What game design gems lurk in the unexplored nooks and crannies of the original 1996 Tomb Raider? With the franchise now rebooted, designer Hamish Todd takes a close look at the series' first game, and the possibilities its constrained platforming allowed.
The classic Tomb Raider games are some of the most commercially successful of all time. They were formative for many of today's gamers and game designers. They've become most famous for their varied texture work, and for the iconic Lara Croft, with her associated sex appeal. But, at the outset of the franchise, playing Tomb Raider wasn't about getting to know Lara Croft's character. It was about searching, shooting, and platforming -- mostly platforming.
I wanted to take a close look at the platforming challenges that classic Tomb Raiders offered us. I looked through their many levels, and I was surprised by what I noticed: all of the most eye-opening things were to be found in secret areas of the 1996 original. In this article I'll describe my more beautiful findings, and ask what makes them so fun.
To give you a reminder -- or an introduction! -- to the controls: Lara is a "tank," so with four buttons you turn her left and right, and move forward and backward. She can also jump and grab ledges.
Additionally, Lara can slide down slopes; when sliding, the only thing she can do is try to jump off the slope. This is not in the instruction manual. The first engagement I want to show you is a short challenge from the game's very beginning which introduces jumping from slopes.
Here, the eye is caught by a small, elevated alcove, and a squat, sloped block faced toward it. Getting into that alcove will be the first short-term success of the whole game -- it contains a health pickup.
Try to jump and grab the alcove's ledge, and you'll find it to be just out of your reach. Turn your attention to the sloped block behind you, the only other thing around. You've seen that it's slightly less elevated than the unattainable alcove ledge. You go over and jump up onto it... then you immediately, unexpectedly, slide down it and fall off, plopping you back at the front, facing the wall. This block is a bit of a troll -- it's the first mischievous piece of design of many we'll look at.
You'll be irritated but intrigued by that slide. You try doing it again, and you realize you can jump. After a few tries, you catch the ledge of the alcove, pull up, collect your prize.
This is a motivated, forgiving, uncluttered introduction of a semi-novel move; no textboxes required. A move that can be pretty exciting and, as you'll see, surprisingly deep.
This is a rather fascinating challenge. Essentially it's about manipulating momentum.
You enter this room on a slide (0). You're moving, and you can't do much about it. There's a secret on the opposite side of the room -- that's what you want. However you can't make it across by jumping or falling -- not from the top slope, which has brought you here.
What you want to do is jump from that lower slope, but it's not clear how you can get to it. The top slide has given you a lot of momentum, which is causing you to fly over the lower slope, straight into the water. There are a few methods for getting to the secret, and all of them require the player to plan around the platforming controls.
Here's one method (1). If you know what's at the end of the slope, you can send Lara down backwards, which allows her to grab the ledge when she falls off. Drop down to the lower slope, slide a little more, backflip at the last minute and you'll get to the secret.
But this is very unreliable. That final jump backwards needs to be bang on the end of the lower slope -- but you're sliding backwards! Knowing when to jump is guesswork. Getting to the secret this way is time-consuming and dull.
Here's an improved method (2). Catch the ledge of the upper slope, then pull back up onto it, then allow yourself to fall off again. Falling from a standing start, you get exactly the right amount of speed to take you directly to the end of the lower slope. It's nice that there's no timing involved in this method...
...but this third one seems the most elegant to me (3). It can be thought of this way: ordinarily when you fall off the top slope, your forward velocity causes you to sail over the lower slope before your downward velocity can get you to land on it, so you land in front of it. Our last method works by increasing your downward velocity while you're above the lower slope.
Bear in mind that as Lara falls, gravity increases her downward velocity. The longer she's been falling, the faster she falls -- this is true whether you've fallen off a ledge or if you're at the top of a jump arc. All this means that if you start a jump that peaks before the fall-off point, then by the time you get to the fall-off point you'll have gained more vertical velocity than if you had just fallen off, so you can get to the lower slope even though your forward velocity hasn't changed.
This strategy can sometimes be used in Canabalt to avoid hitting the sides of buildings...
...and, I think, tells us something about real-world ballistics.
If you're doing a jump like this, you have to know your arc well and make sure it's not going to hit the corner. This is a fascinatingly unusual aim to have while doing a jump. It's also interesting because jumps are normally about changing your position, whereas here they're about changing your velocity.
There is a very sophisticated three-jump sequence in this room. You go from the floor, to the slope on the lower right of this picture, to the slope in the middle, which you immediately spring off to grab the ledge above.
What makes this such a splendid engagement is a huge camera shift that takes place in the jump between the slopes. The camera rotates more than 180 degrees, and the two slopes rotate Lara by 270 degrees. Things move fast in this enclosed space; it's almost as disorientating as being flung through a portal. You have to make a plan.
One problem is that if your second jump is from the lower part of the slope, Lara will just end up banging her head on underside of the ledge. To be jumping from the correct part of the second slope, you have to jump from the correct part of the first slope. Your starting angle and location affect these; to work out what they should be, you must see through the rotation of Lara and the camera.
Note that all this was enabled by Tomb Raider's much-maligned automatic camera. It puts a strict limitation on you, motivating a creative approach. The same thing happens in a couple of the game's block puzzles.
By the way, look back at my picture of the room and notice the diamond-shaped slope in the far right corner. If you were to jump onto that it, you would witness an unabashed glitch in the slope-sliding. I don't think it was an accident that you could access that glitch in this room. By the end of this article I think you'll agree with me.