in crafting the final look of the game. Touch by touch, we honed in on an art direction that captured the essence of the old Tomb Raider but with a modern touch.
At the same time, there was another pivotal change to be made. We had prototyped mechanics with Lara and her enemies as plastic pawns, very similar to those in Hitman GO. But a static figurine climbing on rocks, throwing spears and escaping giant boulders just felt… dull. Acrobatics and platforming are key features of a Tomb Raider adventure, and we quickly realized that Lara had to be fully animated.
Our animator did an amazing job of quickly producing a first batch of short animations for Lara, and immediately everything felt better. Again, we looked back at Lara’s classic animations from the first Tomb Raider and they fit right in with our turn-based game.
After these two major changes, the ball really started rolling. We stripped elements from the game that didn’t resonate with the Tomb Raider franchise, and changed parts of the design to fit better into Lara Croft’s world.
For example, we really liked how the first Tomb Raider games were about Lara versus a hostile environment. It became clear that Lara wouldn’t be up against faceless henchmen, rather, she would be fighting to survive against dangerous creatures and escape deadly traps.
Another example is the way the levels are laid out. Hitman GO comprised a seemingly endless sequence of contracts around the world. Lara Croft GO is very much told like a classic three-act story with a beginning, middle and end.
Iteration after iteration, we were completely reshaping the game. Steering away from Agent 47’s cold & clinical world, we were building an ancient world, unexplored and mysterious, strongly influenced by our memories of the first Tomb Raider.
Capturing the essence
Despite all the changes between the two games, one thing stayed the same: our approach. Both times we tried to capture the essence of an experience – be it Assassination or Adventure. And there lies the key to define what makes a “GO” game. More than aesthetics or mechanics, it’s a process of distillation. By tapping into our feelings of playing the early Lara Croft games, we were able to condense the rich universe of Tomb Raider into a simple, elegant puzzle game.