How Crystal Dynamics created cover as a tool for 'emotional synchronization' in Tomb Raider

In a GDC 2013 talk called "Emotional Synchronization and the Croft of Systems Design," Jonathan Hamel, senior designer at Crystal Dynamics for Tomb Raider, explained how he tried to link the game's narrative and the player's experience to form a cohesive whole.

Hamel referred to the process of marrying the two halves as "emotional synchronization."

"I'm going to talk about emotional synchronization as a tool, so that both narrative design and gameplay systems design can work together to make the player's experience more meaningful," Hamel said.

At the beginning of development, he explained, the Tomb Raider team had three core pillars upon which they wanted to build the game: a smart and resourceful Lara; traversal and exploration; and desperate combat. Those had been part of the series for years, he said, but the goal with the new game was "to be uniquely balanced in the way we structured the gameplay."

Managing core gameplay pillars to make jumping and fighting meaningful.

That's where his expertise comes in, as a kind of manager for those pillars.

"As a gameplay systems designer, my job is to make all that jumping and fighting meaningful," he said.

Crystal Dynamics hoped to use the dynamics of the gameplay to deepen the emotional experience by supporting the narrative, he said.

The ultimate goal was to foster "emotional synchronization" between the player and Lara, he said. The heroine has a perceived emotional state (because she's not real), and synchronization occurs when the player's emotional state overlaps with Lara's. The theory was that, the more it happened, the better players would feel about having "spent their money" on Tomb Raider.

Hamel said that Crystal Dynamics thought of its relationship as a storyteller and the players as listeners, a process that he investigated. He cited a Princeton study that showed that the more in sync the storyteller and the listener were, the better the experience was for both.

During Tomb Raider's development, that synchronization was the "overarching yardstick" that colored every aspect of the game, he said. Crystal Dynamics learned during playtesting that synchronization broke when the actions that players performed weren't in step with the emotional foundation of the game, he said.

Synchronization as an 'emotional yardstick.'

Hamel offered Tomb Raider's "fluid" cover system as an example of the kind of iteration that typified his goals. The game inherited its cover system after the developers scrapped the game's original enemies, and its implementation of cover was one he hoped would foster emotional synchronization.

In its early stages, Tomb Raider included supernatural enemies and resembled survival horror games, Hamel said, comparing it to the Dead Space series. But the gameplay mechanics made players feel detached from Lara and the narrative. Crystal Dynamics' solution was to replace supernatural enemies with humans, a decision that had far-reaching implications.

As Crystal Dynamics began modeling human behavior for the enemies, it added a cover mechanic for them. If enemies took cover, then the player should be able to, Hamel said.

Rather than implement Gears of War-style cover mechanic, which players invoke with the touch of a button, or Metal Gear-style cover, in which players walk up to cover and hold the analog stick to remain there, Crystal Dynamics chose a "fluid" cover, in which Lara could take and leave cover easily — and often automatically.

"If Lara is near cover and enemies are around, she just uses it," he said.

When Lara senses danger, she takes cover.

Locking into cover didn't feel like something Lara would do, he said, but intelligently taking cover played to Lara's "tactical advantage" of her "smaller size and greater agility."

The final mechanic borrows a bit from both systems. Lara can take cover automatically. She crouches behind cover without the player's input if there's a threat in the environment. But players can also invoke cover. When she's there, she's "mostly protected" from incoming bullets, he said. To leave, all players have to do is walk away.

It's all in service of creating a greater sense of realism through an emotional attachment between the player, the world and the character, he said.

"We even added a system where she reaches out and touches cover if she's not holding a weapon, so that there's this real feeling of vulnerability and attachment to the world."

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