006. Level Design Thoughts
Ah, level design…. What does that mean?
It is such a broad and complex component of game design, seemingly a subtle and overlooked element, yet critical to a game’s quality. I have a sneaking suspicion that level design is an unsung hero to a game’s success, it is a versatile tool capable of supporting different aspects of the game. Driving an emotional impact of the narrative with scenic beauty or perhaps enhancing the gameplay mechanics with tricky platform placements. Good level design can carry a game far and I’ve always wondered what is considered “good” level design?
I’m not a game developer, but a mere game hobbyist, so the topic of what is “good level design” is interesting to me since I pretty much know next to nothing. Well, what I set out to do for this blog post is to dive down and traverse through the ramblings of my labyrinth-like ponderings to hopefully dig out what I think is a good level design personally, and what I think level designers should aim to achieve.
Before I start, I should mention that like with art, good or bad level design is subjective in relation to the game’s core values. That being, I believe a game shouldn’t be solely praised or defined by a specific component, such as gameplay or music, for example. I like to think of each game aspect as a member of a ragtag orchestral band. Each [member] plays a role in constructing the overall composition and do their best to support each other for the core values of the game. Like with snazzy character art, or a technical battle system, or an eerie sound direction, level design is a member of this metaphorical game orchestra. Perhaps seemingly analogous to the drums by laying down the beat and pacing for the other members to play to. With that thinking established, if a game does not need a complex level design inherently, then it does not need a complex level design to succeed. A simple or perhaps even no level design will suffice if that’s all it needs to do to drive the game’s thematic vision home.
~/~Introduction to the Labyrinth~/~
Let’s first start off with the responsibilities of level design. Off the top of my head, level design should strive for the following:
-Provider of immersion and atmosphere
-Support story narratives
-Dictate game’s pacing
For the sake of laziness, I will only focus on level design supporting gameplay, namely in single player-focused games due to having no friends. Woe is me! But my self-deprecating blog post will be saved for another time. Back on track, time and time again, I have seen games with thoughtless map design. As a lurker and observer from afar, I remember the times when games used to be bogged down with map linearity during the Wii/PS3/360 gaming generation. Since then, many complaints were voiced and there was a paradigm shift from a linear world design to an open world trend. Examples being with The Legend of Zelda : Breath of the Wild, Xenoblade Chronicles, and Final Fantasy XV. But even as I played through these games, I can’t help but feel that something was amiss. It felt to me that the mainstream game developers went from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other extreme end. Expanding a linear world to a more open one does not automatically mean that the game has good level design fundamentally. It felt to me that game developers radically went shallow on the concept of open world that they forgot the basics of what a level design should uphold. I would dare say that a more “linear” game can have better level design than an open world game.
If the benefits of open world were supposedly to give a large quantity of choices and freedom to the player, and I feel that these attributes are not what constitutes for a good level design, then what does? Am I just being stupid?
~/~ Good questions, difficult answers ~/~
For this analysis, we should start with the basic of basics and try to see what are the building blocks into creating an interesting level. Yep, that’s right, we are going to start with a motherfucking corridor.
This level design is as crude as the quality of this drawing that was spent 234712394 hours in MS paint. There is nothing interesting to say about this level design. The player marches forward, encounters an enemy represented by the letter “E”, and then goes to fight a boss and exits the map. That’s it and you’re done with the game. If I were to start thinking about what could make this level more interesting, the most obvious and simple answer is to add a fork in the road.
A fork has an importance. The fork itself isn’t necessarily important, but what it conveys to the player is significant.
“Go left or go right”?
One of the pillars of level design is providing questions and forcing the player to come to a decision. The concept of asking questions through level design is such a complicated artform that many subtle details can impact the player’s choice in how to traverse through the map.
With that being established, let’s refer back to the fork picture again for a moment. So, obviously after defeating the enemy, the player reaches the fork and decides whether to go left or right. From the entrance of the fork, the player can see that by taking the right path, there is a treasure chest and it is a dead end. So, clearly to the player, the right path would be taken first to obtain the treasure, and then backtrack to the correct main route which is the left path towards the boss. This decision is very easily made and the player proceeds with the game…
… that’s it?! That’s all the fork did?! What the fork?!
These type of questions are painfully boring and not engaging to the player. In fact, there is hardly any difference from the straight corridor picture if you were to put the treasure chest just behind the enemy. Yet, I feel many games keep falling for this same mistake repeatedly. The illusion of the fork is dispelled and there was not a hard decision to be made in the first place. All that happened was padding the game time by 10 seconds longer to walk over to get the dumb scrubby 10 gold reward from a dumb treasure chest bought from Ikea.
Let’s change this bad boy up in a slightly different way.
Instead of placing the enemy in front of the fork, let’s place the enemy in front of the treasure chest. And just to make this decision harder, let’s also say that the player fought a few enemies prior to the start of this level so that the health bar is ‘less than perfect’. Already, we can see that the decision to go left or go right is a lot harder and needs to be heavily taken into consideration. There is a sense of risk management that the player needs to take. Attempt to fight the enemy and risk losing more health, or preserve what health is left and go toward the boss. But of course, the player can chalk it up to luck and hope to get a potion from the treasure chest if the enemy was successfully defeated. This is one of the few out of an infinite amount of interesting questions that the game can possibly give to the player through level design. Level design isn’t just about the layout of the map, but how the layout of the map interacts with enemy placements, how it interacts with gameplay mechanics, and how it makes the player analyze their skill and choices and perceive their current situation.
Harking back to the previous comment about open world, “If the benefits of open world were supposedly to give a large quantity of choices and freedom to the player, and I feel that these attributes are not what constitutes for a good level design, then what does?” It’s not about the quantity of the choices, but rather the quality of the choices. What are the consequences if I go to point A and do the potential benefits outweigh the consequences if I were to go to point B? It is fine to give the players freedom to go anywhere they like, but having a steady flow and pacing of interesting questions presented to the players makes for a more engaging experience on their journey.
~/~Brick by Brick~/~
As I walked farther into the maze-like wonderings about level design, I thought a lot about the techniques that can be used to implement a sauve level. One might say… (one being myself of course), that if it is all that it takes to create an interesting level design is player engagement, then supposedly we could just concatenate interesting “questions” together in a chain. Or go balls out and strap a multitude of interesting “questions” together at once!
Technically, there is nothing wrong with these two designs, but there is something head-scratching and puke-inducing about them. Level design is not as simple as taking a box of lego bricks and stacking them up until you have a reasonable proper looking house. Rather, it is more about diversifying the types and shapes of the bricks and building a creative shape from them. Repeating the same “question” lessens the impact and critical thinking the player must undergo. By reinforcing the same question constantly, the player is being conditioned and their line of thinking would eventually become streamlined. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is dependent on the game’s goal in that current situation.
Let’s open up MS paint again to edit Figure 1 and see if we can diversify the types of questions to the player and apply what has been learnt so far.
Upon start in Figure 1a., the first half of the map, the player will see the 1st path to the right that there is a treasure chest miraculously unguarded. As stated previously, I frown seethingly upon this type of design, but I would want the level to make a clear statement in the 2nd fork that treasure chests would not come for free in the future. The 3rd fork serves to condition the player further emphasizing the risk & reward ordeal. Upon traversing onto the latter half of the map in Figure 1b., is where things start to become interesting. The 4th fork is not really a fork per se, but rather a body of water that the player cannot traverse through. Yet, from the gaping hole, the player is able to view a treasure chest just out of reach. There is significance in presenting a question with no immediate answer. One, it entices the player’s curiosity and two, it forces the player to make mental mappings about points of interests and be aware of their surroundings. Naturally, the level is highly encouraging the player to explore more of its design. With a sudden change in pattern from the 2nd & 3rd fork to the 4th fork, we conditioned and toyed with the player’s expectations, and in doing so, we are engaging the player’s mindset and thinking. A shift of mindset from a risk management type to more of an exploratory type.
Of course, the answer to this specific situation is not all that interesting, as the player simply has to walk a bit farther on the current path, go through the next path on the left, defeat a dumb enemy and walk straight downward. What to take away from this is an important one however : motivation. Level designs motivate players that there is something worthwhile exploring. View of a city in the distance beyond the obstacle mountains, or a bottle across the river bank. Introductions of reward with an unknown solution is a powerful idea. I would like to think that mankind are natural problem solvers, and if we are, rather than give the players a number, give them an equation, aka the “2+2 theory”. Straying away from the metaphorical, what I mean is perhaps instead of a quest pointer that most games do, design the levels in a way that makes for an interesting yet complicated navigation towards their goal. Seemingly inaccessible locations tell the player that they most likely cannot go there, but a thoughtful placement of a viewable object tells the player that they can. And perhaps thoughtful placements of enemies and objects or interactable environments using gameplay mechanics can help lead the player to their destination like food crumbs leading a wet puppy. Establishing unique landmarks as a navigating relative beacon of distance and direction goes a long way as well.
In a more creative art perspective, the lighting and color contrast, flow and weight of lines in an architectural structure, path sizes, audio feedback and other clever environmental details can be easily utilized to direct the player’s eyes and feed crucial hints about questions with unknown solutions. Educating the player is powerful. Back to Figure 1b., allowing the player to not only see the treasure chest, but as well as the spatial layout of its relative area, helps formulate an estimated projection of the level’s interior design. The player can guess based on seeing the opening north of the chest, that from their current path, there eventually will be a route that will go in the opposite direction. Level previews give a sense of mystery, and I think because of that, the intrigue of the unknown gives a purpose to the journey. Because after all, it would be nice to see the full picture if you know what I mean.
~/~Layer by Layer~/~
I’ve wondered if increasing the number of choices in a game is a good thing. Now, this might sound weird.
“More choices? That should be great! Think of the number of possibilities! Are you dumb, Sugoi Kawaii Miyafuji 420?!”
You may laugh at me all you want, but you can’t hurt the feelings of a person with accepted low self-esteem! I want go in the opposite direction of this wondering path and think about the consequence of overwhelming the player with choices. A sudden B20 bombardment of decisions can lead to a paralysis-type effect onto a player. Like being given a restaurant menu and taking ten minutes to figure which among the hundred of choices you want to eat, only to end with a small bitter soup like an old grumpy man barking at a deli sandwich store.
Too many choices can lead to too many distractions, which can potentially lead the player down a path that the map does not actually want them to go yet. It’s important to let the player know of what is the overarching question that they should be answering. And from that high-level layer, sub-questions can be formed at a more granular layer that is encompassed by the journey for the higher answer. This helps keep the adventure on a singular focus.
Referring back to puke-stained Figure 2:
If I was not lazy and actually made each branch to be more windy, obscuring the fact that there is a chest and an enemy at the end of each, the player might pause and ponder briefly which path to take first. In addition, the layout of this map could potentially give an unfulfilling sense of progress now that I think about it. As the player goes through each path and back to the main hub, he always end back at square 1, with less, but still a number of choices to make still. Is this map a lost cause and a failure? Is it impossible to stop the puking? Should I erase all those horrible crude branches instead?
And here is where I came with an orgasmic epiphany.
Rather than erasing, let’s bluntly not let the players go through the branches instead. Turn the choices into exploratory questions. But how do we do that?
……with motherfucking locked doors….
Let’s take this map and apply all of the lessons that we have learned thus far.
Tada~! I present to you the new and improved Figure 2 map!
Let’s do a walkthrough of this bad boy and analyze a few of the steps. From the start, 5 out of the 7 branches are blocked, leaving the player to decide between 2 paths. A statue of a human is placed in the center of the main room, serving as a beacon of navigation. Immediately, if we look to the top left, the door leading to the boss room is unnaturally big and girthy (heh). The structural size indicates it is the overarching highest layered question that the player should seek the answer for. The open path to the left is optional and up to the player to decide if they want to risk fighting the enemy for the reward. The green and yellow door are smaller sub-questions for the player. An inaccessible chest to the top right is viewable from the statue’s location, beckoning yet an another sub-question and encourages the player to explore the top right area.
Traversing through the top right path, a lower layered question to the sub-question is formed, as the player needs to decide which fork path to take. And upon exploration of the top right area, there is yet another inaccessible chest in view as the player grabs the green key. New questions are being raised as old questions are being answered. After the acquirement of the green key, the player looks straight ahead across the body of the water, knowing his relative location based on the statue, and knowing the next question to answer with the new accessible green door just behind the statue.
Going back to the main hub is no longer an unfulfilling sense of progress. Accessing previous blocked paths gives a feeling of accomplishment, and reuses the same space for different questions. The way the questions and answers are presented one after another, overlaying each other, creates a dynamic, interconnecting, and polymorphic feel of the level. Questions should shuffle in and out of each other like a knitting stick weaving through fabrics of yarn, dancing with the player in a steady tempo and manner, in the hopes of reaching the end of a tightly formed level.
~/~The light at the end of the level~/~
Level design is a component that can be as creative as art and music. The art of directing a player through a location is a complicated topic, but a worthwhile one to explore. The endless possibilities are unimaginable and unbound. For example, in the new and improved Figure 2 map, instead of a body of water, I could have easily used lava. Instead of doors, I could have used huge difficult monsters as deterrence. Instead of keys, I could have used newfound abilities. Instead of being interior, I could have made the whole map be an exterior map, replacing walls with tall, tall mountains and replacing chests with towns. And what do you know? We have an “open world” design.
The principles of level design remain the same throughout the spectrum from small-scale linear maps to large-scale open maps. If gameplay mechanics was the hero, level design would be the trusty sidekick, covering the gameplay and providing opportunities where each unique aspect of the hero can resonate brighter in this melodic game symphony.
And I would like to think that one of the best gifts level design can give to the player is the sense of greatness. As the player crawls out of the dark menacing level and into the light, ragged and weary from all the ordeals within, it would be nice if the player can turn around and take one last look at the unsung and silent entity.
The joy of accomplishment from conquering a space of hardships, whether big or small…
…the grand scale of victory.