Heather Gibson was one of the major level designers for the original Tomb Raider and its first sequel. She designed a lot of levels including Lara’s manor – the full list of levels Heather created is below the interview. In this interview she unearths some very exciting facts never told before! We would like to thank Heather for sparing her time to answer all these questions (we had a lot to ask!)
Also, Level Editor fans – take some notes for a possible Winston mod! 😛
How did you end up working for Core Design? When and how did you start?
I arrived at Core after being made redundant by Rare Designs Ltd. I had worked at Rare for nearly six years. I replied to a job advertisement in a computer games magazine and was offered the position straight away.
What was the process of level design while making Tomb Raider and Tomb Raider II?
The first process would be to discuss possible location sets for the game – Egypt for example. Location choice had to inspire us. We wanted to create lots of atmospheric scenes and areas with interesting architecture, which offered lots of puzzle opportunities and areas to explore. We would discuss various puzzle scenarios at team meetings which we help approximately once a month. Here we could brainstorm ideas until we had a framework of objections and puzzles specific to that level. This included generic puzzle scenarios that the gamer became familiar with – such as pushing blocks or avoiding traps and special events specific to a particular setting.
Then myself and Neal would build, texture and light our levels. We would also involve Toby and the musicians to add baddie triggers, special traps and sound effects to the rooms.
Where did you find your textures to use such as the floors in St. Francis Folly?
Finding textures was difficult at times as we did not have the opportunity to see these locations in real life. I was responsible for creating most of the textures for the games. I was quicker at tiling than Neal (ha ha) and I think he found it boring. I found most of my textures in books which I purchased from a budget price bookshop in Derby. I also sourced textures by modifying and distorting images found on the internet. Some of the location textures did however come from very strange sources. Particularly Atlantis.
(Saint Francis Folly, Tomb Raider. 1996)
According to other official interviews it is stated that Croft Manor was inspired by Kedleston Hall while it doesn’t look like it while playing. The Compton Wynyates looks more similar especially during the FMV upon selecting the “Lara’s Home “option. As the level designer what was the official inspiration for the design of Croft Manor?
The architecture of Lara’s house was loosely based on the architecture found in many country manor’s which are in abundance in the UK. Easily recognisable as an English, period property but not based on any particular house, especially not Kedleston Hall.
In Croft Manor what was your source of the paintings that are on the walls? What ones were they?
Goodness I forget where I got those from…probably my usual source…some tatty old book.
In Croft Manor in Tomb Raider and Tomb Raider II there are many closed doors. Were there plans to use them later?
There wasn’t any plans to use the doors in the manor no. They were placed just to make the house feel realistic. The basement gold stash was an afterthought in TRll with the maze and door trigger. But no other secret rooms where deemed necessary as the house was primarily a training area that didn’t kill Lara.
Was there anything removed from the manor that was originally planned?
No I don’t think anything was removed although I did add a stereo system at the last moment just because it was fun and the house didn’t have a lot of things to interact with.
What was the purpose for the butler in Tomb Raider II?
To begin with we created a stereotypical Upper Class Country home for Lara. We wanted to indicate her lineage as part of an old aristocratic family. There was a time in history when it was accepted that wealthy estates in Britain hired staff such as Butlers and servants. We wanted to create the impression that Lara was from an old established estate and family, the Butler added credence to this.
(Winston, Tomb Raider II. 1997)
Were you expecting players to put the butler in the freezer? Was this something you and the team thought of or were surprised by the fans actions?
I didn’t think when I built the freezer that the first thing players would do would lock the butler inside. If I had known this I would probably have created a funny bit of gameplay around it. I could have asked the Lead animator to add a few extra animation frames to the Butler with the proposal that…if left in the freezer for a few minutes the butlers walk animation could be interrupted with a texture change and frozen character position. Then the player could have pushed the solid butler around the house and waited till he had thawed. That idea already gives me another idea… If he had frozen inside a solid ice block he could have been used to solve a dedicated puzzle where the player could position the ice block specifically to gain access to a high door or balcony. Or am I being silly now?
How challenging was it to make the manor in Tomb Raider II vs. Tomb Raider? Was the level made from scratch or was it built and expanded upon the old set?
Labyrinth and vault in the Croft Manor (Tomb Raider II)
The Manor was a relatively easy level to create and yes it was expanded on in the second game. The only part of the design of the manor that needed special attention was the training course. I worked closely with Toby on this area as the layout was specific to Lara’s athletic abilities.
Lara rides a Norton StreetFighter bike in Tomb Raider during an FMV. It was rumoured it was designed off of one of the developers bikes. Is this true or was it chosen because it was British?
Well done for recognising the model of bike! I wouldn’t have had a clue! I don’t think it was based on any of the developer’s bikes. However there were a couple of nice bikes in our carpark! I remember a very nice Aprilla that Adrian Smith owned, and Neal eventually purchased a Ducati but honestly? I don’t know where the choice of bike came from. The FMV artists worked separately from the main game designers and they would have made a choice on the model.
(Lara on her Norton StreetFighter)
We had several writers during the games development but all were guided by Toby Gard. Again I am speculating but I think those names came from either the script writers or Toby himself.
How did level design change with the expansion of having vehicles in Tomb Raider II vs. Tomb Raider?
Having the vehicles gave the second game something different and new but posed a few challenges for myself and Neal. Sometimes we didn’t have the vehicles in a final form when we began building the levels which made them a bit tricky to build. I’m not sure if we really used the vehicles to their full advantage. The game schedule was so tight that we just had to start building levels with little time to play and perfect them. We were aware that the game had to be ready within the year. We did modify levels once we had vehicles up and running but it was all very hectic. It was definitely worth doing though. Gavin Rummery the lead programmer in TRII had an input in building the ‘canal run’ for the speedboat, against the clock, in Venice. I textured this area but just didn’t have time to build it. I did however manage to pop a bridge idea I had into the scene after Gav had finished the layout. It was the area where the boat crashes through the windows above the bridge…however it never really was the ‘James Bond’ action scene I had imagined and I would have liked to have added many more areas like this.
You designed “Caves”, the first level of Tomb Raider.This is where everyone starts the game with Lara’s travel guide murdered by wolves and she is suddenly on her own to explore. This level opens up the game play, grips the gamer to keep playing, and sets the tone for the game. This is a huge responsibility because only if the gamer is happy with the first level they will continue to play the game. How did you go about designing this level? Did you have prior experience that made the team trust you with this responsibility?
I like to think that the team trusted me but always knew they were there to support me if I needed them. I approached the level design confidently. I didn’t feel any pressure about building the first level of the game as I had no idea that millions of people would eventually play it. If I had known what a success the game would become then I may have been more nervous. I enjoyed designing this level very much. The Room Editor that we used to create the environments had limitations which I used to my advantage. The cave system meant that players didn’t question the lack of sky and landscape which was difficult to produce with this engine. I would have liked to have opened up the roof of the village areas but that was not possible at the time.
What was the process for developing a level? Where did you take inspiration from with the design itself?
Firstly we would choose a location that interested us. Then we could develop ideas around interesting areas of those locations. We would discuss puzzle ideas at our team meetings then myself and Neal would begin building the levels, create and decorate the scene with textures. Trigger the maps and include baddies, lights sound effects etc. then output the level for testing.
You were responsible for a wide variety of travel locations, fictitious and real. How did you keep Venice feeling like Venice?Greece feeling like Greece? What kept you in tune with that location to design it accordingly?
The internet, books and photographs were our only source. We would have liked to go out to locations but we didn’t get that opportunity.
In regards to the first game it was stated that Lara’s enemies are primarily animals and creatures since killing humans was considered “cruel”. This however was thrown out the window in Tomb Raider II with the primary enemies (especially in the Venice locations). What made this change?
We wanted to add a freshness to the second game so introduced more human targets in the form of violent gangsters rather than innocent bystanders. I always enjoyed the animal targets from a gaming point of view though. Particularly the wolfs which I enjoyed tumbling over and shooting.
In the Barkhang Monastery the monks are peaceful to you unless you shoot them.Only then do they attack you.Otherwise they only protect you and take out the baddies.How was this unique concept established?
We discussed doing something a little different with the monastery level in a team meeting, at the design stage. Players have always approached each location with the attitude that they could shoot anything. However we did believe that Lara had a conscience and probably shouldn’t go in shooting peaceful monks. We still wanted them in the level so the compromise was that they only fired back if attacked. I think this was one of the few times we drew the line at what Lara was encouraged to kill.
(monks in Barkhang Monastery, Tomb Raider II)
In Tomb Raider level “Lost Valley” we suddenly come across dinosaurs including a huge T-Rex. How did this idea come about?
Some of the ideas such as having a T-Rex as an enemy were included because Toby wanted to have fun. We didn’t restrict ourselves with too much reality.
In both Tomb Raider and Tomb Raider II there are levels that are wilder in concept after playing a majority of a believable game.The settings are organic in nature and locations are real. In Tomb Raider Neal developed the Atlantis levels. How was this concept created?
Yes didn’t Atlantis turn out wild or possibly weird? That might have been partly due to the textures. Neal didn’t have time to do his textures for this level so I supplied them for him. I was looking into more bizarre sources for my texture library when Gavin arrived one day with a human anatomy book used by the medical profession. Perfect for me to use as a basis for some very unnerving and surreal textures.
You were responsible for a creative level yourself, “Floating Islands”. How did you design this since there would be no real resource material? How did you choose layouts and textures for this imaginary world?
As I explained earlier I was getting bored of the format I was using to create my textures so became more adventurous with both the Atlantis textures and my Floating Islands. The inspiration behind the Floating Islands came from a programme I had seen on the Documentary Channel about Chinese myths. In a region in China an optical illusion of floating islands is created by particular weather patterns. The Chinese believed that these mirages were real islands in the sky belonging to the Emperors of the afterlife.
Jade and dragon fire inspired the colour palette and the Jade islands have a self-illuminating texture which gave them a magical quality.
In the book the “Official Tomb Raider Files” there is a picture of a robotic dinosaur.Was this an actual concept that was going to make it into the game or was this a misprint?
I think it might have been a misprint but you never know what Toby was going to put in next so it could well have been a possible enemy.
(The Official Tomb Raider Files. Mysterious robotic dinosaur and Bacon Lara)
In Tomb Raider Beta Version there were many differences to the released game. She had her braid, sunglasses on, and could aim at multiple targets.What other actions, concepts, and designs were dropped from the release?
Lara’s braided hair was originally animated and one programmer dedicated a lot of time to code a natural and intelligent swish to the hair but it was eventually realised that this was an unnecessary indulgence. It required its own detection and collision code and used a lot of polygons to create. This meant that the main game graphics would have had to be restrained. Display limitations would have meant that to keep the braid we would have had to sacrifice detail from other parts of the game. It wasn’t worth the sacrifice. As far being able to aim at multiple targets I think Lara started to look a bit tangled up. We only had a short time to develop Tomb Raider so we had to be practical about what we could achieve. This meant that very little was dropped once the game development began.
The Venice, Tomb Raider II
There were several script writing attempts going on and even I wrote a script for Tomb Raider II that was not used in the game. It didn’t offend me as I was told it read like a romantic novel, and I found that comment amusing.
Venice” in Tomb Raider II has buildings that mirror real structures from that location. As the level designer of “Venice” what resourced did you use to create the environment?Did you have the opportunity to go and take your own photos?
We didn’t have time to travel the world sourcing the textures unfortunately. Besides I’m not sure Jeremy would have trusted us to stay out of the bars!
List of levels that Heather designed
Primarily Heather Gibson (myself) and Neal Boyde built the levels with the exception of a few. Namely an Egypt level – Sanctuary of the Scion, which Toby Gard created in TRl and a China level – Temple of Xian in TRll which Richard Morton built. Firstly I will give you a list of the levels and the designer who created them. Then I will explain in a bit more detail how the levels were created.
Tomb Raider l Levels
Manor – Heather
Caves – Heather
City of Vilacabamba – Heather
Lost Valley – Neal
St Francis Folly – Heather
Colosseum – Neal
Palace Midas – Neal
The Cistern – Heather
Tomb of Tihocan – Heather
City of Khamoon – Heather
Sanctuary of the Scion – Toby
Natla’s Mines – Neal
Atlantis – Neal
The Great Pyramid – Neal
Tomb Raider ll Levels
Manor – Heather
The Great Wall – Neal
Venice – Heather
Bartoli’s Hideout – Heather
Opera house – Heather
Offshore Rig – Neal
Diving area – Neal
40 Fathoms – Neal
Wreck of the Maria Doria – Neal
Living Quarters – Neal
The Deck – Neal
Tibetan Foothills – Neal
Barkhang Monastery – Heather
Catacombs – Heather
Ice Palace – Heather
Temple of Xian – Richard Morton
Floating Islands – Heather
The Dragons Lair – Heather
On both TRl and TRII the first part of the process was picking historical locations from around the world which interested us. Then approximately once a month myself, Neal Boyde, Gavin Rummery and either Toby Gard or Stewart Atkins would meet to discuss level ideas. Occasionally a few other members of the team might join in on this meeting if they had time. We would try to come up with a general main idea for a level and then I or Neal would expand on this when we began building the map. For instance in St Francis Folly we decided that Lara should explore and discover four main rooms each linked to Greek mythology. Puzzles such as Thor’s hammer could be incorporated into this level. However I and Neal would then build a map around these ideas with traps and doors, ledges and jumps, doors and Baddies. We had the freedom to create the level layout as we wished.
I created the textures for almost all of the levels with the exception of Neal’s Marine levels which he did himself. Toby Gard wanted to have a play at doing one of the levels in Tomb Raider l and created the Sanctuary of the Scion. Richard Morton was interested in working on future Tomb Raider games so during Tomb Raider ll I trained him how to use the Room Editor and he created the Temple of Xian.
Neal Boyd, Jason Gosling, Gavin Rummery, Heather Gibson, Paul Douglas and Toby Gard. Core Design.
Ashka/Fiend for Lara Croft in Russia.
Part of the Core Design Archives
Special thanks to Tatiana Leitzel and Andy Sandham.