A Retrospective View and beyond
This time I wanted to make an interview with Agnes, a name well known in all the Tomb Raider Custom level Community around the world. Agnes works with the level editor since 2003, when she released her debut project, "Khal". Since then she has given 19 (!!!) level projects to us, and I don't know any other level builder who has released so many projects in this time period.
But the levels of Agnes were not only short or quick made levels. Most of them, as I also played them, were of a really good quality, and the ratings between 8 and 9+ most times also show this general quality to us. To me almost incredible, if we look at the time between all those level releases. Agnes really is an artist with the level editor, no doubt. Except level building Agnes also works in the administration of Lara's Levelbase, but fortunately she still finds time for building further new levels.
And so, now I learned about the 20th level project of Agnes, that she is just working on. Reason enough to ask her for an interview, and also a reason for celebrating jubilee. I hope I can do my bit therefore with this interview, and here are my questions and the answers of Agnes.
Agnes, our diligent level builder…
Jürgen: You work with the level editor since 2003. And in those 4 years since then you really released 19 levels; number 20 is in progress. This is an incredible achievement to all of us, and so my first question simply has to be about this "secret". Can you tell us about how this was possible? How could you release 19 levels in 4 years, when we see there was barely time between the single projects, until releasing the next one?
agnes: I think I was addicted to level building, I just couldn't stop. A lot of ideas went through my head and I wanted to release them. Every possible and free time I spent with the Leveleditor. And an important thing was: my family supported me.
Jürgen: Please, tell us about the beginning time. Can you still remember the first level, Khal, after creating so many of them? How difficult was it for you to get used to the editor? And could you realise your imaginations within the first project?
Once upon a time…so it began…
agnes: At the end of 2001 I finished playing TR 1-4 and I started playing customer levels. I remember very well when Seemeister asked me after more than one year: 'agnes, when will you start level building?' And my answer was: 'Never, it's too difficult'. One month later (on May 4th, 2003) CuahianoSmall started teaching his LE-lessons for beginners, on the Levelbase Learnbase. Ok, why not trying, was my thought and I enrolled. From the first second I opened the Leveleditor I couldn't stop learning. Cuas lessons went ahead too slowly for me, so I continued learning on my own, with the LE-manual at my side. With no knowledge of changing textures or objects, just with the wad and TGA Cua made for his teaching. Two months later the result was Khal. When I walked with Lara through my rooms the first time, I was surprised: did I build this world? I felt great (although the level isn't very good as I must admit…..) … at this moment a lot of questions were still unanswered, but I wanted to learn and explore.
Jürgen: After your debut level you got started with a level series, Artic Hole, including also your first Christmas special level Arctic Xmas, a first really big success for you. How did you get the idea for a bigger series like that so soon, and was it difficult to realize those levels? Have you been satisfied with the result then?
And yet the first successful big level series…
agnes: My favourite game is Half Life, I played every part and all the add-ons. On the stuff sections of Laras Levelbase I found the Half Life textures and I knew I wanted to build something with these textures, something different than Lara in Egypt or in a jungle. With these HL textures I could realize the ideas I had in my head. It just was fun, creating an own world with Half Life in the back of my head. I just couldn't stop building. I like texturing, lighting, placing the right music for the rooms, and I know my weak point are the puzzles. I had to learn the things about changing objects, textures and everything - it was a great and instructive time. And the result was the Arctic Hole series. And yes - I was satisfied with the result. Even if it was not perfect, 'cause actually I'm a perfectionist.
Jürgen: After those levels your next project was Candy Mountain. A whole unusual project, as it only should be a level for young children. You wrote yourself, it would be not suitable for adults, on which I would not agree, by the way. I also played this level and enjoyed, as I always love unusual levels. But how did you get the idea for this project? And can you still tell us about the experience of creating it? The first level for children, unusual at this time, but great…
agnes: In 2004 my son was five years old, he liked gaming on the computer and he liked Lara, too. So I thought, if I have the chance of building games, I'll build a level for him. At that time it was not yet easy to find textures and objects for children, but the most important thing was not to use any enemies and any traps and to get children used to the control of the TR-engine. My son liked Candy Mountain, but he missed some action like driving the bike into water - that's why I built Lara and the Horse later ;)
Jürgen: Your next level was Port Wladorsk. With this and the continuing levels we could learn about one of your preferences for games, at least I would believe so - Action games, and especially Shooters. You also bring those elements to your Tomb Raider levels, for your projects often are a little more 'lead heavy' than normal ones. Are your shooter levels, placing more enemies instead of hard timeruns or jumps for example, a conscious decision, or are those results more accidental?
Shooting time, one trademark of agnes…
agnes: As I already wrote above: most of all I like ego-shooters, especially Half Life, I like jumps, but I hate timeruns. Also I don't like very large rooms with several ways to go and not knowing where to begin - I never liked this kind of tombraiding. So I always tried to build levels which 1. I was able to play and 2. which I liked. They are linear, with enemies, some puzzles and the player must be able to go ahead. And very important for me: the world must be a realistic one. Have you ever seen wrong textures in Half Life or another game? To build a realistic world needs a lot of patience and time. Every level designer should take this time. In terms of this I'm a little bit crazy, I know ;)
Jürgen: Your next level was also a one for children, Lara and the Horse. A very beautiful one again, and we could see you really like to do such unusual projects, for also giving joy to younger children. But also it seems you really believe such levels are not suitable for adults, for you wrote so in the download section again. Can you explain this opinion to us? Why do you think levels for children are not good for adults?
And another level for our children…
agnes: I wrote 'not suitable for adults' because it is frustrating to read in a review by an adult: the level was too easy etc., for adults were not the target group. And when I released my first levels for children there was no possibility to deactivate the ranking. So the thought was to clearly write that the levels are adjusted to children's playing. And of course adults are allowed to play the levels, too ;)
Jürgen: Putoranaplateau Siberia was your next project then. And as the Arctic series once more a level set in ice and snow. Do you especially like such environments, or why do we find them so often in your levels?
Here we have action time again…
agnes: Settings in ice and snow were always enjoyable to me, for playing and building, 'cause I don't like Egyptian levels. (In my real life I hate cold and I prefer hot climate, that's why I moved to the south Italian part of Switzerland…). And it was really joyful building all the icy snowy landscapes, some years ago there were not many ice/snow levels to play. It still was something special.
Jürgen: Your next level was a special one again, another Christmas level after your Arctic Xmas level, Siberian Xmas. As it seems you like those changes, as we often can see them with a normal project followed by a special one in your level releases. Eight of your so far nineteen levels have been such special projects in a certain way. What can you tell us about the creation process? Would you say special levels are more difficult to create as 'normal' ones? I think about it because special levels normally do not contain enemies, timeruns or hard jumps. Is it hard to keep them interesting though with only challenges of puzzles? Or what are your experiences?
Changing level projects, this time a Christmas special level…
agnes: I think it IS more difficult to built a special level (at least for me) because as you say there must be an interesting and nice gameplay, but you have no enemies or traps. Important are puzzles and a perfect built world. And I'm not the puzzle specialist ;) Preferably I would build whole worlds and somebody else would put in the puzzles, I would like that, but it is not possible, 'cause the world must be built FOR the puzzles. But I really like the work in the advent calendar team very much, and at the end, when a calendar is finished, twenty four doors filled, it gives a great feeling.
Jürgen: Your next level, City of Dwarves, is a good example for what I asked in the first question. For the Levelbase Advent Calendar of 2004 you have built two levels, Siberain Xmas and City of Dwarves. They have been released within a few days only, so, can you tell us something about the creation process? Did you work on two projects at once?
And we stick to this point…
agnes: Yes, I built two projects at once. During building Siberian Xmas I discovered the possibility of building high houses, and the more houses I built, the more I enjoyed it. So City of Dwarves was my house building study. This study was continued in Hells Kitchen, where the houses got even higher and larger.
Jürgen: After two Christmas levels there was a 'normal' one again, Hells Kitchen, your first level of 2005 and only two month after those two Christmas projects. And though of little time for creating it, as it seems, it was a big success again and a great level, as I also agree. As for an example here, can you tell us about how long you really needed to build this level? And where do you always take the ideas from for further new level projects, what inspires you?
Back to action again…
agnes: First I must say, that my Christmas levels were finished in the beginning of the year but they were released in December, logically. Swiss Xmas was built in January 2006 and the release was in December 2006. With Hells Kitchen I started in summer 2004. It took me about six months of daily work to finish it. My ideas and inputs? I played about a hundred computer games, and I read a lot of books (therefore I never watch TV)…..and both together with a little bit of fantasy builds new worlds in my head. And I'm painting pictures - level building is similar, a kind of art for me.
Jürgen: Also in 2005 you joined a big team project, for 'Reign of Chaos'. You have created two levels for this great project, can you tell us about your experiences with this project? And what about the experiences for the teamwork, is it more easy or difficult to work in a team?
A great team project, with two levels by agnes…
agnes: It was a really good time for me working for Reign of Chaos, and we worked in a kind I really liked: everybody built his levels on his own. We had to discuss some things, we helped each other with objects, the script or other problems, everybody had a responsibility for something… and when Reign of Chaos was finished, there was a great feeling: we got it. The teamwork was not easier than building on my own 'cause in a team there are other problems. The levels have to fit for the storyline, and the whole thing has to run…but otherwise it was not more difficult 'cause everyone in the team helped the other one when problems came up. And eight eyes see more than two ;) It was a good experience for me and I could learn a lot of new things.
Jürgen: Your next level was a solo one again, for the wonderful Sudeki project. As I know you have been inspired from the original RPG here. Can you tell us how this idea was born, to try to adapt a game like this for Tomb Raider? And how difficult was the development, could you realize your imaginations, or were there limits you couldn't get beyond?
The wonderful and successful Sudeki Project…
agnes: I played Sudeki on the Xbox, the story was interesting, a fairytale. I liked it, and most of all the pictures were impressing. Starting with ripping textures from Sudeki, I tried to build this wonderful world then, where everything's round and harmonically…..and you see, that was the problem at last. The tr4-Engine works with squares and it is really hard to build something what should be round and harmonically. That means I could take Sudeki as an inspiration, but I couldn't build the same world. Nevertheless I enjoyed the work on these four levels 'cause every world needed other objects, textures and another idea. Many players liked Sudeki most of my levels - I think, it's because the level is a fairytale and not an ego-shooter ;)
Jürgen: Speaking about limits - what about the new programs for Tomb Raider level building, as the NGLE or TREP? What is your opinion for those tools of today, and do you also use them now for your levels?
agnes: I tried those new tools, one reason 'cause my new project is still on work ;) , and the possibility to use more and larger textures or to use more objects is really great, 'cause I always had problems with those elements. But what I don't like is, the levels made with the new tools are not Mac compatible. And I know a lot of Mac players…..so I'm wavering between using the new tools and the wish that everybody could play my levels.
Jürgen: Swiss Xmas was your next level, and a special one again, for it was made for the Levelbase Advent Calendar of 2005. And like the other Christmas levels I also loved this beautiful one, so, what was the idea behind? As I would guess you wanted to get us closer to the kind of Swiss Christmas, as you are from this country?
Always nice again - another special Christmas level…
agnes: Yes, I thought not many players are from Switzerland, so I wanted to show something about my country to the players all over the world. And the level only was possible 'cause Karlo002 built some special objects like the cheese fondue pan. The first sound is sung by my neighbour Melchior, a song about the beautiful valley Toggenburg. He doesn't know the internet or Lara or anything outside his valley - singing is his only hobby ;) And 'cause I'm happy and thankful that I may live in Switzerland and that I'm Swiss, I thought it's time to build a level for my home country.
Jürgen: With the next project, Rustay, you created another interesting and successful level. Russia is a country not so often taken for level themes. How was this rather unusual idea of a big mystery in Russia born, and can you tell us something about the difficulties of the development again?
A little journey to Russia…
agnes: First, it was Half Life 2 again, which inspired me, especially the level Ravenshield. And I like the combination of nice world/horror world, it makes level building interesting and changing. Every level of Rustay is a completely different world. Second: The train level, I never built one, so I thought, it's time now to make one. But it became such a lot of work and the result was disappointing for me. Taking Ravenshield and the train level I had to build a story around, and it was Rustay which resulted.
Jürgen: Your so far last two projects were special ones again, first the very unusual Summer. Can you tell us more about this project? How did you get this idea for Summer? Reading the story in the download section, was this level perhaps an experiment to work with new tools?
And an unusual project again…
agnes: It was wintertime, I hate winter and cold, that's why a started building Summer. It was a project to forget wintertime, to build a house I'd like, to build a country I'd like to live in, and at the same time I made my first experiences with the new tools. And because the setting is nice and peaceful I took the occasion and built a part for children and a part for adults with enemies and traps.
Jürgen: And the second special level was Christmas for everybody, another Christmas level, for the Levelbase Advent Calendar of 2006. Reading the story here I think this was a very interesting project again. Social themes in Tomb Raider levels, well, I would think we do not often find them. Was this the idea behind to call attention to the lonely and poor people in our society?
Another Christmas level - but this time also with an important mesaage…
agnes: Yes, it was the idea to call attention to the lonely and poor people in our society. The Christmas levels are (mostly) always nice and peaceful and people like to forget all the misery in our world. I wanted to show the contrast between the shimmering and rich world, and people who never will be able to buy something in these very expensive and unnecessary shops.
Jürgen: After the Christmas level of 2006 there was a break in level building then, for the first time at all, as it seemed. It also was the first time we got no Christmas level from you for the 2007 Levelbase Advent Calendar, so, can you tell us about the reasons?
agnes: The end of 2006 and the whole year 2007 were a time with a lot of changes in my life. Every section of my life and environment was affected. My marriage, health, children, living place, financial situation, working place - everything in my life was all haywire. I had a lot to learn, not about the new tools ;) but about my life. Now I live in the south part of Switzerland, everything is new, the language, the people and I'm looking for a new way, building a new social net - it takes a lot of time.
Jürgen: But now you are working again, and the name for the new project is 'Castello Visconteo'. So far nothing is known yet about this new level, so, can you tell us some details? What will be the theme for this level, and where will it play? Can you also tell something about the story? And will it be a single level or a level series?
And finally, a view into the future…
agnes: In September 2006 I found an apartment in Locarno, near the Castello Visconteo, it's a very old castle full of history. On a cloudy day I went there and shot a lot of photos and these were changed to textures. With these textures I started building the level Castello Visconteo. I think it will be a single level 'cause it's not what I really like to build. I created too many castles yet. I'd like more to build something very different. But I've never put an unfinished project aside. And the story? Lara's looking for an old treasure, hidden behind the very old walls…
Jürgen: Of course we are curious again, so, is there any release date yet? And can you also tell something about the difficulty, who will be able to succeed in this level?
agnes: There's no release date 'cause my currently life prevents a continuous level building. But the level will be playable for everybody, as most of my levels ;) My talent is building different worlds but not building difficult levels. I even can't play difficult levels ;)
Jürgen: Will there be any new elements in this current level project, like new objects, enemies or anything else? And do you use cut scenes?
agnes: The newest thing at this moment are the textures which are made with photos, they show the real Castello Visconteo. And the rest - we'll see…..
Jürgen: Let's also talk about the future. With your current project you will have released 20 levels then. And now we really live in an exciting time for level building, thinking of all those interesting new tools, where we still not yet have reached the limits. We can see it in the levels of today, bringing us so much new things we only could dream about a long time. Will you continue with level building, and will you use the new available achievements? I have heard about several times, that there are big differences between level building in the 'old' level editor days, and level building today with all the new tools. What do you think about, and is it very difficult to adjust oneself? Have level builders to completely learn new these days?
agnes: Last year I learnt not to think about the future, too many things are able to change too fast. I really don't know if Castello Visconteo, level number 20, will be my last one. Yes, there are big differences between level building in the 'old' level editor days, and level building today with all the new tools. And I liked the 'old' level editor days, I knew the limits and what's possible and what not, I knew every rule. I like an organised cleaned up life although I know, it's not possible, life is very complicated. Level building today with all the new tools is a little bit chaotically - I think I would need to spare more time to find my way there…we'll see….
Jürgen: Thank you for this interview and for all the great levels you created for us!