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Untold Riches: The Intricate Platforming of Tomb Raider
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Untold Riches: The Intricate Platforming of Tomb Raider

March 1, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

No Left Turn

Some detail on the controls: the player can make Lara can jump in four directions, and she will jump without looking in the direction she is jumping in. The camera, which the player cannot control, likes to be behind her back during jumps.

Another thing: turning left and right is very slow. Everyone hates it. You can't really turn while running, and combat is quite messy and shallow because of this.

But again! Constraints can call for imaginative responses. The two constraints above complement one another in our next case study.

In this scene you have to get across a room on a bunch of collapsible platforms.

If you don't get off a platform before it collapses, you fall with it and you miss your chance to get a secret. There are five platforms. You go forward, left, forward, forward, right, forward.

This is one of the few places that forces you to use the sideways-flip. Turning through a right angle actually takes so long that jumping, then turning, then jumping again simply isn't an option.

On the first platform you have to jump forward, then sideflip -- anything more would take too much time.

All this takes planning and confidence. Once you've jumped forward onto that first platform, you can't see the platform to your left that you need to jump onto -- you just have to trust that you know the length of your jump arc. We usually get annoyed at cameras that don't always show us everything we need to see, but here it feels fair, because you've been given time to inspect the layout before moving -- a genuine piece of puzzle platforming.

The fairness is helped by the simplicity of the layout. From where you start your goal is straight ahead. And there are only five platforms, the minimum number that could force you to perform both a left and a rightward flip.

This is a similar trick in a nice upward spiral, with the time limit imposed by a closing door rather than fragile platforms.

Yet another "flaw" in the game that makes this sequence simpler is the unresponsiveness of the game's controls. While Lara is airborne, no button press will really affect her. This rigidity is rightly frowned upon by many developers -- it feels robotic, and can decrease depth. So, usually, platformers have air control and variable jump height. But rigidity has a few advantages! In these taxing jump sequences, airtime is a respite during which you can think about what to do next.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Speaking of rigidity, the next phenomenon I want to talk about is unique to the semi-responsive platformer.

More control details: if the player holds down the jump button when Lara hits a slope, she springs off it automatically. There are three secrets in the game that require strange-looking sequences of automatic jumps. I think that strangeness is self-aware; in the two parts I'm about to talk about, it feels to me like the level designers are parodying the controls.

Here's the proposition: two slopes, faced toward one another. A single square in between - a wooden square (with glowing red rocks on either side of it -- this is a warning!) There's a room in the top left you want to get to, which means jumping from that wooden square. You approach the wooden surface, sliding down the slope toward it... but suddenly it opens! It was trapdoor with lava beneath it, lava that you're sliding straight towards!

Click here to see an animated .gif of this sequence.

Chances are you'll instinctively jump to avoid the pit, but that just takes you over to the other slope, which starts sliding you backwards into the pit again! You jump again, which takes you back to the first slope, and... so on. You just hold the jump button down, Lara hopping between the slopes, as you try to make sense of the situation. There really isn't much you can do -- it's a dangerous and inescapable scenario -- although it has such little input and it looks so ridiculous that it seems like a joke to me.

It's a joke with a punchline -- eventually the trapdoor just comes back up again (don't hold your breath waiting for this to happen in my gif, though). You may have difficulty believing your luck. When you dare to stop hopping back and forth and try setting foot on the wood, you find it to be perfectly stable. You go climb the ledge on the left and collect some riches. This all strikes me as so lovely, and so ridiculous: let's remind ourselves that these obstacles are supposed to have been put in place by baddies to thwart your efforts to move forward.

There is a good advancement of this idea in the Tomb Raider expansion Unfinished Business:

Here, a long slide will plop you down in a place where you must start jumping between two slopes. This time there's no trapdoor that'll come up to cover the lava. How do you get out of this? You might be hopping a while before you work it out, because while the solution is not complicated, it is unexpected.

Lara has the ability to defy physics somewhat, and change her direction while in midair. It's a very tiny change, so you may go the whole game without using it. Here, you're doing an awful lot of jumping, so slight changes can add up and eventually move you across the slopes to safety.

Again, to me, this all looks comical. You have to strategize while you're hopping back and forth like a cat on a hot tin roof. Infinite loops in their various forms are always the things that give "computeriness" away. These set pieces are my favorite of all, though they seem out of place in a "realistic" platformer where developers are trying to maintain suspension of disbelief and promote immersion. I actually think there must have been at least one person on the dev team who was happy to compromise immersion so they could play with the engine -- the last parts I want to talk about seem to me to be proof of this.

Not a Bug, But a Feature

There are three extremely avant-garde parts of this game that ought to be better-known. These are three challenges that require you to make use of glitches in the mechanics.

First: in Tomb Raider fan communities, the "corner bug" is well known. When Lara jumps upward, she has a tiny movement forward. The collision detection when you do this seems to be a little sloppy, since doing it several times in a row can allow you to embed Lara in certain pieces of scenery. If she's embedded far enough, the engine will spit her out of there; the useful thing is that it spits her upwards, often further upwards than you can get by jumping.

Watch the above video. What an impish thing for a level designer to include!

This bug was kept in the engine all the way up to Tomb Raider 5. This is likely because the corner bug is the fan's best tool for exploring the levels beyond normal expectations. This was something the designers anticipated and felt like encouraging, so the bug stayed in.

Here's another medipak that can be glimpsed with a camera-intersection bug, and acquiring it highlights a scenery-intersection bug.

Here is the most brazen "bugged" set piece, from the same level as that second medipak. We have an invisible platform floating inside the space of a gigantic cavern, its existence only indicated by the coveted uzi clips perched on it.

If you can muster up the confidence, you can grab the platform's invisible ledge with a standard jump. You will then be scared shitless by some flying enemies who may well knock you off (the chances are that to kill them you'll use up those uzi clips you came here to get). If you manage to deal with them, you need to jump back to the cliff. So a new question arises: how do you dare set up a running jump on this surface when you can't see its boundaries?

We get a sweet example here of "old controls doing new tricks". To feel out the invisible boundaries, you can hold the "walk" button, which moves you slowly and stops you in places where the game detects ledges.

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