Sometimes they come back though…
Well, that was the first thought I had after realizing Justin was back in the community, and he was building levels again. After all it was a break of almost five years between the last Dark Skies level and Marshlands, and like me a lot of players thought we would never hear from Justin again - building levels.
So, this was a great and pleasant surprise then. And as I learned about another big project like the Dark Skies series, which would be in development, I decided to ask Justin for an interview. Not only about this possible new project, but also about his older levels, since Justin released a total number of nineteen levels so far. Really a lot of work; and with some great results, of course.
Justin agreed to the interview, and so I availed myself of the opportunity to speak with one of the important names of the Tomb Raider Customlevel building community. And so we spoke about a lot of things, about the past, the future, and even about the difficulties of Justin's levels.
Here is what Justin answered me…
Lara for ever: Your first level was released in 2001, named Beneath Vilcacamba. Can you tell us about how you came into building Tomb Raider Customlevels yourself, and was your debut level designed as a sequel to the first official Tomb Raider game?
Justin: You could call it a sequel, along with the next 2 levels I created. I have always been a huge fan of the first game, especially the ambient music and overall feel of the first 2 levels. I actually knew about the Level Editor well before getting my copy (the only reason I bought it for the PC and not playstation) and ended up mapping out the first part of my Vilcabamba level using AutoCAD 2000! Once I got the editor I simply followed the plan I started in CAD.
Lara for ever: Your next project was Beyond the Sanctuary. As it seems you yet started with a first loose series of levels, as I can see from the information. Was this your plan, to continue the adventures of the first official Tomb Raider game, or can you tell us about your true intention of this period?
Justin: My next level was actually Within the Sanctuary (not sure how this got mixed up) All 3 of these levels were a break-off of TR1. My only intention was to give a TR1 feel. I was toying with different, all-be-it simple, techniques and perfecting my knowledge of the editor. Granted, today this is seen as bad practice, and realistically these levels should have been tested more thoroughly.
Beyond the Sanctuary:
Lara for ever: And the third level project, Within the Sanctuary. Obviously a sequel to the second level again, or does this title delude us?
Justin: As above, it's out of order so it may seem strange at first. The idea was to move from Vilcabamba to a less Incan looking area. Not much else I can remember about this level, I never did care for the execution.
Within the Sanctuary:
Lara for ever: Well, the next project, Lair of the Jackal, was released the same day as the two levels before. So I think the first series still continues with it. But if so, why did you make all these levels as shorter single ones instead of one bigger project, including all those levels? You also didn't do so with your later 'Atlantis' or 'Dark Skies' series.
Justin: Well, at this time I had an enormous amount of free time (allowing me to churn out levels at an unrealistic rate), and the Level Editing Community was very young. Most levels at this time were released as single levels, as a large number of people were still using dial-up and couldn't download multiple level packages. Even as I got to Dark Skies, it wasn't very common practice. As for Lair of the Jackal, a completely separate project from my first 3, just to let me build something Egyptian (still in the style of TR1).
Lair of the Jackal:
Lara for ever: Only a few days later the next project was released, Ruins of Maya. At the first appearance a new, separate project, but if I read the story for it, it begins with 'After a long journey through the mountains of Peru...'. So, a further sequel to your so far levels then? Did you want to make all your so far levels as one big continuing story?
Justin: I didn't really tie this level into my first ones, but I still love the locations of Peru and ancient Mexico. It's a shame beta testing wasn't a big idea back then, this level looked a lot nicer to me than it played out.
Ruins of Maya:
Lara for ever: Still in 2001, and once more only a few days later, your first 'Atlantis' episode Edge of Atlantis was released. The 'Atlantis' series was your first real bigger success, as we can see with the ratings, and it was another series of levels, released as single levels again. At trle we can see all your levels were released in very short distances of time, at least until 'Dark Skies 3/4'. The greatest distance then was little more than one month, and it seems you were working day and night at this period to release all of your levels this way. Can you explain this to us, how was it really possible to release all those levels in such short distances of time?
Justin: That's a good question, and it baffles me today to think I could do it! It definitely goes to show how much simpler level editing was back then. I had very few custom objects in those first projects, including Atlantis. I was also able to devote around 8 hours a day on each of these levels, and it was easy to complete a simple level within a week's time. Today, I'd be lucky to complete a level and test it within a few months!
Atlantis, Part 1:
Atlantis, Part 2:
Lara for ever: Back to the 'Atlantis' series. It seems obvious the first official Tomb Raider game inspired you a lot, because the 'Atlantis' game was another continuation of the original story then. Was 'Atlantis' also designed to become a big series from the beginning, or did it grow with building at it?
Justin: I honestly can't remember how I originally planned it. I am pretty sure I expected it to be a 6 level series from the start. The plan was to move from a forested area, through a base, then into the deep jungle and finally find your way back to Atlantis. It ended up well enough for its time, but it was a hack job recreating the Atlantis environment.
Atlantis, Part 3:
Atlantis, Part 4:
Lara for ever: As it seems to me the 'Atlantis' series never was finished. The last episode, Northern Station, was released as a demo, and after all good ratings before this episode only was rated between 5 and 6, certainly because of the shortness. Can you, please, explain why you decided to never really end the 'Atlantis' story? I know a lot of people were very sad about at this time.
Justin: This was very bad times for me. I completed the entire level; a very, very complicated Base/Ruins level using a new landscaping technique (rolling hills as opposed to flat walls or rocks) It may seem obvious today but it wasn't for me way back then. Unfortunately my computer crashed as I approached the end of the level and I lost everything. It was hard for me to get back into level creating, which explains the lapse in time between the next projects.
Atlantis, Part 5:
Atlantis, Part 6 (Demo):
Lara for ever: Still in 2001, in November, you released your next level, and it was something whole different then. No further series episode, nothing about 'Atlantis' any more, it was named Tutorial City. How was this idea born? Did you want to make a break with only creating series - before starting the next one with 'Dark Skies'?
Justin: The Tutorial City idea was a weird one, just to create an intro level (and to showcase the frustrating difficulty I would eventually showcase). The funny part is, this set of levels was not intended to be a large series. I conceived it as a 2-level set, starting from a city to a strange DOOM style level. I'd also like to take this opportunity to mention that Emoo's levels heavily influenced my Atlantis Base level and a good deal of the Dark Skies levels. Clearly this expanded itself as I created it.
Dark Skies 1:
Lara for ever: Well, however, this level was number 12 in one and the same year then. What an achievement! Can you still remember, was there never any thought or wish for a break? And the ideas never stopped to flow?
Justin: The ideas just kept coming at the time, and I had no desire to take another break after getting back into it (though at this time I started backing them up to CDs) Much of the inspiration for Dark Skies, at least the first parts, came from DOOM, so there were plenty of ideas.
Dark Skies 2:
Lara for ever: So, we are at 'Dark Skies' now. A new series started, and it got the biggest one you ever created, with 9 episodes in the end. Part one was still released in 2001, and I can really not imagine about how hard you must have worked in this period. But again the question first, was 'Dark Skies' also designed as a big level series from the beginning, or did it grow with building at it?
Justin: It definitely grew larger and larger, as I mentioned above. It started as 2, then 4, then 7, then 9, then 16! Granted I haven't released levels 11-16 (10 was the crossroads junction)
Dark Skies 2:
Lara for ever: Dark Skies 2, now we are in the year 2002. To mention it, this was still the period of the 'older' days of building Customlevels, for there was still no TREP or NGLE yet. Can you tell us in general how difficult building was for you these days? Could you realize all your imaginations, or did you have to make a lot of compromises?
Justin: No compromises yet, I would only hit roadblocks after level 9 (unreleased levels) I modified some objects and textures, and that was enough. No need for excessively large rooms or complicated animations.
Dark Skies 2:
Lara for ever: About one month later you released Dark Skies 3/4 then. After this further episode there was something as a first smaller break until you started with building levels, as your next project was released 'not until' two month later. Was this a first little break for you, or did you never really stop working until 'Dark Skies 8/9'?
Justin: There was no real break, but I had less time while developing Dark Skies, so it was a slow process. High-school was starting to slow me down.
Dark Skies 3:
Dark Skies 4:
Lara for ever: Anubis - Return to the Jackal, your next level project. It was a small one again, a demo, and also something totally different, which had nothing to do with your main series. Can you tell us something about this level, and why it also never got finished?
Justin: I always wanted to go back to the Egyptian levels, but it was not easy for me to complete them. While I enjoyed them, I just had no drive and no imagination for a good Egyptian level.
Anubis - Return to the Jackal:
Lara for ever: Back to 'Dark Skies' again, as you released episodes 5 to 7 then a few month later, but still in 2002. And time to speak about another important point. The degree of difficulty for your levels. Well, the first levels I ever tried of your projects was the 'Dark Skies' series. I am a fan of Science Fiction worlds in Tomb Raider, and your Dark Skies series really seemed something I would enjoy. Also it was the biggest success for you with the ratings, as I could see. I did not get very far within this series. Of course, I was not a very good player at the time, as it still was the beginning period for me then, I failed with playing very soon. The degree of difficulty was much too high for me (and a lot of further players), and even trying again much later I failed again. It was for the timeruns, because they were partially so short I could never make them on my own. Even with trying 50 times - no success. Well, that's a very special point for me and many other players. Levels may be really great, and I never doubt about the achievements of level builders, what they create for us, but if the difficulty is so high, there is a point of simply loosing all joy of playing. A point of simply frustrating and despairing, of giving up. Can you, please, tell us your point of view? Why did you give such a high difficulty to your levels, what was the target audience for this series? Did you want to make a series for expert players, or didn't you even appreciate the difficulty, where a lot of players had to give up or could only continue with foreign savegames?
Justin: I made some serious errors in calculating the difficulty here. Because it only took me a maximum of 3 tries to complete my timed runs, I figured they were safe for the public. This was a huge oversight! The idea was to expand gameplay by simply making it more difficult, a poor decision on my part. I think I did this because of the lack of overall gameplay from Dark Skies 1.
Dark Skies 5:
Dark Skies 6:
Lara for ever: In 2003 you finished your impressive 'Dark Skies' series with the Episodes 8/9 then. Looking back from this point I think you can be quite satisfied with what you achieved over those two years. Do you agree or would you change any elements / levels from the view of today, if you could?
Justin: Absolutely! I would remove the random shootable TVs in level 1. I would remove the Earthquakes from level 2. I would reduce the complexity of the timed runs in Level 3-4. Levels 5-7 I would leave alone, I think. And I would rework the cliff-side of Levels 8 and 9 (wasn't satisfied with the look of these levels).
Dark Skies 7:
Lara for ever: Well, after your last 'Dark Skies' episodes there was a long break then. The community already thought we had once more lost a great and talented level builder. Can you tell us the reasons? Did you want to only take a break at this time? Or did you really want to give up building then? And if so, what changed your mind to start building again after almost five years?
Justin: Oh no, I never wanted to give up building! However, at this time I was very busy with finishing High School and starting college (sadly only did a year of it). And I was also working, so had very little time. More importantly I had run dry on inspiration. While I was no longer struggling with the High-School depression, I wasn't extra happy, kind of in the middle. Apparently I'm at my best while very sad or very happy :-p I was working on the Pirates levels in 2004, and completed all but the last level. Still I hit a rut when starting the underwater level, and didn't get back to it until 2007! At this point, almost 100% of my drive is thanks to my girlfriend Joan who I love very much! Ever since we got together over a year ago I've been very happy, and as a result I've created levels in much more detail!! Honestly, without her, I wouldn't be back in the community :)
Lara for ever: Your first new level release after the long break was Marshlands. A lot of players were really excited because you were back to the community, and we all looked forward to your new projects. However, 'Marshlands' could not reach the highest ratings, though the new levels really were great, as I played them myself. I especially loved the environments of level 3 and 4, but I also had big problems with succeeding. Well, we had to learn about one thing soon again - Justin stays Justin, even after a long break. The tasks in this level got more and more difficult, especially jumping, when Lara could not reach an opposite ledge without exactly jumping in a fraction of a second. Also the timeruns were very short again, and at last, the final diving session, was even beyond my abilities, though I am really no beginning player any more. It was between 20 and 30 tries, when I finally gave up and not finished the level, and I was not the only one. I once more want to make it clear - your levels were really great and fascinating, but also frustrating for the gameplay. This is why I never tried further of your levels, because I could only think the difficulty would always be the same. Can you tell us about your intention for 'Marshlands'? Did you think about the degree of difficulty while building at the levels, and should it get this high deliberately? And beyond that, how difficult was it to start building again at all with the changes past those years? Was it difficult for you to get used to TREP and the NGLE, and how much were those tools involved for your new level?
Justin: First things first, I created the first 3 levels well before TREP or NGLE. The idea was to create an overly atmospheric and impossible set of levels. As these levels were actually intended for Terry, the difficult was meant to be through the roof. I even reduced the amount of difficulty before releasing it to the public. Still, I didn't intend for it to be this impossible. After the first 3 levels, I had problems converting the 4th, so I was pleased to discover NGLE and then TREP in 2007, to allow for the expansive level you see today. I still only use STRPIX and Wedmerger (along with AutoCAD) for my other tools.
Concepts for the new project:
Lara for ever: So, let us now take a look into the future. Actually the first new project being announced after your long break was another one, first called 'Another Dark Series', where we could see several screenshots yet, but unfortunately they were lost with the crash of Lara's Home a short time ago. Can you tell us something about this project? Is it still in development, and if so, which details can you tell us about it? Could it perhaps be possible that another bigger series starts at this point?
Justin: Oh yes, I've been planning this one since 2004, a more advanced and sensible Dark Skies style set of levels. Unlike my previous large series, this one is expected to be at least 14 levels, released in sets of 7, and expandable. So I will likely continue this for the rest of my building! Not surprisingly, it will be very similar to Dark Skies, starting in a City, hopping through a portal into several different worlds. Of course, the amount of detail will be far above Dark Skies, and the game play should be much more relaxed. The current name for the project is 'Hellgate Saga'.
Planned levels for the "Hellgate Saga":
Set1, levels 1-7:
City Limits (Earth)
Ground Zero (Earth)
Utopia Valley (unknown1)
Enchanted Forest (unknown2)
Abandoned Mountain (unknown3)
Desert Valley (unknown4)
Set2, levels 8-14:
Sky Fortress (unknown1)
The Island (unknown1)
Off-shore research (unknown1)
Hell's gates (Hell)
Journey through Hell (Hell)
Center of Hell (Hell)
Return to Earth (Earth)
Lara for ever: What I also have to ask after all my so far experiences with your levels, can you tell us about the degree of difficulty for your future projects? Who will be able to play them?
Justin: Everyone will be able to play these levels, including beginners. I am focusing a great deal on the flow of the levels, and paying attention to the level of confusion and layout.
Lara for ever: Will your new levels also contain new elements? Such as new enemies, environments, objects or even movements for Lara?
Justin: No new movements, I prefer the classic TR4 animations as opposed to the next generation animations. Plenty of new enemies and objects made by me, but all simple.
Lara for ever: What do you personally think about the future of level building? With all the possibilities of today, have we reached the limit of possibilities yet? Or is there even much we can still be curious for in the future?
Justin: There is plenty to be unlocked, but I prefer to keep it simple, and as close to TR3 and 4 as possible. 128x128 textures and rain are good enough for me!
The Forest, Part 2:
Lara for ever: And my last question. After your current projects, can you already tell us, if you will continue building levels for the community?
Justin: I will try to continue for as long as the community is there! I love creating environments in levels and creating awe! I hope to release everything I complete and remain a part of this awesome community :)
The Forest, Part 2:
Lara for ever: Thank you for this interview, and all the best wishes for your and your projects!
Justin: Thank you! I appreciate all of the time you take for the community and it's a pleasant surprise after returning after 5 years!