Morgan Gray is a game designer and a gentleman. So when asked how much Lara Croft weighs, he declines to answer. The thing is, Gray knows exactly how much she weighs.
As April's new "Tomb Raider" game nears release, the people behind the game are expending significant effort to convince the press — and, in turn, gamers — that this seventh Lara Croft adventure doesn't deserve the critical scorn heaped on recent chapters of the saga.
Game reviewers lambasted 2003's "Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness," and even Gray, a producer of the new "Tomb Raider: Legend," describes the previous game's design team as having "lost passion for their own game."
But with the promises that outdated controls and ill-conceived gameplay have been rectified for "Legend," Gray and his team are doling out a few details about how this game might actually soar. And that's where Lara's weight comes in.
The new game uses a physics system similar to the one seen in 2004's celebrated "Half-Life 2" and even further back in games like the Nintendo 64's "Rocket: Robot on Wheels." Objects have weight, allowing them to be used in a more realistic manner. That's been a key aspect of treasure-raiding at least since Indiana Jones tried to replace an idol with a properly filled sack of sand. In one of the tomb-raiding puzzles in "Legend," Lara Croft must jump onto a seesaw device to launch a box in the air. To get it right, the developers had to define exactly how much she weighs. They've crunched the numbers, but they're not telling. "Between 100 and 150 pounds" was all that Gray would offer.
What the developers are revealing, according to Gray, is more about the true nature of Lara Croft than has been seen in years. Some of that comes from the game's plot, which flashes through multiple eras and even shows a preteen Lara as more of her past is divulged. It also reveals more "genuine" Lara Croft. That's an exceptional claim given that "Legend" is the first in the series not to be developed by Core Design but by Crystal Dynamics, where Gray is a producer.
"The last few games were just outright pandering," he said, adding that recent games robbed Lara of her spirit. "She stopped adventuring, and she became a kind of stealth ninja killing machine." And those last few games, he suggests, had a bit too much focus on those parts of her body that have the least to do with adventuring.
Instead, Gray's team is shopping a supposedly more physically demure Lara. "We received a lot of press, when we first released images, that we were trying to attract female gamers by de-bustifying her," Gray said. "But we were just trying to make her more athletic." Recent screenshots suggest that Lara's look is different but that svelte-ness itself may be in the eye of the developer.
They're also emphasizing a seldom-celebrated part of Lara's body: her brain. "We wanted Lara to do smart things," said Gray, thus the inclusion of trickier tomb-raiding puzzles.
And here's another change that may vex Lara oglers: Gray says the camera in this game hangs back farther from the heroine than in any "Tomb Raider" game so far, the better to show the game's environments and give Lara room to move.
The developers didn't just tweak Lara's body and mind — they explored her attitude. Gray was part of a six-person team that formed a sort of What Would Lara Do committee. The group included top people at Crystal Dynamics as well as Lara Croft creator Toby Gard. Among their conclusions, according to Gray:
- "She doesn't kill people because she likes it." Gray's team is toning down her wisecracks.
- She doesn't like killing animals. Despite the violence against wildlife that dates back to the first game, Gray said the team initially wasn't going to include animals in the new one. They reversed that decision only a year ago but made sure that when Lara does kill an animal she expresses regret, saying things like, "That was too bad."
- She likes nature. "She would be interested in joining the Sierra Club."
- "She's very cosmopolitan and elitist about how the world views her and how she views the world."
- "She's going to be posh and chic, but not overly so. She won't wear a baseball cap when she's dressed casually." She will wear running suits; she would not wear Levi's.
Gray admits that all this analysis of Lara Croft might strike some people as overkill. "Overanalyzing characters is a tradition at Crystal Dynamics," he said, adding that serious thought was put into the virtual stars of the developer's "Legacy of Kain" games as well.
It could prove to be too much — or, with "Tomb Raider" having traveled an unsteady path of late, it could be just what the archaeologist ordered.
"Tomb Raider: Legend" will be available on PC, PS2 and Xbox on April 11. PSP and Xbox 360 versions are expected to follow within a few months.