By Loren Petrich (10/15/98)
With Comments in Italics By Eep&sup˛
I'd like to make some comments about Tomb Raider and level editing. In particular, there was this interesting editorial on the subject: Sarah's view on level editors.
This issue reminds me of another 3D action game that has a strong backstory -- but whose creators have been supportive of the game's fans' efforts in creating new levels and artwork for it, even to the point of being Total Conversions. The game is Marathon (creators: Bungie.
Though a first-person shooter like Doom, Quake, and Unreal, it has a feature that makes it stand apart from those games -- in-game communications terminals. Activate one, and its message will fill the screen. A Tomb Raider equivalent would be Lara Croft reading a message on a wall.
It is in these messages that the backstory is conveyed -- along with instructions and hints for one's missions. Some of the game's most important characters are only "seen" in those messages, such as some Artificial Intelligences (AIs). And it is a backstory that has a whole site devoted to it. This aspect has seldom been imitated; the closest any well-known game has come to doing so is Unreal with its Universal-Translator messages, and that was a big disappointment.
Some of the missions do seem rather Tomb Raiderish. In Marathon 1, one is to explore an exotic alien spaceship, and in Marathon 2, one is to search among some ruins for info on the history of their builders, at the command of one of those AIs who had taken over that alien ship (imagine Lara Croft searching for some old documents and reading a few pages of each one as she goes). And several of them involving finding switches in various places; some of them contain some rather weird puzzles, such as the switches of "Thing What Kicks" in Marathon Infinity.
The player character does not quite have Lara Croft's moves, but still does have some interesting ones -- grenade and rocket jumping. One jumps across gaps by running, and one can jump farther by firing a grenade, or by running backward and firing a rocket. Also, the precise identity of the player character is one of the game's puzzles, something hinted at in several terminal messages.
Though many of the characters are hostile, some of them are friendly, like the "Bobs", or human crew. But in Infinity, friends on one level can become enemies on another level.
Marathon editing, however, grew only gradually; Marathon 1 had been designed as a self-contained package, and its creators did not expect anybody to want to edit it. However, Bungie's programmers gave some documentation to some interested fans, who then created tools that others then used to create lots and lots of new levels and artwork. Marathon 2 was designed with selection of data files built in, and Marathon Infinity was an improved version of Marathon 2 with a level editor (Forge) and an everything-else editor (Anvil).
Bungie's in-house level editor, Vulcan, was described as "all the madness and misery of 20 lunatic asylums, distilled into a single Macintosh application", and its tendency to crash led one of its users to "save early and often".
Marathon's fans have shown great creativity; one example is sex changes for the Bobs. I myself have created such a patch, in the same style as the original; some others, however, might best be described as Marathon's answer to Nude Raider. Some fans have even created ingenious puzzles, and one Total Conversion even turns Marathon into the first part of Myst (wouldn't it be nice to create a TR map in which Lara Croft essentially plays a bit of Myst?). Though many backstories are rather derivative of Bungie's, some of them create entirely new universes, sort of like describing Lara Croft as someone else, or making her look totally different. Not surprisingly, some mapmakers have discovered tricks that Marathon's creators had never thought of.
Back to Sarah's article. She had expressed several concerns about level editors. Let's see how these concerns have been handled by Bungie and Marathon fans. I'll start the concerns' paragraphs with *'s.
* Fan-created maps may be seriously out of character, such as having Lara Croft slaughter lots and lots of Atlanteans.
The Bungie folx do not seem to have been bothered by that prospect; in fact, their "Marathon Trilogy" contains the three members of the series -- and a CD-ROM-full-of-fan-composed stuff, including that Myst imitation.
* The mapmakers use a lot of fancy tools, such as Photoshop and 3D Studio Max, not to mention the in-house Room Editor.
However, some makers of Marathon artwork files (myself, for example) have been very willing to use such tools. Also, if one lacks such tools, one can simply recycle stuff used in the game, as some Marathon artwork makers have done.
As to the Room Editor, it may be as cranky as Vulcan had been; in that case, Eidos/Core could go Bungie's route, and create a more user-friendly version of it.
* TR was originally intended for a game console -- the Sega Saturn. The existence of fan-created levels would be unfair to game-console owners, who could not get access to them.
To which I can only respond: so what? To me, it's like complaining that TR cannot run very well on some old 286 PC -- what can one expect out of such hardware? Of course, the game-console makers could make it easy to send files from one's computer to a console, but I don't see how their unwillingness to do so should hold the rest of us hostage.
Looking at the large texture file for each level in the Tomb Raider games, I notice, in BMP format anyway, they don't go beyond 2MB. Any idea why? Does Sony Playstation video memory have anything to do with it? I bet it does...so because of some console's lesser memory, us real gamers who have way more memory on their systems have to suffer. Feh...
* TR levels are *HUGE*.
1/17/2K update: TR's levels are not as "huge" (less than 4MB) as Sarah thinks, compared to other games (which have level editors, incidentally) like Thief (levels between ~2.5-10.5MB) and Half-Life (unsure of sizes).
Some Marathon scenario makers, however, have been willing to create very detailed levels and very bulky scenarios -- sometimes pressing the Marathon engine to its built-in limits.
My conclusion: Eidos and Core don't really have much to lose -- and a lot to gain -- by allowing Tomb Raider level editing. And what is it that they are selling -- Lara Croft or an overall gameplay experience?