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Shadow of the Tomb Raider and the risk of making an introspective AAA game

Shadow of the Tomb Raider wants to help players dive into Lara Croft's character, but its developers say it's not commentary. How do developers sell emotionally risky games to the world?

"We're trying to tell a good story. It's fiction. We're not making a social commentary on anything."

This is one of the first comments from Jason Dozois, narrative director at Eidos-Montreal, during a conversation about Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Depending on your experience, that's either a frustratingingly familiar sentiment---one that reinforces the argument that games don't "mean" anything, or more likely, you recognize that line as a balancing act developers try and walk to make complex expensive games in an increasingly competitive market. 

To back up a moment, let's set the scene a little. This conversation is taking place in a group interview, during a preview event for Shadow of the Tomb Raider at The Mayan in Los Angeles. Five reporters, who've spent the evening demoing the game alongside cosplayers and other influencer types, and we're all trying to suss out the complicated realities of what the Tomb Raider series has become in 2018.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is not a Battle Royale game. It's not a shooter chasing market trends, its core loop doesn't seem to focus on any kind of live game with microtransactions and extended play, it's a level-driven single-player experience that, whatever Eidos-Montreal and Square Enix build around it, needs to sell millions of copies to justify the investment from its publisher. 

So to do that, it has to push beyond expectations, to justify paying $60 for another setpiece-driven action-romp. And it seems to be! The preview event included an hour-long demo that showed off some familiar staples of the reboot series, but also some new technical achievements (Swimming! Rappelling!) and interesting story conceits (Did Lara Croft accidently trigger a 2012-style Mayan Apocalypse?). But it can't be TOO boundary-pushing, both because it has to build on the technical foundations established by Crystal Dynamics (and partly Eidos-Montreal), and it has to walk a very fine line based on Tomb Raider's brand history. 

As Dozois and lead game designer Heath Smith further discuss Shadow of the Tomb Raider, a few more interesting tidbits slip out. One is that Eidos-Montreal seems to be building on the tech of Deus Ex's hub worlds and implementing them as a "living breathing world," where NPCs can react to the actions that the player's taken in the game.

Smith also discusses how implementing the rappelling system, which lets players slowly descend from climbable walls that have been a core part of the new series' design, became a thematic conceit for the level design team as well. "What we tried to do is pick up on the narrative theme of Lara's descending into this...unstable mental state. We tried to choose all the new traversal systems based on that. So you're descending by the [rappelling line], you're descending underwater into new spaces."

From the perspective of designing elaborate, polished, triple-A levels, that does add one fascinating technical conceit. "If you can rappel down, you need to get back up," meaning that the flow of Shadow of the Tomb Raider's entire level design needs to respond to these design and technical changes. If you've actually played these games, that's kind of a big deal, and is definitely a huge reason that they remain so compelling and playable! 

But complex level design tricks don't necessarily sell millions of copies of Tomb Raider. Lara Croft and her overseas adventures sell those copies. So we're back to talking about her arc, her story, and why this is the game where she "finally becomes the Tomb Raider." (Was she...not before?)

And in here, a genuinely interesting conundrum starts to arrive: in so many ways, Shadow of the Tomb Raider seems to want to be a self-inward look at Lara Croft's character, and the consequences of plundering people's burial sites without thinking about what comes next (Dozois explicitly states that Croft 'causes a Mayan Apocalypse,' which seems slightly unrealistic, but hey, it's a metaphor). To gaze inward at the character of Croft is social commentary though, and it kind of has been since the first Tomb Raider reboot in 2014.

Without delving too deep into Tomb Raider's public existence from the prior games, the reboot not only intended to reframe the Indiana Jones-inspired heroine as a desperate survivalist, it also seemed to run frantically away from the days of yore when the series was promoted with official models, magazine spreads and frequently sexist humor. 

In that transition, Lara Croft shifted to being more of an aspirational hero, and Square-Enix now sells her adventures on the promise of not just getting to explore far-off lands, but her internal character as well. But when those two things are inextricably linked, how do you not wind up making any kind of commentary?

When Dozois comments that "we're very much thinking that tomb raiding can be a destructive thing, and what [Lara] needs to do is learn that tomb raiding can be about protecting cultures, not destroying," those are really interesting concepts that can underpin an action-adventure experience. But if Shadow of the Tomb Raider hopes to meet its sales goals, it also needs to treat those ideas as somewhat uninteresting, as fodder for iconography and the promise of setpiece-driven adventures. 

Recently, when the developers behind Frostpunk explained part of their thesis to Gamasutra, they explained that they were making a game interested in the slow growth of authoritarianism, but weren't able to comment on what modern-day events were partly inspiring them. 

Here, in explaining Shadow of the Tomb Raider to the world, its developers claim there isn't any social commentary at all. But the notion of triple-A games, particularly the action-adventure variety, adding any mechanics that help players reflect on their actions is a genuinely fascinating and interesting advancement. But the future is unclear if the performance of Shadow of the Tomb Raider will interest developers in trying to further explore these mechanics, or if the risks around selling this kind of title just don't pay off. 

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