Kristina: "Tell us, what motivated you to start building custom levels?"
Loren: "I enjoyed playing the original Tomb Raider games. Then, in 2000, my brother bought me Tomb Raider: Chronicles for Christmas, which, of course, had the level editor as part of it. I built a half dozen levels with it that have never been released (and the projects for which have been discarded) before starting the Tomb Raider - Peru Levels project in (I think) September 2001."
Kristina: "Half a dozen levels you say, are you going to release any of those in the future or were they just for practice?"
Loren: "At the time, I had intended them for eventual release. Four of the levels were a start of a series of Young Lara levels that started after the events in the level, Race for the Iris, in The Last Revelation. The eventual object would have been to find and rescue Von Croy. The other two constituted a pair of levels whereby Lara retrieved the Iris Artifact from VCI. Alternately, it could have been worked in with the Young Lara series after Von Croy and Lara had escaped Cambodia (though at the time I hadn't worked through how to jump from a Young Lara level to a Grown-up Lara level). Or it could have been worked in with the overall story theme that started with Tomb Raider - Peru Levels. At one point, I had considered making the Iris Artifact the 'focusing device' mentioned in the readme file included with the TR-PL download and reconciling the discrepancies by suggesting a business partnership between Natla Technologies and VCI. Eventually, both of these projects were abandoned and thus turned out to be practice for me. The Young Lara levels had a few beginner's errors in them, such as oversized empty rooms, extremely long shimmies, and obvious sight limitation problems, as well as the limitations that come with Young Lara levels (namely, the inability to kill baddies other than wraiths, the inability to gauge health loss by drawing guns, and the inability to use flares). The VCI levels, if set into the overall story theme I mentioned above, would have felt like a letdown. In general, these abandoned projects exhibited a level of skill development in level building quite a bit lower than the level I had achieved by the time TR-PL was released. Even if I hadn't discarded the project files, I wouldn't consider releasing them without a complete revision from scratch."
Kristina: "From your answer I understand that after the release of Tomb Raider - Peru, which is a complete and very successful game I might add, releasing your previous work would be somehow embarrassing for you. Would you consider working on your previous project again to improve it or is your decision to abandon it final?"
Loren: "As I said, I have discarded all my project files built previous to Tomb Raider - Peru Levels. They no longer exist."
Kristina: "Your game, Tomb Raider - Peru, which was released a year ago (August 15, 2003) must have gotten most of your time since it consists of many levels. How did you manage to keep the balance between your work and building and what is it that you do exactly?"
Loren: "I am a mechanical engineer employed with the Ronning Engineering Company, where I design systems that dry grain so that it can be stored for animal feed. The biggest market for our company right now is the ethanol industry. Once ethanol is distilled from corn, the spent grain is still suitable for animal feed. However, it contains about 85% moisture, which makes it highly susceptible to bacterial contamination if stored for more than a couple of days. To avoid this, the grain needs to be dried to about 10% moisture content for storage. This is important for our clients, since grain sales comprise about 1/3 of their revenue. As for balance, work takes place for eight hours a day. While there, I work, but work doesn't come home with me. I build only when I'm inspired to. When I have an idea, I'll put it together in the level editor. Occasionally, the result will come out as I envisioned it, but often it does not. If not, I have to decide if the actual results are close enough to the vision to keep as is, or if I need to work on the rooms some more to refine it. Of course, I don't spend all my free time building levels. Apart from serving at church, there are always household chores that need done (mowing the lawn, washing the dishes, washing the clothes, etc.), I read quite a bit, and I sometimes play Tomb Raider official and custom levels."
Kristina: "Talk to us about that huge game of yours. Some players had to play more than one level twice to get the secrets and access the bonus levels. What was your inspiration and was the high level of difficulty in some places intentional?"
Loren: "The inspiration for Tomb Raider - Peru Levels were the original Peru levels in the Tomb Raider. I know -- that must come as a shock to a lot of people, lol. I really liked the feel of the original levels, and wanted to build a series of levels based on them. However, as all seasoned raiders know, the first levels especially were too easy. Originally, I envisioned it as a series of four levels, each of which corresponded to one of the original levels -- Return to Peru/Caves, The Ruins of Quinara/City of Vilcabamba, Here Be Dragons/Lost Valley, and Temple of the Feathered Serpent/Tomb of Qualopec. Of all the levels, Return to Peru is the one that has seen the most expansion and revision from its original conception. The initial flyby showing Winston maintaining the base camp was in the original design, although I later went back and filled out that valley a bit more and added the jeep. However, the gameplay between there and where Lara emerges into a canyon to face the first two wolves was completely changed from what I designed originally. Originally, instead of climbing up into a winding path among some high hills before sliding down into the cave, she went through a short, narrow canyon into a dark cave with three bats, some pickups, and Secret #1. This cave wasn't very large and emerged shortly to cross over a bridge that spanned a deep, wide, and long canyon. From there, Lara climbed some 7-click-high steps to pass through a very small cave to emerge in the canyon where she met the first two wolves. The puzzle that most reviewers have expressed the greatest frustration over was the four-button thing on top of the lintel above the main entrance to the Caves. There is one button she presses that will open the doors -- the same one she pressed in the FMV in the original game. The other buttons control events that may or may not happen later in the level depending on whether or not she presses them, and whether she presses them before or after she presses the button that opens the doors. The general idea was that the buttons would control the flow of gameplay through the level. However, it turned out that in two instances, it restricted access to secrets. One of these was later changed when I moved Secret #2 from the room with the first two mummies to its final location. The other, which restricted access to Secret #5, remained unchanged. As originally designed, this wasn't a problem. But in the final release, it was a problem because the Secrets had taken on an added significance. More on that below. Some players have complained about the water maze beneath the south tower in The Ruins of Quinara. That maze was a walk in the park compared to the water maze that I took out of Return to Peru. The location of that maze was originally behind the first timed door in the level. Naturally, this meant that once Lara was in the water maze, she could not leave until she had solved it. However, it was a double-level water maze with only three airholes, two of which were closed off by trap doors. The switch for one trap door was in the first air hole, and the switch for the second trap door was in the air hole that Lara opened with the switch. Furthermore, Secret #3 was behind a door in the third airhole, and the switch that opened it was somewhere in the water maze. At first, I decided to make the water maze optional. But that would have greatly truncated gametime in the first level. So I decided to make the water maze required, adding another room opposite the water maze where Lara would pull a timed switch to open the gate to the moving block puzzle. Finally, I decided to remove the water maze altogether, considering its extreme level of difficulty and the fact that I already had a water maze designed into the next level, and replaced it with the caves and puzzles and the timed run to the new location of Secret #3. In addition, I've made a few other changes, including the expansion of the copy of the original Caves section (necessitating the placement of fixed cameras to reduce the sight limitations problem), changing the pit beneath the rope swing to the Gold Idol from a fairly shallow spike pit to the deep lethal-fall pit that's there now, and the development of the cave where Secret #5 is located. Originally, Lara emerged into daylight to a valley surrounded by impassable ridges on all sides (as opposed to one side overlooking a lethal fall to the canyon where she passed near the beginning of the level). She climbed down into the tunnel above a spike pit (as opposed to a spike ledge as is there now). The tunnel was very shallow (only two blocks deep), and Secret #5 was right there. As Return to Peru expanded, I ran into an issue with the level crashing when more than four baddies were active at any one time. This necessitated changes in what baddies I had placed. Currently, there are six mummies located throughout the level. These are merely animating objects and not real mummies. But originally, they were real mummies. Originally, Secret #5 had explosive ammo. However, once I started running into the issue with the number of baddies, I realized that I could not leave the mummies in as baddies, since there was always the possibility that Lara might not get Secret #5, and since I didn't want to put explosive ammo in anywhere else in the level. Likewise, I had eight skeletons placed in the level. Since Lara might not get the explosive ammo or the shotgun, I decided to take them out altogether and put bears in instead. And since it would not be needed, I also took out the explosive ammo. The Ruins of Quinara is somewhat reminiscent of City of Vilcabamba (obviously). In the second half of Vilcabamba, the player arrives in a large cavern at the end of which are two buildings built into the rock with a low building between them. I wanted to recreate that after a fashion, so I rebuilt it to a certain extent, but opened the cavern to the sky, added a pool in the middle of the cavern-turned-valley, and excavated the buildings to reveal a pair of towers. I chose to completely remodel the interior architecture of the towers from the originals in Vilcabamba to provide more complex gameplay. Compared with Return to Peru, the Ruins of Quinara is relatively unchanged from its original concept. The only changes are tweaking that occurred throughout the design process, such as moving Secrets around, changing triggers around, adding pottery, and so forth. Here Be Dragons is the only level of the four that does not copy or mimic rooms from the level on which it's based. The most change that this level received during development (until a month or two before release) was in getting the velociraptors to work well. Other developers had put the velociraptors in the dog slot, and it worked fairly well there. But the problem with that is that a single shotgun blast can take out anything in the dog slot. So I tried working it in the ahmet slot and the dog slot. The biggest problem with the ahmet slot is that he doesn't give Lara much damage. But the biggest problem I faced with the scorpion slot is that often times he wouldn't attack at all. The velociraptor worked well in the scorpion slot in Invasion of the Vilcabamba Valley (Secret Bonus Level #2), so I left him there (plus there were other design considerations there). But in Here Be Dragons, I decided to leave him in the ahmet slot. A month or two before release, I thought about this level. I had built it, but there was one major component missing. This was a dinosaur level, but it was missing tyrannosaurs. When the major construction of this level was occurring, tyrannosaurs simply weren't available to me. I had tried working them in a couple of different slots, but they just didn't work. However, I realized that the level was simply not complete without at least one tyrant lizard. I looked on the net and found a tyrannosaur that Tomo got to work in the Set slot, and that was what I used. The only drawback to it, unfortunately, is that a single blast with the shotgun is sufficient to fell one of these huge beasts -- I liked how they worked in TR3 much better. So now I had the tyrannosaurs, but I discovered that there really wasn't any place in the map where one would work. Velociraptors might be able to work well in tight places, but tyrannosaurs required big open spaces to work in. I suppose I might have put them in the big cave with the dragons, but they really didn't fit in with what I wanted to do in that part of the level. So instead, I punched a hole in a tunnel and built a whole new area, complete with a fifth Emerald Key (as opposed to just four) needed to get the Gold Idol at the end. Alongside the large caverns with the dragons and the waterfall caves, it's one of my favorite areas in the level. After the major construction phase of Here Be Dragons was complete, I moved on to the development of Temple of the Feathered Serpent. From its conception, I wanted to build the level around the sequence switches found in Underneath the Sphinx (retextured, of course, to fit in with the Incan theme). Fortunately, someone had recently developed a useful tool called TR2PRJ that created project files from tr4 levels, and I was able to create a project of Underneath the Sphinx to see how the sequence switches worked. I also wanted to give the player a feeling that there was more to Temple of the Feathered Serpent than what Lara actually went through, so I added a number of red herrings -- closed 'doors' through which Lara could see passageways that went to other locations she wouldn't visit. As the major construction phase of Temple of the Feathered Serpent was drawing to completion, I reflected on Natla's promise to Lara in the opening FMV of Tomb Raider -- '"Then you'll like a big park - Peru? Vast mountain ranges to cover, sheer walls of ice, rocky crags, savage winds." Really, none of the Peru levels in the original Tomb Raider lived up to that promise, and neither, to be honest, did any of the four levels that I had built. And so, Crash in the Andes was born. Initially, I planned for Lara to collect just the five Secrets in Here Be Dragons in order to access Crash in the Andes, but later I decided to rework the Secrets in Return to Peru and The Ruins of Quinara, adding a puzzle piece at the end of each of those two levels that would also be required to gain access to Crash in the Andes. Near the end of development, I realized that the regular ending, of Lara returning to Quinara at night, playing with a few of Natla's thugs, and making her way down to the helicopter in the courtyard was, well, somewhat anti-climatic. So I decided to make some modifications to The Ruins of Quinara, put the helicopter on top of the south tower, recreate the first half of City of Vilcabamba and the last part of Caves, bring in a little bit of Here Be Dragons, gut the north tower, bring in two bosses (Atlantean demigods) at the end, and voila -- Secret Bonus Level #2: Invasion of the Vilcabamba Valley. As before, I decided to make all the Secrets in Temple of the Feathered Serpent required in order to access Invasion of the Vilcabamba Valley."
Kristina: "In the picture we see you with some lovely kids. Who are those kids?"
Loren: "The children in the photo with me are students at a Christian school in Cantel, Guatemala, that my church has a partnership relationship with. Each year we send down two or three teams of short-term missionaries (each trip lasts nine or ten days) serve the kids through medical work, dental work, facilities work, and teaching (specifically, teaching the kids lessons from the Bible). I've been down four times -- July 1997, July 1998, March 2000, and July 2001."
Kristina: "You seem to be very close to God and that reflects your levels as well judging from what we've seen in your new game, from what you've told us above and from your posts at the forum. Were you always such an ardent follower of God's word? If not what made you turn to God?>
Loren: "I've gone to church all my life. When I was seven, my grandmother taught me that I needed to invite the Lord Jesus into my heart. I, of course, did so at that time. I also asked that if I did so, would I look like Him. (I don't remember asking that, since I was only seven, but my grandmother has related it back to me on several occasions.) I'm sure that as a seven-year-old, I meant that literally. But even now, thirty years later, it still gives me pause to reflect -- do I look like Him? Do I reflect His character? Scripture teaches that we have all sinned (Isaiah 53.6, Romans 3.23) -- we have all lied, stolen, cheated, harbored enmity for our neighbor in our hearts, looked at another with impure thoughts. As such, no one is fit for the kingdom of God. Worse still, all sin is treason against God's Law. God's holiness requires perfect obedience to His Law. The penalty for breaking even the smallest part of it is death, for in breaking the smallest part, we have broken all of it. And no one has broken only the smallest part of it. We often set high and lofty goals for ourselves, and we usually fall far short of these. After all, the number of New Year's resolutions broken exceeds the number kept. But God's goals for us are higher still, and the penalty for not meeting them is much worse than regret. But in all of human history, there has been only one who has perfectly kept God's Law. John 3.16 tells us, 'For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.' The eternal Son of God, of one being and substance with the Father and the Holy Spirit (homoousios in the Greek) yet a distinct person from them both, set aside His divine glory to be born as a human being, the infant son of poor people. (How it can be that Jesus Christ can be of one substance and being with the Father and yet a distinct person, and how it can be that He possesses two distinct natures -- human and divine -- are mysteries the Church grappled with for the first five centuries of its existence before formulating the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds. Don't be put off by it if you don't understand it.) In His life on earth, Jesus of Nazareth perfectly kept God's Law -- both actively, in that He did all that was commanded of Him to do, and passively, in that He committed no transgression of the Law. At the time appointed by God the Father, Jesus Christ fulfilled the role of the Great High Priest and offered Himself up on the Cross as a guilt sacrifice to atone for all the sins of all those who look to Him in hope for salvation from God's just penalty on them for their sins -- the Lamb without blemish, who came to take away the sin of the world. At the appointed time, Jesus gave up His Spirit and died and was buried. But the third day He rose again from the dead in promise to all those who put their trust in Him that on the last day, they too shall rise from the dead in fulfillment of the promise. He ascended into Heaven, returning to the right hand of the Father, there to reclaim His glory that He has shared with the Father and the Holy Spirit from eternity, and there to abide and reign until the last day when He shall return to resurrect the dead -- those who died trusting in Him to everlasting life, and all the rest to everlasting judgment. In the meantime, God has sent His Holy Spirit in order that whosoever calls upon the Lord Jesus, owning and seeking to obey Him as Lord and trusting in His atoning work on the Cross to save them from their sins, the Holy Spirit will come to them and abide in their hearts, prompting them to do good works approved by the Father, to warn their hearts against temptation, and to call them to repent when they sin. The Holy Spirit also works within their hearts to testify to the truth of the Gospel message, to make sure the firm foundation in their hearts, in looking to the great hope that lies in the salvation wrought by the labors of Jesus Christ when He dwelt on earth. Thus, the Holy Spirit grants to those in Christ a sense of peace, hope, and joy that surpasses human understanding, that fills our hearts and strengthens us even in the midst of adversity. And in this manner, the life of the Christian is transformed from resembling the life of the world to resemble the life of Jesus Christ. This, then, is what it means to be a Christian -- to become in character like unto the Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. And this is what He means to me: He brought me from a life lived for nothing more than the futility of my own wishes and desires, which only could have ended in grief, destruction, and despair, into a life lived for His exalted purposes -- to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever."
Kristina: "We have already had a taste of your newest project. Can we get you to reveal something more about it that you haven't already shared with us?"
Loren: "Tomb Raider - Greece Levels is the second chapter in the story begun with Tomb Raider - Peru Levels. In it, Lara Croft is seeking the second of the three Ankhs of Power held by the rulers of Lost Atlantis. In Tomb Raider - Peru Levels, she recovered the Ankh held by Qualopec. In Tomb Raider - Greece Levels, she is seeking the Ankh that was held by Tihocan. The story begins with Lara arriving at the Mt. Athos Monastery. Natla's goons have turned the monks out and imprisoned the abbott (I don't know if the lead monk in a Greek Orthodox Monastery is called an abbott or not, but that's essentially the role he fills). They are searching the monastery for the secret passageway that leads to Tihocan's lost domain. Lara's objective in the first level is to find and rescue the abbott (as well as find four artifacts that she will need in the next level), so that he can show her the secret way out of the monastery. The second level takes place in a dormant volcano. Some of Natla's goons have found their way in here. In the walkthrough for Tomb Raider - Peru Levels, I scripted a cut scene that supposedly took place in the second secret bonus level, Invasion of the Vilcabamba, where Lara encountered Dr. Willard, who was dying from wounds inflicted on him by velociraptors. In that conversation, Dr. Willard told Lara that the expedition was run by Atlantean Demigods, who Lara encountered at the end of the level. He told her that they possess a 'deadly venom that has the effect of stripping a normal human being of his will entirely. They're conscious, of course, and you can see the fear and agony in their eyes - it's like a silent scream. But they cannot do anything of their own will. After a few days - a week at most - this venom works its way completely through the human body, ending in agonizing death. And the effect on the body, especially in the latter stages, is not at all pretty.' In Dormant Volcano, we will see the effects of what this poison does to people. In addition, Lara will be seeking four Pyramid Keys that she will need to access the Atlantean levels at the end of the game. These will be found in four mini-adventures based loosely on Greek Mythology. I've nearly completed a series of four levels based on King Minos. After this, there are levels based on Poseidon (sea levels), Hephaestus (takes place in a volcano with lots of lava), and Hades (lots of dead things here). There will also be a secret bonus level (Mount Olympus) that can be accessed before Lara goes to the Atlantean levels if she collects all the Secrets from Mt. Athos Monastery, Dormant Volcano, and the side adventures to Minos, et. al. Finally, Lara will access the Atlantean levels, find and recover Tihocan's Ankh, and have it out at the end with the Atlantean Queen.
Kristina: "It sounds very interesting and we will be looking forward to your next game. Thank you for your time and this lovely interview, Loren."