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Fan Spotlight: VGCartography

Apr 5, 2024

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Meet Max, also known as VGCartography. During the lockdowns of 2020, they found solace in VGCartography, a hobby project born out of their love for gaming and digital creativity. By day, Max is a (non-game) professional developer, but VGCartography allows them to explore Photoshop, video editing, and share their work with an online community. 

Q: How did your VGCartography project start and what drew you to cartography? 

I've always loved game maps and strategy guides. I suppose it's the idea of holding a whole game level in miniature in your hand and playing through it in your mind. When the pandemic started, I found myself with plenty of free time, and I started exploring a number of fan projects dissecting old video games and extracting models and such. I felt there was an opportunity to use those level models to create interesting diagrams of complex areas from above, like I had seen in those old guides. Tomb Raider was very well documented thanks to fan projects like TRosettaStone, and the iconic level designs made it an obvious first choice. The positive reactions I got from various TR communities when I shared these early materials encouraged me to grow my project. I made a handful of other things and shared them randomly before I decided to make a more concentrated effort to brand myself as VGCartography so people would be able to discover other things I made. 

Q: What sparked your interest in the Tomb Raider franchise? 

When I got a PS1 for Christmas '97, it came with a sampler disc that included the Tomb Raider II demo. It was the first demo I picked - the only games I'd seen before were on our NES, so running around that 3D cave and wading into water and hearing the roar of the tiger in the distance was mind-blowing. I got the first game soon after and was obsessed. I liked exploring these forgotten places with the ominous music and the feeling of solitude, how you didn't have to be in a hurry or track a score but you could go at your own pace. The FMVs with cool stunts on elevators and motorcycles. And of course, I liked all the cartoonish ways Lara could meet an untimely end. I remember jumping around the nearby park pretending the world was made of grid squares like TR was. I've continued with the series over the years. 

Q: Could you walk us through your process of creating a Tomb Raider map? 

In the midst of writing my own Tomb Raider level viewer, I found this great project by Popov72, the browser-based Tomb Raider Nostalgia (https://github.com/Popov72/TRN2). I modified the camera to render the levels orthographically, meaning objects aren't distorted with distance and I could capture a nice pseudo-isometric view with everything to scale. I also added some controls for hiding or showing individual rooms. Once I find a good angle of the overall level and take some screenshots, I go to the room controls and turn everything off except for whatever areas I need to isolate - underground tunnels, room interiors, places hidden behind something else. These will usually go on the map around the periphery as a little cutout. I'll also try to grab these for any places that are hard to interpret visually like rooms that have multiple floors I can separate. If the place has an item, I want to be able to show it pretty unambiguously. 

Then off to the image editor. I'll usually make a template file for a new game where I figure out the fonts and colors, logos, icons, and use it as a base for each map. Laying everything out to minimize the image dimensions can be very satisfying or very frustrating. Since I am impatient, I don't play the game myself while mapping, I find someone who has a 100% level playthrough on YouTube so I can scrub around more easily. Add some labels for items and switches, add a few comments for flavor (although stopping short of a full walkthrough like I've made for some games), and maybe a picture of a cool enemy if there's empty space left over. At one point I did experiment with adding all the enemies to the maps, but it became too overwhelming especially in 2 and 3. 

Q: Among the Tomb Raider maps you've created, which posed the greatest challenge, and which came together most seamlessly? 

TR1's Atlantis made me quit making maps the first time I attempted it. It's a massive pillar with rooms spiraling up the outside and you repeatedly cross through the center, and trying to sensibly show where along the central column the various sections were arranged was really difficult. I ended up taking the "brute force" approach and splitting them into separate minimaps with the middle room repeated but that particular arrangement caused a lot of headaches.  

VGCartography - Atlantis

On the flipside, I was satisfied with how TR2's Ice Palace turned out. It has an infamous springboard room at the start where you catapult to different floors, and I sort of stretched the floors apart and drew long jumping arcs to show which springboards got you to different places visually instead of using labels or whatever. It gives it a fun "stacked layers of paper" feel. 

VGCartography - Ice Palace

Q: What is your favourite map from each Tomb Raider game you’ve created so far and why? 

Tomb Raider I - Palace Midas –  

VGCartography - Palace Midas

To me, this level is the archetype. The switch puzzles, the gardens, the fire jumps, the towering aqueducts, the clever use of room swaps, how you double back across the level on high catwalks, obviously the golden hand... it had everything. This one was fun to map because there's so much variety, it's my favorite Tomb Raider level and I wanted to do it justice. 

  Tomb Raider II - 40 Fathoms –  

VGCatrography - 40 Fathoms

I love that 60% of this map is one giant dark blue square with nothing else. Also, there's a shark on it! 

  Tomb Raider III - Lost City of Tinnos -   

VGCatrography - Lost City of Tinnos

Another legendary level with a bunch of different pieces. This one required a lot of room surgery and extra details like the puzzle diagrams and the maze to feel comprehensive. 

  Q: Do you have a message you'd like to share with the Tomb Raider community? 

I encourage interested people to read the Tomb of Ash interviews with Heather Gibson, Richard Morton and other level designers from the classic Tomb Raider series. It gives insight into the process and it's fun to look at the list of who made which levels and look for patterns in their designs. I think Tomb Raider has been blessed with fantastic level design from the get-go and the people who made that happen are underappreciated, show some love! 

You can follow Max’s work here: 

Do you have a series of art or project you’re particularly proud of? Share it with us on social for a chance to be featured in our next spotlight! 

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