Raiding The Fan-Made Tombs of Lara Croft

It’s hard to believe that Lara Croft’s been cavorting around stealing priceless artefacts and killing endangered animals for nearly 20 years. But rather more amazing is that she’s been doing it in fan-made levels since November 2000’s Tomb Raider Chronicles PC release, which gave anyone with the inclination the tools – in the form of an official level editor – required to send her on new adventures.

The dedicated ladies and gents of the Tomb Raider fan community have been squeezing life out of that decrepit old blocky Tomb Raider engine for 14 years, and while they’ve slowed down a bit in recent times, they’re showing no signs of stopping.

Dutch schoolteacher Titia “Titak” Drenth has been there from the beginning. “I thought it would be fabulous to be able to make my own worlds for Lara to run around in,” she says of her initial motivations. Fabulous indeed. Titak’s levels take Lara to the Himalayas, American Wild West, the world of Stargate, and the jungles of Cambodia, among other places, with rave reception from the community at the Tomb Raider Forums and trle.net on nearly all of them.

Michael Prager founded trle.net in 2001, with help from several community members, as a place to house reviews of and discussion about fan-made levels. He set a humble goal for himself: to personally play and review every single level and set of levels that gets added to the site. Around 14 years later, he’s still at it. Prager has, at the time of writing, submitted 2,646 reviews, most around a paragraph long.

“I am about 100 levels short,” he tells me. “Many of these are the larger [multi-level] adventures.” He did once, some years ago, reach a point where he’d played and reviewed every level – a feeling he describes as “quite odd.” But he’s happy to know that there are enough to keep him busy for a few years even if people stopped releasing new ones tomorrow.

That, I should note, seems unlikely. A quick peek at the Tomb Raider Forums shows a micro-level building competition currently underway to design levels smaller than 20 squares in each direction, which is drawing modest attention, along with more than 70 other levels in progress. The most popular projects – such as Titak’s Mists of Avalon, Maati’s War of the Worlds, Xopax and SrDanielPonces’ Tomb Raider: Anniversary II, and Seth94’s Relics of Power – generate huge discussion threads as the developers post updates and discuss their design plans and ideas.

I counted 93 levels as having been added to trle.net this year. Notable among them are Gabriel Croft’s tranquil, almost magical Land Beyond Dreams, Quasar’s clever and moody underwater set Wreck of the Blue Storm, Caesum’s excellent debut effort Forgotten Remnants, and nearly 20 entries to the Back to Basics Khmer Empire competition, which is the latest yearly themed challenge hosted by the site.

There’s also Psiko’s epic, monstrously-ambitious, rather strange HyperSquare, which I would describe as a game in its own right, such are the lengths it goes to craft a story (strange as it is, with the creator himself appearing regularly in FMV cutscenes), new mechanics (Lara has rockets strapped to her shoulders), and original environments. If you can cope with its high difficulty and those old Tomb Raider tank controls, you get a quirky sci-fi epic with an otherworldly look and a healthy dose of ridiculousness.

Trle.net is a labour of love for Prager. He pays for hosting primarily out of his own pocket and still oversees much of the daily administration. And he does all this despite not having touched the editor himself since 2010. Prager may not have the time or energy to create levels anymore, but he’s so attached to the website and community that he makes the time for everything else.

“On the one hand, what keeps me going on this is a certain diligence I just have in the things I do and commit to,” he explains. “But first and foremost, it is the people in this community that have kept and continue to keep me going. The website and the community has yielded so many wonderful friendships and moments in my life that it feels like a very small investment for such a great return to keep the site running.”

Prager can’t entirely pin down what keeps the community going, though he doubts the continuing releases of Crystal Dynamics-developed Tomb Raiders and re-releases of the Core classics have anything to do with it. “One element is probably that it is a fairly mature community,” he suggests. “The core of it has never been 15-year-olds who get excited with something for a while and then move on with their lives to greater things. It has always been people who are a bit more settled in their lives and who have chosen Tomb Raider as a hobby to stick with.”

Titak’s been one of the most dedicated. She’s currently working on her 16th level set – an ambitious effort called Mists of Avalon, which follows Lara in her search for the mythical island of Avalon. Its First Clues prelude hit the trle.net Hall of Fame in November 2012 and today has the third highest average review rating (9.90) on the site, and the full adventure is planned to be bigger and better with help from the Tomb Raider Next Generation level editor by Paolone, which essentially allows larger and prettier levels along with many other enhancements, and META2TR, which enables level builders to design 3D objects in other software and import them to the editor (translation: it allows realistic environments in lieu of the blocky look of old).

Titak pushes her levels to the extremes of what the engine can handle because that’s where her ideas lie. In the early days she ran up against the limitations of the editor: “My imagination had already gotten hold of me,” she says, “only to find out that what I wanted to do was not possible.” But now, with all of the newer, regularly-updated community tools, she can almost do it all. I say almost because the full version of Mists of Avalon will be so monstrously huge that she’s had to split some levels into four or five components just so they can load in the engine.

“I like creating things,” says Titak. “I’ve been drawing ever since I could hold a pencil, and this is basically why I keep sticking around.” For her, the Tomb Raider Level Editor holds the same appeal now as it did more than a decade ago: it’s an opportunity to create worlds for Lara.

It helps, of course, that the editor itself has grown more capable over the years with the Next Generation community updates and helper tools such as META2TR.

“If it [were] still only possible to use the original resources,” muses Titak, “I most likely would have tried another modding program from another game by now.” It’s the fusion of the two things, then, that helps old-school Tomb Raider endure. Level builders get a chance to take Lara on new adventures, but most critically they also get to craft those adventures for themselves. The Tomb Raider games have taken their treasure-hunting heroine on adventures all around the world – undersea, underground, deep into jungles and deserts, through cities old and new, and along the way the structures that underpin Lara’s dealings with her environment have shifted to and fro.

How precisely they do that is normally beyond the player’s control, but not in Level Editor land. In the editor, fans can drop the fiddly, high-precision platforming and the tedious switch-based puzzles in favour of more straightforward action. Or they can go the other way and ditch the gunplay so that Lara must survive with only her wits. Tomb Raider’s traditional five key pillars of secret hunting, 3D platforming, puzzle solving, exploring, and fighting all creatures who get in Lara’s way can be emphasised or de-emphasised to the individual tastes of the builders.

English student Seth94, or Richard Hill, as he’s known to the real world, has a different approach to most current builders. He was just 17 when he rose to prominence with his debut level The Sacred Emerald, and three years later he’s well into development of his third level set, Relics of Power. Seth94 favours earlier-style Tomb Raider games. His levels are modelled explicitly after Tomb Raider II and III, for better or worse (depending on your feelings about those games) – right down to the textures and design constraints. Whereas most level builders have moved on to the Next Generation tools, and many even further into high-resolution custom textures and objects, he prefers to work within the limitations of the original toolset. He enjoys the nostalgic aspect of that style, too, both in terms of his feelings building the levels and those of the players playing them.

Seth94’s perspective and style may be very different to Titak’s, but his motivations aren’t so dissimilar. He loves Tomb Raider, and he digs the challenge of crafting new adventures for Lara. “There’s so much to learn,” he says, “ranging from how to use the program to making your own objects and stuff. It’s impossible to be an expert in every field, but it’s so satisfying to create a successful result at the end of things.”

That’s all it was ever about for most people in the Tomb Raider level editing community: creating new worlds that are fun, interesting, and challenging to explore. There were fears back in 2003-4 that it might blow over – the community appeared to shrink after the flawed and unfinished Angel of Darkness stumbled out of Core’s headquarters. But enough people stuck around to keep the community ticking. Then the Next Generation editor appeared in 2007, giving the hangers on a new toy to master.

Lara has been to so many fantastical places, and she could still go to many more. And this community endures just as she does: reborn again and again in new adventures into the unknown. A mighty explorer conquering all before her. There are always more secrets to uncover and more tombs to raid. You get the sense that as long as that remains true, people will continue to explore the editing tools and search for ways to make them do more.

31 Comments

Top comments

  1. Dominic White says:

    One thing this article should make very clear: Almost all of these fan-made TR adventures are entirely standalone freeware games. The downloads off TRLE.net are almost all packaged, ready-to-run adventures.

    I never would have known about ANY of this were it not for this article, but it kinda comes from a weird direction, assuming knowledge of a modding scene that I never would have known about otherwise.

    Also, thank you SO much for writing about this. Finding out that an old childhood favourite game has an enduring mapping and modding scene is always fantastic.
  1. jezcentral says:

    God bless modders.

    I still hanker after doing a total conversion of Dragon Age Origins into an UFO: Enemy Unknown-a-like (that’s XCOM for you youngsters) with RPG-combat-and-romance. :)

    More power to them. I suspect they really made it for themselves, and the fact that others enjoy it is just the icing on the cake. For the modded games to be this old, I also think that it must link them to a certain part of their lives that they are vicariously reliving. :)

    I wish more games allowed this. I know publishers don’t really want to compete against their own game’s DLC, or hinder them selling a sequel, but this is PC gaming. It’s such a shame that it is falling by the wayside. We have to go to the engines themselves for this freedom. But a lot of us don’t want to learn Unity or Unreal Engine, we want more of a certain game, and this gives us what we want.

    P.S. Just what happened to Saints Row 4’s much vaunted mod-support? Perhaps RPS could revisit that. I haven’t heard anything other than “change some gun values” that came out about a year after launch. Although it was a fantastic game, I could have done without that marketing spiel that turned out dangerously close to lying.

    • Alistair says:

      XCom: The Bureau goes in that direction. Under appreciated IMO :)

      link to store.steampowered.com

      • jezcentral says:

        Already in my Steam-backlog-of-shame. :)

      • ariaster says:

        Gosh. I actually really enjoyed The Bureau. I loved XCOM, I loved the Long War up to 14i (15 plz soon), but The Bureau got too much shit, as far as I was concerned.

        I think it’s an amazing AA game. I would have liked it to have been slightly more Dishonored/Bioshock, considering the pedigree, but I can settle for Mass Effect real-time-turn-based small-squad tactics. My ideal XCOM prequel game would be sneaking about a Deux Ex Washington DC in the Cold War, sussing out Alien agents and going on crazy modern mythology missions.

        It was just about the right length for me, and had fairly lovely design.

    • Baines says:

      Volition hired perhaps the main guy behind modding Saints Row games, answered some questions about file formats, promised releasing a modding SDK, and then… didn’t do that much? They released the tools for weapon modding in Saints Row 3, and a few months ago released tools for weapon modding in Saints Row 4.

      The bulk of the promised support has yet to materialize. I don’t know that it ever will, as mod support was always an “off work” promise, and Volition employees keep releasing commercial products.

    • welverin says:

      I’m no youngster, and it was always X-COM to me.

      Of course I’m also American, so there’s that.

    • hamilcarp says:

      Sooo…. Divinity: OS?

  2. Mman says:

    Nice article, I certainly wasn’t expecting a TRLE feature. I guess I’m even indirectly referenced since I got third place on the Khmer Empire competition.

  3. Richard Moss says:

    I couldn’t find a place for it in the article, but I also asked my three interviewees about their favourite custom levels. Seth94 said he’s only played a few and declined to single anything out. Titak’s response was “There are of course levelsets that I enjoy for various reasons, but I can’t really name an all time favourite.”

    Prager gave this response, via email, which I thought I might reproduce in full for anyone curious about diving in:

    I certainly do and the list is long and by starting to name some here I will most certainly forget to mention many others. Level wise I have actually scored only two levels with a perfect 10 after more than 2500 reviews, which was Nobu’s Taki in 2003 (link to trle.net ) and teme9’s The Mystery in 2010 (link to trle.net ). Of the longer multi-level adventures, I would definitely mention Horus’ Neon God from 2006 (link to trle.net ). But then there are also many levels which just had special memorable moments in them, like for example the title sequence of Lara Croft: I am Legend from 2009 (link to trle.net ) or the very unique way of setting a story in scene in The Killing Fields from 2006 (link to trle.net ).

    As for creators, again, there is so much talent out there, but among those who have amazed me most with their work over all those years are certainly Psiko (link to trle.net) , MagPlus ( link to trle.net ), Piega (link to trle.net ), Josep Borrut (link to trle.net ), Richard Lawther (link to trle.net) and Titak (link to trle.net ).

    Last but not least, I want to make sure I mention two very capable creators here, not only because they have built (and are still building great levels), but for their absolutely tireless engagement for the community as a whole – namely EssGee (link to trle.net ) and mugs (link to trle.net ). Without them, the whole place would just not be the same place and I am eternally grateful for that!

    • Vandelay says:

      Thanks for the article. I adored Tomb Raider when growing up. The sense of exploration and discovery was like no other game. Crystal Dynamic continued this with Anniversary and Underworld, but it mostly vanished with the reboot (which was still an okay game.) I had absolutely no idea that there was a modding community or that it still continued to this day.

      I think I am going to have to download a few of these.

    • LogicalDash says:

      Beware, some of the older level packs have custom textures that seem to’ve been designed for old CRT monitors with a narrow gamut, causing them to burn your retina when viewed on a modern screen. You’ll need some form of gamma correction.

    • LogicalDash says:

      Just as a warning to anyone thinking of trying the linked mods in their given order, Nobu-Taki probably has its perfect ten because so few people were able to finish it for a fair review. I haven’t even beaten its first stage and it’s already used a number of tricks that would be considered cheap in most other games (spoilers I guess):

      * Ledges that are a millimeter too far away to shimmy onto
      * …at least one of which seems to be a deliberate red herring
      * Ridges that are hard to get at, which you can’t stand still on when you get to them, but are nonetheless necessary to set up jumps
      * A lack of objects to align yourself against, so you have to eyeball your jumps when there are crocodiles beneath
      * A big underwater maze, which doesn’t look like a maze due to some really impressive naturalistic cave wall geometry, which you will drown in a lot because the same things that make the geometry naturalistic make it hard to tell which crannies you can swim through.

      Taken as an expert’s level, it makes very clever use of the idiosyncrasies of the old engine. If you are not intimately familiar with those, AVOID.

  4. Stardog says:

    Now do one for Zelda fan games – http://zfgc.com

  5. J-Force says:

    This reminds me of the game Star Wars: Empire at War. The game itself was alright but the modding community is what really made it one of my favorites. In particular it had a very dedicated mod team that made the ‘Thrawn’s Revenge’ conversion mod which is many times better than the base game, they have now finished TW in full and have moved on to do the same for Sins of a Solar Empire. It would be interesting to see an article on them to find out why, after years and years of doing the same mod, they chose to do it again in a different game.

    As I recall another modding team in SW:EAW asked for the full engine to make a full game. The owners (Petroglyph, I believe?) were awsome enough to say yes. I can’t remember for the life of me what that game turned out to be.

  6. Dominic White says:

    One thing this article should make very clear: Almost all of these fan-made TR adventures are entirely standalone freeware games. The downloads off TRLE.net are almost all packaged, ready-to-run adventures.

    I never would have known about ANY of this were it not for this article, but it kinda comes from a weird direction, assuming knowledge of a modding scene that I never would have known about otherwise.

    Also, thank you SO much for writing about this. Finding out that an old childhood favourite game has an enduring mapping and modding scene is always fantastic.

    • Markusfen says:

      Wait. So you are saying owning the original Tomb Raider games is not needed to run these mods?

      Well, that’s a turn up :)

      • Dominic White says:

        I’m sure there’s an exception in there somewhere, but every download I found on TRLE.net is an entirely standalone fangame running on the TR4 engine, sometimes with assorted community upgrades. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them.

        Some don’t have a setup menu on startup, but you can force it by adding ‘-setup’ to the end of a shortcut.

        It’s a really freaking big deal, and I have no idea why it’s not mention at all in this article. It should be top and center, otherwise most people will just shrug and move on, assuming they’ll need to dig up or buy an old TR game to play them.

        • vahnn says:

          I DEMAND THE AUTHOR AMEND THIS ARTICLE TO INCLUDE THIS INFORMATION!

          I was about to do just that–Say, “Cool,” and move on to another article and forget about this story without ever thinking to check out some of these mods. Knowing that I don’t need to buy an old TR game to play a good amount of them is ESSENTIAL INFORMATION and strange to see it lacking!

          Of course, perhaps the author has had TR installed all along and he didn’t know the game was not needed, or perhaps he didn’t even try to play any of them himself.

          • Dominic White says:

            Yeah, the article seems to be written from a strange insider perspective. Perhaps a long-time TR fan that kinda takes that knowledge for granted, rather than being absolutely essential.

            I’m very glad I was bored and curious enough to download one on the off chance. Imagine my surprise when I saw a full game file structure in there.

        • ludde says:

          Agreed, this really needs to be up there.

          Might even try one now, but a lot of people will miss that opportunity entirely.

  7. kyrieee says:

    Might have to check some of these out. I’m busy with TRIII atm though.

  8. indigo15 says:

    I only learned about fan-made Tomb Raider games within the past year or so, but in that time, I’ve played and enjoyed several of them. Essgee’s 8-level “Beyond The Scion,” while a bit buggy in a couple of places, is a real standout for me. Titak’s brilliant “Mists of Avalon” and the equally fun “Himalayan Mysteries” (which explores Lara’s original backstory) are also fantastic adventures. Pretty much every custom level set on trle.net that has a cumulative rating of “9” or above is worth the time, and they’re very easy to set up and play. The “old-school raiding” that many of us fell in love with in the initial Core Design games is prominent in many of the fan-made games, and I daresay some of them even rival Tomb Raiders 1-5 in terms of length, difficulty, and ingenuity. For longer fan-made adventures, I’d recommend “The Jerusalem Project” and “King Arthur Project,” the latter of which contains well over 20 levels to explore, while titles like the AOD-inspired “Forgotten Remnants” and “Wreck Of The Blue Storm” (very reminiscent of the Maria Doria levels from TR2) only contain a few levels each, if you’d rather play shorter adventures. If, like me, you love the old-school Core games and aren’t too crazy about the direction in which Crystal Dynamics has taken the series, then TRLEs are definitely worth your time–they’re a great way to play new Lara adventures that are still, for the most part, incredibly faithful to the original essence of the games.

  9. charmed23 says:

    wow, this just made me realize how casual of a TR fan I was! My first TR game was Legend, and really have only played Crystal Dynamics’ trilogy, and the 2013 reboot. And I love them both, which I guess would automatically disqualify me as a “real” TR fan lol.

    Anw I had only heard about the modding but had no idea about the effort and quality put into them!
    Thanks for this great article, I’m definitely exploring these fan-made world.

  10. SubparFiddle says:

    Nice! This is the kind of article I like to see on RPS. Lengthy, informative, an interesting inside look at a subset of our gaming culture I otherwise would never have known about. I like you, Richard :)

  11. jmtd says:

    Wow! I had no idea. You may also like the long, long history of doom mods (see doomworld.com) or quake (quaddicted.com). Astonishing stuff.

  12. Tom Servo says:

    Great article, I had no idea the TR mod scene was a thing. And thanks to the commenters for pointing out these levels are freeware. I will definitely have to try some out, I miss the old Lara.

  13. airmikee says:

    I played the first two Tomb Raider games way back on the PS1, so when I found the Tomb Raider bundle on Steam last night for sale, I couldn’t resist. Every Tomb Raider game ever released for the PC for only $16, best deal I think I’ve ever found. :)

  14. JimmyG says:

    Yeah, this was an engrossing read for a game series I’ve only ever seen in videos, and not with a controller in my hands. At the very least, I’m bookmarking trle.net.