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Meet the People Who’ve Been Making Tomb Raider Levels for 20 Years

These raiders have dedicated decades to uncovering the new possibilities of these old artifacts.

by Jess Joho
Mar 11 2017, 4:00pm

Image: Dagger of Xian Remake: Nicobass

While most of us can barely commit to a one-year apartment lease, the people of Tomb Raider's level editing scene have spent the past twenty years making custom levels for the original 90s franchise. The most popular level editing community, trle.net, hosts 3,000 levels alone (that's 200 GB of disk space, and over 1-2 years worth of gameplay time), which generate 2 TB of traffic a month. The 2,000 members on the site's forum have submitted around 50,000 reviews of said custom levels, accumulating a robust rating system that would give Metacritic a run for its money.

The longevity of this community can seem astounding to those accustomed to the modern gaming cycle. Nowadays, entire multiplayer communities suffer annual obsolescence whenever the latest release with minor technical upgrades comes out. But not so much for dedicated Tomb Raider players, many of whom were first hooked in 1999 when Core Design released an official level editor for The Last Revelation, the fourth game in the series.

Image: Underworld UB4 - Taking Care of Business: Bojrkraider, Richard Lawther, Titak, Trix

"The fact that the editor was released when Tomb Raider was very popular, but just before the long wait for the Angel of Darkness [another Tomb Raider game], gave a big initial impulse, followed by a lot of custom tools and additional materials that were made by fans," said Italian level editor Francesco Venco over email, who first joined trle.net back in 2002. "The editor was also very easy to use, even for people who didn't know anything about programming or game development in general."

The community that sprang from the initial editor ran full sprint with it. Aside from extensive walkthroughs and step-by-step level editing guides, sharing became the core policy of their community. Every creator took an open-source approach, allowing the tools to build on top of each other into a Frankenstein editor that kept the 90s tech vibe.

"Sounds, textures, objects, animations and even the game engine can all be edited, ultimately making this level editor more of a 'blank canvas' than is typically found in other games that make mods available," said English tomb raider Richard Lawther. According to fellow Englishman Shaun Friend, "Many newer levels have pushed the engine so far they've practically turned it into something else, essentially taking a semi-early Playstation 1 engine and turning it into something akin to a mid-late Playstation 2 engine's capability."

Image: Mists of Avalon: Titak

In essence, the Tomb Raider custom level editors became their own kind of digital tomb raiders, going to elaborate lengths to turn over new discoveries from decades-old artifacts. And if you're envisioning a group of white male Gen Xers (or older) in tight cargo shorts and low cut tank tops, you are sorely mistaken (and I apologize for the image): the community on trle.net is comprised of all different ages, genders, cultures, and ethnicities. Many attribute the longevity of the game's level editing scene to this blend of old and new blood, with the core commonality among them being a luddite's sort of love for retro controls, in all their nostalgia and unwieldiness. Just to give a sense of the kind of dinosaur they're working with, the original T omb Raider series still uses what people derogatorily call "tank controls." A symptom of Playstation 1 game designers still trying to figure out the whole 3D space thing, the tank control scheme is best known for punking you every time you tried to keep walking forward in a game once the fixed camera angle switched perspectives, when continuing to press up on the D pad suddenly made your character walk backwards instead. Now, cut to 2013's Tomb Raider, where you can seamlessly go from ziplining down a power line to catching your fall by pickaxing onto a mountain.

But for the most part, the Tomb Raider level editing community only has eyes for the good of nostalgia gaming, with each coming back to Lara again and again for a variety of design reasons: Lawther sees the old control system as more "immersive," while Friend likes how the game's mechanics are inextricably linked to the level geometry itself—but the creator of trle.net himself, Michael Prager, believes that what keeps people coming back for more is the sheer breadth of environments and experiences the community has made possible.

"The beauty is that there are levels out there for every taste," he said. Ultimately, Venco thinks the appeal also comes down to a matter of necessity. "There's basically no real alternatives around. Most newer action-adventure games have either no modding support or prohibitively complex tools, along with gameplay interactions that are automated in ways that would make it hard to expand on them."

Image: Shalebridge Murder Mystery: Richard Lawther

One thing is clear: after twenty years, it looks like the Tomb Raider custom community isn't going anywhere. In fact, while us noob Tomb Raider fans are salivating for rumors about the next reboot installment, this gang is eagerly awaiting the Crystal Dynamics-approved Unreal Engine Dagger of Xian remake by Nicobass (which, admittedly, looks rad as fuck). Last October,  fan turned Crystal Dynamics Senior Community Manager Meagan Marie published 20 Years of Tomb Raider, a glossy hardcover that is as much an ode to the fandom as it it to the games. In fact, long-time trle.net innovator Titia Drenth got her own page-long spread for her work on the beloved 'Mists of Avalon.'

At its core, trle.net is just a group of internet friends that have been experiencing the world for decades together. "I learned about 9/11 at the forum before I even saw it in the news," said Prager. "We've had babies, marriages, and unfortunately in the last few years, even deaths of long-standing community members who we all still fondly remember."

In fact, Prager even owes the trle.net community for his marriage. No, literally. He actually met his wife on the site and married her in 2003. If finding love through a twenty-year-old Playstation game isn't worthy of a rom-com, I don't know what is.