Time for another special interview - and this time with a meanwhile well known French level builder, TC 14, the creator of the fantastic 'Quest of Gold' series. But he did not only build those levels, there were other projects too, 14 altogether. So, why not making a retrospective then and take a look at the way TC 14 has gone?
I have to admit, the French TR community is still almost unknown for me. I know a lot of international TR websites and forums, but most of them offer English as main or alternative language, so there is a way of communicating. TRO-online, the main French community, does not, and so my contacts to French level builders are still few until today. This is why I am very happy TC14 has agreed to make this interview with me and share some very interesting information with us. So, here is what we talked about…
Jürgen: You have built 14 level projects so far, in a time period of five years, since you started with level building in 2004. Your first project was the first level of the 'Quest of Gold' series, Canadian Forest. Can you still remember the creation of this debut level? How difficult was the beginning of level building and did your imagination, what you wanted to have in this level, come true then?
TC14: This is not my actual first level, this is the fourth I built and released. I had experimented with the level editor when I got it back in 2001, built a few levels but they weren't good enough to be released to my mind. I even lost the prjs (file extension for the level editor projects)… Then, I got back to the LE for the 'Revenge of Osiris' group game that we'll see later on in the interview. After gaining experience in level-building by getting my three Egyptian levels done, I thought about realising an old dream: building a series about Lara finding an old Indian artefact in Canada, which was an idea stuck in my mind for some time. Building the first level was actually quite difficult, which you can imagine easily, as building outdoor levels is the thing I think people dread the most, for they need complex and realistic natural setting. So I took 'help' from the first level in TR2 Gold, which was a base for me to build around the valley structure. Then the ideas came flowing along nicely and I put almost all I wanted in it; anyway, its main purpose was to be some sort of introduction level.
QoG 1 - Canadian Forest
Jürgen: Your next level was The Quest of Gold 2 - The Gold Mine. So we could see you really wanted to start with a series, not only single levels. What was your concept at this time, how many levels should this series contain in the first place? And was it very difficult to start level building with a continuing story?
TC14: At that time, I had plans for almost all the Canadian levels, only a few changed names and/or function. So it was around 7 or 8 levels, the series was supposed to end with Lara finding the Indian artefact. I didn't find it difficult at all to build levels with a continuing story, on the contrary, the storyline and the links between levels could help me to get the ideas and the things to include in the levels. I think it's more difficult to come up with a real atmosphere in a single level, as most of the time there's no continuous storyline supporting it.
QoG 2 - The Gold Mine
Jürgen: Now we have The Quest of Gold 3 - Indian Sanctuary. Can you tell us about the storyline, was it in your mind from the beginning, or did it emerge with the creation of the levels one after another?
TC14: This was meant to be a transition level between the Mine and the next level, set in some caves and temples. So yes, its storyline was in my mind from the beginning, though I didn't really know what to put in the level exactly. As I sort of ran out of ideas when I began building the level, I re-used the whole concept and all the puzzles of one of my old never-released levels set in Delphes (old boring Catacomb textures…), based around the Elements. The Earth and Fire places are almost a faithful copy of the rooms and ideas I had put in my old level. It's then, in the Water section, that the inspiration came for a cistern puzzle, which was meant to be an homage to Luis Martins' games, and especially his South America - Water Domain level which I loved.
QoG 3 - Indian Sanctuary
Jürgen: And The Quest of Gold 4-7 - Great Spirit Levels. The first level at the end of 2005 and three further ones in 2005. The series grew bigger and bigger in a short time period, was it an enduring work, with ending one level and starting the next one at once, or how can we imagine?
TC14: As I said, all the levels were planned, and for these ones, the content of the levels were also planned, except for the Mine one. So I began with the hub Portal level, in which I built my general idea of two huge pits (don't ask me why, but I got the inspiration for this while playing the Hell level in Miss Kroft's Walhalla series…). Then it was Mineral City, which I also used to do some experiments with puzzles, such as building a mirror room, a complicated pushing block puzzle, building a puzzle including boulders… At that point, I wanted to move on to the next level, which was supposed to be a spooky one, called 'Lair of the Wendigos', with battles in spooky places, with hopefully the same sort of atmosphere as in the spider caves in TR2 Xian level. But when I opened the editor, it was a total blank. I just didn't know what to build. The following day, re-reading the reviews for the Gold Mine, I saw some remarks about Lara not having explored everything in the Mine, so I went for another level in it, throwing in fun features such as electric water, and mainly the snowmobile. And finally, the Hidden Forest level, which had been planned. I was somehow quite uninspired for it, but the result seemed to please many players; so be it…
QoG 4-7 - Great Spirit
Jürgen: In the beginning of 2006 you apparently took a little break from the QoG series then, joining the BtB 2006 contest with one level. But the name, Tears of a Lost Dynasty-Quest of Gold Korea Demo, tells us that this would be another QoG episode. And as it was named as a demo this seemed to mean a full version for the series still should follow. So, for those not knowing the series yet, can you explain this to us? What was this demo really about, and are the later on released QoG levels 9 - 13, Korean levels, the full version to it?
TC14: This is not really it. In fact, I made Tinka add the 'Quest of Gold Korea demo' mention only when Quest of Gold Korea was released. This was just to prevent people who hadn't played my BtB06 level nor QoG Korea from playing both, not knowing they would play two times the same level. I wouldn't have been able to mention QoG during Back to Basics contest anyway! lol. We'll come back to this when we get to the point of QoG Korea later on.
BtB 06 - Tears of a Lost Dynasty
Jürgen: Back to the series again, or better never leaving it. As expected your next project was The Quest of Gold 8 - Mystic Experience. Until then the biggest success with the highest voting, and we could see your work got better and better. Was there no intention to make a break with the series for some time to try something else? Or have you been on the whole satisfied with continuing one project for years?
TC14: This level was planned in the series anyway. The question for me was whether to stop the series there as originally planned or not. If I had stopped the series, it would have been to build another series. So, as I liked playing epic series, I went for it and came up with the story told in the cut-scene explaining Lara needs to find more artefacts, and the next one was meant to be in Korea…
QoG 8 - Mystic Experience
Jürgen: The next step was The Quest of Gold 9-13 - Korean Levels then. Now you decided not to continue with single levels any more, but building 4 levels per one release. Why this decision then?
TC14: It seemed people were getting a bit tired with downloading one level after another, keeping their savegame and the folder. So I took the decision to release the levels in packs rather than one after another. It was also a bit easier for me to build them, as when I ran out of inspiration for one level, I could keep building another meanwhile. The Korean set was inspired by BtB 06 competition and an English lesson in which we studied Korea a little bit. I told myself that it would be interesting to explore the nuclear bases to find a hidden temple where the next artefact would be. At this point, I'd like to mention that my BtB06 level has been built to be included in the QoG series from the moment I entered the competition.
QoG 9-13 - Korean Levels
Jürgen: The last project for 2006 was The Quest of Gold 14-17 - Saint Francis Levels. So we had 18 levels then in the period of a little more than two years, much work and a big success for you, as I would think. Again this project got the so far highest voting, at the end of 2006 the climax for your so far level building. So, after such a lot of levels for one big project, how could you still find new ideas to continue the project and keep it interesting? Wasn't it more and more difficult to find new story elements and environments to create?
TC14: I didn't get any problem of inspiration for this set, for the simple reason that it had been planned for a long time (most of the Legend ideas were found before the Canada set was finished). So then, building the actual levels is like some sort of secretary job, to build what had been in my mind before. Of course, most of the time, it evolves a lot during the building process and some new ideas make their way through.
QoG Gold: St Francis - Caves of Midas
Jürgen: Before continuing with your levels, quite another matter. Can you tell us your opinion about the new programs for level building, TREP and the NGLE? Do you also use them and which level was the first one to do so? And can you tell us about your experiences?
TC14: First, about TREP. In the beginning, I thought it was more like a gadget than anything else. But I tested it to see if it could solve a crashing bug, and it worked. Then I tested extending draw distance, liked the result, and I kept changing loading bar colours, enabling new moves and so on… So I made a modified exe for the QoG re-release. There will be a special Mac-playable version though. Then about NGLE, I started using it for BtB08 competition, but I didn't use all the new features; for the moment I rather use it as a normal Winroomedit with 128x128 textures. But for my next series, I plan using many new features (including Next Gen Engine once it's totally fixed) which became possible thanks to Paolone's amazing work.
QoG Gold: St Francis - Hall of Legends
Jürgen: 2007 again began with a BtB project, but this time it really was a break from your big series. You created a city level, Another Metro Station, something whole new and different then. Can you tell us about, how did you experience it after building 18 levels (with the first BtB one) for your QoG project?
TC14: It was a nice change, but as I told you before, I feel somehow uninspired for single levels and it's hard to include good atmosphere in them. So I just wanted to build a level for the contest, which would feature ideas I got with the wad, but nothing more ambitious. I was even surprised the level did so well in the contest. Moreover, as you should have noticed by now, most of my levels are fully planned months or years in advance, so this process of discovering the theme and the wad at the last moment is also a challenge for me. In short, I would say a refreshing change, but a slower and more difficult building process (though the level was finished in November! lol).
BtB07 - Another Metro Station
Jürgen: Still no return to your series, now you started with something whole new, a team project, 'Revenge of Osiris', which contained the three levels Lava of the Depths, City of the Priests and Kingdom of the Dead. This was also somehow a trip back to the roots, an Egypt level. Egypt levels seem not as well-liked any longer these days, for we perhaps had too much of them in the beginning years of Tomb Raider. Why the decision for this project? What were your experiences working in this team? And at this time, did you ever think about not to continue the QoG series any longer?
TC14: These three levels are a part of the French-speaking community group project, which had been going on for several years. This was for me the occasion to come to the editor (I was only playing levels before), almost one year before starting the QoG series. I didn't play any huge part in the scenario; at the beginning of the project we were submitted a level listing in the order of the series and I picked three of them which I found interesting. I began with the City of the Priests level, which can be considered as my first TRLE level. As I didn't have any experience in TRLE apart from my crappy first levels, I chose to begin with a base in presence of TR2 Gold Furnace level prj (file extension for the level editor projects). This helped me, because I didn't have to create the most complicated surroundings in the city myself, but rebuilding an original level is a very tedious task, so in retrospect that may not have been the best choice. Of course, the TR2 Gold level was mainly a base for the main city environment, all the other areas being built from scratch by me.
RoO - City of the Priests
Then, I turned my attention to the Kingdom of the Dead level, and I was quite ambitious to start directly building a Floating Islands level. But as complex as such a level's architecture can seem, it's quite simple to build as you don't need to care so much about lightning and texturing as most of the environment is composed of nothing… This experience helped me a lot when I started my more ambitious Floating Islands level for the QoG series later on.
RoO - Kingdom of the Dead
Finally, I completed the Lava of the Depths level, which was a long work, with long periods with no inspiration, then coming back to it.
RoO - Lava of the Depths
In this Osiris series, I was quite early to have my levels nearly ready in theory, so I turned my attention to my new-at-that-time QoG series. But of course, as it was a group project, we needed to wait for everything to be ready before the release, explaining why these levels were released after many others of my levels. As I began to feel a bit sick about these levels which weren't as good as my released offerings, and as I couldn't even manage to see all the texture and gameplay faults while playing them (we had many difficulties in alpha and beta-testing), when Thierry Stoorne and TimJ offered me to rework them a bit to get rid of the problems, I said yes immediately. I want to thank them again to have done all this work to enable me to get more time to work on QoG projects. It's partly thanks to them that my Osiris levels got such a high-rating, and frankly I didn't hope so much; I think my reputation may have got me a higher score than what the levels themselves deserve, or I'm just biased against these levels because they needed so much work and time to get finally released.
Jürgen: In May 2007 you then returned to your own roots, back to the great Quest of Gold project with the levels 18-21: Martinique Levels. And what can I say, again the highest voting of all your QoG levels so far. As it seems you are really bound to this huge project. 21 levels so far, was this the end of the series then or can we still expect further levels in the future?
TC14: These are the last QoG levels, as now Lara found all the artefacts she needed. I didn't bother putting any ending cut-scene because I already knew the whole series needed a little refurbishing, which would include this end cut-scene.
QoG 18-21 - Martinique
Jürgen: Let's talk about a special theme, the degree of difficulties for levels. Reading the reviews it is obvious your levels not only got better and better, but also more and more difficult. The last four episodes for example, all reviews at the levelbase tell me only one thing - those levels are hard. Can you tell us your opinion? Why do you choose such a hard gameplay, which excludes a lot of players from the levels from the start, because they are not able to succeed in such challenges?
TC14: Well, first you need to know that Luis Martins is still my favourite level builder, and his levels are quite full of traps. This may already explain it a bit… And then, I realised that as I'm not good at all at object making (I prefer letting this to people interested in it and use my time to build levels), the innovations are with gameplay, and almost all innovations I found turned out to be difficult gameplay (either over-complicated puzzles such as in Poseidon's Domain or difficult traps). Moreover, TR3 is still one of my favourite TR games, and this may be due to the difficult gameplay in it, making it mostly enjoyable for better TR players. So I agree my levels aren't reachable for every TR player, but I'm still trying to make them enjoyable. Anyway, I don't really agree when people say my levels are so difficult, most of the trap passages are more the 'think your way through' sort I think. I don't know if many TR players tried playing Crash Bandicoot PS game, but I remember seeing many more difficult and frustrating traps than mine in it. I agree some parts were a bit unfair, so I removed them or made them easier in the new version. And for the trickiest parts including sneaky moves, I'll put a 'spoiler hint' section for them in the readme of the new QoG release.
Jürgen: In 2008 you joined the BtB project for the third time, with your level Back to Basics 2008 - The Riddle of Pacha Camac. And as your series levels also the BtB levels were most successful, so your name meanwhile is well known in all the TR community around the world. Can you tell us about this new BtB experience? How is it to work in a contest with special selections and without the possibility to use all helping tools you are used to?
TC14: I think Back to Basics competitions are really good, because you just need to use your imagination, but in a canalised way. And using a given wad can sometimes give you more ideas that what you would have thought of, building your wad on your own. I have to admit it's also very convenient and relaxing not to have to build the tga (file extension for textures) and wad files yourself, you can just relax and start building immediately, which is very convenient. At this point, I must precise that I entered BtB competitions because I found the themes inspiring, of course I wouldn't force myself to build a level in a setting I wouldn't like.
BtB08 - The Riddle of Pacha Camac
Jürgen: So, now we reached the presence. Can you tell us about your current project? As I heard there will be a recreation process for the QoG levels. Which of the so far levels are included then, and what does this rework contain? Please, explain.
TC14: Some day, TimJ suggested to me in a conversation we had to release a corrected version of the levels, and I was seduced by the idea. So seduced that I began working on it as soon as the Martinique levels were released. The main point was to leave something bug free and better-looking to the community, and the released levels as such couldn't really work as a series, because there were little script and audio issues anyway. The name 'Quest of Gold - Gold' came to my mind and I found it so funny and silly to have twice 'Gold' in a row in the name that I kept it! lol. So, of course all the QoG original levels will be included in the new version, and I will detail a bit more what has been done on the levels. First, as I mentioned earlier, I used TREP to provide new features. I also built a title level, changed sounds, Barry Matharoo and Po Yu helped me to work on the outfits, and so on… In the Canadian levels, the main modifications are visual. It's obvious the first levels can't compare to Martinique ones, so I reworked them a bit so that they look decent. I used the occasion to ease gameplay in some places, to correct remaining bugs and to add new cool touches (flybys, new puzzles, new secrets, foliage in Hidden Forest level…). From the Korean levels, I'm about satisfied with the looks, so I only modified the BtB06 rock textures that I don't like (sorry Nadine…) and corrected minor flaws. But the first levels got their gameplay modified a bit, with at last a sense for the timed sequence at the end of 'General Contamination': making it on time or not conditions your access to a brand new bonus level in the nuclear base that I built for the Gold Edition. Then, I inverted the order between Martinique and Saint Francis levels, which finally seems more logical for me. As Martinique levels are the most recent ones, there's almost nothing modified in them, except that I added a new bonus level with new features TimJ is helping me to build. It should be quite an experience… You will get access to this level by getting all Martinique levels secrets; I made modifications so that you can get back to get one you missed before jumping to the next level. And finally, the Saint Francis levels. When I was looking for 128x128 textures for another project, I came across the TRExtra project textures, and it became immediately obvious that I had to use them to retexture Saint Francis levels in high resolution. So that's what I did, throwing in TRA textures in the process, and I also added new gameplay areas and rebuilt most of the gameplay in Sisyphe part, which was a bit tedious and too reminiscent of the Apollo puzzle. I'm now nearly finished, so if everything keeps going well, the release should be effective this summer.
QoG Gold: Bonus1 - Nuclear Hazard
Jürgen: Are there also plans for new levels, whole new projects or further QoG levels? And if so, can you tell us any details about yet?
TC14: As I told you, the QoG will now be definitely over, as Lara has got all the artefacts she needs from her Quest. But what she needs them for is another story, which should be my next series, called 'The Curse of Gold'. I have precise ideas for all the levels, which are 12 for the moment (I already have a level listing which tends to evolve a bit from time to time, as it did for QoG series). Of course, I will include my BtB07 and BtB08 levels in the series, as I don't like to leave single levels (don't worry, they are well included in the storyline !)… I plan building all the levels with NGLE, and using all the new NG features (damage rooms, quicksand, boats, …). The story will involve a connection between the Quest of Gold and the 'Croft bags Big Foot' adventure, so please, could advanced level builders avoid building on this Big Foot idea? lol I can't reveal the whole storyline, but it will answer most of the unanswered questions after the Quest (why was Lara chosen, what are the artefacts for, how did the Evil come? etc…), and it will offer a conclusion to the whole story. Finally, I'd like to thank you for interviewing me, it has been very interesting to answer all your questions!
QoG Gold: Bonus2 - Escape from the Caribbean Depths
Jürgen: I thank you too for this interesting interview, and all the best for you and your further level building!
A new trailer for the Gold edition of the QoG series…