It's been a tough few years for the team rebooting Tomb Raider. More hit with controversy than hype, the upcoming 2013 game has been widely criticized for its portrayal of its lead Lara Croft -- and that was before one of the developers talked about rape and turned the reboot into the Todd Akin of games.
Get beyond that -- as the developers have consistently tried to do from almost the moment the controversy broke -- and you'll see a team that's actually working hard to change the series' image for the better.
The development team brought on Karl Stewart as its global brand director for the franchise, and has worked with him on a complete ground-up reimagining that can set the tone for the games moving forward.
"This is about looking to the future and making sure that this delivers so that there's structure for that future," Stewart told Gamasutra last year.
"For us as a studio, we've looked at where we've been, and we felt, well, now is a chance as a studio to put out a definition of our character and help evolve it, make it culturally relevant for today."
One of the most important ways the developers hope to bring the series up-to-date is to tackle the character of Lara Croft herself. As Stewart recognizes, the heroine has defined the franchise since its inception.
Writer Rhianna Pratchett (Heavenly Sword, Mirror's Edge) is one of the most essential contributors to the effort to redefine Lara. Though she's primarily in charge of the game's cinematic writing, she's been working in close collaboration with the development team for over two years to evolve and refine the story and integrate narrative into the game.
"There have been grumbles in certain quarters that we've broken her down and taken a strong character and made her weak. That's really not the case," Pratchett says, by way of clearing the air.
On the contrary, she says, "She's determined, caring, brave, empathetic, passionate and strong-willed, all of which come through during the gameplay and the narrative."
The problem of perception, she says, stems as much from their deliberate creative choices as it does from untoward remarks to the press. The developers "wanted to take Lara back to a time where she didn't have all the answers, the guns and the quippy one-liners, and show her evolution towards becoming the Tomb Raider."
There's a good reason for that, Pratchett argues: "The rich, untouchable, Teflon-coated, British ice-queen isn't exactly relatable for players, especially in this climate."
The 1990s -- their economic prosperity, their 3D-in-form but 2D-in-soul game protagonists -- are dead. "I was particularly keen to bring some warmth and empathy back to Lara, as I think that's something that's been rather lost over the years -- particularly in the movies," she says.
Pratchett is unapologetic about the direction the team has taken the character -- saying "as creatives, we always have to make choices about the direction we take our story and characters. You've never going to completely please everyone, so it's more important to be true to your own vision."
Still, she remains confident that the team is going in the right direction, and it's driven not just by a need to redefine the character, but also for the game and character to irretrievably intermingle -- and the team at Crystal Dynamics has worked very closely, across disciplines, to make sure that happens.
"One of the things we've been keen to do with Tomb Raider is explore the idea that action equals character. It's a fairly standard idea in other entertainment mediums, but in games there's often a strange disconnect with the way a character is presented in cutscenes (heroic, quippy, everyone's pal) and the way they act during the gameplay, i.e. mowing down enemies like there's no tomorrow," Prachett says.
"The key is making the action part of the story and not something that exists outside of it. With Lara we wanted to show that her actions (particularly when she takes a human life for the first time) have an impact on her character and emotional state."
The division between storytelling and gameplay is, ultimately, artificial, Pratchett argues. "It's all story, at the end of the day," she says. "Narrative actually saturates every facet of a game world -- be it the level design, the gameplay mechanics, the characters, soundscape, etcetera."
"From a narrative perspective, I wanted to make sure that the gameplay mechanics fed back into Lara's character make-up... Looking at gameplay mechanics is often a good jumping-off point when putting together someone like Lara. It's working backwards a little bit, but it means there's not so much of a disconnect between character and action. The bravery, tenacity and resourcefulness that Lara shows during the gameplay are definitely reflected in her personality."
Working backwards to flesh out a game character may be a great tactic -- but it's not as if Pratchett really had any choice. When she became invovled in the project, the game's cast was roughed in "in avatar form." She spent "serious time defining a world narrative and characters" -- work she considers "extremely important, because it gives you a solid basis to work upon."
"It's important for writers to understand how the whole iceberg is constructed, even if what players experience is only the tip," she says. "I spent a long time constructing bios, treatments and meta-scripts before I actually started writing a single word -- which is exactly how it should be."
This is a big problem with most game writing, Pratchett argues. "Not enough thought goes into defining the logic of a game world, which is something that narrative is very useful for doing," she says. "In general, logic is more important than realism."
The lack of proper integration of writers into the development process, she says, is part of the industry's growing pains: writing for games is a "young profession within a young industry."
In her view, this youthfulness means that there's a lack of understanding of how narrative functions; "the industry's general narrative literacy is also pretty low, at least when compared to other entertainment fields," Pratchett says. Writing -- and how best to utilize it -- is well understood in other creative media, but not all developers are used to leveraging its strengths.
That means that there are issues with how writers are integrated into the process, she says -- often "like square pegs trying to fit into round holes." Her worry is that, in general, "the industry is still wrestling with how best to use narrative professionals. Unfortunately, there's a great deal of misuse out there."
"Those [developers] that really know about the construction of good narrative, characterization, structure, and plot are few and far between (although the people that think they do are rife.) Moreover, the people that know how to work with narrative in games specifically are even rarer," Pratchett says.
Here's an example of how complicated writing for games can be. "Pacing and structure is actually one of the greatest challenges in games narrative," says Pratchett.
The fact that even a familiarity with linear media doesn't necessarily translate in what's best when it comes to creating narrative for games helps complicate things. "You're no longer writing a story to neatly fit into 90 to 120 pages, or an hour TV slot; you're supporting a narrative over 10-plus hours," she says.
Even talking about how to write games can be tough. "I guess it's somewhere between a TV series... and book chapters," says Pratchett. But even though you're "often constructing the central narrative in a linear fashion," there's no guarantee that the player will "always experience it that way."
"There are so many challenges in writing for games that it really is a truly unique medium to work in," she says. The good news is that games are actually a fantastic structure for leveraging narrative, argues Pratchett.
"Humans are storytelling/story-experiencing creatures -- we're always looking for the narrative. So being a games writer is about using all those facets to create a cohesive narrative logic to the world, giving the gameplay context and meaning and helping players actually care about what's happening in the game, not just understand it," says Pratchett.
She is not alone in this opinion. Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner recently told Gamasutra that "the best cinematic storytelling in a game happens during the gameplay itself. The most powerful moments in a game are the moments we're playing ourselves; that's what we remember."
Extend Mechner's thoughts, and you have Pratchett's philosophy: that writing can join every element of the game together into a cohesive whole. Pratchett just wants to see writers get their due, and get the chance to help shape games into true narrative experiences.
"The real challenge is working out which of those limits (such as limitations of tech, space, and gameplay) you have to work within, and which you need to push back against and seek to change -- such as the need for writers to be involved earlier on, or given more space, agency and respect," she says.
While she recognizes the problems the industry faces in better integrating writing into its creative processes, she does see some hope. "A larger section of the industry, press, and gamers themselves do seem to be embracing narrative as an integral part of the gaming experience. There are far more articles, books and blog posts discussing the craft of games writing -- when it goes right, when it goes wrong, and why."