Nods to Mods Interview: Deathless

  • May 14, 2020
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  • By: Parker Wilhelm

Players of our re-releases of DOOM (1993) are in for a treat as we add yet another awesome Add-On to our lineup. This time around, players can download and play Deathless, a high-speed frenzy of a WAD courtesy of DoomWorld Cacoward Lifetime Achievement winner, SIGIL original soundtrack composer and modder extraordinaire, James Paddock!

We got to chat with the 28-year-old mapper from Surrey, England about speedmapping, classic DOOM, MIDI music and more – read on for our exclusive interview!

SLAYERS CLUB: How long have you been making DOOM mods/levels?

JAMES PADDOCK: I’ve dabbled in DOOM editors since about as far back as I can remember. My first proper efforts were probably during about 2005 when I rediscovered DOOM, found out it still had a gigantic online community. I got excited by what the community had to offer, playing as much of it as I could and taking creative inspiration from a number of different sources. Since then, I’ve been feverishly mapping, modding and music-ing for various projects over the years, constantly trying to best myself and to help others with their own creative visions.

By now, I must have around 200 released maps to my name and last time I counted up my total of released MIDI songs, it was up to 640. I think I’m one of those people who gets deeply uncomfortable if they’re not creating.

Deathless in-body 1

SC: How big was your team to make Deathless, a full three-episode replacement?

JP: It was just me working on the maps! Of course, I had friends and other fellow DOOMers encouraging me along. My good friend Fuzzball is responsible for the new skies included in E2 and E4, and people have certainly praised the look of the episodes as being especially unique due to their use of color. Thanks, Fuzz!

When Doomworld user Ryath started “NaNoWADMo” that November – a then-new yearly challenge to help mappers create a brand-new release within a month – I knew what I had to do. I joined the Discord server and started to lay out my plans to the folks there, starting with possible names of maps, and began building a resource file in readiness for November. Everyone there was super encouraging. In the lead-up to the final release, I had folks reporting bugs and suggesting ideas, changes, etc. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive environment.

SC: How long did it take you to complete this full three-episode replacement?

JP: Nine days! Definitely my personal record. Took me the first seven days to put together the maps, then two days were dedicated just to placing items and monsters. There were then four “release candidates” published, before the final version was uploaded at the very beginning of December.

Whether the goal was to have a megawad at or before the end of the month, or simply to knock one out quicker than I had ever done before, I think I definitely got there!

SC: What tools did you use to create this Megawad?

JP: Before I even placed a single vertex in the map editor, I began development of Deathless using the resource editor SLADE. Before the mapping period of NaNoWADMo officially started, Deathless began as a WAD file with nothing but custom-made resources I was making in preparation – this included the new title pic, menu graphics for the changed episode and skill names. I think I chose some new music at this point as well – mostly assorted tracks from DOOM (1993) and DOOM II included to slightly rejig the track order.

Once November finally rolled around, GZDoom Builder was used to create the maps. It’s a very robust editor, crammed with useful tools and shortcut keys, and given that it’s chiefly built to facilitate mapping for the modern format of UDMF, it makes mapping for the simpler, more vanilla formats an absolute breeze!

Nowadays, GZDoom Builder is firmly established as my tool of choice for just about everything I do in terms of mapmaking. I have not yet transitioned to its successor, Ultimate Doom Builder, but I’ll probably wind up converting to that next.

SC: What is your individual approach to level design?

JP: Here’s where I talk about speedmapping! I’ve had a good amount of experience in the field, having contributed innumerable times to the speedmapping sessions hosted by various folks on Doomworld. I knew I’d go in with this same philosophy. These are speedmaps in basically every sense of the word.

Folks who know me might be familiar with my approach where I very quickly flesh out an entire episode’s worth of maps by laying everything out in one single mapping session. I draw all the maps out on the grid separate from each other and number each one in turn. This makes it very quick and easy to move between the maps and copy-paste important things like doors, exit rooms, teleporters, etc. whose designs I try to keep consistent.

Deathless Sketch

I can knock out a full untextured layout in about 10 minutes. Texturing doesn’t take me too long, maybe 30 minutes to an hour? Thing placement then takes me a couple of hours or so. Playtesting then has absolutely no time limit because I feel it’s important to get the map playing as best it possibly can.

SC: What was your main inspiration for this megawad?

JP: If we’re talking what inspired me to pull off a feat like making a one-man megawad inside of a month, well, that’s because I like a good challenge! The timing of NaNoWADMo helped immensely, of course. I had just finished “Griefless” a few months prior, which is E4 of Deathless, and that episode took me about 24 hours to finish using the same “speedmapping” technique.

Design-wise, it’s probably quite a boring answer but – I was basically inspired by the original Ultimate DOOM! The game’s level design has some fascinating charms and quirky characteristics, particularly in its use of surreal textures, irregular shapes and striking colors. It tried to imitate this as best I could, and create something that could believably have come out of 1993 or ‘94. I think I wound up taking most of my inspiration from Romero and McGee’s maps with tight, focused combat and my shying away from regular shapes.

I built the maps to loosely follow the stylings of the original four episodes, with a tiny bit of extra texture variety in mind to keep their visuals a bit more engaging. Each episode has a pretty striking color scheme to it exemplified by the skies and the liquid hurtfloors I used – E1 has a brown cloudy sky and is filled with muddy water, E2 has a starry blue sky and chiefly uses blue water, E3 has a strange orange sky full of warped hellish skulls and uses a lot of blood and lava and E4 has a unique mountainous green sky, with plenty of green nukage used. Once I had the colors for each episode decided, I designed the maps around those colors, for maximum consistency.

Deathless E1M1-3 in-body

SC: What is your approach to writing MIDI music?

JP: I am an extremely visual-oriented creator, and this applies to mapping and music. To be clear, I’m not a synesthete, but images very often go hand-in-hand with the music I write and with the message I want to send. Usually I start with a mental image - or simply a word that I like the sound of like “petrichor”, “thaumaturge” or “pearlescent” - and write something that I feel befits the mood of the imagery that comes to me.

Occasionally I take inspiration from real-life settings – one time I looked out of a window at about 6am towards a fog-drenched field outside and immediately set to work writing “Mist at Dawn”. Another time I stood on a balcony during a chill summer night and wrote an epic eight-and-a-half-minute piece the next day entitled “Night Air”. At times, my mood even has a bearing on the musical direction I take, but I find that I’m rarely able to write something I’ll be happy with if I’m not feeling completely happy myself. I have to be “active” – in some kind of state of excitement – before I write. I’ve certainly written music in the midst of stress or panic before but it hardly ever turns out well, so I try not to write any kind of negative or “angry” music.

That is just what starts the ideas flowing! Next, I’ll try and decide what key and mode I’ll be writing in, and start plotting ideas out, either painting notes into my MIDI editor manually or by improvising on my MIDI keyboard. It doesn’t take me long to hit on a melody I like, and from there I’ll build a whole section of music, which might end up being the “refrain” that I tend to have repeating two or three times throughout the piece. I try to have a good refrain, a good solo and a good intro/outro section to every piece I write. I imagine that my process overall isn’t too special but hopefully that’s a good enough look into my brain for the curious!

Deathless in-body 2

SC: You have received heaps of praise for the kickass MIDI tracks heard throughout John Romero’s recent release, SIGIL. Walk us through that collaboration.

JP: It was an experience I can still only describe as “surreal”. Romero messaged me one afternoon over Facebook to compliment me on my music – that alone floored me – and to mention that he was in need of some new selections for a MIDI soundtrack for SIGIL. Of course, I was only too happy to assist!

He was keen on using some existing tracks of mine that had come from a selection of old or abandoned DOOM projects. I suggested that I could very quickly compose some brand-new tracks if he so desired, and he agreed to let me compose something new for both the title theme and the level intermission screen. I knocked both of those out in a matter of hours.

To think, just by involving myself closely with this community and sticking to my MIDI guns for a good number of years I would attract the attention of the man himself and help him bring us a whole new fifth episode to one of the most incredible games of all time. I’m still staggered I got to be a part of it.

Deathless E2 in-body

SC: What was/were the biggest challenge(s)/hurdle(s) you had in making Deathless?

JP: Honestly not too many. I had a couple of days where I struggled to come up with any ideas at all. On those occasions – and I knew they would happen – I simply took a break. I knew that just the act of drawing up a few layouts in the editor was going to take quite a bit of creative energy out of me and that I wouldn’t be able to sustain it on a strictly daily basis. I think I took a couple of full days off in the end, to focus on other things and replenish my creative juices.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the process was thinking of map ideas “off the cuff”, particularly for E2’s maps. With those maps I was very much improvising the layouts on the fly, as I hadn’t had the foresight to scribble any layouts on paper for that episode - as I had for E1 - nor did I have the advantage of having made a valiant attempt at all the exact same maps beforehand, which was the case with E3.

Deathless E3 in-body

Nothing frustrates me more than being unable to get my ideas out of my head and into their proper form, whether that’s due to a lack of ideas or just a general feeling of lethargy that can throw an entire day’s worth of planned work into the trash. Luckily, I had no such problems with Deathless. I was in the rather embarrassingly privileged position of having a ludicrous amount of free time with which to map, so I was perfectly at liberty to take it at my own hyper-focused pace.

SC: Who’s your favorite modder or team of modders in the DOOM community and what’s your favorite thing they’ve done?

JP: I’ve been following a number of exceptionally talented individuals’ work in the DOOM community for a long time now and it almost seems unfair to everyone else to single them out.

First off, I’d like to mention that I really love Dragonfly’s work. He’s a fantastic person to collaborate with and his projects have seen incredible success. He’s also just a very down-to-earth human and is great fun to be around.

I’ve been a great admirer and fan of Xaser’s work since I joined the community. He too is an amazing collaborator, astonishingly good at everything he does (which is more or less everything you could think of to do with DOOM modding) and again is one of the nicest and most helpful folks you can talk to.

I’ve always loved the mapping work of Erik Alm, and his style has certainly had an impact on my own.

Musically, my heroes have to be stewboy, esselfortium, Alfonzo, Jazz Mickle, PRIMEVAL and of course, Mark Klem and David Shaw. Without their incredible output to propel me into new fields and interesting creative directions I wouldn’t be nearly as accomplished as I am today. Thanks, guys!

Deathless in-body 3

SC: You were recently recognized for a DoomWorld Lifetime Achievement Award for your many years of amazing work and collabs – congrats! What project are you working on next?

JP: Thanks a bunch! Still such an honor to have been bestowed the award.

I’m working on so many things at the moment, I cannot possibly give you the full list. I’m working through the odd MIDI commission here, the odd community project map there and I’ve got a ton of personal things I want to see release real soon. It would be great to do a followup to Deathless for DOOM II, to see if my approach translates to doing a full 32 maps across five or six distinct episodes instead of 27 across three. We’ll see if time allows it!

As of now, this I hope to have a couple of direct sequels to my speedmapped Heretic hub episode, entitled “Faithless,” released - or at the very least announced very soon. Progress has been slow on that one because they’re actually not speedmaps, ha ha. I swear speedmapping/composing is the only way I can get anything done.!

SC: Wanna give any other shoutouts? No time like the present!

JP: I wanna say thanks to my heroes Mark Klem, David Shaw and Jeremy Doyle, for one way or another setting me on this path to begin with. You guys are still rocking today!

Shoutout to Tarnsman and Alfonzo for their involvement in the Doom Radio speedmapping sessions, some of the very first sessions I was part of years back. Another shoutout to the organizers of the Abyssal Speedmapping Sessions, Obsidian and TheMionicDonut, who stuck with it for a crazy amount of time.

A massive thank you to Dragonfly for his unwavering support throughout a potentially turbulent period of my life.

Also a huge shoutout to John freaking Romero for reaching out and helping me make an impact with SIGIL. Couldn’t have asked for a more prestigious project to be involved with.

There’s so many more names I could name. This community is positively awesome through and through. Keep DOOMing, everybody!

Thanks again to James Paddock for taking the time to walk us through the creative process. Check out his megawad ‘Deathless’ through our Add-Ons collections and keep it locked to the Slayers Club for more DOOM content!