Nods to Mods Interview: Earthless: Prelude

  • July 22, 2021
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  • By: Joshua Boyle

A new Add-on has joined the ranks, and we’ve got another exclusive interview for all you fans of mods out there! This week saw the release of Earthless: Prelude, a 12-map taste of an in-progress megawad and spiritual successor to another notable Add-on, Deathless.

We brought back familiar face and modding devotee James “Jimmy” Paddock for another look behind the scenes at modding DOOM and what drove the creation of this ambitious project. Enjoy!

SLAYERS CLUB: Welcome back James! It seems like we do these interviews once a year due to your prolific contributions to the DOOM community over the years. From your intricate level building and masterful MIDI tracks, you have been a part of so many notable mods. Walk us through the time in your life between Deathless and its follow-up, Earthless: Prelude…

A lot has happened. I moved from Australia to the UK to meet up with fellow DOOM buddy Dragonfly and he and I have been sharing a home with two other housemates for the last year and a half now.

Then there was a very small and very minor incident with a virus, one that not a lot of people were talking about…I guess that happened, maybe? Gave me an excuse to stay inside and chain myself to DOOM mapping like I usually do.

SC: Before we get too deep into Earthless: Prelude – we wanted to offer you a huge congrats on producing the score for Apogee’s Secret Agent HD!

Thanks! It was lots of fun to work with Primož Vovk on the soundtrack for this remaster. I was able to compose original compositions while imitating the style of Bobby Prince, who has to be one of my main musical heroes, and write using the sounds of AdLib sound cards, which is a deliciously crunchy and classic sound adjacent to General MIDI. I hope I get to do something like that again!

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SC: That’s awesome – now let’s get down to business! How long did it take you to complete this first installment (12 levels) to the Earthless saga?

Each map didn’t take me much more than a few days to finish, so altogether the total time spent building the maps initially is probably less than 4 weeks. However, I did wind up making a bunch of changes, often rethinking certain areas or encounters entirely, after my playtesting team got back to me with their various reports. They helped me spend quite a bit of extra time afterwards refining things.

I suppose we could also count the initial build time for the very first incarnation of some of these maps that could easily date back to 2003. MAP06, “Eden At War” is a remake of one of my very first efforts which is an extremely dated and pretty broken map. I essentially made the map larger, gave it some more branching areas to justify the use of all three keys, and made it a WHOLE lot prettier.

SC: How big was your team to create Earthless: Prelude?

Extremely small. It was essentially just me and Fuzzball, who supplied some graphics, textures and ideas. I recolored her Soul Sphere sprites from Deathless for use here as both the Soul Sphere and Mega Sphere. I’ll continue to work with her for the full release of Earthless. I may also get some close friends on board as musicians. We’ll see!

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SC: What tools did you use to create Earthless: Prelude?

Ultimate Doom Builder and SLADE. Both very powerful and versatile editing tools that support a huge range of mapping styles and file formats.

SC: What was your main inspiration for this successor to Deathless (available right now for free via our in-game Add-ons menu, by the way) and why did you break it up into episodes?

The project began to take form in my mind when I started looking through a bunch of old maps dating from the mid-2000s, when I was just starting to learn how to map as a teenager. I did some digging through various other old projects and eventually was able to drum up a list of 32 maps for DOOM II. I knew it – I had basically a megawad’s worth of content going unused or unseen! Admittedly not much of it was, uh, good, but nothing a quick remake with my current skillset couldn’t solve.

With the benefit of finding these old abandoned levels I could repurpose and remake, Deathless definitely felt like something I could repeat for DOOM II if I dedicated myself to it. As it turned out, various distractions in the real world stopped me from knuckling down and getting it completed with anywhere near the sort of speed I achieved with Deathless. It’s taken me nearly a year just to put the first 12 maps together for this teaser release! A good number of the planned future maps are already finished, but there is a lot more work still to be done, for sure.

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Ever since playing the incredible “Scythe 2” by Erik Alm (2005), I’ve wanted to create a similar experience, with a full campaign of 32 levels for DOOM II. The theming order of: Tech -> Urban -> Hell is overly common these days, it has to be said – and it was hugely novel at the time to see Scythe 2 shake up the formula by splitting the campaign into six distinct episodes of: Gothic, Egyptian, Industrial, Wasteland, Jungle and then Hell. Earthless provides a taste of what I have planned, showcasing Episodes 1 and 2 in full and then the first two levels of Episode 3, which are: Stone bases, Eden and Borderworld, with that last one being a nod to Deathless’s fourth episode which featured a green sky.

SC: How has your individual approach to level design changed over the years?

Before Deathless I rarely did much planning on paper, and my approach was a little more “free-wheeling”. I think I’ve gotten better at being able to vividly see something in my mind’s eye and then trying to capture that vision and make it a real thing, since becoming more detailed-oriented in my planning. I flesh out as much as I can – level names, music selections, specific texture themes, etc. – either in a text document, or on paper in the case of drawn layouts, before I draw a single line.

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I’ve also come to appreciate some of the more basic formats like the original ‘Vanilla Doom’ format that allow for very quick and straightforward design. I’m deliberately working within Vanilla limits for Earthless’ maps so I can be certain I’m not overdoing things. It’s true when they say limitation breeds creativity and I’m definitely finding myself doing things I normally wouldn’t due to the limitations I have to face under Vanilla engine restrictions. Sometimes I have to downsize my initial ideas a bit but that can still wind up taking me in interesting directions.

SC: Has your approach to writing MIDI music evolved over the years?

For one thing, I’m no longer working with a piece of software as old as me(!) I recently got hold of a MIDI sequencer called Sekaiju which works exactly like the old DOS/Windows 3.1 Cakewalk sequencer I insisted on using before – the one I previously had to open in virtual machine running a 32-bit Windows OS.

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In terms of theoretical approach, I’m now trying to write MIDI music that sounds “sophisticated”. I’m layering sounds a lot more often to alter or boost their sound in the mix, and I’m trying to discover new sounds and musical techniques that work within the limited palette of sounds in General MIDI. I particularly like to layer a low saw wave over a bass guitar sound to imitate a fuzzbox!

SC: What were the biggest challenges you faced in making this 12-level set?

As already mentioned, hitting up against Vanilla limits was a bit of a bother from time to time, but it certainly wasn’t the only hassle. Beyond the usual feelings of ‘too-many-projects syndrome’ which I’m forever suffering from and the odd bit of mappers’ block here and there, a big challenge was figuring out which of my finished maps for the project I should feature!

There were already a handful of maps finished elsewhere in the set and I was going to tease a couple of those at first but elected in the end to simply bring the initial twelve maps forward to completion. There might of course still be some slot-juggling before the mapset is fully finished.

SC: Tell us about your music selections throughout the .wad

It’s stock music from both DOOM (1993) and DOOM II for the time being, while I think of how to approach a possible original soundtrack for the full release, which will certainly involve me and perhaps a handful of other current Doomworld musicians. Watch out for updates from me!

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SC: Who’s a rising star in the DOOM modding community you wanna give a shout-out to and what’s your favorite thing they’ve done recently?

Shout-out to Bridgeburner and MajorArlene, who helped privately playtest Earthless and for the stupid fun we have on the weekends in co-op and deathmatch.

Shout-out to Tarnsman, who again helped with testing and has put out two major DOOM releases in one year, with both DOOM II In Spain Only and Tarnsman’s Projectile Hell.

I also definitely want to shout-out my sibling Ben, who often goes by the name “Bimmy”. Not only did they help test Earthless, but they’ve also been closely involved with the DOOM modding community and have a new weapon mod out by the name of “Broadsword Jim” which is a metric butt-ton of fun to play. Google it and go check it out!

SC: When do you think we can expect the next installment in the Earthless saga? And will it be another 12-level set?

I’m planning the next release of Earthless to be the whole 32-level shebang. Coming hopefully before the end of the year. But I think I have to take it easy before making any promises. With the way things are progressing, I can’t expect myself to match the speed I mapped out Griefless or Deathless with, (obviously, otherwise they’d be done by now!) That sort of feat might be a thing of the past for me now.

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SC: Any news for a sequel to your Heretic hub episode, entitled “Faithless”?

This is something I’ve been toying with for a while now – but I do have to get the 1.0 release of Faithless released first, technically! There’s some slight bugbears I want to fix in the current release and of course I need to write a full walkthrough for its entire campaign.

Once that’s done, it’s very possible I’ll revisit Faithless and make perhaps a bonus “episode” consisting of one new level. I already have ideas forming pretty clearly in my head for what I want to do. Guess it’s just a matter of time before I can really clear my plate and work on it!

SC: You seem to have a NAME + “less” naming scheme going in your work that we notice and dig. What’s the thinking behind that? (Asking since you always seem to be giving the community more and more!)

It stemmed largely from when I was going through some emotional turmoil in mid-2018 when I started work on “Griefless”. The full mapset was done inside of 24 hours after I decided I was sick of feeling so low. From that point on, things just sort of stuck to that naming scheme. I guess you could say they’re part of the modern Jimmymapping Cinematic Universe.

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“Deathless”, the name of my full-scale Ultimate DOOM project, was just a word that sounded “cool” to me, and in addition was a single word starting with a “D”, as was “DOOM”. It fit given that I was trying to put together my vision for a version of DOOM the way I would’ve done it.

“Faithless”, or at least the full Trilogy version of the set, was a VERY different project in terms of scope to Deathless, and it took me just over a year to release the Trilogy version, so it was by no means connected to Deathless or Griefless by virtue of being speedmaps. That said, the first episode was mostly done inside of a week!

SC: What’s the best Nicholas Cage movie and what’s the best one you’ve seen that he’s been in recently?

Probably the one with the bees and stuff.

SC: How necessary is it for players to find the Chainsaw secret in the first room? ;-)

About as necessary as the one you find in Entryway’s first room! You know what’s funny is that chainsaw in Entryway isn’t even actually a secret…had me fooled.