chronicles5 is a young level builder from the USA and he has started to work with the editor in 2001. Since then we got 5 level projects from him with different success. Between level four and five was a break of four years, when we learned about other projects in progress, but they never were released. After the short comeback in 2006 (to work our a level for the 2006 BtB project) we could not get a further level again, but a short time ago I heard about a new project from chronicles5 that he is working on. Well, I took the chance and wrote to him, as we also had had contact a few years ago. My hope was to get some answers about the past and future projects of this author and why some of his past projects never were released. There had been some very interesting screenshots of them, so what happened with these levels? Here you can read the answers I could get from chronicles5…
Lara for ever: Can you tell us first how you came into level building originally? And how long was the period from the first decision of building and finishing your first level?
chronicles5: Okay, well I don't remember exactly when I first got the editor, but it was soon after the release of Chronicles for the PC. I had seen custom levels online and was quite intrigued by the concept, and once I realized the PC version of the game (I'd been playing on PSX) had a level editor, I went and got it right away. I remember making a lot of 'levels' but I never built the tutorial level like most others do. I just played with things and used trial and error (and the manual!) and built a lot of really crazy levels. At that time I was not thinking about aesthetic value or gameplay, just the fun of creating something new. I think a lot of people release a first level like that, and we cringe to look at them. Anyway, according to trle.net, my first 'level' that I released was put online on 9th June 2001, just over seven years ago.
Temple of Aeolus
Lara for ever: Your first level, Temple of Aeolus, was released in the older days of level building, 2001. As I can see from the reviews, it was a very short level, still with a lot of mistakes. As it seems, a difficult beginning with level building. Can you tell us your experiences from this time? Was it very hard for you to get used to the LE?
chronicles5: Well, I don't think the problem was that the LE was hard for me, rather that I hadn't taken the time to fully understand it, and also what makes a good level. In reflection, I was certainly a bit trigger happy with releasing my level. If you play 'Temple of Aeolus' you'll see how the level gets better as it goes on. There is a rather nice cut-scene in the middle that zooms in on 'Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here', which is basically the highlight of the level. Today I joke that you should abandon hope before you die of boredom! Haha... in any case, the level improved, and this is just what happened with basically all of my levels. With each so-called failure, I learned a lot more about how to craft a good level, and I think the series I'm working on currently will reflect what I have learned over the past seven years. But more about that in a minute!
Temple of Aeolus
Lara for ever: Second level, same problem. You released Japanese Temple by Night in 2002, and it was very short again. Players still complained about mistakes and actually missing gameplay. What were the reasons for the problems, can you still tell us?
chronicles5: This level was much better than my first aesthetically, yet it was still very dark. It basically consisted of a switch hunt in a dark temple, opening one door after another until you reach the final prize and get to enjoy a helicopter scene where Lara gets picked up. Boring gameplay, I know, but this level was at least an improvement from the dreaded 'Temple of Aeolus', and had a few interesting moments. I was definitely becoming more creative, but I needed to focus more on gameplay. Anyway, though this level is not my favorite, it was a big step forward.
Japanese Temple by Night
Lara for ever: After those negative ratings for your first two levels, haven't you been at a point of giving up again these days? Or did you think: now more than ever?
chronicles5: I don't think I ever wanted to give up, certainly not just because of bad ratings. I may have been more childish at the time, but I understood the comments and ratings I had got and tried to improve on them. After all, ratings and scores are just numbers, it is the meaning behind them that shows what we need to work on. So I kept on working and released two more levels in 2002, each more successful than their predecessors.
Japanese Temple by Night
Lara for ever: In this beginning period, did you release all levels you have built these days, or did you hold back projects, with perhaps never finishing, because of the first two bad results or thinking things wouldn't be good enough?
chronicles5: I think you might be on to something here. In the past, I released levels without really thinking, the best phrase I can think of is 'trigger happy'. The ratings definitely made me think more before releasing a level, and I began to spend a lot more time on a level before releasing. There were many, many projects I started during these years, probably hundreds, but I didn't get far with many of them. Part of this may have to do with ratings, but also it's the fact that I tend to start a project, get really into it, and then lose interest and start something else. I made many of these unfinished projects, and I wish I still had some of them. Many were almost finished, but for some reason I never did anything with them. They were just sort of forgotten. Anyway, one thing is for sure: I really considered the ratings I had received and spent more time developing each level, instead of just uploading it on a whim.
Lara for ever: Well, however, in the same year, only a few month later, you released your next project, Ta Phrom. And we can notice a big difference, though of only a short time between this level and the last one. Players gave a much better rating to it. Have you been satisfied with it yourself too?
chronicles5: 'Ta Phrom' was a bit better than 'Japanese Temple By Night' but was still largely unfinished and the gameplay was poor. The level had two really nice rooms, and other than that I really don't like the texturing or layout of the level very much at all (but I guess I did at the time?) The best part of the gameplay was the secrets, but even those are easy. To be honest, I don't think the level deserves the 7.5 rating it currently has. Still, it was much better than 'Japanese Temple' and was received as such. I had developed a lot artistically but still needed to focus on gameplay. My next level was much better in both departments.
Lara for ever: Strange, another project in the same year, only one month later. Did you work at more than one project at the same time, or how can we imagine? There were three whole different level projects in a period of only some months. And what do you think are the reason for the big differences, as we have ratings from 4.50 up to 8.40 between them?
chronicles5: Again, I had a lot of unfinished projects going on at different times. If I remember correctly, I had been working on 'Northern Shrine of Brahma' beforehand, and 'Ta Phrom' developed as a side project. So they were probably both going at once, and maybe others as well. As far as the gaps in ratings, I just think that each time I released a level and got criticism, I worked a bit harder to improve on past flaws and understood a bit more of how to make a good level. So it's no surprise my ratings went up about 4 points.
Northern Shrine of Brahma
Lara for ever: So, The Northern Shrine of Brahma, your third project of this year. And the so far best one at this time, as we can see and read. So we can also see your progress in a relative short period. What is your own opinion, have you been satisfied with this last project? And how difficult was it to build this first bigger level?
chronicles5: I'm pretty satisfied with how 'Northern Shrine of Brahma' turned out. It was a much bigger, longer, more difficult level. There was more gameplay, but it was tedious at times and involved a few too many switches and keys. I did include some zip-lines, torch puzzles, flip-maps, rope swings, and other stuff though, which made it a bit better than my older levels. The environment was hugely improved, I made some really big areas and textured/laid them out much more beautifully. I was using custom objects, textures, and audio. I guess I am most satisfied with the environment, it was much better than older levels. Today I know I can do much better, but for back then I did pretty well. I don't think it was necessarily more difficult to build the bigger level, only took more time to make.
Northern shrine of Brahma
Lara for ever: Well, after your first really successful level, and after we thought we could be curious for more levels of a talented builder, there was a longer break then. You did not release anything else until 2006, though I can remember some level announcements in this period. Levels, which sadly had never been released, as for example 'Tomb Raider: Gardens of Lost Time', a project I was also looking forward to myself. And there was more beyond that, as 'Streets of Seville'. Can you tell us about the projects you started in this period, and about the reasons why never finishing them?
Gardens of lost Time (cancelled)
chronicles5: Well, like I said before, I think the reason for the big gap was the huge amount of unfinished levels I created in this time. I remember a series I almost finished in Peru that had 4 levels, but for some reason I totally gave it up. I guess this was a period of experiments, where I would constantly get bored with one project and start something new. And yes, it wasn't until 2006 that I finally finished something. Anyway, you asked about Gardens of Lost Time. This was a BIG project, possibly the biggest map I'd ever made (at that point), and it had some really cool puzzles and beautiful areas. I still have all the files for this level and have actually adopted a lot of its ideas into my current project, and will probably finish these levels someday in the future. After 'Forest Palaces', I took another big break from creating levels (I didn't make any for almost two years), and resumed last year in the fall. This was due to a few factors: new boyfriend, moving out, finding spirituality, starting college, etc, etc, excuses, excuses. But here I am today, couldn't stay away from Lara for long!
Streets of Seville (cancelled)
Lara for ever: Your next level was released in 2006, as you joined in the Back to Basics 2006 team. Your contribution for the project was Forest Palaces, and it also was quite successful again, though it could not reach a rating beyond 8. Have you been satisfied with this level? And what made the decision to join this BtB project? Can you tell us your experiences of working with such limitation of the possibilities?
chronicles5: Forest Palaces was a fun level. I was much more satisfied with this one, even despite its shortcomings. The level was not too long, though it did have a few challenging traps and puzzles. Gameplay was so much better, in fact I don't remember any boring switch/door combos, except for timed doors and the like. The one flaw in this level that caused its low rating is a bug that I somehow missed. Basically, the same gem was used in three places, and if a player put a gem in the wrong place, they became unable to get the rest of the gems, and were locked out from a certain door. I don't know how I missed this, but I guess it goes to show you should have many beta testers before releasing a level. I probably ran out of time. BtB was fun to work with, I wanted to make a new level and loved the Asian theme, so I decided to go for it. It was nice to be given objects and textures for a change, and it presented builders with an equal playing ground to show off their skills. So I think BtB is a great concept, and I would do one again someday when I have more time.
BtB 06 - Forest Palaces
Lara for ever: Meanwhile we have great new abilities in level building because of new tools like the NGLE and TREP. Do you have experiences yet with those tools, and if so, can you tell us what you think about them?
chronicles5: I was gone doing other things for over a year, and when I came back I was confronted with the magical NGLE and TREP. I used TREP briefly when it first came out to remove distance fog, but the new version I found when I came back was very exciting. When I started building again in Fall 07 I started using NGLE and fell in love with its ease of use and new features. 128 pixel textures are simply gorgeous, and so are the new flip-effects and features now enabled by NGLE. So I built all of my current series in the NGLE, using an old version of TREP for some features. However, I couldn't get the latest version of TREP to play nicely, so I was unable to change certain parameters that I wanted. I'm hoping by the time my current series gets released that some of those incompatibilities will be fixed. Anyway, both are amazing tools and have radically expanded the TRLE horizons!
Monastery by the Gorge (cancelled)
Lara for ever: So, let us now take a look into the present and future. Can you tell us if you are currently working at a new project? And if so, what will it be about? Can you give us details like story or number of levels, and perhaps the settings?
chronicles5: At present, I'm working on a level series that I hope to release in the fall. I created this level series for a school project that blended 3 of my classes together in school. I took an Advanced Writing class in Fall 07 and wrote a 'dream journey' that puts the reader in a mystical realm where they have to solve puzzles and overcome challenges to reach their goal. Each puzzle was both philosophical and physical in nature, and I wrote them with Tomb Raider in mind. I also took a Mythology class, and for our final we had to make a self portrait of our own personal myth. I used NGLE to bring my story to life in a full series, yet one that would be playable by students and teachers. So the game is basically finished, yet needs a lot of work before it can be released. The story is intact, which I will release sometime soon. I also created a book that I had printed online, which brought the story and images from the game together, so the casual viewer could understand the game and story, and enjoy the experience. Anyway, the game is set in a temple in the sky, and spans across 4 levels. The atmosphere is highly inspired by Piega's work and also the Prince of Persia series. I put a lot of detail into the environments and a lot of thought into the puzzles. However, the game is still too easy to be released online. It is very linear in its current form and needs to be made a lot longer. Most of it is finished though, so I feel that I can finish this game by the end of the year, hopefully. I should also mention that I used Kurtis Trent for my self portrait project in the game, since he looks more like me. But Kurtis will not be in the game when I finally release it, it will indeed be Lara. Don't you worry! Right now, I'm in Thailand without access to my Windows, so I can't continue building until I get back to school in the fall. I hope to finish the levels quickly though!
Lara for ever: Are you using the new tools for your current and future levels? And if so, can we expect new elements, such as objects, enemies, or even new movements of Lara?
chronicles5: I'm using TREP and NGLE for these levels, which have really helped in creating these more realistic, captivating environments. Without the new flip-effects many ideas would have gone to waste, or would have been more complicated to make. As far as objects and animations, I haven't gone far into that stuff as of yet. I have drawn objects and textures from a lot of different places for this level, but haven't created any new elements or animations or anything. I certainly hope to in the future! It's just that for this series, I didn't really need anything new.
Lara for ever: Is there any release date for your current project yet? And can you also tell us about the degree of difficulty? Who will be able to play this level?
chronicles5: I'm hoping to finish the whole thing by the end of the year. The areas are built and the ideas are solid, I just need to make it less linear, longer game time and more difficult for players. Again I made it with students and teachers in mind, so for example the timed runs give way too much time and the jumps are too easy. I want to make these levels a real challenge, and weave the levels together a little more. So at current, it is a very easy series to finish and very fast, but by the time it's fully finished it will be more difficult. I agree with Piega in that levels don't need to be impossible to play to be enjoyable, so I don't think it will be too difficult - just more so than it is now. Anyone should be able to play the levels if they really want to.
Lara for ever: To speak about your cancelled projects once more, will you perhaps use material from those levels in your new projects?
chronicles5: Yes, I actually used some rooms and a lot of ideas from 'Gardens of Lost Time' in this new series. If you remember the lion fountain room (I owe Piega endless gratitude for the centerpiece of those rooms and many more) from GOLT, it has been refurnished and improved for use in the new level. It was a great idea for a puzzle and I have really taken it to the next level. Some other puzzles that I won't give away just yet were also taken from older games, including GOLT. The 'Streets of Seville' project that I never finished is another that will someday be used. The level finds Lara in her hotel room in Spain, and she wanders out to find a beautiful city and a lot of civilians. Lara will be able to ask civilians for advice, and do favors for them (like find things, etc) in order to get their help. By the end of the level, she'll be able to open the Old Temple at the top of the hill, thanks to her trusty civilian friends. I made a lot of this level, but never got the voice acting done in order to bring the civilians to life. It needs a lot more work but some day this will be a nice prologue to another level series I want to create. I also made a level called 'Monastery by the Gorge' that I will someday finish. There isn't much of the level built, but it looks rather nice and so I think is worth mentioning. The concept is a ruined monastery by a large river and waterfall, and someday I hope to work more on it. I have one big area done and a nice background loop, but that's about it. Maybe someday!
Lara for ever: Can we also take a look beyond your current project yet? Will you continue with level building? And if so, are there any ideas for future projects yet? Perhaps you can tell us something about it?
chronicles5: Well, aside from the unfinished projects I've mentioned, which will no doubt take a backseat to more interesting projects, I have quite a few ideas for new levels that I'd like to make in 2009 and beyond. I will certainly continue with level building, as it seems like things are getting better and better by the day! Right now I am living and studying in Thailand for the summer, just hours away from beautiful Cambodia and the Angkor temples that I fell in love with after TR4. In July 2008 I will be spending a week in Cambodia and gathering ideas and textures for a sequel to 'Race for the Iris' from TR4. I started a lot of such levels, even one with a Von Croy cut-scene, but never finished any of them. I feel strongly that this story should not be left untold, and also that if I take the time to create my own high-res textures and base the environment off of the real temples, I will end up someday with a really cool level. So this is what I am looking forward to for 2009 and beyond. I have some other ideas up my sleeve that I will keep quiet for the moment. =)
Personal statements by chronicles5 to each of his levels:
Temple of Aeolus: My first released level, and a mess of stretched textures inside huge rooms. Boring, simple gameplay. There is one cool cutscene (second picture shows it) which focuses on 'Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here', but it is a hollow threat. More like abandon hope before you lose your mind from boredom! Anyway, a terrible level that is not worth playing.
Japanese Temple By Night: A slightly better level that I deemed 'awesome' in the readme, which some people laughed about. This level looks a bit better but the gameplay is still very boring. It is a maze of switches and doors in a dark temple with no flares. There are some cool parts, like at the end a helicopter picks you up, but the level overall is very boring and too dark.
Ta Phrom: An Angkor style level which has very little gameplay. There are a few nice areas, but overall the rooms are not very exciting. You basically run around opening doors, occasionally avoiding a hog or crocodile. Very easy and boring level, but better than the last ones.
Northern Shrine of Brahma: An India level somewhat like Jungle from TR3. It has some visually impressive areas and a few cool flipmaps, and it was also one of the first levels to use the zipline. Gameplay is more interesting than my past levels, but there are still many keys and switches to be found, and a few fun timed runs. A huge improvement from my old levels.
Forest Palaces (Back to Basics 2006): By far my best released level, this one is well textured and laid out, and the gameplay is much more interesting. There are a few fun puzzles, including timed runs with traps, pushable objects, fun flipmaps, etc.
Monastery by the Gorge: A level that never got very far (a lot of my levels end up that way). It was sort of a monastery in the mountains. I made some cool music for it, and the layout is nice, but I never developed it much. There are no puzzles yet and I do not plan to ever finish this level, maybe only take ideas from it.
Streets of Seville: This level will be the prologue to a series someday. Lara enters the game in her hotel room, and can walk around the hotel and the town, asking civilians questions and helping them with things, to gain information about the temple in the town. The level is mostly laid out and the civilians are there, but I never got the voice acting to bring them to life and develop the story.
Gardens of Lost Time: The most recent project before I stopped building for a while. This level was huge and complex, easily the biggest I'd ever made. It had some really beautiful areas and some well-developed puzzles. I took a lot of ideas from this level for my current project, and will probably finish this level someday.
Mythic Journeys: This current project was created and finished for a school project. It will be reworked quite a bit before it gets released to the TRLE community. Since it was made for school, I used Kurtis and the puzzles are so easy (so that anyone, not just a seasoned TR expert could play it). In the fall I will be reworking the whole thing to make it a lot more difficult. This game has a lot of puzzles and is a very big world to explore, in 4 levels. Look forward to this level coming in Winter 2008.
Future Project: After I finish the level I'm working on, I'm going to do a new Angkor level that takes up where Race for the Iris TR4 leaves off (when Von Croy dies), based on the real Angkor Wat temple and other temples I will visit this summer. I'm going to take photos of textures, in order to make all my own textures and new objects too. It will be Young Lara, but much more difficult than my old Ta Prohm level. I have made many Angkor levels that never got finished, but I look forward to making one with new textures and a lot of new ideas. I am in Thailand right now and will be visiting Cambodia for a week in July. So excited to see the temples firsthand!
Lara for ever: Thank you for this interview, and all our best wishes for you and your projects!
chronicles5: Thank you so much, Jürgen, we all appreciate the hard work you have put into creating these unique interviews. Best wishes in all of your projects as well!