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The key, I think, to understanding games as an expressive medium lies in the following:
Claude Shannon once famously estimated the number of potential chess games as being at least 10 to the 120th power, which, as the cliché goes, is more than the estimated number of atoms in the observable universe. However, in all of these games of chess, there is not a single one in which the two sides come to a peaceful solution to their conflict, or in which the pawns rise up and overthrow their own king, or in one of the bishops converts the opposing pawns to switch sides. There is not even a scenario in which one side grows their ranks; the best they can do is maintain their numbers, and the likely outcome is a steady reduction in pieces over the course of the game for both sides.
In addition to this, there are many themes which reoccur, perhaps not in every single game, but in most well-played games. Using your pawns to shield your more valuable pieces, sacrificing pieces in order to pull your opponent into a disadvantaged position, using multiple pieces in tandem to push the opposing king into a corner. None of these things are explicitly stated in the rules, but they are behaviors that are implied by the rules. The rules make these behaviors beneficial to winning the game.
The crux of all of this is that, despite the often near-infinite numbers of permutations games can have, they still make a statement through what the player can do, what the player can’t do, what the player should do, and what the player shouldn’t do.
Many people talk about designing using “verbs”. In other words, thinking about the actions the player can perform in a game. Run, Jump, Talk, Shoot, Trade, Swim, and so on. But it’s as important to think about what the player can’t do, and it’s also important to consider which of the actions that are available to the player are incentivized and disincentivised.
As a developer, it is important to understand how the cans, can’ts, shoulds and shouldnt’s form the core of the narrative of the game. To go back to the chess example, the narrative of chess could be said to involve class hierarchy, strength in numbers, sacrifice for the greater good (or, one might argue, sacrifice of the lower class for the benefit of the upper class), zero-sum warfare, the importance of thinking ahead, setting and avoiding traps, and so on.
Take, as another example, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and how so much of the core experience comes from the fact that the player can’t fight back against the monsters. In addition to that, they are incentivized against looking at the monsters for too long, which helps make them more frightening. Also, players are incentivized towards scouring the level for items such as lamp oil which causes them to keep themselves in an uncomfortable position for longer. All of this combines to create the atmosphere of fear and helplessness that is at the core of the game’s experience.
Or, to take the example in another direction, think about how, in Megaman, the fact that you can’t shoot in any direction other than horizontally is such a core part of the challenge of that game. Think about the way you’re incentivized to complete the levels in more-or-less a certain order because of how the boss weakness system works.
Remember as a developer how much control you have over the overall experience. Anything the player can do is something you’ve (either intentionally or unintentionally), allowed them to do, and sometimes what you don’t allow them to do speaks as loudly as what you do. And within the bounds of that experience you’ve created, the way they play will be informed by what you have decided is beneficial and detrimental. In this way a game can have a consistent theme or narrative or meaning or whatever you want to call it, even if the events change from playthrough to playthrough.
We’ve talked so far about goals mostly in terms of specific objectives which you’ve placed in specific places for the character to reach. But what if the systems in your game interact in such a way that the player ends up needing to do something which you did not specifically design or anticipate.
First of all, something I want to address. As the designer, even if something emerges from the system rather than being explicitly put there, you still can have some awareness of it and anticipate common (and uncommon) emergent events that are possible from your system. You can have an overall awareness of the possibility space defined by your ruleset, and thus most emergent objectives can be prepared for. You might not know exactly when they will emerge, but you can have a good idea of what they’ll be when they do.
For instance, if you put an ammo system in your game, you can expect that a potential situation that might emerge is the player running out of ammo. At this point, their goal is to find more ammo.
Knowing this, you can create challenges around goals which the player may or may not need depending on the circumstances. The way these differ from optional challenges is that, in certain situations, they cease to be optional, and become necessary for the player to make progress.
Early on in Super Metroid, there’s a series of rooms where the goal is a device that will refill your missiles. Blocking the player’s progress is a door which must be opened with missiles. If you are at full missiles, this side-challenge is basically useless to you. If you aren’t at full missiles, it gives you a small reward but is all-together optional. If you don’t have enough missiles to open the door, this challenge becomes a necessity.
One of the largest examples of this sort of design is the curse mechanic in Dark Souls (before they patched an easier solution into the game). Some enemies inflict a “cursed” status ailment. If they manage to completely curse you, you are at half-health until you can become uncursed. There were only a couple of ways to do this and they both involved massive treks through dangerous areas with only half health. The player had been given an goal through a system in the game, and the designers put that goal behind obstacles. The designer doesn’t know that the player is necessarily going to be cursed, but they know that if the player does get cursed, they’re going to have a challenge ahead of them.
The moral of this story is that, as the designer, you should be aware of the needs the player might be given by the system you’ve designed. You can use this awareness both to insure that the player never gets completely stuck by making what they might need available to them, and also allows you to create challenges around those needs.
As a final note, this also accounts for the level-design feature of the “boss fountain”. This means either putting a lot of items up right before a boss, or putting an object that spawns a constant stream of low-teir enemies which drop items, so that the player can replenish their stocks before a major fight. Remember, you might not know what exactly the player needs at any given time, but you know the sorts of things the player will need in general.
The idea of tension and release is a common one among many art forms. In music, ascending scales and dominant chords can build tension, while descending scales and returning to the tonic chord can give a sense of release. Dissonance resolves to consonance. A story will build tension through conflict before finally resolving the conflict, creating release. It’s something which is core to our experience of art and entertainment. We want the catharsis that comes with building and releasing tension.
So how do we apply that to level design?
The people of the Candy Kingdom made a deal with the devil. They asked for infinite candy, and what they got was an infinite candy army. And so they must turn to exiled hermit and all-around downer Emo McGothington, to save the day with his penchant for violence and negativity.
As Emo McGothington, you will run ‘n’ gun your way through 30 levels spread over 4 worlds using a variety of weapons to dispatch your saccharine foes.
I worked on this game with Jared Cohen, who did the art, and Phillip Lanzbom, who did the music.
You can get the game here: http://emomcgothington.com/
There’s also a launch trailer:
I’ve added my contributions to the two Braingale EPs to the games page and front page. From Braintheatre comes Variation 6: Detective, and from Architects comes Inheriting the Beast. Check ‘em out, along with all the other great things from the above mentioned EPs.
In film, there’s a concept called “Mise-en-scene.” Mise-en-scene refers to the story that is told by everything other than the spoken dialogue. Sets, costumes, sounds, props, ect… all combine to not only give a film a set of place, but also make up a major part of the narrative backbone of the movie. These components are as important to crafting the story of a film as is dialogue.
In the same way, you can convey a story through the level design.
Now I’d like to take a moment to talk about audio-logs, that increasingly common trope where there are items scattered in the level which, when activated by the player, start a recorded narration from a character conveying some sort of backstory or relevant information. Aside from a few exceptions, this is not what I’m talking about when I talk about environmental storytelling, or at least good environmental storytelling. It’s the difference between an environment telling a story, and the environment literally telling you a story. If anything, the environmental story being told by the presence of these audio-logs is confusing and nonsensical. Who is leaving these giant tape recorders everywhere? Is there some mysterious bandit stealing clips out of people’s private journals and leaving them under benches? Does everyone just constantly record their thoughts onto disposable record players and then drop them on the ground as they go? Unless it is something that makes sense as being part of the environment, then it doesn’t really work as environmental storytelling. (And, for those of you who’ve played my games, yes, I did make use of this trope in the last level of Venusian Vengeance. That’s a good example of what not to do if you’re trying to go for naturalistic environmental storytelling.)
But I digress…
We talked last time about Naturalism, the idea that you can build your levels to make sense as part of a fictional world. Environmental storytelling takes this a step further and says you can communicate information about this world and the people living in it through components of the level design.
This sort of storytelling can range from the subtle to the explicit. The key is that it is something in the environment that lets you know about the setting your in or events which have transpired. Walking into a room and seeing a large book-shelf can tell you that a character is well-read. Seeing a threatening note on his desk can tell you he has gambling debts.
One thing you’ll notice about environmental storytelling is that it usually tells a story that has already happened in the game world. You are seeing the end results, and have to piece together the events that lead there. Because of this, environmental storytelling is fundamentally non-linear. Environmental storytelling happens when the player looks at your level and thinks to themselves “what happened here?”
Gone Home is one of the purest examples of how environmental storytelling can work in a game (aside from the journal entries, see the above rant on audio-logs, although at least the journal entries don’t really pretend to be part of the environment). You are wandering through this house learning about the people who live in it. You piece together their stories and personalities through the contents of their rooms, the letter’s they’ve sent and received, the books they keep on their shelves, the music they listen to. The story itself is not interactive, since it’s already happened. You are, however, in control of how you uncover the story, and how much of it you investigate.
The main thing that separates environmental storytelling in games from mis-en-scene in movies is, of course, the interactive nature of games. As the player, you are able to freely explore your environments. You can walk right up to things to get a closer look. If the game allows it, you can pick up objects, read notes, open drawers. You are no longer limited by what the director puts in the frame, you can dig into the fiction of the world around you.
What the designer does have control of, however, is where (and when) significant objects are presented to the player. You can take advantage of techniques we’ve discussed in previous sections, such as implicit linearity, composition, gating mechanics, ect… in order to guide the player’s experience uncovering the backstory. You have a power to create narrative tension, mystery and intrigue by placing objects in such a way that the player discovers them in more or less a certain order. You can give the player enough information that they know that there’s something pertinent that they still don’t know. Going back to the example of Gone Home, one of the driving mysteries is why the house is empty. You know your family should be there, but they aren’t. You start to wonder where they could be and why they aren’t there to greet you. You don’t find out where they went until fairly late in the game. You can dole out information in whatever order you want. You can give people information of events in the order that those events happened, or put them out of order. But remember that the player knows how the story ends. They can see the state of the world as it currently is, and they’re trying to find out about past events. They know the house is empty, but they want to know why.
Environmental storytelling can also be used as a tool to guide the player or give them pertinent information about how to complete challenges and solve puzzles. You’ve probably seen this one a hundred times: there’s a combination lock. You look around, and there’s a memo on the boss’ desk saying “there were a lot of thefts of supplies recently, so I changed the combination. It’s now 2112.” This is, of course, a very on-the-nose example. The key is that finding out about past events can give you information about your current situation, and you can use this information to your advantage.
Naturalism as it applies to level design is a philosophy that says that levels should not only serve a functional purpose, but also feel like spaces that make sense and have a purpose for existing within the world of the game . Compare, for a moment, the labyrinthine corridors of Doom with the city streets and houses of the early sections of Half-Life 2. In Half-Life 2, you are walking through apartments that give a sense of being lived in. They look like real, lived-in apartments. They’ve found ways to create the level-geometry they need to keep the player on track and provide the gameplay situations that they need, while still maintaining this sense of realism in the environment.
Now, whether or not you want to go with a naturalistic approach has a lot to do with the sort of experience you’re trying to craft in your game. If the setting and world are an important aspect of your game, it’s important to make the world feel like an actual place that makes sense for people to live in, and not just a set for the player to have encounters. There are also still plenty of ways to create the level geometry you need for an encounter while still keeping within the framework of naturalism.
In addition to providing a sense of verisimilitude, naturalism can also help inform the player of their surroundings simply by extrapolating from experience and realistic expectation. Take an example scenario:
The player has fled from a hoard of zombies into an abandoned suburban house. They are low on health and need to find medicine. As a person with experience of the real world, the player might immediately head for the restroom to check the medicine cabinet where the designer who, also being a person with experience of the real world, has logically placed the medicine.
One of the big things to look out for, when going for a naturalistic approach, is the uncanny valley. People will accept all sorts of nonsensical corridors and rooms that serve no purpose when the entire game world is clearly an abstraction created for gameplay’s sake. But when you’re trying to make something a believable world, the things that don’t make sense, or were contrived for gameplay’s sake, will stand out like a sore thumb. Think of how many times people have said of a game “where are all the toilets?” or “oh, look at all that convenient waist-high cover in the middle of that park”. No one asks where all the toilets in Super Mario World are, or why there are all those convenient question-mark blocks floating in the air.
So I’ve talked about what naturalism is, what it brings to the table, and what risks it brings with it. But how do you design around naturalism while also keeping all the previous gameplay elements we’ve discussed in mind. These two impulses are far from mutually exclusive, and you can balance them in different measures throughout the process.
For example, you could start with pieces of level geometry and try to make set-pieces that fit the geometry while still making sense. Take this example from Strider (2014).
Much of this section of the game takes place on rooftops, with various hidden bonus objects hidden down below. Since we’ve established that the upper platforms are rooftops, the space below them must be the buildings those rooftops belong to. This particular path goes across one of these buildings, and thus naturally (heh, geddit?) takes the player through an apartment, into a stairwell, down a maintenance shaft, and then out the other side of the building. It creates the desired geometry (which you can see in its pure form in the mini-map in the top-right corner) while also making the world seem a little bit more fleshed out.
On the other end of the spectrum, you could have a set-piece and then create challenges which make use of that set piece. Figure out what the location brings to the table from a level-geometry perspective and place obstacles to compliment that level geometry.
And, of course, there are plenty of options in between. For example, you can start with general descriptions of challenges (like I showed in part 6), and figure out how to build a naturalistic location around those challenges. Or you could start with a general concept for a location (house, office building, train yard, park) and then build challenges with your content that work well within the context of that location.
The point is that it can be a back and forth process, where you go between figuring out what you want from a gameplay perspective, and figuring out what you want from a location perspective, and getting the two to line up. You can make interesting level geometry that serves the gameplay while using the language of things that make sense within the world: hallways, rooms, stairs, roofs, trees, benches, rivers, ect… You can use these both as a toolset for building your challenges, and as a springboard for coming up with encounters. It might seem restrictive at first, put the possibilities are pretty broad.
Next up, we’ll talk about environmental storytelling.
So far we’ve been looking at level design purely from a gameplay perspective. I want to switch tracks for the next few parts and discuss the aesthetic and narrative aspects of level design. That is not to say that these elements don’t effect and inform how the player interacts with the actual mechanics of the game, which is a subject I’ll also be discussing in these parts.
Now, I want to make a disclaimer and say that I am first and foremost a game designer, and not a visual artist. This is not going to be a comprehensive lesson on the rules of composition as they apply to visual art. Instead, it will be a basic run-down of some basic elements of composition and how they can be applied to level design.
I want to step back a bit and discuss the term “Level Geometry.” Level Geometry refers to the physical space and construction of the level, and the shape and positioning of objects in the level. You’ll see the term most often used in relation to 3D games, although the term could be relevant to just about any level design. This article is going to be a rundown of some common ideas and terms that are useful when thinking about level geometry. It’s by no means comprehensive, but it should give you some stuff to think about when working with space.