Aahh, The Last Revelation... No earlier Tomb Raider had content so varied and numerous. At the turn of the millennium, the stars have shifted and a level editor appeared, able to reuse TR4 ingredients and mix them into new flavours. It didn't take long for the fans to inject custom maps with a fresh spirit. The starter pack, supplied with the editor and even still downloadable for a glimpse of the old experience, was, compared to the current assets, tiny. Tiny, but still enough.
What you see above is several months of effort by Piega. The year was 2001 and nobody yet expected the decades of life custom levels would be granted with a gallore of updates to increase quality, capacity and artistic freedom. For now, building was a playground - single levels dominated the scenery as builders tested what can and cannot be done, even though the only thing we could customize was textures.
You can see even mixing the default ones introduces a lot of variety. But you could also add any new texture, to customize the character at will. Soon, the borders of Egypt were lifted and Lara sailed away to a whole range of travel destinations in offer. This hidden world below the city of Beijing has become the first level with fully customized textures to get a score close to 9/10 (with Piega going beyond exactly a month later), and if you don't know its true age, you won't be able to tell.
Meanwhile, the unofficial level editor made by Turbo Pascal allowed building levels in the engines of TR1, 2, 3 and 5.
Things were simple, until one brave idea... It took around 200 levels of careful steps and experiments until somebody included more than one level in the same release. It is unknown which builder first came up with this idea, but among those who dared share it with the public were Josep Borrut and MagPlus. Over the years, they kept carefully chiseling their stories like renaissance sculptures, to end up with two adventures made of 9 and 13 levels respectively. There was also Harly Wuson, who later on gifted us a widescreen patch, often considered the most fireproof to date.
Since that moment, multilevel games overtook the top of the charts, and massive stars emerged among the authors. One day, you made a single room, the next day you found out including more than 34 levels crashes the game. Other builders preferred medium size and switching the asset several times without keeping the same mood for too long. Such levels are now like buried artifacts, waiting for a day to be uncovered - and if you do, you might be in for a nice surprise.
In any editor, there comes a moment when people have enough of infiltrating and design an escape map. Ma.ximo's "Trapped" was one of these. In case of Tomb Raider, since the original game happened to skip large plot chunks, a special branch of escape levels has emerged that was supposed to fill those gaps. For example, in 1999 nobody knew how Lara survived the pyramid collapse, or if she did at all, so Loch has made his "Dreaming for a Revelation" to interpolate that bit. Aside of plot supplements, we got stories alternate or parallel to it - for instance, in Titak's jungle, Lara attempts to rescue Werner's trapped leg (and the rest of him) from a locked room in Cambodia:
Notice in those levels you usually see the same asset presets, because objects from different levels - for instance the a switch from Karnak and a door from Alexandria - were not mixable. Of course the community tried to help but the first management tools were often simple and limited to a single purpose, so using them wasn't so comfortable. A major change came with the release of Michiel's WadMerger, which could not only mix objects from different TR4 levels but also import them from the first five Tomb Raiders, add sounds, calculate collisions and make animations, all in one tool. A major timesaver for the builders to test what's possible - and it again appeared almost everything is. A surge of creativity streamed through the newly designed worlds, injecting them with biodiversity of interactions. Suddenly, you were no longer limited to the assets provided, but you could for example find an underwater wall switch, just like those known from TR2. A player's challenge shifted from checking how the familiar elements are aligned, to finding new interactions a builder wanted to surprise a player with.
Lima - Underwater Mine
If that was a difficulty leap, then it skyrocketed with the release of StrPix, able to import custom meshes from modelling programs like Metasequoia. Levels got their custom character burnt in, and nothing was left in the way of making entirely new worlds. This is psiko, one of the biggest inventors – the first picture is from 2004, the other one from 2014 after he found his way to make levels directly in 3dsMax and then import them to the level leditor.
While some people were making tools, other ones were researching - dozens of setups known from TR4 and technically possible to reuse in custom levels weren't described in the editor manual, so a group of volunteer fans has carefully analyzed them and wrote tutorials on them. This knowledge was shared very efficiently, and for the first time in history a large pool of experienced builders has assembled to pull off a full-length custom game project. Aiming at quality no lower than the original Tomb Raider 4, "Lara At The Movies" pictured a selection of blockbuster films, with Lara in place of their protagonists. The classic age has peaked.
But now, on top of interactions known from the whole franchise, expecting unknown ones started to be required from a player of custom levels. The tightrope between immersion and gameplay became incredibly hard to walk, so the players fell from it. Down at the bottom, they shook off the dust, gazed at the tightrope they fell from, and realized how stable the ground they fell onto was. In that very moment, they missed the classic age - and the classic age was over. Driven by global nostalgia, aiming to fulfill it, the Back to Basics contest was organized in 2005. The goal was to take only the Catacombs resource pack originally shipped with the editor, accept all of its shortages and rely on creativity to make a good level. Results were so good, it's impossible to show just one screenshot.
Back to Basics continued annually, with a specific theme chosen for every edition. Due to the very limited nature, some of those levels feature the most memorable puzzles ever made. "The Killing Fields" redeems Lara's habit of annihilating endangered species, as she's now on a rescue mission to save a population of monkeys. "Inti Is Watching You" features a sophisticated solar riddle. After Asia, London and Peru, the competition looped back to starter editor resourcepacks, this time you could choose a pack per level, not just per contest. Of this edition, "Curse of Empti Wad" quirkily seems to mock the vanilla shortcomings, but in fact eRIC chose one of the emptiest resourcepacks and proved it useful regardless, using objects in a way they weren't meant to be. In the next years he continued this fashion of extra challenging himself, to eventually become one of the most versatile competitors and even win twice.
Meant to collab rather than compete, some builders parallelly assembled on the Skribblerz forum, aiming for group efficiency, not limiting customization at all, however still bound by a common idea - each member of the project would begin the building in an identical starter room but then adjusted the surroundings to match the chosen style of the project. This is how Skribblerz Stonez were born. For now, the event had five editions in total.
As we advance on the timeline, you see the projects gain detail. In order to keep up, the game exe has gotten a memory patch. The draw distance was also increased, and the dark wall 20 blocks around Lara wasn't a must anymore. Those tweaks were wrapped into Pyuaumch's Tomb Raider Engine Patcher (TREP) alongside with further custom patches which changed interactive and visual style. Since 2004, literally tons of new features were added, applicable to the game by a simple tick of a button. If you build a medium-sized map and prefer instant preset tweaks over advanced scripting, you can use TREP due to its easiness and unique visual flavor.
Around that time, Core Design's editor also needed an update. Until now, you could draw multiple parts of the map in order to check their alignment with each other, but the editor crashed very often if you did - therefore any builder who wanted to make an organic level with interconnected areas, needed to have insanely good spatial imagination. To counter it, Paolone revamped the editor memory. Now as a builder you could see much more without interpolating things in your head. Controls were also more readable and faster. More gameplay features were on the way to be introduced so this little age lasted for very short - but nevertheless it gave us some of the most memorable moments.
Almost immediately, Tomb Raider: The Next Generation (TRNG) - a custom engine for the new editor was added, far superior compared to the default one due to featuring its own primitive programming language. It enabled completely outbox gameplay elements alongside with style units not designable before. Levels now ranged from completely classic to not resembling Tomb Raider at all. TRNG didn't pair with TREP, which was a drawback but also provided both types of levels with distinct character – and so, building with one tool or another is still a valid choice today. TRNG was promoted in a castle-themed Complex Simplicity contest and used for many projects, but its idiosyncratic, often surreal nature is probably the most known from holiday levels.
Meanwhile a bit on the side, efforts were made to provide advanced scripting compatible with TREP. An alternate scripter eSSe was made by Larson88 and used in a couple of BtB levels, but due to long development it's mostly known from levels of Clara/Masha/Sponge - a lot of uniqueness in those games comes from being the major betatesting ground for the tool.
Converging the separate ways of both tools, Flexible Engine Patcher (FLEP) - a TREP update - became compatible with TRNG. Today (2021), using these two together is the default go-to choice for building a seriously customized project – TRNG provides thousands of game logic combinations, while FLEP is responsible for unmeasurable amount of visual effects.... so of course 99% of usage is waterfalls.
The last two are a part of One Room Challenge. If you could only play one event for a synopsis of TRLE evolution, you should pick this one – many condensed levels quickly dissect the entire definition range, from standard, low-poly areas to fully custom, super HD environments. Though it's like if as soon as you utter „HD”, the nostalgia calls – and this time it hit even harder, since the vanilla niche almost disappeared – even Back to Basics was so detailed people wondered if it still serves its initial purpose. Therefore, AgentXP took the dead idea of using multiple packages per edition, and revived it in her own competition. This one allowed customization but not below the melting point of vanilla spirit - another way to go half cup old half cup new, another way to... Create a Classic. A whole new generation of builders entered the scene.
We're now very close to contemporary times, as all these levels above were made in the latest, most groundbreaking tool - Tomb Editor. All previous editors, updates and patches were revolutionary, but this one has a feature they could only dream of: stability. The difference is so striking it may distract you from noticing every other feature from the past 25 years is also here, aided with with a set of external tools completing the Tomb Editor suite - all in order to make level design faster and more intuitive. So if you happen to be a new builder, just ignore everything I said until now and start from here. Also mind this is not the end, because a successor a hundred times more powerful is coming – a building studio in the ultimate form, which will write a new history: Tomb Engine.
Tomb Editor has revived the community. We build, we play, we stream, and our dedicated twitch category made by Klona has been approved not so long ago. We even join charity events like Tomb Raider Marathon, and now we're here. Therefore, more about the history and evolution of Tomb Raider custom levels, covering the past and even looking into the future, will be told on June 12, in a dedicated marathon on @twitch.tv/crystaldynamics. It will also be a prologue to an officially supported series of streams which will supplement the #tr25 celebrations with a monthly highlight of custom levels. We're starting at 7 AM PDT (4 PM CET). Stay tuned.