To really understand Lara Croft, you have to get under her skin. Which, given she's a computer-generated character controllable in a hugely popular video game series, means speaking to the very real humans who bring her to life.
Californian studio Crystal Dynamics' second title in its reimaging of the Tomb Raider franchise, Rise of the Tomb Raider, is out now, exclusive to Xbox consoles. The game sees Lara travel from Syria to Siberia in search of the Divine Source, a mystical object said to grant people eternal life. Naturally, the game's story isn't a straightforward tale of leaving airport A to arrive at destination B, picking up the treasure in question and then jetting back to London for last orders. There's plenty of treachery afoot, wickedly devious challenges to overcome, and a sinister organisation by the name of Trinity for Lara to face off against. And that's all before she encounters some of the Divine Source's more, shall we say, veteran guardians.
The Lara Croft of Rise of the Tomb Raider is played by English actress Camilla Luddington, known to many for her television roles in Grey's Anatomy, Californication and True Blood. It's her second time playing Lara, after 2013's Tomb Raider, and she not only contributes her voice to the game but also performed motion capture for the character. The story she finds herself a part of is primarily penned by acclaimed games writer Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of the late Discworld series author Terry Pratchett, whose past credits include the previous Tomb Raider, Mirror's Edge and BioShock Infinite. We spoke to both of them about what it's like to be the lifeblood that flows through the digital veins of today's Lara Croft.
VICE: What were your first thoughts when you landed the role of Lara, for the 2013 game? Obviously you must have been excited, but those are some intimidating boots you're slipping into.
Camilla Luddington: Of course I was excited, and then I felt really intimidated, because she's such an iconic character. All of the Laras that came before me were so loved by fans, so I wasn't sure if my Lara would be embraced. But the reboot, and the direction the character was being taken in, seemed exciting to me. I thought this Lara seemed a lot more fleshed out, and grounded. But that weight of taking on someone so iconic was definitely there.
Did you study what previous voice actors in the role had achieved, or was your approach to pretty much start Lara from scratch, as perhaps best fits a reboot?
CL: I did look up what people had done before me, not in a way that would influence me, but because I felt I needed to respect my predecessors and look at what journey they'd taken the character on. This was a role that I knew I could take some artistic license with; it wasn't like stepping into someone else's shoes because, like you say, it's a reboot. Crystal Dynamics really helped to inform me about the direction the character was going in, so I did acknowledge previous Laras, but that didn't affect how I approached the role, how I created my own character.
Rhianna, writing for a character like Lara Croft poses some fairly unique challenges: the need to progress the character, to find new facets to her, while also remaining "true" to some extent to her legacy. When you first approached the project for the 2013 reboot, how many "versions" of this Lara did you go through before landing at what we saw then, and now in Rise...?
Rhianna Pratchett: By the time I joined the team the look of reboot Lara had already been established. In fact it was one of the things that attracted me to the project in the first place. Crystal Dynamics and I both had ideas of where we wanted to go with Lara and how we wanted to depict her. Luckily they gelled really well from the off. There was definitely a shared desire to reveal the more human side of Lara, and show her at a time when she didn't have the guns, gadgets and witty one-liners to deal with anything that life throws at her. We wanted to delve deeper than the Teflon-style Lara of previous incarnations, as fun as she was. We wanted to keep some of the traits that had made her a great character in the first place such as her resourcefulness, bravery and tenacity, but also rewind them to a point where they would be truly tested, and really start bubbling to the surface.
And did you have any hesitation in getting involved with a character like Lara, and a franchise like Tomb Raider, given its high profile?
RP: I had absolutely no hesitation. I'd already worked on two female protagonists – Nariko from Heavenly Sword and Faith from Mirror's Edge – so I felt well prepared for the challenge. Ultimately I had to stop thinking of her as an icon and just think of her as a character.
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Camilla, what were your own experiences of Lara, prior to 2013? Did you play the original Tomb Raider, from 1996?
CL: I did. My older brother had the original games, when I was younger, and he played them, and I was allowed on them once in a while, which felt like never, basically. But I watched him play a lot – I'm fairly terrible at video games – so my introduction was the first game, on the PlayStation. Then I saw the movies, with Angelina Jolie, so I got to know her better through those. But I know her first and foremost as a video game character – that was my introduction to Lara. It's funny, because I can clearly remember what that first game was like, and seeing the difference in the game of then compared to the one we've made now, it's just absolutely mind blowing. It's so strange.
What sort of feedback have you had, personally, from fans of the Tomb Raider series, for your take on Lara?
CL: The feedback that I love the most is what I get when I actually meet the fans, at places like Comic-Con. People really seem to have embraced, and fallen in love with new Lara, and they can relate to her more than they could any previous version. I meet a lot of young girls who tell me that the mantras that Lara has, on pushing forward and on keeping going, throughout dire situations, have really spoken to them, and they've taken that on board and it's helped them in their own lives. So that's really touching feedback.
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Rhianna, this Lara is pretty savvy with guns, and seems to enjoy getting stuck into combat.
RP: Lara's more confident and proactive now. She's really throwing herself in at the deep end. Rise... is about more than just survival. Although Lara doesn't openly admit it to herself, she's definitely getting a taste for adventure.
Camilla, you do the motion capture as well as the voice acting. Just what kind of shape does that require you to be in? Because both Rise of the Tomb Raider and its predecessor are pretty physical games.
CL: Physically, I have to say that I really wasn't aware, ahead of doing it, just how much work would go into the first game. We would be filming around nine hours of motion capture work every day, and I remember coming away from the first day, on the first game, just aching all over. It was obvious that I needed to be a bit more prepared. For some reason in my head I thought she'd just be killing the bad guys and that'd be it; I didn't realise just how much I'd also get beaten up! And whenever it gets tough on Lara, that means it has to be tough on me. So I did circuit training, and lots of running, and I did this thing in Los Angeles called SoulCycle, and they really helped keep me in shape, just in terms of pure stamina and endurance. Emotionally, I think you're going on a journey with the character, so you have to be present for each and every scene, and for me one thing I like to do is step away between takes, away from everyone else, listen to some music and just get into that place, to help me perform.
What sort of music were you listening to while shooting Rise of the Tomb Raider, then?
CL: I listened to a lot of Muse, actually. I think, for me, the music can't be a love song, or a nice ballad – and everything on a Muse album sounds kind of apocalyptic, almost. So that tone of music, that helped me get into character.
Were there any funny things you had to do in the studio, during the mo-cap work?
CL: The only thing that makes me laugh, sometimes, is when I describe myself as feeling like a fridge, with a bunch of fridge magnets stuck all over me, because all of the weapons have Velcro on them. People will come up to me while we're filming and just cover me in weapons. That was really funny. But the mo-cap suit is just like you see people use on TV, or in pictures; you have a camera attached to your head. It's definitely different to traditional acting, and the hardest thing, initially, is to get used to this camera being so close to your face. It's in your eye-line, and it takes a while to get used to that. But everything else, you quickly come to learn them.
Rhianna, as your career in games writing has progressed, have you felt an industry shift towards the medium actively attempting to tell stories on a par with those found in the written word, films and television? As console generations pass, it seems that designers are slowly but surely embracing this sweet spot between action and adventure and compelling narratives, that can sometimes go beyond Hollywood cliche or predictable character stereotypes.
RL: Yes, stories are improving, especially in the rise of episodic games like The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and Life Is Strange. I still think there's a lot we can do in utilising the unique interactive power of this medium to tell stories that only games can. We've come a long way over the last decade, but I think we're still only scratching the surface of what's possible. There are going to be some exciting times ahead.
Speaking of stereotypes, how important was it, at the very start of writing for Rise..., that this Lara again avoided any of gaming's somewhat-standard "roles" for its female leads. Sure, there are moments in the new game, brief though they are, when Lara seems helpless, but for the most part she's the driving force in her own fate.
RP: I don't think there have been enough female protagonist in games for there to be a stereotypical female lead role yet. What was important for us was shaping the journey around Lara's character and her growth. The whole team treat her with respect and consideration. She's not an afterthought, or just a pretty avatar – she's central to the whole experience.
In general, what are the challenges of writing for a medium where your own script is, at points, a passenger with the player's own actions in the driving seat? A medium where the player could miss aspects of the story entirely? Is it fun, kind of, to hide facets of the fiction within collectibles?
RP: What works for a fun, active gaming experience doesn't always flow well for narrative, which often needs to move at a different pace to the breakneck speed of action-orientated gameplay. The idea is to get gameplay and narrative synced up, rather than add odds with one another. There are similar challenges for big blockbuster movies.
As a writer on a big games like the Tomb Raider titles, you tend to write different levels of story for different types of players to discover. So there's the core golden path story, which every player will experience, then there's the off-the-beaten-path story that usually covers things like environmental storytelling and secondary narrative such as journals and letters, and then there's the story that the completionist players will experience from searching ever corner of the world. That will usually help flesh out a lot of detail about the characters, the background and add loads of extra colour and detail.
Camilla, now that Rise of the Tomb Raider is out, what does the future hold for you and Lara Croft?
CL: I'm hoping that this game is a puzzle piece in a much bigger journey for Lara, so I want to complete that journey with her. I don't know if we'll ever manage that, but I'd like to have this sense of peace with the character, and feel proud of what she's accomplished. I don't if she'll ever get that, because she has a personality that's constantly making her push herself, so she might not ever reach a place of peace. But I'd like to continue the journey. But who knows. I'm still very much attached to the character. I've played her for so long now –the first game took three years to make, and this one took two, so it's the character I've played for the longest time, and I feel there's a part of me in her, and her in me.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is out now for Xbox 360 and Xbox One. Camilla Luddington interview conducted by Joe Goodman. Rhianna Pratchett interview by Mike Diver. Photographs supplied by the game's UK PR company.
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