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Elvis Tupcijenko aka eTux back homepage search
interviewed by Treeble in May/June 2009

Treeble: "I haven't done this in a while, but I reckon we should start with the basic stuff. So, in a nutshell, who exactly is Elvis?"

eTux

eTux: "In a nutshell, Elvis is a 22 year old university student from Latvia. Currently he is studying in a Cultural Anthropology BA program, with focus on Chinese culture and language. He is still trying to find his place in the grand scheme of things and happens to be part of the TR custom level community. He also finds it very awkward to speak about himself in the third person."

Treeble: "How have you been introduced to the Tomb Raider universe?"

eTux: "I can't say I can echo the stories of those who fell in love with Tomb Raider with the first time they played it. I got a PlayStation 1 console as my birthday gift in 1998, and Tomb Raider 2 was one of the games I got along with it. I was so horrible at it at first I couldn't climb up to the guard tower while playing it on and off for the first month, so wasn't really that motivated to move on. Everything changed when I learned that this neighbour girl I had a crush on was playing it too, and had reached some levels beyond that already. At 11 I thought the best way to impress her would be to get even further in the game and give her all the nifty gameplay tips for the stuck moments. During the process I got immersed in the TR experience, and the rest is history."

Treeble: "What is your favorite game in the entire series and why?"

eTux: "From a nostalgic point of view, I will probably always love Tomb Raider 2 as it was my first and still has some of my favourite levels in the entire series. Now that I've built a few levels myself, I really like and appreciate Tomb Raider 4 for the ingenuity of its settings and puzzles, the epic feel the game conveyed through and through, and how much they actually managed to squeeze out from the Egypt location (even if that was probably one of the least favourite aspects of the game when I first played it). Overall, though, the Tomb Raider 3 Gold levels are probably the closest to a perfect Tomb Raider experience as there can be for me. The settings were picturesque and exciting in every single level, the story told itself without anything but what was present in the levels, the secret areas made the hunt for them worth it, and I just had fun all the way through. I don't think there really is more I could've asked from it."

Treeble: "And how exactly have you turned up in the level editing scene?"

eTux: "Even long before the release of the level editor, I could spend hours (*dramatic exaggeration*) envisioning either what the upcoming levels in the games I played or the new games would look like (I had no PC or Internet Access until briefly before the release of Tomb Raider 4, so there was no way I could've been 'spoiled') and it didn't take long for me to start conjuring up some Lara's adventures of my own. So it only felt natural to actually go on and do the thing when I learnt it would be possible. I got my Chronicles/Level Editor CD's in Spring 2001 and started fiddling with it immediately, but it did take me almost a year to actually release a level."

Treeble: "The most trivial question ever, but still one which has to be asked: what became of the girl next door? Did your plan ever work out? *grin*"

eTux: "For better or worse it didn't. She didn't seem that impressed by my progress and about midway through the 3rd game had lost interest in the series, so there wasn't anyone to impress by then. She didn't seem to budge by my other attempts to impress either, so I learned the valuable lesson of taking 'no' for an answer. It wasn't as traumatic an experience as it may sound though."

Armageddon's Temple

Treeble: "Let's talk about your past projects... Your first release, Armageddon's Temple, was released way back in 2002. It followed the rather common pattern of four elements and such, but it was presented in a rather unique way. What were your expectations when building this level? How did you feel when the first reviews started coming in?"

eTux: "Armageddon's Temple was built one room after the other with no masterplan, thus the creation process itself was as random and chaotic as it can be. For example, for whatever reason, Luca Torchetti's Nuclear Threat was my yardstick for texturing levels at the time and that's pretty much the only reason the looks are so eclectic. The silly title was cold and calculated scheming on my end - I figured a level starting with 'A' would be easily spotted in the various listings present at that time, lol. Unfortunately that's as much thought as I really put into it at that time, and now I'm stuck with it forever - let that be a lesson to the other builders out there! Don't want to say that the hectic approach didn't produce some ideas I can still be proud of today, but my only real goal was to fill out the 4 elemental puzzles with fun tasks and bring the game to a satisfactory end. I truly didn't have a clue how it would fare, so one can imagine how pleased I was when 'Armageddon's Temple' was highlighted in green after the first review had come in!"

Treeble: "For those who may not be familiar with it, a green highlight those days meant review ratings above 8. I'll ask you one question that, as you know, has bothered me for quite some time - and now that I think about it, you probably have explained it in detail in the past. What's with all the floating hanging rugs?"

eTux: "It's probably too long ago to pinpoint which childhood trauma inspired the idea of a carpet hanging from a floating platform exactly - but I remember hanging carpets as a wall decoration used to be a tradition here when I was younger, so maybe that's where it originally stems from? In any case, it seemed to be a much cooler thing to have floating around in the air room, than just some random rocks, not that it makes more sense either way..."

AT2

Treeble: "Two years later you released Armageddon's Temple 2, which also had a fantastic reception and yet managed to remain faithful to the original. Tell us more about it, and if you'd like to explain the coolest subtitle a custom level has ever received, feel free to do so... ;)"

eTux: "Truth be told, I never really had the intention of continuing from where my debut left off. It didn't occur to me that I had left Lara in a deathtrap at the end of Armageddon's Temple 1 and people actually wanted to know what happens next! It was Lyn who inquired about this specifically, and if you have to thank one person for me even taking a sequel in consideration, that would be her. Ironically, to this date I still have no clue if Lyn herself actually played the sequel! To answer your question about how the sequel ended up being baptized 'Armageddon's Temple 2: The Deadly Curse & Mystery of the Nearly Forgotten Armageddon's Temple' - the one thing I really hated about the whole idea of a sequel was that I would probably have to stick to the original name, and I remember chatting with you about this specifically, and the rest is a blur... lol, if seriously - yes, you are the one to be credited for AT2 having the coolest subtitle ever, and while I'm not sure whether you actually believed me at the time, when I said I was going to name the level like that, I thought it was a great way to mock my own inability to come up with a better title in the first place!"

AT2

Treeble: "My memories of said chat are equally as blurry, but yes. Nobody actually ever believed you would stick with it, lol. Anyway, you have introduced a lot of new elements in this sequel. What has inspired you to develop these themes and incorporate them into the level? I'm specifically thinking of the X-Files bit."

eTux: "I did attempt to foreshadow an arrival of a UFO in the (extremely kitschy) story for this particular installment, but it probably didn't come off as dramatic as it was intended to be. That particular setting was supposed to be extended in a somewhat longer playable section, plus recur one or two more times during the entire game - but it ended up being too ambitious for me at that time, thus causing much anguish and procrastination, till I decided to reduce it just to one of the few puzzles in that section I actually had worked out till completion. The inspiration for the 'Source' sections is probably obvious enough to everyone who finished TR2, but there was a more ambitious idea that didn't come to fruition as well, which in turn is probably not noticeable at first glance. The 'Light' and 'Dark' sides were initially not supposed to be entirely independent from one another. I wanted to implement a system where the environment would exist in both forms and certain Lara's actions (like killing the guide or the bull, for example) would shift between them. Due to a project crash, I had to rebuild the better part of one level, some others were lost for good, but I was demoralised and intimidated enough not to attempt this particular ambitious idea for some time to come."

Treeble: "Did you feel a certain pressure to not only meet the achievements of your previous level, but also to overcome them?"

eTux: "I did with some of the projects I started immediately after finishing 'Armageddon's Temple' - I felt like everything had to be bigger and more of everything. It wasn't the case with the actual sequel of AT - I just thought I'd build room after room and see where it goes. When the core puzzles and areas had taken shape - I was fairly confident that this level would be superior to 'Armageddon's Temple' in all aspects. Naturally I was anxious to find out if the players would feel the same way, but at this time I was more afraid that people who enjoyed the first game would not feel the same way about the sequel. While unfortunately that was the case for some players, I was overall very satisfied with how it was received, which made it easier to respect the different opinions on the game."

Blair Witch Project

Treeble: "Having such successful projects under your belt has brought you into the Lara at the Movies project. I remember reading that your original plans, however, were not about The Blair Witch Project. Can you elaborate on that a little further and maybe explain what triggered you to change your mind?"

eTux: "I did think The Matrix would make for a cool level choice, and almost named that as my movie when replying to Michael's e-mail way back in October 2003 (if you read the storyline I wrote for the level and wondered what the October 2003 thing was all about - then it was meant as a double reference - first of all to the events of the actual movie taking place around Halloween, and second to Michael first e-mailing builders about the project at this time), but I realized soon enough that would be way over my head, so went for what I thought would still be an interesting game, but more in my league. While I would've loved to be a more capable builder at the time to pull that off, The Blair Witch Project was an interesting enough pick for me as well since I managed to stick with it till the end (not without a fair share of trouble though). Also, the apartment block I lived in at that time was practically next door to a forest, that could get quite creepy during autumn and winter, so I knew I would have sufficient material for inspiration."

Treeble: "Now that we're a few years later down the lane, have you ever given an extra thought to a Matrix level? I too have considered one in the past, as many others have, but I believe none of us ever used a similar perspective that was used in the Gold project to try and make it a reality: most of us were probably just after catsuits and gunplay action, and those two things alone would never be enough to generate a successful level. I'm curious if your original idea was somewhere along these lines?"

Blair Witch Project

eTux: "I can't say I've been tempted to pick it up again, as it wasn't that substantially developed in the first place. As for the catsuits and gunplay - the answer would be yes and no. I understood that that was part of what people would expect from a 'Matrix' level were they to play one - but for the game - this was the second time I wanted to introduce the cycle of two identical environments in 2 different lights. The idea had died at first as a result of me being demotivated by the initial crash - but I thought it might be interesting to resurrect it here with a city setting - ruins of the real world and the illusion sold by the matrix. I suppose if I had pulled through with the idea, that's how it would've looked in its final form."

Treeble: "How do you feel about the fantastic level you presented us with? Do you think you have succeeded in bringing such a different universe (as all of the other levels in that same project) into the TRLE scenario?"

eTux: "I was satisfied how the Blair Witch level turned out to be as far as atmosphere goes. That's not to say it couldn't have been better in other aspects. I was busy finishing Armageddon's Temple 2 at the time, so you can probably shift some blame on that, but I also had trouble finding inspiration to build the level initially, and ended up spawning dozens of different level beginning scenarios. Somewhere along the way I had the idea of starting to patch together the separate projects I had made and see where that would take me. So instead of pursuing the projects with Lara starting in the mirror cavern, in the graveyard, the mushroom caves or in the middle of the pentagram (among other places) I made them all part of one level. I probably still wouldn't have released it as a separate level as it is right now, but despite its problems, I think it works well as part of the Gold project. As for the Gold project itself - I realize I'm biased, but I still consider it to be the best collaborative project the TRLE community has seen to date."

Treeble: "There have been a few handful other collaborative projects, but I would agree that the Gold project was something truly unique. From what I understand, however, despite the success of this level you wouldn't go back and expand on it? Not that there's any need for that, but I'm sure people were pleasantly surprised when Scott announced the 'Director's Cut' of his Lara at the Movies level."

eTux: "While I generally follow the philosophy of leaving my completed levels be after they've been released (bar serious bugfixes and the like) - I can't say the thought hadn't crossed my mind. I would've loved to include more of the film's mythology, expand the outdoor areas somewhat, so it wouldn't feel so compact among other things, but I probably would end up rebuilding the whole level from scratch, if I'd attempt to 'improve' it, and at this point I feel that's not the place I want go to."

BtB - Pseudo Tomb

Treeble: "Moving on to a somehow different group project, after dealing with a lot of customization in your projects, how was your trip back to the basics? Pseudo Tomb is among the top rated levels of the first competition which has become an annual tradition now, being limited to the Catacomb wad was an incentive or more of a limitation?"

eTux: "Actually, it was quite liberating to not have to worry about anything but building the level itself. From that point of view, the back to basics competition can even spoil the builder a bit, especially with the great raw materials to work with in the recent years! The most challenging aspect of working with the Catacomb's wad was that I loathed it with passion and still am not sold on why people adore it that much. But I believe ultimately that's what made me like the outcome so much more. I was determined to build a level I would like myself, and I think I did well. Pseudo Tomb didn't even feel that catacomb-ish to me in the end!"

Treeble: "Well, it had the looks, but certainly it was quite a departure from the usual catacomb level as far as gameplay is concerned. In addition to that, there are at least two camera sequences that evoke intros and outros of movies. Was it done purposefully this way?"

eTux: "I knew I wanted Lara to find the actual tomb, and I really wanted to emphasize her pulling off the 'pseudo' layer thus uncovering the tomb within the tomb. At that time this seemed to be the most effective way to convey the idea to the player. The intro was added later, as I thought it would be a nifty way to start the level, but overall, despite the problems it eventually caused with making the level playable only with the original catacomb wad, I was pleased with the result, as it turned out to be a great way of telling the story without any other means at hand."

Treeble: "What was Lara's wish when she finally reached the golden artifact? And is it just a mere coincidence that it looks like the fabled Triforce of The Legend of Zelda series?"

eTux: "The golden artifact looking like the Triforce is not random - I wanted to put a small tribute to the series in the level, plus end the level in an even more surreal manner. As for what Lara's wish was - there is a chance I might be able to address that in a game further down the road, so I don't think I'll reveal it just yet. Feel free to ask me again in a few years, if I haven't touched it by then, though!"

Eidos Community Level 1

Treeble: "Next up are quite familiar grounds to me... As far as I remember, you were one of the few builders that actually went the extra mile with both Community Levels Uno and Deux. What made you develop such a care for these particular levels, seeing as at least a dozen other people had as much responsability over them as you did?"

eTux: "I don't think I would be able to tell exactly myself. I suppose it's just natural wanting to succeed at a project where you (among other folks) have invested so much time and care in. Despite the more or less justified mixed responses from players later on, I think it definitely was one of the group projects that had to see the light of the day, if only because of its unique premise."

Treeble: "Despite the heavy limitations we all had to work with, the rooms you built in Uno drove a few people insane with the somewhat tricky sequences. In the ending of Deux you have also managed to cram a lot of gameplay in your rooms - even if in a more traditional fashion. How exactly did you come up with these rooms? Did areas built by previous authors have any influence in your design at all?"

eTux: "Ha, ha - I thought that the unintended shortcut was what drove the players mad? Whatever the case may be, I always tried to see my rooms as part of the big picture, so in a way the areas of other builders did influence how mine would turn out. For example, I found a lot of the preceding rooms in ECL1 too confusing, so I wanted to present the player with something relatively straightforward. In ECL Deux, I just thought it would be cool if you could see some of the previous areas from my rooms (and vice versa), thus giving the whole setting a more authentic feel, do some foreshadowing of things to come and the like, and the ideas like the boulder crashing through the ice and the rock tiles in the tar pit came later."

Eidos Community Level 2

Treeble: "Curiously some people still thought 'the eye!' to be among the most confusing rooms in the original."

Treeble: "So, that sums up to four different group projects in which you were elemental. You surely have a lot to talk about your participation in these particular group projects, as they actually have seen daylight? Ever since day one the community has thought of big, massive group projects; but in most cases they'd simply fail. Why do you think that happens so often and do you think this situation can ever change?"

eTux: "I'm not sure I hold the veto for the best answer to this one, but if you want my take on it - I think that the reason for the frequent failure rates of these projects is simply because there are too many variables involved for them to become common events. The most significant of these variables being the people themselves - they could be new builders with big ambitions, but little skill or comprehension of what it actually takes to pull a project like that off, builders wanting to build a huge project for the sake of building a huge project, with little elaboration on the idea beyond that or, at worst, big egos wanting to squeeze the project in their own tight interpretation of what it should be with no room for compromise. However, I think there already are a lot of positive examples showing that it can be pulled off, the Gold project being a most mention-worthy example. All the builders involved were super-excited about the project, we had relatively lots of creative freedom for our individual levels, a clear goal, a deadline and great leadership under Michael's watch."

Treeble: "Besides your experience as a level designer, you also have signed a significant amount of reviews for custom levels. What factors make you decide what level are you going to play next?"

Kuwabara, Kuwabara

eTux: "In the past, I can't say I was particularly picky and there certainly was no system for choosing the levels I'd play. A short, simple, but generally unimpressive level had as much a chance as the latest blockbuster, depending on what I was in the mood for. I used to have the goal of playing every level ever released, but that doesn't seem like a priority anymore, so I think I'll be playing levels that stand out somehow from now on. Reviews and screenshots usually determine my choice, but there are builders of whose style I've grown fond of over the years, and will probably play whatever they present."

Treeble: "Can you name some of these builders?"

eTux: "I suppose I'll miss out on a couple of names in any case, so I'll just do my best to sum up the builders, levels of whom I've enjoyed. Any level by Richard Lawther, Loch, Sue Wicks and Bojrkraider are always like a breath of fresh air, especially for their imaginative gameplay. Josep Borrut and Blacksheep's levels stand out for their clever gameplay as well. The technical mastery and imagination involved in EssGee, Dark Death and Psiko's levels is astounding. The atmosphere and detailed settings that Trix, Titak, Horus and Piega are able to create are truly enviable, Justin's levels are like a comfortable pair of slippers one can always go back to with ease. Codo, Marcos Mensa and The Cowboy's styles are what I've only relatively recently discovered to be for my liking, and Lima can be added to the list too for his latest splendid offerings. If Inchdix or Morgoth ever manage to release something, that will surely be something to look forward to. And then there's of course GeckoKid's masterpiece in making that'll undoubtedly be all the talk when it's out, but I refuse to name him explicitly till he finally gets down to releasing it :P"

Treeble: "Fingers crossed that brief mention will trigger him to do so sooner, lol. Is there a particular custom level that you have most fond memories of?"

eTux: "GeckoKid's 'Beneath the Forbidden City' was the first one I played and really opened my eyes to what can be done with the level editor, thus, I think it will always remain a classic in my eyes. Psiko's 'Center of the World' expanded my horizons of that understanding even more, plus it was the first game I played in a group raid, thus was memorable for more than just the wacky settings. If I'd have to narrow it down to 2 levels, these would be it, but, truly, you could take just about any level from the above mentioned builders and add still great many more that have offered me a great deal of fun whilst playing them."

Treeble: "Your support in the building scene is also worth mentioning, backed up with specific knowledge and plenty of beta testing experience. What would be your one advice for rising builders? What should their main focus when designing a custom level be?"

eTux: "I don't know how qualified I really am in handing out advice, but, well, if you ask me (as you obviously have) - then I think new builders especially should not neglect what the manual and tutorial level can give them. It's very, very alluring to just jump right into it, but truth be told - the level editor is a very intimidating and overpowering tool to work with if you don't have some basic skillset, and that's exactly what the manual offers. Despite the antipathy it seems to come with for some people, there really is no shortcut faster to mastering the editor than this. When actually being prepared to build a level, I suppose the best things to focus on are gameplay and atmosphere. In other words - engaging enough to keep the player playing, and nice enough to look at to keep him or her going should they get stuck! What makes a level's tasks 'interesting' and its settings 'good-looking' is up to the potential builder himself, obviously, and there's no recipe that works for everyone, though building a level one would enjoy himself probably comes close."

Treeble: "The editor itself has changed quite a lot since your last finished project, has this had any effect on your building customs? Perhaps ideas that you had to ditch in past levels are now possible? How do you see the current building scenario?"

eTux: "I can't say I don't fantasize about some elements being possible with the editor, but generally I find it to be silly to dwell on things not done or things not possible to do and try to focus on what (or how) I can use what is given. With this attitude I can sincerely say that most of my ideas manage to get incorporated into the games I make one way or another, and if not - they can always sit on the shelf till a fitting occasion arises. If anything, I would've loved to know a lot of smaller tricks I could've used to reduce the amount of levels used in the creation of Armageddon's Temple 1 and Armageddon's Temple 2, and things like that. Other than that, I am not yet very familiar with the possibilities of Paolone's great new editor and engine, so whatever ideas might arise from that one are probably limited strictly for my levels yet to be released."

Treeble: "We have all heard and seen time and time again sneak peeks of different projects of yours in progress. How are they coming along? Along that same trail of thought, assuming we had the perfect conditions, would you be up for a new trial with a third Community Level?"

eTux: "I can hereby promise that there will be at least 3 more releases coming from me in the near (and far) future. Two are Back to Basics levels that I could not finish for the competitions due to various reasons, but considered worth pursuing beyond the deadlines. I'll keep the third project a secret for now, but it should be pretty exciting to learn about it when the time comes! That said, I am starting to think about retiring from the building scene. Ideally, it would be great if I could turn all of my ideas into playable levels, but the conditions for that are getting less and less ideal, so I'm acquiescing with the thought of just finishing the more realistic projects I have. However, I don't think we'll need perfect conditions for the 3rd Community level to happen ;-)"

Treeble: "I am sure I'm not speaking for myself when I say we can't wait to hear more about them - and be sure we will nag you to complete all of them before you get to give 'retirement' a second thought! Regardless of what the future holds, you have quite a fantastic legacy as part of the Tomb Raider community. Thanks for your time!"

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