[GDC RECAP] Emotional Synchronization and the Croft of Systems Design

Now that Tomb Raider is out and about, we’re eager to show fans some of the impressive technology under the game’s hood. A handful of Crystal Dynamics’ staffers recently attended the annual Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, presenting on Tomb Raider’s system design, tools, camera, and more. I’ve culled down their presentations into a slightly more digestible format to give you some insider information on making the game!

If you missed our first two features, check out Jason Lacroix’s talk on TressFX and light-based rendering. Next up to bat is Jonathan Hamel, our Senior Systems Designer and part-time children’s book writer, speaking to systems design and emotional synchronization in Tomb Raider.

So what is emotional synchronization? In Tomb Raider, emotional synchronization was used as a benchmark to measure if narrative design and gameplay systems aligned, making the player experience more meaningful as a result.

It was decided very early on that Tomb Raider would be built upon three gameplay pillars in the “Survival Action” genre. Those three pillars are:

  • A smart and resourceful protagonist: Lara Croft
  • A fluid, dynamic traversal and exploration system
  • Desperate, brutal combat 

Each of the above is comprised of a diverse roster of gameplay systems used to support the overall experience. For example, combat encompasses ranged, melee, and stealth systems, as well as a fluid cover and weapon upgrades. All of these systems had to work in tandem to present a believable experience featuring a young woman evolving from a rookie to a seasoned adventurer. To achieve this, the systems had to hold a greater purpose – to be bigger than the sum of their parts. Jonathan’s job was to make these systems meaningful in the greater context of the game.

As development on Tomb Raider progressed, Jonathan and the team discovered something interesting. When the player’s emotional state reflected that of Lara’s perceived emotional state (thus, achieving emotional synchronization), playtesters felt they were taking part in a meaningful journey rather than playing around with a collection of features. Simply put, when Lara and the player’s emotional states overlapped, it made for a better game.

As with most entertainment, emotion emerges as a result of narrative. In linear media such as books or movies, however, we’re passive to unfolding events. Game narratives have the bonus layer of interactivity, presenting an extra challenge when it comes to synchronizing feelings between the character and the player. The gameplay mechanics will either support the narrative and enhance the experience, or jar you out of it. If the player felt out of step with Lara, the bubble would burst and the meaningfulness of her journey would crumble. This truth had a dramatic impact on the systems design in Tomb Raider. How exactly? Jonathan’s presentation provided several potent examples.

First up, combat. Early in development Tomb Raider didn’t have a cover system. It didn’t fit with the personality of past Tomb Raider games, and at that point combat was thought to be mostly ranged versus melee, similar to Resident Evil or Dead Space. As the game evolved, however, the team found that the players would simply retreat through the environment to shoot, and subsequently felt detached from the environment rather than a part of it. Combined with the early concepts for enemies, the tone was too far away from survival action. It felt more like survival horror – not what the team wanted.

As the game evolved, enemy design settled on humans in the form of Solarii cultists, and having (relatively) sane humans rushing an armed player for melee attacks didn’t make sense. Human antagonists also necessitated more intelligence from enemies, including fine-tuning squad behavior, self-preservation systems, and so on. Left as is, combat felt like a shooting gallery. Lara wouldn’t just hang back and pop off headshots. She’d be fast and nimble. She’d run and jump and use her traversal training to avoid enemies.

With enemies taking cover, it made sense for Lara to do the same. A sticky cover system like in Gears of War didn’t feel right for Lara. She needed a tactical advantage to make up for her smaller size. Lara’s strength is in her agility. As such, the fluid cover system was born. If Lara is near cover and enemies are present, she’ll use it. The scramble became a defensive move to quickly get from point to point of cover.

In the early stages of combat design, the player felt disconnected from Lara and the world. Eventually both the fiction and gameplay pushed towards a ranged player versus ranged enemy combat styling, resulting in the development of a fluid cover mechanic that aided in overall emotional synchronization of the player.

With all this talk about ranged combat, why introduce melee at all? Jonathan says the team actually resisted melee for a long time. Melee is especially tricky because if it’s overpowered in a ranged game it will break the experience. The team recognized that in a game featuring visceral survival elements, melee was thematically important and a way to recover from running out of ammo. As such, the decision was made to include melee, but the exact implementation was up in the air. The team tested shoving enemies back to shooting range, contextual-only melee moves, and even an underpowered system with purchasable upgrades.

Time and time again, playtesters kept their focus on an important piece of Lara’s equipment. They wanted the ability to use Lara’s axe against foes, and it seemed rational that she’d use it as a defensive tool. The challenge became straddling the line between melee feeling too violent, or too heroic, and as a result breaking synchronization. Stealth kills and dodging to open windows of vulnerability helped maintain a scrappy and resourceful feel to melee combat.

The implementation of ranged combat, melee combat, and the fluid cover system resonated with playtesters. They felt like Lara, desperately using all their skills to escape a situation by the skin of their teeth. Whereas one dominant combat strategy would have broken the bubble of emotional synchronization, the dynamic pacing resulting from alternating between cover-based ranged combat and melee combat actually fortified it.

Next up, the brains of the game – a smart and resourceful Lara Croft. The most interesting synchronization stories center on survival skills, salvage, and gear-based interactions on Yamatai.

During the concept phase of Tomb Raider, Jonathan immersed himself in survival fiction and non-fiction, including Gary Paulson’s children’s novel, Hatchet. The tale stressed a person’s dependence on tools when stranded in the wild. The team was sold on the idea of a climbing axe being used to gate traversal, as it wouldn’t feel right for an inexperienced Lara Croft to jam her fingers and toes into tiny cracks like in past games. Jonathan proposed that an upgrade ramp would help the player feel that Lara was investing in and dependent on similar gear items.

In terms of the application, somatic mimesis was key – creating a digital interaction that feels like a real world counterpart through the game’s controls. Prying and cranking replicated this by mashing buttons to simulate the effort needed to open a container. The same was true for igniting objects. Holding down a button for a set period of time would see an object smolder, then emit smoke, and then eventually ignite. If the player stopped applying heat, the object would naturally cool off.

Some ideas of somatic mimesis didn’t make the cut, though, such as experimentation with using the sticks to emulate Lara feeling a fallen enemy’s clothing for ammo. In Jonathan’s own words “it was a terrible idea.”

Jonathan next explained that survival skills via a light RPG system was a clear way to mirror the narrative of a young woman unlocking her full potential. That being said, fine-tuning the unlocks was important to keeping the action adventure pacing, rather than turning into a full-blown RPG. The skills also had to offer sufficient enough choice to allow the player to express their individual play style. At first 20-30 skills were created and divvied up in three pillars: resourcefulness, traversal, and combat. This approach didn’t work. Traversal upgrades essentially broke the game by making it difficult for the player to quickly evaluate successful jumping distances. The biggest challenge, though, was once again emotional synchronization – there was a disconnect if Lara could stab a guy in the throat one moment, and then revert to being an unsure young woman the next narrative moment.

To combat this a skill gating system was set up to prevent players from buying specific abilities until Lara was ready for them. The system required the player to purchase enough skills at a specific level to unlock the next tier. This option gave the player choice, while keeping Lara from becoming too tough, too soon. Overall the team built around 35 skills, but only 24 made it in the game. Some seemed gratuitous for even a hardened Lara. Others we merged into a single skill so that there wouldn’t be too much difference between the more and less valuable-feeling skills.

Not everything was a hard-won lesson in the development of Tomb Raider. Air steering was a decision made early on that turned out to be a gem. It ultimately gave the player a feeling of agency and again aided in synchronizing the player to Lara. This time, however, it was Lara synchronizing to the player’s actions rather than vice versa, as she would adapt to movements and adjustments mid-air.

Collectables are great for encouraging fans to explore every inch of a world, as well as giving them a benchmark for success against peers. In Tomb Raider incentivizing those collectibles was easy enough – creating sets of items begged for completion, and displaying the full catalog of collectibles from the start motivated players further. The method of allowing retraversal to find these collectibles, however, proved difficult. Environmental destruction prevented linear backtracking to nab missing collectibles in several key areas.

The team decided to implement a base camp system, which would allow the player to fast travel backwards to anywhere they had previously rested. This created a conundrum, though. Fast traveling away during a key plot point would disconnect the player from Lara’s current plight, but upgrading tools or skills could be crucial to progression in the narrative. Two types of camps were needed as a result. Day camps are slightly less permanent looking, and allow for upgrading weapons and unlocking skills, but not fast traveling. Base camps on the other hand give Lara the chance to take a break, explore, and deviate from the narrative.

The above are only a handful of gameplay considerations that encourage emotional synchronization in Tomb Raider. Achieving this alignment isn’t easy, as systems need to be finely tuned with an engaging story and reward mechanics to ensure they’re not working against each other. As Jonathan illustrated, the team spent an incredible amount of time iterating on design based upon playtest feedback so to ensure the player felt one with Lara, not at odds with her.