Touchy Feely: ‘Tomb Raider’ and Haptic Design

The new Lara Croft has arrived, and she is dirty, vulnerable, and violent — a far cry from the classic, clean, and busty super-heroine that has never left our popular consciousness. It is no understatement to say that Square-Enix and Crystal Dynamics have revolutionized Lara Croft. Of course, a lot of credit is owed to Tomb Raider Lead Writer Rhianna Pratchett, who captures Lara’s strength and courage, even when breaking her down again and again. But I also want to specifically spotlight the game’s excellent motion capture and exquisite use of character animations that map Lara’s abilities, frailties, and the world around her with touch.

If there were one theme running through the entirety of Tomb Raider, it would be survival. Lara Croft suffers so much physical trauma and abuse in the first hour of the game, she makes Nathan Drake look like a prop in some poorly acted set-piece of a film (maybe that’s a little too close to home). She gets impaled, shot at, choked, stabbed, nearly drowns, and tossed around like a rag doll, all within the first hour or so of the game. Yet she still stands up, keeps moving, and overcomes. It’s hard not to find Lara an awe-inspiring character.

The sense that punishment is followed by achievement in the game is mapped out in the way that she interacts with her environment. Like numerous other adventure games, the screen is splattered with blood effects and greys out when the player’s avatar is injured, a frequent occurrence when Lara falls from great heights. But on top of that, Lara appears to limp and struggle. Jumping from one ledge to another, Lara flings her arms out in desperation, sometimes rolling when she lands, other times falling into a slump or just slamming into the ground with a grunt.

When her body has suffered a more serious injury, she limps around, grasping her side, almost dragging her body through the environment. At one point in the game, after suffering a series of bad falls (that’s an understatement), Lara can barely walk. Climbing ledges is futile in this state, although ever courageous, she will still try. When prompted, she jumps up with both hands, gripping with one hand for just a moment before she falls back down in pain. It is a discomforting and incredibly evocative piece of animation that wonderfully captures the new Lara.

Even in combat, Lara’s animations map out a sense of space through her movement. In one of my favorite animated maneuvers in modern adventure games, Lara can avoid enemy attacks by scrambling out of the way. Dropping down, almost on all fours, she dashes to one side, bracing herself on the ground and haphazardly dodging harm. The movement feels sudden and unrehearsed. It is not the classic “roll” or “sidestep” from so many other shooters. Lara is no acrobat, she is just desperate to get out of the way, vulnerable but capable. When scrambling next to shielded enemies, this movement often puts Lara in perfect striking distance herself. Chained together, the animation depicts a spontaneous survivor, crawling over the environment before finding her footing, and striking back.

I could go on describing the little animations that create and increase sensations of pain and power, but I also want to laud some of the game’s less evocative animations. Even something as simple as leaning into the wind effectively conveys the physical realities of the game context. Some of my favorite animations are those that Lara exhibits when doing her titular tomb raiding. Occasionally her eyes will wander up as she stares at ancient statues, her hand absently running along the wall. When in these quiet spaces, when lighting a torch for example, Lara’s physical demeanor expresses her love of history and enthusiasm for lore. While no animation is depicted, the ability for players to rotate and investigate little mysteries found in collectible relics is a great way to convey a physical eagerness to explore her world that is so much a part of Lara Croft, past and future.

Of course Tomb Raider also undermines some of these tactile sensations, primarily by revoking control from the player. While Lara’s animations are every bit as detailed when occuring in scripted events, they feel trapped. These moments, and there are a lot of them, remind me of the awkward hug Faith gives her sister in Mirror’s edge. When we are accustomed to such fluid movement, finding ourselves trapped in a pre-ordained pathing sequence is frustrating. In some scenes, the sudden lack of control seems completely superfluous. It is not uncommon to climb a ladder or move through a cramped space, pushing forward on the thumbstick, to unconsciously lose control.

Of course players never really control the more intimate animations anyway. Tomb Raider is a masterfully put-together illusion. When the character animations meld with player direction, whether Lara is wading through water or clinging to a cliff face, the little touches make all the difference. As much as the mud on her face or the gorgeous environments, the physical animations of Tomb Raider recreate a more adventurous, realistic, and compelling Lara Croft.