Eurogamer: Titan Quest Retro + Brainthinks


Ever since I visited the ill-fated Iron Lore in 2005, I’ve wanted to find the words to talk about a peculiar response I had to their level editor. It’s taken me this long to gain the vocabulary needed to even take a stab at it, primarily gained/cribbed from the essays and thoughts of film theorist André Bazin. (Whom I confess I first discovered through Linklater’s excellent Waking Life, rather than from the half a degree of film studies I slept through in ’98.) And so, smuggled onto the internet in a large wooden retrospective article on Titan Quest, my thoughts on the teleological nature of level editors. I don’t know how successful I’ve been, since I’m massively out of my depth without a useful background in either philosophy or semiotics. The EG commenters appear to have opted for pretending the article was only one page long, which is understandable. I’m nervous of what happens if someone who knows what they’re talking about responds. There’s a quote from it below, since I’ve waffled so much up here.

“I’m not a modder, and I don’t have any significant experience with level editors, so forgive my ignorance on the matter. But watching a Titan Quest level be created was something of a revelation. The editor was built so that you could paint levels into existence, which enormously appealed to me. Frightening wireframe boxes have never let me get past a corridor in most editors, but here the guy was waving his wand on the tablet and it was appearing before him.

He began with a black void, into which appeared a mass of rock, soon covered by his painting in the sea. Once it was covered in water, he then picked out a tool to allow the formation of land, which was risen from the waters, shaped and crafted into an island. Then he dressed that island in grass textures, trees, rocks. This was then brought more to life with animals on the ground and fish creatures in the water. Finally he added a player character. And it was good.”

I also briefly talk about Titan Quest, and the team who made it, and why it’s fun.


  1. TotalBiscuit says:

    I love Titan Quest, I despise the technical issues that still exist within the game that stop me from playing Titan Quest.

    • KingCathcart says:

      There is a fan made patch available.

    • TotalBiscuit says:

      Yeah I know, it doesn’t fix all the performance issues though.

    • DrGonzo says:

      Does Titan Quest have performance issues? Been playing it recently co op with one of us on a Netbook. I was shocked that it looks great and runs smoothly on it.

      It’s strange that Titan Quest is perfectly playing and gorgeous on it, yet Torchlight is completely unplayable and very ugly on it IMO.

    • Nick says:

      There are some areas that have terrible slow down in TQ, but most of it is fine.

  2. DSR says:

    Like what?
    I can’t remember encountering any kind of tecnical issues.
    And I’ve played it on VISTA(yuck!) 64 bit.

  3. Tom-INH says:

    I’ve never played the game, but enjoyed the article. Vaguely tempted to get the game too, but have a lot on my plate at the moment, with Civ 5 coming out in a couple of weeks too.

    • Ignorant Texan says:

      TQ gold(vanilla and Immortal Throne expandalone) seems to be on sale from some digital service for ~5USD every other week, and sometimes is thrown in as a freebie on other THQ purchases. More than worth it. I do wonder how many other got stuck on the Titan, though.

  4. Bald Space Marine says:

    Titan Quest is great, but I wish it had more character customisation.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Thank you — you have inspired me to pick up TQ again. I picked it up in a Steam sale yonks ago and never really gave it a good try, though I really enjoyed the little bit of it I played.

  6. well says:

    i just hope that Grim Dawn is released some time in the near future and it doesn’t all go horribly wrong for them again

  7. M says:

    I like this. I want more journalism that looks at mod tools, how games share and export data, and so on. Why do some games get good mod communities, that thrive for years after the game itself dwindles? Why do some toolsets lean towards depth and complexity whilst others are shallow but accessible?

    Man. Do a full feature on it, Walker!

    • Legionary says:

      I wouldn’t say accessibility and simplicity are two qualities which are exclusive to also being deep and complex. The original NWN toolset is, to my mind, the best content creation tool ever released. It’s simple enough to pick up without a lot of tantrums, and still powerful enough to enable you to push the game to the limits of its engine.

  8. karry says:

    Go is the only way to play god correctly :P

    “I also briefly talk about Titan Quest, and the team who made it, and why it’s fun.”
    Yeah, its fun, until you realize that you must choose 2-3 skills and get through the entire game using only those skills. And then again on epic. And then again on legendary. And then with a different character. Which is exactly the problem as with Diablo 2. Pre-patched Diablo 2 was largely unbalanced, but you could use a plethora of skills without fear of making the game unwinnable. Post-patch Diablo 2 is just picking 2-3 skills and using them 2000000 times.

    Overbalancing things is not fun.

    • Urthman says:

      I haven’t played it on legendary or epic, but I’ve played through the basic campaign with four different characters and every time was able to make a successful character who uses 3-6 attack skills and 2-4 support/buff skills.

    • Nick says:

      Just because you can min max doesn’t mean you have to.

    • Urthman says:

      Noob! Your build is sub-optimal!

  9. Cooper says:

    There was a point in time where photography could have gone one of two ways; an artistic device or a scientific instrument.

    In the end, the idea of the photograph as documentary evidence became most prominent. Sure, not to deny the artistic qualities of photography, but (at least prior to cries of ” ‘shopped “) the photograph was understood primarily as a means to capture reality.

    Except they’re not. Not in any uncomplicated manner do photographs capture reality. And this is not just photoshop or photo manipulation – there are myriad of interactions between subject, equipment, photgrapher and audience which complicate claims to reality capturing.

    Take the family holiday snap – sure a record of ‘we were here’, but also a story of family happiness (“smile for the camera!”), of numerous re-takes because that same idiot kept walking around in the background, of anecdotes (there was a great bar just around the corner here), and of memory.

    Photographs are not ‘capturing the world’, but through taking them to presenting them to audiences, they are an active form of world making.

    I’d suggest you’re actually much closer with the comparison of the world-making of level editors and the world-making of photography. Where painting has wandered off into abstract realms, this is harder for (certain) games and (most) photos. A degree of fidelity to real-world experiences in needed in order for audiences to relate to the worlds in games and photographs.

    Both are forms of world-making. The power of photographs is that they make the real world. Because they are understood and used as documentary evidence, our understanding of the world – outside of our own direct experiences – is in no small part informed by the photographs we see of it.

    To the extent that often, when visiting places for the first time, people look for the images they have seen previously, and are often disappointed to find it’s not quite like they remember in the photographs. And so people work hard to manage places so the experience of them ‘lives up to’ the visual record of them. This is not capturing the world, it is re-presenting it, it is actively making it.

    (Ok, so it’s not quite that clear cut or mechanistic, but the argument remains)

    To me, then, “The fall”, then, is the most important aspect of this comparison of photographs and games.

    When we ‘interact’ with the world as made by photographs, we are actually interacting with the world we live in. And I’m not sure that can even be called interaction – that’s a lived reality.

    Interaction in game is of a vastly different kind. Here is the special nature of games and game-worlds that renders film & other visual media theory impotent for analysing games.

    Until ‘the fall’ we have a description of a painterly creative process and artwork. But games allow you to put the painting, the map, the photograph or any other visual artwork on the ground and ‘jump into it’, not only imaginatively, but in a meaningful, tactile way. Meaning, then, is something which comes through this interaction and, unlike traditional understandings of narrative and art, is not something to be presented to a passive audience.

    And this is something that so many commentators on games (those who don’t play games) rarely ‘get’. What might look passive (sitting in front of a screen, imperceptible hand movements) is in fact a deeply engaging, interactive and rich experience.

    This level of engagement and interactivity is what, for my money, games will eventually be recognised for as the most important development in cultural medium since audio and visual recording devices.

    • Huggster says:

      “This level of engagement and interactivity is what, for my money, games will eventually be recognised for as the most important development in cultural medium since audio and visual recording devices.”

      Indeed, you only have to read a few decent, mature and intelligent SF novels to see the way things are very likely to go.
      Which is where the StarTrek holo-deck got it wrong – people would be in there dying of malnutrition and dehydration. They would not leave!
      Even Avatar touches upon this but sadly did not capatilise on it as much as it should have – he finds a reality better than his current one and lets his body waste away.

  10. Huggster says:

    Sounds like you were going through some kind of existential angst or revelation there John? ;-)

    “And of course until I add a player and press play, it’s intensely boring and completely meaningless. Its existence is only meaningful when it’s interpreted by a conscious mind.”

    Remember meaning is completely a subjective thing though. In the first seconds after the big bang, I would not call the growth of the universe “meaningless” simply because there was no self-aware entity there to experience it. You sitting here right now was inherent and implied in those first seconds.
    Meaning could be considered a consequence of the growth and development of emotion, which is a prerequisite to development of consciousness as you work your way from simple to complex lifeforms.

    “Inception” covers in quite broad strokes the way we favour (and can become completely absorbed in to the extent that we think they are real) existences once removed from reality. I guess the difference between, for example, a virtual “game” reality and physical reality is that the virtual “game” reality “waits” for something to enter it to come alive, whereas physical reality just rolls on regardless.

    Perhaps though, with persistent online gaming worlds, they have become more like true reality – as if you visit, have a break, then come back later, things have changed without you there, things which you did not experience yourself. This is more in line with the map of reality we are used to.

    Now, if level designers in the future have persistent worlds with AI living *inside* them which are birthed completely within the environment – then I guess we truly become gods!

  11. Rhygadon says:

    For anyone inspired to play (or re-play) TQ: be sure to get the Lilith mod. It’s a completely separate, very long adventure, with new enemies but only very light tweaks to the core skills. Unbelievably polished (down to the background music), clever and well-written, and balanced to be a fun challenge even on the first playthrough. (Plus, adjustable difficulty for each playthrough.) Hands-down the best mod I’ve ever played, for any game …
    If you’ve already played the original to death, Lilith also comes in a Masteries version (the Masteries mod is a total skill replacement, written by a different modder). But be forewarned that the Masteries skills, while amusing, aren’t particularly balanced and can become tedious to play after the first few hours.

  12. Chris D says:

    The Gospel According to Titan Quest

    In the beginning Walker created the earth. He placed rock to stand on and water, because everyone knows you can’t just wander anywhere at at all, and a light source above by which to see the Satyr Soldiers and Archer Skellingtons who would attack without mercy. (Really, John, really? What kind of a god are you? And then you go and blame the player for the fall. Let’s try that again….)

    The world was filled with kindly villagers and fluffy animals. Then Walker put a Player in the garden and said. “Go forth and explore, level up and gain much treasure, just don’t open that chest in the middle of the level, the others are all fine though.

    Now the Troll was more crafty than any other NPC and he said unto the player “Man, I bet there’s some sweet loot in that chest. Walker probably just doesn’t want you to have it because then you will know about ladie’s bits or something”.

    The player opened the chest and found a mysterious breastplate of some kind., but putting it on he discovered that it was cursed and caused all who met him to attack him without mercy. And Walker sayeth “What have you done? Now you won’t be able to get to all the lovely treasure I put down for you, and I don’t even have a problem with ladies bits.”

    And that’s the fall dealt with. Of course, as a reflection of God, a level designer is a deism simulator at best. For the full experience you’d also need to be able to unleash the odd plague of locusts every now and again. Then Walker would have to become a player in his own level and use his “remove curse when killed but respawn after three days” ability. But that’s a story for another day.

  13. Sagan says:

    The one thing that has pushed me away from FPS modding were the horrible editors. I really wanted to do some modding, but why is it so complicated to just build stuff? I came from the Warcraft 3 editor, which is similar but not quite as elegant as you describe the Titan Quest editor, and I don’t see why stuff like Hammer has to be so complicated.

    I think Far Cry 2 also had a pretty good editor, that showed that you don’t need all that useless complexity for FPS editors, but that game doesn’t really have a modding community around it.

    But yeah, I really hope that in ten years editors of all types of games will have advanced to the point that anyone can use them without a one week intensive course. It would just be so healthy to the industry. It might lead to a come-back of modding, because now the people who used to make mods just make indie games, but there is a whole lot of people out there who don’t know how to develop their own game, and who could make mods if the tools were easier.

  14. stahlwerk says:

    The rules (you vs. them) are put into the program code or scripts, and are loaded into memory independently of the scenery, the NPCs or the player. The world was corrupt before you populated it in the editor; refusing to enter the game loop is to deny life to world. Life which also gives the player the choice to play by the rules, implement their own, or to ignore them.

    • John Walker says:

      See, but that’s the thing, isn’t it? Is it evil when it exists only in potential? And are humans similarly pre-programmed?

  15. Trite says:

    Do not forget to mention that a lot of Iron Lore guys formed Crate Entertainment ( link to ) and are working on Grim Dawn ( link to ), which is based on the Titan Quest technology and looks really promising.

    • Andy_Panthro says:

      It does look pretty good, and is quite an original setting on top of a roguelike/hack’n’slash type of game.

      I’ve already pre-ordered such are my high hopes!

  16. Razz says:

    I was actually confused after reading that article. I thought you were being deliberately convoluted because you were trying to create some sort of ironic juxtaposition by applying enormously complex philosophical theories to the inherent simplicity and “stupidity” of hack ‘n slash games. I just assumed it was a kind of fuck you to all those liberal arts strudents who tend to overanalyse stuff. But then it didn’t seem explicit enough to be in on its own joke, so hmmz. I guess I was wrong!

    Maybe I should read it again. :9

  17. mwtb says:

    I read it as saying:

    1. Creating stuff, particularly stuff that is in some way automated, is a bit “God-dy”.

    2. Hey, game levels are a bit pointless without a player aren’t they? That means that God exists!

  18. The Sombrero Kid says:

    I think this would’ve been better if it wasn’t about titan quest & posted here. you should do a purerer follow up, Titan Quest is great but I the article wasn’t as focused as I’d’ve liked & I’m interested in what johns got to say on this.

  19. mwtb says:

    Oh well, perhaps I missed the intended point somewhere between cliched observations on creating simulations, the heavy use of religious imagery and the allusions to the teleological argument.

    “I’m just saying.”