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The holidays are upon us, and so we have a matching weekend question to ask: what's the best game you ever received as a holiday gift? Below you'll find our answers, which shed some light on our experiences with games when we were younger. Regular readers of the PCG Q&A won't be entirely surprised to learn that the answers mainly mention games from the '90s, such is the general age bracket of our team.
We'd love to read about past gifts you received during the holidays. Let us know your answers in the comments below.
A long time ago I got Tomb Raider 2 as a Christmas gift. It came in a great big brown box with Lara Croft on it, and I still remember how exciting it was to load it up for the first time. The underwater bits were scary, the speedboat bit in Venice was a surprising James Bond moment, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn't kill the butler. It's hard to go back and enjoy it now, but at the time it seemed like a Christmas miracle. Sometimes I get the menu music stuck in my head and remember the game all over again. Thanks for the memories, Eidos.
I'm cheating here a bit because I don't think it was actually a holiday gift, but my dad once came back from a business trip with a copy of Tomb Raider for me, in that legendary trapezoid box. I can still see it hidden in his sock drawer where I found it as a snoopy kid. Maybe it was going to be a birthday present? I can't remember exactly, but I do remember the pounding in my heart when I found it, and the whoa moment I felt when I later played the game and pressed a key to swap between its graphics presets. The "high" graphics looked so real. What an experience that first eerie cave was. Footprints in the snow! Wolves! It was beyond what I imagined.
Off the topic of PC games, I'd give a special nod to an uncle for giving me Pikmin for Christmas 2001, after I'd spent all summer saving up for a GameCube. I was obsessed with Smash Bros. and Rogue Squadron 2, but Pikmin hadn't even been on my radar. I ended up loving it. I'd also like to mention that the worst game I've ever gotten as a holiday gift was Glover. I would've had more fun with a can full of rocks.
For Christmas 1998, I got all the Star Wars things. It was all I cared about. My family bought me the films on VHS, which is the first time I ever owned them—that was a huge deal. But they also bought me two games that I probably played more than anything else in the '90s: Rogue Squadron and Shadow of the Empire. The latter is considered something of a dud, but it has a great version of the Battle of Hoth, plus it lets you run around Echo Base fighting Wampas.
Rogue Squadron, though, despite being so difficult that it took me a while to rattle through its levels, was a top arcade-style shooter. I think it's best remembered as an N64 game these days, but I only ever played it on PC—you can get it on GOG now, and it works perfectly with an Xbox controller. Why didn't they ever release the sequels on PC, eh?
My parents didn't really buy me PC games as holiday gifts when I was a kid. I got a lot of educational games randomly throughout the year, and some of my dad's old games when he was tired of them, but as far as holiday gifts go, I got clothes, dolls, and the occasional Ninja Turtle action figure. The only two games I am positive I received as a holiday gift are Banjo Kazooie (which was for the N64, so that kind of doesn't count), and Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. They never bought me a game after that one, so I guess by default VTM: Bloodlines is the best PC game I ever received as a holiday gift.
Rave eJay, and later HipHop eJay. Both were simple music creation programs—often found in the bargain bins of UK game stores—that let you position pre-made riffs and beats to create your own tunes. Playing with them as a '90s teen, I think I managed to convince myself I had a natural talent for assembling banging tunes. I even made a mixtape containing my greatest hits—the highlight of which featured a friend who I'd recorded rapping down the phone. (Rural Warwickshire is not traditionally known for its hip hop scene.) For whatever reason I never did break into the music business. Probably because all of the tracks made with it basically sound the same.
It could have been a birthday present rather than a Christmas present, but since I can’t even remember what I got last Christmas, let alone all of them, let’s just pretend that a pre-teen Fraser was delighted when he unwrapped Civilization 2 on Christmas morning. I’d played some turn-based strategy games before, but the first Civ sequel is probably where I really started obsessing over maps and armies. I was already a burgeoning history nerd, so to have the history of civilisation laid out before me, even in this really abstract way, was incredible.
Last year, I got to chart the history of the whole series with the help of each lead developer. There’s no way that the 11-year-old locked in a war with his dreaded Aztec nemesis would have believed that he’d be chatting about the very same game with Sid Meier and Brian Reynolds over 20 years later. What a trip. I don’t know if I could pick my favourite Civ—it would probably be 4 or after—but the second game has a fixed place in my heart.
I was a huge fan of Dungeons and Dragons growing up—I can't believe I gave away all of my old manuals as a teenager. "First Edition Monster Manual, Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master Guide, Deities and Demigods? Those are old and couldn't possibly be worth keeping..." Anyway, the point is I loved playing D&D games of all forms, and in 1998 BioWare revitalized the RPG genre with Baldur's Gate. I'm fudging a little on this and calling it a gift, but it was one of the few games I preordered and it arrived at the perfect time: right as finals wrapped up and winter break started.
I binged hard, beating the game twice in a two week period. I remember my roommates knocking on my bedroom door probably the second morning after I got the game. "Hey, Jarred, you all right in there? We haven't seen you since yesterday." Me: "Go away, I'm busy." Sleep was a chore, and I played 30 hours straight after installing Buldur's Gate. After the decline of SSI's D&D games, Buldur's Gate was the perfect RPG at the time. In fact, I think its sequel and the Neverwinter Nights games were the last great D&D titles. Maybe it's time for someone new to pick up that torch.
I've never recieved a game as a gift. They were banned from my household growing up. Tragic, I know. I've bought myself a ton of games though, including but not limited to Mario.
This weekend's PCG Q&A is a kind of sequel to one we did last year, where we asked which game character you hate. Today we more specifically focus on protagonists in games: from irritating wisecracking heroes to boring bald men or spiky-haired leads with big swords, who is your most hated game protagonist?
You'll find our choices below, but we'd love to read yours in the comments too.
Back when I first started writing about games in 2007, my office was populated with other magazine writers telling me how good Gears of War was. And even though I'm beyond tired of cover shooting being the only way people make third-person games now, they were right: it was a phenomenally well made game with technically accomplished combat. It fixed a lot of the logic problems third-person shooters had at that point, a particular problem in the scrappy, irritating combat of pre-HD GTA games.
The characters, world and story of Gears, though? I don't think I could've bounced off of them harder.
Much as I love the work of voice actor John DiMaggio, Marcus Fenix is a beefy, exhaustingly masculine tank where I sensed no irony in his depiction. And that's fine: maybe Gears' unique selling point, in retrospect, was being melodramatic and sincere while every other sub-Nathan Drake hero was cracking wise, but man, Fenix and pals made the game hard to enjoy for me. Gears just wasn't my thing, and that's okay. Maybe I should pick up the re-release and see if it changes my mind.
What could it be? Is it the positive attitude, the sporting talent, the hearty tan, or the ability to laugh and be happy on command that makes me despise Tidus? He has issues—he's a Final Fantasy hero after all—but his ability to lightly hop over them and cheerfully excel is infuriating. Or maybe I just hate his absurd lopsided dungarees.
There are many Shepards out there, but only one of them is real, to me. Mass Effect did not have an extensive character creator, but it had enough face and hair options—and male and female Shepard—that every time I watch videos of the Mass Effect series, I'm struck by how wrong Shepard looks. That's not my character! That's not Shepard. That's some impostor, making the wrong decisions and saying the wrong things.
It's a little bit like an out of body experience. I don't think I've ever been attached to my version of a character quite as strongly as I was Shepard. The Mass Effect trilogy didn't get everything right, but carrying the same character over between games let me build up an attachment and personal history I'll never forget.
Reboot is the wrong word. The new Lara Croft is the old Lara Croft, made high-definition. She's a selfish, irrational, imperialist that has somehow read every history book on the planet without internalizing the catastrophic effect of colonization. She raids tomb after tomb, intervening in affairs that aren't hers, stealing cultural artifacts in the name of preservation only to drag PMCs with guns and explosives behind her. Nearly every building she enters is guaranteed to collapse. She attracts tangled, rusted rebar like a powerful magnet.
Even a cursory read of her character pains me. For the first two games she's humorless and alarmingly fixated on her dead dad's old job. When my dad dies I'm not going to take up fly-fishing and empty every body of water in the world. I'm good. Lara is just boring, a horrifically rich person with massive blinders and great upper body strength. That's it. Let the next collapsing building take her with it.
In car accidents nobody says, "You hit my car with your car!" We say, "You hit me!" Likewise, when we're playing a Tomb Raider game nobody says, "That guy shot Lara Croft", we say, "You shot me!" Or you bit me, drowned me, knocked me off a cliff, or impaled me on a rusty pipe. Lara goes through a lot. The point is, no matter how different we are from the character on the screen, we react in the moment as if the things that happen to her are happening to us. Even separated by a third-person perspective, we are Lara.
There's a community of cosplayers who specialize in portraying Lara Croft, even adopting her surname on social media. It's from these dedicated fans that the official Tomb Raider ambassadors were chosen, representing her at events like E3 in the build-up to the release of the next game in the series. Saylum Croft and Raymond Croft were two of those ambassadors this year and, to get the obvious out of the way, Raymond does not look like the traditional Lara.
"Lara Croft isn't a body type, she is a state of mind," Raymond says. "I met plenty of people who were so happy to see a male cosplaying as Lara, especially at an official Tomb Raider event. I also met a few people who have told me I inspired them to cosplay as Lara and other female characters which is a huge honor. To anyone who feels like they can't cosplay as Lara Croft because you feel you don't look like her, you can!"
Obviously, not everyone is so accepting of the idea of Raymond being one of the official faces of Lara at E3. Among the other cosplayers though, he's much admired for his hard work and the quality of his outfits and props. "He’s one of my biggest inspirations and I’m so so proud of him," says Saylum. "He gets so much hate for cosplaying as Lara but he deals with it beautifully." She's very much of the opinion that anyone who wants to be Lara can. "It doesn’t matter what your skin color, gender, weight, or height is. At the end of the day we’re all just a bunch of nerds dressing up to have fun."
Lara's come a long way from her days as a pointy, polygonal action figure to become an icon for body positivity and representation. But while they mainly cosplay the modern version of the character, both Saylum and Raymond have similar memories of falling in love with her when they were five or six years old, back when Lara fought T-rexes without ever seeming to get dirty.
Nowadays, being covered in muck is basically a defining trait of hers, and one both Raymond and Saylum put a lot of effort into getting right. Raymond uses a mix of different kinds of make-up, including a Halloween brand called Zombie Dirt. "Sometimes I'll even go outside and wet some dirt and use real mud and dirt as well," he admits. "It's hard sometimes to give off a naturally dirty look."
Saylum puts a lot of effort into it too, and was once stopped in a shop by someone who genuinely thought she was hurt. "I don’t actually roll in dirt or coffee grounds," she says, "I use a rubber-based paint and different techniques to create splatter and general muddy looks. Getting 'dirty' is kinda an art within itself. You can’t just take paint and smear it on your body, it doesn’t look realistic that way. I start with watered-down paint and a spray bottle for a base. Then I go in with a sponge and paint from the tube. I dab or wipe this in areas that I know my body would get dirtiest."
After she's grimed up her shoulders, elbows, chin, knees and so on she applies fake cuts using a red cream make-up and then layers blood on top of that. "Layers are really important when doing realistic dirt makeup!"
The other iconic thing about modern Lara is her bow. Raymond says he has a love/hate relationship with prop-making, that it's his favorite part of cosplay but also the hardest. He's made several bows, the current one modeled on the bow from Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a PVC bow he bought on Etsy then modified and repainted to get it looking as authentic as possible. "It was a fun prop to tackle," he says. "I've also made a bow from the trunk of a tree, as well as a stick bundle bow. When cosplaying as reboot Lara, the bow is definitely something you'll want to focus on."
Saylum puts a lot of effort into the little things, often details only she will notice, but she cares enough about the character to want to do her justice. "I personally find the hardest part to be making it realistic," she says. "I want to actually be able to move around and sit without worrying about my gear breaking or bending. Videogame logic says she can have 10 ammo pouches on her belt and a knife and a rope and that belt won’t move an inch from off her hips. Trying to recreate that while at the same time being comfortable can be really difficult at times. My favorite thing to ask myself is 'how many pockets can I add while still making it exactly like my reference?' Pockets are a lifesaver on any cosplay."
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is only days away from release, and both Raymond and Saylum are excited about it. They cite the challenge tombs and the underwater areas as looking like highlights, but they're also very interested in what's coming for the story. "I'm also really excited to see Lara as a more fleshed-out character," says Raymond. There's definitely a sense among all the fans I've heard from that Rise of the Tomb Raider kept Lara on hold, and that the development they'd hoped for after her introduction in the 2013 reboot is more likely to happen now, in the hands of a different developer.
It would be nice if it did. Though they share nostalgia for the classic incarnation, the cosplayers and other fans who have dedicated themselves so thoroughly to new Lara have an infectious enthusiasm that's done more for my interest in Shadow of the Tomb Raider than any of its marketing. They've become her just like we all do when we play the games, and like her they deserve a win.
Summer Games Done Quick 2018 is officially over. The annual charity speedrunning marathon raised over $2 million for Doctor's Without Borders and featured over 168 hours of speedruns. If you weren't able to tune in, it's a full week of mind-blowing glitches and intense head to head races. But with the stream running 24 hours a day, it's almost impossible to see everything.
That's why we've rounded up our favorite PC speedruns from Summer Games Done Quick 2018. It's a relatively new roster compared to last year's selection, featuring indie hits like Cuphead and Celeste. But all of these runs are remarkable in their own way.
This run is an example of a Games Done Quick speedrun at its absolute finest: An incredibly tough game, an extremely skilled player, and a great cast of couch commentators. 'TheMexicanRunner' keeps his cool throughout each of Cuphead's insanely tough boss battles, but I particularly love the silly voices he uses while reading dialogue. His supporting cast of couch commentators are just as fun to listen to because of their impressive knowledge of the game. Not only do they explain techniques during each phase of the run, but they're bursting with cool trivia about Cuphead's development, artstyle, and more. It's just a great all-around run.
SGDQ 2018 was dominated by tough-as-nails indie platformers, but this Celeste head-to-head race is a remarkable display of videogame mastery by its two runners. It's not much of a competition, as runner TGH clearly has the upperhand, but watching both navigate Celeste's intimidating gauntlet of trap-filled levels is exhilarating. Some of the jumps each runner makes has to be pixel perfect, which isn't an easy feat when you're already blitzing through levels at this pace. It's indicative of the high level of skill that Celeste demands that even nailing some of these jumps is impressive on the second and third attempt.
At every Games Done Quick event, there's always one run where everything just goes to hell despite the runner's best attempts. And this year, there is no one who failed more spectacularly than Teddyras—though it's not his fault. The RNG gods of Enter the Gungeon had an axe to grind with Teddyras, as evidenced by the mountain of bad luck that plagued him all the way from the very start. Sure, he makes a few mistakes here and there, but not once does Teddyras get a good weapon drop that is so crucial to surviving the Gungeon's harder floors. Keep in mind that, unlike most games, dying in Enter the Gungeon means having to start over from the very beginning. When it finally happens just shy of the final boss, it's heartbreaking. Fortunately Teddyras gets another shot, and things go much better the second time around.
But Steven, you say, didn't you just recommend a Celeste speedrun? Yes, I did. But you know what's better than watching two humans try to beat Celeste? Watching a friggin robot beat Celeste. That's what TASBot is, a tool-assisted speedrun where each button input is meticulously scripted beforehand and then executed in real-time. Of course, no human can ever match the precision of a robot, but that's what makes TAS special. With Celeste's breakneck pace and complicated level design, TASBot is able to blaze through each zone with remarkable speed. It took DevilSquirrel months to program TASBot to be able to run each level, finding the optimal path to create the ideal, superhuman speedrun.
I love this run for a lot of reasons, not least of which being that Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel doesn't feel like a remarkable game to watch a speedrun of. Gearbox's loot-shooter isn't exactly what comes to mind when I think of great speedrun games, but Amyrlinn and Shockwve's commentary is just so damn funny. Throughout the length of the Pre-Sequel, both runners abuse a ton of glitches like duping items and clipping through walls, but it's made all the more enjoyable by their irreverent digs at Borderlands' world and fun back-and-forth quips.
If you're not a fan of the bombastic commentary that often accompanies Games Done Quick runs, this Tomb Raider run is for you. Beckski93 executes many of Tomb Raider's complicated glitches effortlessly, but I really enjoy her laidback commentary, which is a nice contrast to the sometimes abrasive energy of other runners. There's also just a lot of fun glitches to watch, like one named after the game QWOP because of the way it breaks Lara's running animation to help her glitch through surfaces.
Maxylobes run of 2005's FEAR is great because it's always fun to see such scary games disarmed by speedrunners. FEAR terrified me the first time I played it, but watching Maxy rush through levels with no regard for the tense atmosphere or jumpscares is just so silly. He also kills entire squads of soldiers by rushing and punching each one in the head systematically, which is ridiculous for its own reasons. I wish I had realized how strong punching was when I first played.
Every so often we feature PC-focused articles from across Retro Gamer's long history. This history of Tomb Raider was originally published in issue 163 in 2016.
In the mid '90s, the games industry was short on icons, but there were plenty of characters to go around. You were hardly a developer if you didn't have your own ‘hero'—and Core Design had just spun the kart racer BC Racers off from its Chuck Rock series. Save for the loose tie of ancient history, that game might not have much to do with Tomb Raider but for a single name: Toby Gard.
As a talented young designer, Toby Gard had moved on from BC Racers with the vision to create a project unlike anything else at the time, and something that would become truly iconic. Tomb Raider was to be a 3D action-adventure game, distinguished by its female protagonist. Initially conceived as a South American adventurer by the name of Laura Cruz, she would eventually become the British aristocrat Lara Croft, an athletic and independent adventurer with a penchant for collecting ancient artefacts. While Lara wasn't the first female protagonist in games, this was still a bold choice—few games included strong female leads.
Dwelling on Lara Croft's qualities as a character, however, diminishes the fact that the choice to make a 3D action-adventure game was also bold. Not only was the project unlike anything else available at the time, the lead platform for the game was the Sega Saturn—a machine that would become well-known for its awkward and non-standard handling of 3D visuals.
"We were definitely trailblazing a lot of what we did on Tomb Raider," says Gavin Rummery, a programmer on the first two Tomb Raider games. "When Toby first described what he envisaged on my first day at Core, I wasn't sure it was possible because nothing like it existed." Of course, had that precedent existed, it wouldn't have been a big deal anyway. "We didn't think about looking at repeating something that had been done before, so had never considered needing other games for reference," recalls Heather Stevens, a graphic artist and level designer on the first two games.
It was an enormous departure from what Core Design had done before, and the team struggled with it. "What appeared the greatest challenge was how on earth we would create the actual environments and get Lara to interact with them," Gavin recalls. "Heather was attempting to build them directly in 3D Studio which could only edit in wireframe mode, but neither Paul [Douglas, programmer] or I had a clue how we could get a character to interact with freeform environments given the processing constraints of the day."
"The breakthrough was the decision to build everything on a grid," continues Gavin. "To me this was the point Tomb Raider became feasible and everything seemed to fall into place. Toby was able to define Lara's moves, Paul could get the control working, and I was able to build a level editor that Neal [Boyd, artist] and Heather could use to build and test the environments far quickly than would've been possible using 3D Studio."
Getting the sound of the game right was important, and this was a task which fell to Nathan McCree—although given the amount of time he had to so, it might have felt rather more like it had fallen on him. "The first Tomb Raider was such a rush. I think I had about three weeks to compose the music. It was mostly a case of, write something and then figure out a way to use it later," he tells us. "What became apparent during the installation process was that the tunes worked best when placed in specific locations to describe a particular place or feeling at a specific moment in the game. And this gave birth to the idea of location-specific music." Nathan wasn't the only one feeling the pressure, as the whole team was battling a very tight deadline.
"It was tough developing Tomb Raider (long days etc.) but very rewarding," Heather confirms. This eventually led to extra staff being drafted in. "I was an animator and model builder working in the room next to the Tomb Raider team and also a good friend of Toby Gard," explains Stuart Atkinson, an artist who worked on the earlier Tomb Raider games. "He asked if I could help him out with enemy characters, being about four months from the deadline, the pressure was getting pretty serious and his workload was too much. So I jumped at the chance!"
Tomb Raider was released in October 1996 for the Saturn, followed by PlayStation and PC versions in November. It detailed Lara's quest to acquire the Scion Of Atlantis for the mysterious businesswoman Jacqueline Natla. The game was a critical success, and commercial success would follow. But though the team at Core Design was sitting on a hit, it didn't know it. "None of us knew it would be anything like the success it was," says Gavin. "We could tell it was getting favourably received, but it was only when we started seeing the actual sales figures that we realised just how big a success it was." Even the upper management wasn't aware that the game would be enormous. "The preview coverage had been very encouraging. A real buzz was building around Tomb Raider, but we were still prudent with our forecasts," says Ian Livingstone, then president and CEO of Tomb Raider's publisher Eidos. "I recall that we put a number in the budget of 100,000 units being sold. Little did we know that the first Tomb Raider would go on to sell over seven million units!"
While there's no doubt that the game was a team effort, one man's influence is often cited as a key factor behind the game's success. "Thanks to a very obstinate Toby Gard and his vision of a strong female heroine in a computer game, we can now appreciate the unique Lara Croft," says Heather. "Undoubtedly Lara was a huge aspect in the success of the game and the marketability of the product. She was a character that won the hearts of both male and female players. However the game was so much more than the character herself," she continues. "I think the key factor was Toby Gard," Stuart concurs. "It was his vision and he made sure everyone followed it through. He was also lucky with the team he ended up with, not only were they talented, they trusted and believed in him." However, that's not the only factor he credits. "And, of course, how amazing the first game was to play back in the day, it just blew me away."
Unfortunately, Toby Gard would not stick around for the success that followed. Creative differences drove a wedge between him and the management at Core Design, and he would leave the company without getting involved in Tomb Raider II, passing up enormous royalties in doing so. Most of the team remained and moved onto the sequel, which had to be ready in less than a year. Surely such a tight deadline was a pain? "Working on the sequel was a natural progression," Heather points out. "We had invested so much time and creativity into Tomb Raider that it would have been unthinkable to just walk away from it. It was action stations again for most of the team, and time to get our heads down again."
Externally, Lara Croft was already becoming a crossover star, a fact which brought the success of the first game home to the developers. "On the lead up to the release of Tomb Raider II, we had many more press and TV interviews, so things started to hit home for me," Nathan recalls. The Face featured a cover story on the character and her popularity. Rhona Mitra was gaining recognition as the ‘real life' Lara Croft, and she was already collaborating with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics on music to be released under Lara's name. This exposure built anticipation for Tomb Raider II to a fever pitch, and Sony took advantage by signing an exclusivity deal with Eidos, ensuring that the PlayStation was the only console to receive it.
Back at Core, the team was busy trying to top what had gone before—even if it meant improving on finer details. "I was pleased to get Lara's ponytail working," says Gavin. "It had been dropped from the original because it just didn't work properly with all the acrobatic moves—it was more like she had an electric eel attached to her head that had a life of its own. But on TRII I came up with a way to get it working and was really pleased how natural it looked. The physics were ultra-simple and a complete cheat, but it did the job."
Other additions were far more substantial. Improvements to the graphics engine allowed for wide open outdoor spaces that hadn't been possible in the original game, and Lara was no longer restricted to travelling on foot. "Introducing vehicles was my idea, I'm quite proud of that," says Stuart. "I prototyped Lara riding a quad bike using only the animation editor—I replaced her run animation and attached a quad bike to her bottom—the in-game result gave you a pretty good idea how well it would work."
On the audio front, Nathan was able to make improvements as he was more involved in the development process. "With Tomb Raider II, I had a little more development time (about two months) and although I wrote twice the number of tunes, there was a plan in my head about how it was going to piece together," the composer recalls. "I expanded on the themes, establishing new motifs, but mainly focusing on this location-specific idea that had been born in the first game. The implementation improved as I demanded control on how and when each tune would be triggered."
One of the game's most memorable moments was actually born of the tight deadline. "The game was supposed finish after the dragon battle, but it didn't feel like a satisfying conclusion, so we came up with the idea of having an epilogue," Gavin explains. "Due to time constraints the idea of reusing Croft Manor was chosen, with just a pitch battle of Lara defending her home. Then my favourite bit—the ‘shower scene' where we got Lara to shoot the player—that was our response to the enquiries about nude cheats!"
Tomb Raider II was another critical and commercial success, surpassing the sales of the original. Plans were set into motion for Tomb Raider III, but this time most of the original team opted to move onto a new project. "Knowing you were leaving a big-seller along with the royalty cheques felt a bit of a silly move," Stuart recalls, "but our team wanted at least two years to develop Tomb Raider III—to really move it on, but the producers wanted it done in a year. For those who had done that for two consecutive years already it was just too much."
Luckily, the expansion of the team during Tomb Raider II provided new blood to carry the series forward. "I was finishing up creating some (unused) multiplayer levels for Fighting Force when I heard they needed FMV help on Tomb Raider II, so I offered up my services, as I was starting to see multiplayer arenas in my sleep," recalls Andy Sandham, who would follow up this involvement with level design from Tomb Raider III onwards. "My task on Tomb Raider II was to blow up the Great Wall Of China, if I remember. That was my introduction to the time-honoured Tomb Raider tradition of the willy-nilly decimation of historical sites and the laissez-faire gunning down of endangered species."
Another newcomer to the Tomb Raider III team was Peter Connelly, who would stick with the series for the rest of the Core Design era. Like many of the newcomers, he was excited to be on the team. "My first real experience [with the series] was playing Tomb Raider II," remembers the musician. "I had bought it for someone for Christmas and we were playing it extensively on Christmas Day evening. What I remember most about this was wishing I was working on such a game. Nine months later, I was working at Core Design." Though his contribution to the third game was small, Peter would become the series' main musician from the fourth game onwards.
Tomb Raider III started to branch out into new areas, and particularly more action-oriented gameplay. The addition of sprint button was useful for outrunning enemies, and new enemy AI allowed for the bad guys to call for reinforcements and shut off rooms, necessitating a stealthier approach. Meanwhile, dangerous terrain additions were made including quicksand and water with deadly currents. The other big change was the addition of a non-linear structure—while players started in India and finished in Antarctica, adventures in London, Nevada and a South Pacific island could be tackled in any order.
Upon its release in 1998, Tomb Raider III didn't fare as well as its predecessors, but remained a high-performing title all the same, shifting well over six million copies—meaning that another sequel was guaranteed for 1999. For Andy, that meant a new opportunity. "When Vicky (scriptwriter on TRI-III) jumped ship after Tomb Raider III, there was a gap to fill and I jumped into it, with a view to writing ‘movie-style' TR games."
"For story, we'd choose our levels first—for our team, the first and most important part of any Tomb Raider game was the ‘buying books on ancient civilisations' and phase, to cement ideas that would result in a rough plot that I'd have to shape into something coherent," Andy continues. "I was reminded the other day that the next stage after this would basically be the whole team queuing up at the office scanner, coffee table history books in hand, waiting to digitise our next level texture."
Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation introduced more of Lara Croft's history through a chapter showing a younger version of the protagonist on an early adventure with mentor/rival Werner Von Croy. Though it enjoyed a slightly more positive critical reception than its predecessor, The Last Revelation was perhaps the first real indicator that interest in the series was waning—it was the lowest sales tally for a Tomb Raider game so far despite the addition of the Dreamcast as a third platform. However, management was concerned about The Last Revelation for an entirely different reason.
As the fourth release in four years, it was inevitable that creative fatigue had set in during Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation. However, the way it was expressed was a shock to players around the world. "We all wanted to kill Lara," says Andy. "Looking at Lara's avatar all day every day for two years was about as much as some of us could take. Management were pretty hands off, so for two weeks, we hatched this plan to kill Lara, and followed it through to fruition." Indeed, the game ends with Lara entombed under a collapsed pyramid entrance, a dramatic and perhaps poetic end for the adventurer.
Of course, the team wasn't going to get away with killing the company's golden goose. "By ‘fruition' I mean [Jeremy Heath-Smith, Core Design CEO] finding out we had killed her and it was too far gone to reverse it, and taking us into his office and shouting at us." Andy recalls. "We backtracked quickly, but not without paying penance by having to make another game set in all the ropey bits we had cut out of previous games, which became Tomb Raider Chronicles." In order to tie these pieces together, Tomb Raider Chronicles shook up the storytelling structure of the series—instead of a linear narrative focusing on a single adventure, the game was themed around Lara Croft's funeral. Gathered mourners recounted tales of her past adventures. By this point few additions were made to gameplay—Lara gained access to a grappling hook, as well as tightrope walking and the ability to swing from horizontal bars.
The Tomb Raider engine was beginning to feel very dated, though, as the yearly release schedule hadn't permitted significant alterations. What's more, the team that had seen fit to kill Lara Croft was still in charge and no happier with the situation. "That lack of enthusiasm showed in the final product," Andy notes with some regret. "The only person on the team that was still happy was Phil, the animator, who spent all day animating Lara being slaughtered in new novel traps and enemy attacks." When Tomb Raider Chronicles arrived in 2000, it was to the least enthusiastic critical response so far, and sales were drastically lower than those of The Last Revelation at just one and a half million copies. With a burnt-out team having pushed out five games in five years, it's fair to say that the original Tomb Raider model had been well and truly exhausted.
However, from the outside the series couldn't have seemed to be in a better position. Angelina Jolie had been tapped up to star as Lara Croft in a Tomb Raider movie, and there was a new hope for the games around the corner in the form of the PlayStation 2. With new technology, the team would have a chance to revamp the gameplay of the series. Stealth and hand-to-hand combat would play a big part in the new adventure, as would the new playable character, Kurtis Trent.
Along with the new technology came another set of new staff, with a hunger to work on such a huge project. "I was thrilled, daunted, overwhelmed (almost), delighted, panicked, hyper and exhilarated," recalls Murti Schofield, a writer who had joined Core from Psygnosis. "I was also determined to give this opportunity everything I could. This was a writer's dream. El Dorado. The Alchemists' stone. The Grail. The ketchup on the bun of life. So, how did I feel? Determined."
"My first experience of working on Tomb Raider was to be sat with a pencil and paper and to be instructed to simply draw out whatever ideas came into my head as long as they were Lara Croft-related," recalls concept artist James Kenny. "I had at that time zero experience of the game, film or television industries and had been recruited by Core Design straight from studying animation in Ballyfermot Senior College in Dublin."
Initially, things seemed to be going well. "As with most games I've worked on over the years, there are usually delays and issues that contribute to stalling a release and, as Angel Of Darkness wasn't like the previous Tomb Raider games, i.e. they were released exactly one year apart, I wasn't that phased that things were dragging on," says Peter. Unfortunately, the combination of a large team, an over-ambitious design and a management structure ill-equipped to deal with the task quickly drove the project off the rails.
"The step up to the PlayStation 2 and the complexity that would engender was not properly envisioned by anyone at Core at that time," says James. "Also I think there was a desire to change the direction of the games in a narrative and gameplay sense and there was pressure coming from the developments in other gaming franchises." For Murti, the situation was extraordinary. "There was just so much that went wrong and the pressures were awful; I don't mean ordinary, standard industry pressures but the sense that the ship was slipping into the maelstrom and no one knew what to do. We knew things weren't going well. The game wasn't right. Deadlines kept breaking over our heads and still things were not right."
After many delays, Tomb Raider: Angel Of Darkness arrived in 2003 with much of the intended game design left on the cutting room floor. Despite selling two and a half million copies, it was given a critical kicking and is considered the lowest point in the series. With dissatisfaction rife amongst both fans and shareholders, Eidos took drastic action and removed Tomb Raider from Core Design. "As a board of directors, we did not take that decision lightly," explains Ian. "Core Design had done an incredible job in developing a new title year-on-year from 1996 to 2000. Then along came PS2 and with its new tech challenges which Core Design struggled with for too long. Instead of it being another hit in the series, Angel Of Darkness was not far short of a disaster when it came out in 2003. Sales were below expectation and development of Tomb Raider was moved to Crystal Dynamics. For a UK company, moving the development of its prized asset from Derby to California was a big decision to make but, as it turned out, absolutely the right one to make."
History has vindicated the decision—under the care of Crystal Dynamics, the series has returned to form critically and commercially. However, from an outsider's perspective it seems like a harsh decision, especially as Core Design had only produced one truly bad Tomb Raider game. Surely the tens of millions sales it had generated prior entitled Core to another crack of the whip? "Many on the development team at Core had enough. Some were burned out and wanted to work on new games. It was definitely time for change," Ian responds. "But nobody should ever take away or diminish the contribution that Core Design made in not just creating Tomb Raider, but making it an iconic franchise."
Murti agrees. "If Core had been given another chance would it have been different? Who knows," he ponders. "It would have required a restructuring of management practices and a shake-up—which seemed unlikely. And with the benefit of hindsight it was time for someone else to take Miss Croft's future in hand."
Over at Crystal Dynamics, the team had been working on the well-regarded Legacy Of Kain 3D action-adventure games for some time, but getting the Tomb Raider job was a big shock. "For us, there was a sense of, ‘Oh my gosh!' Tomb Raider was such a big franchise with so many fans—if we want to take something like that on, we'd have to do it so right, so it felt very much like a high-stakes proposition" recalls Noah Hughes, creative director at Crystal Dynamics. "But it came up more as an opportunity, with Eidos saying, ‘Hey, would you guys be interested in working with this character?' From that perspective it was exciting, as it fit comfortably with our desire to create experiences that blended a lot of stuff—environmental exploration, combat and puzzle-solving."
In developing Tomb Raider: Legend, the first game of the Crystal Dynamics era, it was important for the team to establish which aspects of the existing games they wished to retain. "Lara's intellect and puzzle-solving, we wanted to keep both of those," Noah offers as an example. "Additionally we felt that traversal and exploration were important, these platforming elements—how could we provide a traversal toolset to make the world a jungle gym? And, of course, the sense that around each corner there might be a surprise, even the less noticeable corners could hold a secret. Also a combat system of sorts, the dual pistols are part of Lara's iconography, but focused on agility rather than a brute-force flavour of combat." There was one more significant element that the team homed in on, too. "We called it ‘flair' at the time—things like the handstand, so you could express yourself as a character with moves that weren't critical to progression."
During the Tomb Raider: Legend era, Meagan Marie was just a fan of Tomb Raider, but today she is Crystal Dynamics' community manager for Tomb Raider and the author of the official history guide, 20 Years Of Tomb Raider, giving a unique perspective on the development of the series. "I love Keeley Hawes [as Lara] especially, I love how quippy and sarcastic she was—she might be one of my favourite voice actresses," she notes. "I also enjoyed the fluidity in combat, the acrobatics—that's something that Crystal Dynamics pushed as a way to differentiate itself from Core and leave its mark on the franchise. Moving away from the grid-based movement and moving towards very fluid traversal, fluid combat, and that was something I remember being very impressed with."
In order to make sure the team got things right, Toby Gard was brought into the fold as a consultant. "It was great to have Toby because he was so intimate with her design, and it gave us the ability to be a bit more bold as we explored different options, but we had insight as to where we were losing that core DNA," Noah explains. "So from a character design perspective he was a great resource, and he became very involved in the story—I'm not sure if he has a writing credit, but I know he and Eric Lindstrom worked closely together. We were trying to bridge two canons, the Core games and the movies which had gained popularity, so it was another case where having Toby's insight into what was ‘evolving' versus what was ‘breaking' was important. Even to this day I'm grateful for having that overlap with Toby, because it gave us insight and the confidence to find our way without completely copying and pasting."
The results were an immediate vindication of the decision to go with Crystal Dynamics. The critical reception and sales of Tomb Raider: Legend were a marked improvement over the last couple of games, with four-and-a-half-million copies sold. That success ensured that two follow-up titles went into production, and Crystal Dynamics began to focus on the past, present and future of Tomb Raider. Although it didn't seem necessary at the time, Lara Croft's reinvention was going to become important.
That's something that the team at Crystal Dynamics recognised a lot earlier than most people realise," reveals Meagan. "After finishing Legend the team split, and a small team took Tomb Raider: Anniversary and another took Tomb Raider: Underworld, and started working on that, but there was also a small group that was two people for a couple of years who sat and ideated the future of the franchise, Jason Botta and Tim Longo, before even entering preproduction. They knew that after Underworld, which would be considered the end of a trilogy, that something major needed to be done. They recognised after a while of exploration that an origin story made the most sense, and that letting the players see those moments where Lara was forged into the Tomb Raider would make her more relatable."
Of course, this reboot was many years away, and the two other projects would arrive sooner. The first of these was Tomb Raider: Anniversary. This was in competition with Core Design's final attempt to design a Tomb Raider game along a similar premise, though neither team necessarily knew that the other was in the running. Where Core had focused on the PSP, Crystal Dynamics had a multi-platform strategy that ultimately got the nod from the publisher. The resulting game was a loose remake of the original Tomb Raider in the new style. However, despite strong critical performance, good reviews didn't transfer into exceptional sales and it remains the series' commercial low point.
For the larger team, Tomb Raider: Underworld was Lara Croft's first step into another new generation, this team targeting the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 as lead platforms. "One of the things we did with Underworld was that we ended up pushing the technology," recalls Noah. "We had full motion-capture actors rather than animation, which we hadn't done in the past, but we ended up with a similar moveset. But in some ways, the gameplay didn't move as far forward as the technology did." Indeed, Tomb Raider: Underworld did better upon its release in 2008 than Anniversary had managed, but it still didn't live up to the critical or commercial performance of Tomb Raider: Legend. Fortunately, the aforementioned foresight of the team meant that new plans had been laid for a reboot.
"We wanted to make sure we weren't falling into a ‘myth of the week' pattern—we wanted to make sure our stories were character defining and not just adventures to go on," recalls Noah. "We had also gotten feedback that Lara as a character didn't feel fresh to people, so there was a sense that there could be audience fatigue or a lack of relevance to her as a character, so we took the goal of evolving gameplay and invigorating her character story, but also making sure that on top of all of that, we were recreating a relationship between the character and the audience."
For the first time, we saw Lara Croft not as an adventurer, but as a newcomer to exploration whose experiences would test her very will to survive. "Part of the unrelatability of Lara was that because she had infinite money and was so skilled, of course she was going to win. We felt that we had to place her in a situation where she had to earn her success, and isolate her from the support that she had, to make you believe that she could lose a battle." This led to the introduction of survival mechanics, as well as character development through an experience system.
The reboot, simply named Tomb Raider, managed to take cues from popular action-adventure games, like the Uncharted series, while retaining the feel of a ‘Lara Croft' adventure. The approach worked well, as the game earned a fantastic reception—the reboot became the bestselling game in the series, with over eight-and-a-half million copies sold to date.
A follow-up was inevitable, and the pressure was on following the previous game's high sales. "It's always terrifying to have that amount of success, and we wanted to make sure it wasn't a fluke," Noah confides. "We looked at it as a challenge of how we figure out how to improve on that." Rise Of The Tomb Raider charts Lara Croft's growth in confidence following the events of the reboot. "In Tomb Raider you look at Lara's transition from being an explorer interested in the world to someone forced to survive," notes Will Kerslake, lead designer at Crystal Dynamics. "In Rise we continue that process, but we also see her choose to go on an adventure, so her character continues to evolve."
One of the things that the team was keenly aware of was the need to include more tombs for players to explore. "We did fill [the setting] with history," Noah recalls of the 2013 game, "but those layers were, for example, World War II, so they told stories a week before Lara got there, 50 years before Lara got there, and hundreds of years before she got there. But what we found was that because they weren't ancient places with ancient secrets, they weren't scratching that itch entirely." Rise Of The Tomb Raider initially launched on Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC in 2015, and has recently launched on PlayStation 4, to a very positive critical reception that narrowly edges that of the 2013 reboot.
In many ways, Lara Croft's transformation into a survivalist is a fine way to represent Tomb Raider's journey. From a starting point of fame and fortune, the series has had to adapt to survive against a backdrop of sweeping changes in game design and consumer tastes, as well as the occasional misfortune. Against all of that, the people behind Tomb Raider have reinvented it over the course of two decades to remain one of the world's most beloved brands, and Lara Croft stands alone as the icon representing that monumental effort.
Indeed, the future looks bright—the Crystal Dynamics team won't speak of any future plans just yet, but with audiences still discovering Rise Of The Tomb Raider, an ongoing comic series and a new movie in the works, it's fair to say that Lara Croft is perhaps just as popular as she ever was. "Lara has transcended gaming in a way that I think no other character has—because of the movies, because she was considered a virtual model for a while—so I think she does hold a unique place in gaming history that I don't know if any other character could compete with," concludes Meagan—and it's very hard to disagree with her.
Special thanks to Ian Dickson, Ash Kaprielov, Alex Verrey and the organisers at replayevents.com for making this article possible.
I hope you weren't too terribly excited for those Tomb Raider remasters that were announced earlier this month, because they've been canceled. The teaser videos are gone and Realtech VR, the company that was purportedly handling the remasters, said in a cryptic tweet that it is now focused on new AR and VR projects.
The only follow-up it has provided was in response to a request to release just the HD textures, in which it said simply, "We can't respond sorry." But Square Enix told GamesIndustry that it was responsible for the kill order, because the remasters hadn't actually been given the green light in the first place.
"While we always welcome passion and excitement for the Tomb Raider franchise, the remasters in question were initiated and advertised without seeking approval. As such, they were never officially sanctioned," it said in a statement. "Ensuring fans receive high quality gaming experiences is at the heart of our mission as a company, which requires all projects to go through proper channels."
A Realtech VR rep said in an email that it couldn't discuss the specifics of the matter for legal reasons, but added that the studio "had a great experience with Square Enix" while developing the mobile versions of the first two Tomb Raider games.
"But our recent research, studies and reviews on Tomb Raider 3 were unwelcome, although those rights are protected with Fair dealing in Canadian copyright law," the rep said. "Right now, we don't have any business with Square Enix anymore."
Tomb Raider is not a terrible movie. After game adaptation like Hitman (the bad one, and the other bad one) and braindead bullshit like Pixels, that’s a relief. Remember the 90s, when Hollywood was hellbent on adapting every Japanese game into a movie, and that gave us post-apocalyptic cyberpunk Mario, Jean Claude Van Damme in an invisible boat and this poor bloated bastard in Double Dragon? Tomb Raider bears little resemblance to those messy, hilarious, horribly acted movies. And honestly, I wish it did. Then it wouldn’t be so boring.
You’ve seen this movie before, in every Hollywood origin story. Like the 2013 game, Tomb Raider and actress Alicia Vikander try to make Lara Croft a believably real, human character, and both end up making her the action movie cliche of a real person, instead. You know the type: she's "poor" because she won't spend her family's billions, but still hangs out on cool, scenic rooftops in London. She struggles with the violence of killing someone to survive, but is soon making death-defying leaps and wielding a bow like she's been puncturing windpipes and not apples all her life.
Most of this character growth is conveniently explained by flashbacks, strategically inserted to ensure you don't need to worry about things like nuance or subtext as you watch. As an adaptation of the 2013 game, I'd call Tomb Raider a complete success: it's safe, generic action entertainment that takes itself a bit too seriously.
I can think of a lot of things that would've made Tomb Raider a much stupider movie. For example: dinosaurs. Most of the story is set on an island Lara seeks out, the island her father disappeared on, which happens to hold the tomb (!!) of the long-lost Queen Himiko. On that island Lara encounters Trinity, an evil Illuminati organization trying to find Himiko's tomb to use her mystical powers for evil. There aren't any dinosaurs on the island, which makes sense, because dinosaurs died out something like 65 million years ago. But all I'm saying is, what if there had been?
Put dinosaurs in this movie and it would immediately get way dumber. I definitely would've started laughing. Just imagine it! There's some rustling in the bushes, and instead of a guy jumping out at Lara and trying to choke her, it's a damn shoulda-been-extinct-forever-ago raptor! That would've been preposterous. And imagine if, when Lara had discovered the location of Himiko's tomb and opened it for Trinity's goons into it after completing a classic videogame puzzle sequence…
Mummies. Imagine how dumb it would be if Lara ended up fighting her way through a bunch of reanimated mummies to get to Himiko's body. That would be much less realistic than the Temple of Doom-style traps Lara and the bad guy, Vogel, find themselves dodging. And mummies would be a complete tonal mishmash with Vogel, played by Walton Goggins, who comes across as ruthless and a little bit crazy, but too lightly sketched to be as intimidating as the movie wants him to be. He wouldn't be very scary once mummies showed up.
Or maybe he could've gone crazy, and been extra scary. Walton Goggins can play crazy. He's great at it! And when they finally got to Himiko's tomb, the dumbest thing I can imagine being there to guard it, pretty much, is a centaur. That shit would be campy as hell. I don't even know how I'd review a movie that ended with Lara Croft jumping on the back of a centaur and killing it with a climbing pick. In the kind of movie where something like that happened, the writer definitely would've made Alicia Vikander say "Tomb? Raided." after killing everything. I'm groaning and it hasn't even happened.
All of those crazy, dumb things happen in the original Tomb Raider game, and they would've been full-on ridiculous in a movie. But they're also the things that made Tomb Raider so memorable. I will never forget stepping into that valley and seeing that T-Rex come out of the darkness. I love the foreboding atmosphere and how enemies like mummies make you really feel like you've discovered a place no human has been in thousands of years. I also love the movie The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, and how it goes full camp but still makes you love its characters with fun writing and chemistry.
None of the characters in Tomb Raider have that chemistry, because they don't have enough time on screen together to earn it, and the film takes itself too seriously, which is why there's never even a hint of tension that dinosaurs might show up, or mummies might bust through the walls, or anything might happen to deviate from the predictable path of a totally fine action movie.
If Lara Croft had ridden a centaur, this movie would've been panned. It probably would've bombed. Of course the things that work in videogames don't often translate to movies with real human beings. The videogame movies of the 90s never really learned that, which is why they're so consistently insane. It's also why they're never, ever boring—and when they're predictable, it's because you know the stupidest possible thing is about to happen. Tomb Raider isn't a terrible movie, but I wish it was. It would've been a lot more fun, that way.
Update: As suggested yesterday, Shadow of the Tomb Raider will launch on PC on September 14, 2018.
"Experience Lara Croft’s defining moment as she becomes the Tomb Raider," so reads a tweet from the official Tomb Raider Twitter account, alongside the following short:
"Shadow of the Tomb Raider will be unveiled on April 27, 2018," says Square Enix in a statement. "Fans around the world can visit [the Tomb Raider official site] for a chance to play the game and meet the developers at one of three exclusive reveal events."
"March 15th, 2018 6:00 am PDT," reads a new teaser countdown on the official Tomb Raider website. It would appear this is when Square Enix plans to officially announce Lara Croft's next outing, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, to the world.
Inspecting the HTML, however, suggests September 14, 2018 is the game's due date—as uncovered by Twitter person Nibel.
A quick check at our end appears to confirm the above:
Nibel also points to a more in-depth reveal due next month:
As per the Tomb Raider site, the official reveal is tomorrow, March 15 at 6am PT/1pm GMT. We'll update if anything changes before then.
I had no idea that the first three Tomb Raider games were available on Steam but, yep, they're all there. However, they're the original DOS ports running through an emulator, which throws up a bunch of performance, resolution and control problems. Thankfully, more modern remasters are on the way that will run at 1080p with 60fps.
Realtech VR is the company handling the remasters, and it's basing them on the mobile versions of the games. You'll need to own the games on Steam in order to play the remasters because they're essentially mods of those versions, but if you do then they'll be completely free. The developer says it's looking at doing the same for GOG but isn't sure if it's going to be possible.
Along with a new 3D engine, the remasters will offer support for OpenVR, feature a range of graphics options and be playable with a controller. Realtech VR hasn't yet set a release date.
Realtech VR was founded in 2008 and has largely worked on games for iOS, although its website says that its team has experience in PC development. It has already finished the first two games and is currently working on Tomb Raider 3. Since the announcement, fan questions have been pouring in, and Realtech VR has been dealing with them on Twitter—click here to read its responses.
You can watch videos of its work on the first two running below, and everything seems to be as promised. A trailer for the remaster of Tomb Raider 3 is coming next month.
Square Enix has announced that a new Tomb Raider game is in the works, and that it will be revealed in a "major event" set to take place sometime in 2018. And that is literally all I can tell you about it.
I'm not kidding.
Announcements of announcements aren't my favorite thing in the world, especially when they're for not-exactly-a-surprise news that a popular videogame series is getting a another sequel. I also find it amusing that a message telling fans that they'll have to wait ends with, "we simply can't wait."
And yet, there's something odd about it—something in the wording that makes me think that maybe there's more going on here than meets the eye. What if... What if there's a secret hidden in the message? What if the first letter of the first word in each sentence combined to form a word?
That little Easter egg still doesn't tell us anything new about the game, but it does appear to confirm the Shadow of the Tomb Raider title that leaked in October of last year, a rumor that solidified (although it remained unconfirmed) this past June. So at least we're not going away completely empty-handed.
(And I cannot tell a lie: Rachel Weber of Gamesradar gets credit for noticing the Shadow secret—although I'm sure I would've figured it out on my own eventually.)