STELLA IMAGE CREDIT: Fabi (@GLaDyGamer on Twitter)
OTLEY, WEST YORKSHIRE – ENGLAND: It’s a thundery winter’s afternoon in 1999. I’m holed up in my stepsister’s bedroom desperately trying to claw my way to the end of the Tomb of Qualopec in the very first Tomb Raider game. Rain lashes against the windows as I wrestle with the controls, and my stepsister calmly reads instructions from a walkthrough she’s printed off the internet. As I impale the unfortunate Lara Croft on a set of spikes for the seventeenth time, my stepsister explains why I hadn’t been following the instructions properly and decides to have a go herself, whilst I come to the conclusion that now would be the perfect time to head out for a run.
I was only 10-11 years old when I first discovered the Tomb Raider series, and as an inexperienced raider I relied heavily on the worldwide web for hints, tips, and more than a little hand-holding. For my stepsister and myself, Stella’s Tomb Raider site was a go-to resource for all-things Lara, not least because of the invaluable walkthroughs that it hosted. Composed by Stella herself, these guides were essential to my daily raiding – so much more detailed and comprehensible than some of the published volumes that were available (for example, I don’t think Prima’s strategy guide ever mentioned the wealth of bugs that could have prevented me from finishing Tomb Raider Chronicles! As beautifully illustrated as it was…) Indeed, these walkthroughs have garnered something of a ‘stellar’ reputation (sorry) in Tomb Raider fandom, and their author is someone I’ve always held in high regard.
So when I reached out to Stella to ask if I could interview her for this website, I must admit that I was a tad nervous, but I realised that composing the email would never be scarier than running from the enraged bull in Guardian of Semerkhet. And, to my surprise and delight, she very kindly agreed! My perception of good timing was… good, apparently.
But who is Stella? Well, on Twitter she describes herself as the “matriarch in a family of gamers” as well as a “caffeine junkie”, an “optimist” and a “bolshie.” Moreover, from my email chat with Stella I can ‘exclusively’ reveal that her favourite Tomb Raider game is the original, and her favourite level is the tranquil and savage Barkhang Monastery from Tomb Raider 2. She’s not a massive fan of Tomb Raider 2013‘s Shantytown as it contains “so much ick“, and when it comes to the age-old debate of pineapple on pizza, her answer is clear. “Hell no!” she says. “Pineapple is yummy, pizza is yummy, but never the twain shall meet.”
Thankfully, my Jackanory days are far from over, so I have written up her e-interview for this website with some helpful colour-coding for the hazard-conscious 😉 Enjoy…
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST EXPERIENCE OF GAMING? CAN YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST VIDEO GAME YOU EVER PLAYED?
If you don’t count Pong and handheld backgammon, the first “real” game I played was the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text adventure from Infocom, which came out in the mid ’80s. I remember enjoying it but also getting really frustrated at times. I’m pretty sure I never even got close to finishing it.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO START WRITING TOMB RAIDER WALKTHROUGHS?
Back in the late ’90s and early aughts, I was a regular on the alt.games.tombraider Usenet group. This was before there were very many video game websites, so people would congregate there to chat and to ask and answer questions. After fielding a lot of the same questions again and again, a few of us collaborated on a group FAQ. Then, after TR2 came out, I decided to try making a walkthrough. It started out fairly small, just a bare-bones text affair on a free site, but it was well received, so I decided to expand it to include some screenshots and later added a second walkthrough for Tomb Raider 1. Now it’s been more than 20 years, and I’m still at it.
WHAT APPROACH DO YOU TAKE TO WRITING A WALKTHROUGH? DO YOU RECORD YOURSELF AND THEN WRITE UP WHAT YOU SEE? OR DO YOU TAKE NOTES AS YOU PLAY?
My process has evolved over the years, and it varies a bit depending on the game. (Lara Croft GO, for example, required a different approach than Rise of the Tomb Raider.) But basically I try to play through the whole game once, just for fun and to get the lay of the land. I’ll make some notes as I go along, but not many. If I’m fortunate enough to play on PC, I’ll back up my saves for each area/level so I can go back and replay as needed. Then I’ll start a more intensive replay, making sure I find and note every item, and redoing the more challenging sequences until I find strategies that will hopefully work for most people. I write all that out, link in screenshots and sometimes video clips, and post the rough draft level by level. Once the initial draft is done, I usually take a break and wait for comments and corrections. Then I’ll do another pass to iron out the rough spots and incorporate other players’ suggestions. But none of my walkthroughs are ever complete. I’m still tweaking and hopefully improving things decades on. Right now I’m working on The Last Revelation. I haven’t posted the revision publicly yet, but I’ve already added almost 2,000 screenshots, and I’m only in Cairo!
HAVE THERE BEEN ANY WALKTHROUGHS THAT HAVE BEEN PARTICULARLY TOUGH TO WRITE? OR IS IT ALL A RELATIVELY EASY PROCESS FOR YOU?
They’re all challenging, but for me the difficulty is a big part of the fun. When I first started writing a walkthrough for the 2013 reboot, I wondered if anyone would even need it now that the game included in-game maps and Survival Instinct. I had a brief crisis of confidence but decided to just forge ahead. Based on the feedback I’ve gotten, a lot of players still enjoy a step-by-step walkthrough. They like the way I highlight upcoming enemies and hazards, so they know what to watch out for. Some even like reading the text like a story. Many more need help finding elusive collectibles, even when they have no trouble beating the main game.
DO YOU FIND YOU’RE ABLE TO FULLY ENJOY A NEW TOMB RAIDER GAME WHEN IT LAUNCHES, OR DO YOU FEEL AN URGE, OR PERHAPS EVEN A PRESSURE, TO QUICKLY DELIVER A WALKTHROUGH FOR FANS WHO MIGHT BE STUCK?
I definitely feel that pressure, but I try not to let it get to me. I go as fast as I can without getting too sloppy. I don’t get early access to the games, and I have a job outside of gaming, so I’m never going to beat IGN or Prima, but I can live with that. Also, I approach Tomb Raider differently than I do other games that I’m just playing for fun. I still enjoy it, but it’s a kind of “meta” experience, where I’m always looking for ways to make things easier and more accessible for other players. Walkthrough writing itself is a kind of puzzle to be solved.
BESIDES TOMB RAIDER, WHAT OTHER GAMES DO YOU ENJOY PLAYING?
My gaming time is limited, so I don’t tend to let myself get drawn into anything too time consuming. I mostly play puzzle games and a few shorter RPGs where I can pop in and out when I feel like it. Back in the day I spent many hours playing The Sims and the old Black Isle games like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, etc., and I love Portal and Portal 2. Other than Tomb Raider, the only games I have really sunk much time into recently are Horizon Zero Dawn and Assassin’s Creed Origins. That was my first AC. I was drawn in by the ancient Egyptian setting and ended up getting hooked. Now I’m looking forward to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey almost as much as Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
DOES YOUR WORKING LIFE (OR YOUR DAY-TO-DAY LIFE) INVOLVE VIDEO GAMES, OR WRITING?
I’m an artist’s studio assistant IRL, so no gaming involved, but I do a little writing now and then. Mostly it’s manual labor and some office stuff, but that’s fine with me. I’m glad most of my weekdays involve standing and moving around. If I had to sit all day, every day, I would be even more of a potato than I am now!