Loving level editors

The year is 2005. I’m 10. It’s a hot summer day and I’m inside a dark bedroom playing Alien Hominid for the Gamecube with my friend. After a bit of arguing, we’ve finally reached an agreement: He and I will play through the main adventure mode until we both lose all of our lives. Then, I get to make another custom level in the PDA minigame. Rinse and repeat.

Something about that minigame editor allures me in a way that the game doesn’t, even though the stages you can make with it are bare-bones and don’t extend beyond a single screen. It makes me want to create giant leaps of faith, literal walls of enemy soldiers, or carefully crafted jungles with a dozen hidden traps.

It’s the infinite possibility of a clean slate, the curious interactions between the enemies and traps you set down, and the creativity of game design without any of the stress or demands of making a real-world product. It’s controlled imagination.

Alien Hominid’s PDA minigame editor

And as I would come to learn years later, it can actually deepen friendships, when used right. Making a level for your friend that makes them laugh, and challenges and impresses them, enriches the process and leads to better games than solipsistic imagination produces on its own. Making games, it would turn out, is my love language.

Those August afternoons spent bike racing up dirt roads and slurping down otter pops in front of a CRT TV were stuffed with anxiety-free leisure time, which provided fertile soil for my growing fascination with level editors.

I had and still have basically no video game design skills outside of a few months in middle school when I toyed with Flash. But I had the drag-and-drop elements of Alien Hominid, my goofy fantasy satire stories in RPG Maker, and later on, the puzzling building blocks of Portal 2.

One game stood apart from all else, though, and claimed a chunk of mental real estate at the age of eight or nine that it will never cede entirely. Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos (the final entry in the pre-World of Warcraft strategy series) came out in 2002, and after its expansion was released a year later, I started picking through its World Editor, a program beefy enough that it requires a separate installation.

I’ve spent about 500 hours playing Warcraft 3, but I’ve probably sunk more than 2,000 hours into the World Editor.

The year is 2008. I’m 13. A different friend has emailed me the file “Yarr!.w3x,” a demo of his World Editor map (level) in which the player directs their sailor into a pirate frigate and sails the high seas fighting animated water elementals and raging sea storms.

It’s ritual of our friendship: inspiration strikes us every few months for a new map, which we’ll work maniacally at until it’s functional enough for us to play together.

We toss around a mech battle arena where players choose between power fists or lightning projectors. A MOBA with life-draining demon vampires and flesh giants that throw chunks of their own body to bombard foes. An RPG set in fantasy feudal Japan where samurai wield healing magic and fight legions of the dead. A base building survival map set in a dark jungle filled with hungry wolves and crafty satyrs.

Through dialogue boxes and item tooltips, we leave bits of lore and messages for the other person to find. These are little pocket dimensions for us to explore.

In my opinion, The World Editor is a sort of unsung hero in videogame history. Entire genres have spawned from, or been popularized by it. Defense of The Ancients, or DOTA, started as a Warcraft 3 map and went on to launch the massively successful MOBA scene. Element TD and Gem TD, both released in 2006, brought tower defense out of obscurity and into an explosively popular, multi-platform style of game. That’s not even mentioning the role of Warcraft (and Starcraft) as pillars of the real time strategy universe.

But I’m not writing this to nostalgia-brag. My interest in the World Editor was in its potential to create new types of games to compete against my friends, and fantasy stories blending together the parts of books and games I liked.

With its trigger editor, which had what I call a “diet coding” graphical interface, you can pretty quickly learn how to control the behavior of any unit you place on the map, set variables and tables to store any kind of information the game can track, and control environments that can frankly still look beautiful almost two decades later.

Everything in the World Editor feels elastic. An individual unit has hundreds of fields you can edit, from the abilities it knows, to the angle at which it launches ranged attacks, to the rate it gains intelligence on leveling up.

So I can take the ‘Rifleman’ unit, monkey around with its values, and create a giant dwarf commander who fires exploding shotgun rounds at the rate of a machine gun. Each object is its own planetary sandbox inside the galaxy of potential that makes up the editor.

The year is 2016. I’m 21, and I’m snuggled into a sleeping bag on the bare hardwood floor and drinking POG out of a carton. It’s my first night in my second-to-last apartment before graduating college, and I’ve spent the last 16 hours in a mad rush moving all of my stuff in black garbage bags to my new place, by bike, and trying to clean the old house to avoid losing my security deposit. (I lost the deposit.)

I’m too wired to fall asleep but too tired for anything academic or physically exerting. So I turn to the World Editor and start putting together a dungeon crawler / treasure hunting themed map, inspired by “Warchasers,” a 4-player Diablo-esque custom map that ships with the base Warcraft 3 game.

Normally I get about a third of the way through a map before losing interest or having a different idea take over. But with this map – which I christen “Warchasers Z” – I’m making serious progress, and still working on it weeks after I started.

Because I’m building it as an adventure map for my friend and I to play through, I’m now imagining all of the easter eggs and references I can throw in, and how I can construct battles and encounters to be as cinematic and challenging as possible.

The joy this time doesn’t come simply from the dreamy free-flow of putting pieces on a board. This time, I’m making something for someone, and so actually finishing the map is suddenly a priority. Before I only aimed to get something roughly playable, but now I’m considering polish, writing, sound and music choice, and a dozen other details that will make up my friend’s experience.

A World Editor screenshot of The Athenaeum, level 2 of my newer version of Warchasers Z. The level takes the players into a flooded library where dragon lizards and mad cultists vie for control of the weird magic knowledge that remains in the ruins.

This map represented the maturation of my relationship to level editors. A new kind of joy had seeped into the process: Alongside the childlike joy of experimenting and building, I now had the very adult joy of planning and finishing something, along with the anticipation of seeing my friend’s reaction to it. Unbeknownst to me, that friend was working on a similar project, titled “Assault on Doomkeep”, which had a more ‘wintery’ theme to it.

A month or so passes. As if by fate, my Windows installation inexplicably sputters and becomes corrupted, as I’m about 90 percent done with Warchasers Z. I’m forced to reformat the entire hard drive. I didn’t back the map up. The progress is lost forever.

Too angry to work on anything video game related, I turned my attention to Dungeons and Dragons as an outlet for those creative juices. D&D rewards the same kind of careful, intentional planning that I used in game editors, and also gives the dungeon master room to breathe by offloading many of the story responsibilities on the players. It makes room for improvisation and fudging the story at times. And, unlike ‘Warchasers Z’, it doesn’t require everyone learn port forwarding.

Several months later, after the frustration of losing the original passed, I started work on a new Warchasers Z (this time with automatic backups.) Maybe I’ll finish it in time for Warcraft 3 Reforged to come out.

In D&D, the DM sketches out the world and its inhabitants, but it’s up to the players how the story plays out and why any of it matters. All I can do is give them a bunch of situations and challenges that I think they’ll enjoy. And of course, being together in a room mostly unmediated by screens makes for a better “storytelling” feeling than a video game could provide.

Warchasers Z may have entered a sort of limbo, but work continued on ‘Assault on Doomkeep’.

The year is 2019. I’m 23. I’m sitting at a dinner table with the same friend at his grandparents’ home, along with four others. The table is crammed with glasses of wine, polyhedral dice, plastic miniatures, and printed character sheets. I am playing a 12th-level half-orc fighter having the time of her life hacking apart skeletal archers and undead giants as she approaches the infernal gate of a monstrous fortress.

We finish our first encounter with an entire night of role playing still ahead of us, a large portion of it painstakingly tailored to our characters’ backstories and goals. My friend, our Dungeon Master, who must have poured hours and hours into this adventure, beckons us to approach the gate. As the portcullis ascends, he describes a thick red fog pouring out.

“Welcome to the Doomkeep,” he says. And as odd as it may sound, I know this is an expression of love.

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