Tomb Raider interview: Crystal Dynamics senior art director, Brian Horton

PC World talks to Crystal Dynamics senior art director, Brian Horton, about reimagining Lara Croft

Namco Bandai recently held an event to let the media to go hands-on with the new Tomb Raider game following its demonstration at E3 2012. The playable demo featured the first few levels of the game, and the change from past titles in the franchise was immediately apparent. Gone is the running down twisting tunnels and jumping between platforms while gunning down the native wildlife. This Tomb Raider instead features scripted yet action packed gameplay and moody environments that are populated by intelligent enemies. The game seems to have taken a page out of Uncharted when it came to streamlining the gameplay into a more cinematic experience, which is not a bad thing as the Uncharted games are some of the best third person adventures to come out.

Following the hands-on with the Tomb Raider demo, PC World had the opportunity to speak with Crystal Dynamics senior art director, Brian Horton, about the development of the game and how it fits into the franchise’s long history.

Crystal Dynamics has already released three Tomb Raider games for this generation of consoles. How is this instalment going to be different to the previous ones?

Crystal Dynamics senior art director, Brian Horton (BH): The goal of this game is to create an action adventure Tomb Raider game, one that is reshuffled and refactored for the modern gamer. What’s different is that it is an action survival experience now, so while it fits in the action adventure genre we have coined this new phrase. It is more action centric and story driven with a complex narrative about Lara Croft when she was 21 years old and on her first adventure. It’s about her transformation from someone who is inexperienced and into a hero. That’s a big change for the Tomb Raider franchise where Lara Croft has always been fully formed. So with this game we get to show Lara’s first adventure.

What about gameplay?

BH: We have put more attention on the combat system. We have a “fluid cover system” where a player can easily move in and out of cover without hitting a button, with a third person camera perspective for the combat. Our combat has a combination of high action moments and pseudo stealth elements. There’s also a mechanic at the camp sites where Lara can upgrade her tools, weapons and abilities by collecting salvage or gaining XP. The game also features physics driven puzzles and an analogue navigation system. There are a ton of new features but packed in a way that makes it feel like a new game.

The game’s title this time around is simply Tomb Raider and Lara Croft’s name is not in the title as it was in the past. What was the reason for this?

BH: The original Tomb Raider game was simply called Tomb Raider. It wasn’t a Lara Croft adventure and that’s what it really was. We want this game to be the first Tomb Raider game for a new generation. So we went with a simple title and tried to make a statement that this really is her first adventure. This was not going to be a story that ends and ties into the old games. These were going to be new stories from herein out.

So is it a reboot, a prequel or both?

BH: I see it as a reimaging of the franchise. It’s a reboot in the fact that it’s not a prequel to existing stories, so I feel reimaging is the best way to describe this game.

There have been numerous Tomb Raider instalments since the debut of the franchise in 1996. What are the challenges in creating a new instalment in a series with such a long legacy?

BH: It’s a very revered franchise for a lot of people, where people love the character and the games. They also have strong memories of what it felt to play the first Tomb Raider game. The goal is to honour such people that have this connection to the franchise, but at the same time deliver something new and a game for someone who has no experience with Tomb Raider, so they can immediately get into it and have a fun time. So the challenge is essentially making sure we’re honouring the past while at the same time doing something new for the future.

Did Crystal Dynamics still draw inspiration from the old Core developed Tomb Raider games? Or was it just limited to the new trilogy of Tomb Raider games?

BH: On a personal level, I played Tomb Raider since the very beginning on the original PlayStation. I wanted to get that same feeling I had when playing a Tomb Raider game for the first time. When we designed Lara and became different from that original vision, she still has all of the elements such as the top, the bottom, the boots and the ponytail. I wanted people to look at her and see it as a realistic take on the same character.

Why the original Tomb Raider in particular?

BH: The original game also had a very mature flavour to it, even though it was a teen rated game at the time. It was very graphic with depictions of death, so it was a very realistic take in an era of video games that were more light hearted. After all, it was an era where Mario was king. That gritty take that the original developers brought to the industry is something we wanted to do but on the next level. We wanted to make a grounded and gritty game that would stand out from the other competitive titles that we have seen in the third person action adventure genre.

Lara Croft had a braid in the first Tomb Raider game that later turned into a ponytail in Tomb Raider II onwards. Was there any consideration to include the braid in this Tomb Raider instead of the ponytail?

BH: Core have stated that they wanted a ponytail in the original game but they did not have the technology at the time to pull it off. We weren’t going to go back to the braid, and it was a conscious decision we made early. We decided to instead stick with the loose ponytail. There was talk at one point of Lara not having long hair and a ponytail, but we quickly realised it’s an iconic part of her personality. Even though the first Tomb Raider didn’t have it, it’s still something we think of when we hear of Lara Croft.

Out of all of the Tomb Raider games in the franchise, which one would you say is your favourite?

BH: It would be the very first one, as it was the first time I was introduced to the franchise. Tomb Raider II was also fantastic, but the first Tomb Raider was the game that opened my eyes up to what three dimensional gaming can be. That and Mario 64 were games that changed my whole perception of what video games can be as a medium.

Crystal Dynamics has been busy working on the Tomb Raider franchise these last few years, meaning some of its legacy franchises have disappeared from the spotlight. Any chance of new instalments in series such as Gex?

BH: We don’t have any plans for Gex games in the future, but Gex is one of those mascots that Crystal Dynamics was known for back in the day. I have good friends that I work with that brought Gex to life. The current creative director of Tomb Raider was also a part of that. I’m actually a huge Soul Reaver fan and love the series, and I’d like to see more of it. But at the moment Tomb Raider is our main focus and we believe this vision of the franchise is the right time to reimagine it, and it will hopefully set the stage for more games for us in the future.

Want to read other video game interviews with key figures from Sony, Microsoft and more? Then check out PC World's complete interview archive.

Tags Crystal DynamicsPlaystation 3XBox 360Tomb Raider

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Patrick Budmar

Patrick Budmar

PC World


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