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.