Just four musical notes herald the beginning of the Tomb Raider theme and the epic adventures of Lara Croft that transformed video game graphics, gameplay, and storyline in 1996.

That simple motif—and music and sound—are more important than ever to Lara’s story in the latest Tomb Raider, a critically acclaimed prequel released by Square Enix on March 5. The new game, or reboot, delivers the story of Lara Croft’s origins and her journey to become a hardened action heroine.

Jack Grillo is a lead sound designer at Crystal Dynamics. In the first in a two-part series, he gives Lab Notes insight into the sound of Lara Croft’s story.

Lab Notes: How does sound play a role in the Tomb Raider series?

Jack Grillo (JG): The most obvious way that sound helps to reinforce Lara’s character arc in Tomb Raider is through music, specifically, Lara’s main theme.

We directed our composer, Jason Graves, to create a theme that can be used in a number of different contexts. It is purposely simple, so that a small tweak in tempo, instrumentation, or supporting harmony can shift the mood from lonely and vulnerable to angry or triumphant.

Additional themes for supporting characters and island locations and nonthematic textural pieces used to highlight different gameplay mechanics are introduced throughout the game to help create the space for Lara’s theme to evolve right alongside Lara herself.

Another way we used sound to tell Lara’s story is with the voice-over [VO]. Of course, spoken VO is the primary storytelling device in most games, but I’m actually referring to the nonverbal, grunt and effort sounds.

We collected a huge array of breathing and grunting sounds from our Lara, voiced by Camilla Luddington, during our various recording sessions, and we use them to support the basics—player movement and health system, as well as highlighting moments of tension, claustrophobia, fear, sadness, and so on.

And just as the tone of Lara’s narrative VO shifts with her experience and growing confidence throughout the game, the tone of her nonverbal sounds shifts as well.

Tomb Raider is a survival story—Lara is fighting for her life against a variety of enemies, including the island itself. When we think of the island as a character—alive and moody and cursed—we can put extra emphasis on the ambient, weather-based sound effects. The dynamic intensity of these sounds helps to reinforce the story.

And the overall mix of gameplay sounds and music helps to support the “storytelling” of any given moment. The intensity of enemy gunfire and bullet impacts, the quiet shuffling of deer in the forest, the heavy waterfalls, or creaky old wooden buildings all give the player context for the immediate story—and help guide Lara from one moment of discovery to the next.

Lab Notes: In your opinion, can sound make game play—or the gamer—better?

JG: I believe that sound always has the potential to improve the gameplay experience. The systemic sounds of weapons, footsteps, player movement, breathing, and pickups all play a part in how the game “feels.”

Detailed, organic ambient sounds give the player a more complete sense of immersion. And dynamic music with smooth transitions from one gameplay sequence to the next gives each moment weight and purpose.

As the player spends time with the game, various sound patterns will emerge that help to improve the gameplay experience. Players will recognize how music is triggered for stealth or combat, or how enemy VO is used to create combat pacing, or how the different collectible-item chimes provide hints for available upgrades.

These patterns help the player to better understand and master gameplay mechanics.

[Editor’s Note: Our interview with Jack Grillo continues next week.]

What sound pulls you into the action in your favorite game?