Level Design Primer 4: Mental Obstacles

So far we’ve talked about obstacles in very narrow terms. Things that require direct, tactile action: dodging, shooting, avoiding, ect… However, there are also mental skills that games can challenge: Verbs such as explore, plan, prepare, solve, manage (resources), ect… To put it another way, the obstacles so far have required action and reflexes. But a challenge could also require thinking and planning.

Let’s look at these one at a time. First: “solve” and “plan”. A game can present you with a puzzle and make you work out the solution. Unlike the action obstacles we’ve discussed so far, which you know more or less what sort of thing the player has to do to progress, puzzles generally have very specific solutions which you’ve worked out in advance which will work without fail to solve the puzzle. (although the designer may have built the puzzle in such a way that unforeseen solutions exist). There is an up-side and down-side to this. The down-side is that puzzles are basically one-use things. If the player solves a puzzle, they now know the solution. If they replay the game, this section will provide no challenge (unless they’ve completely forgotten the solution over time). The up-side is it creates a very unique situation where the player must specifically plan out his entire course of action in order to get past the obstacle. With action, it’s easy for the player to find imperfect solutions (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), which let them kind of bumble their way through. A puzzle requires the player to think their course of action through from beginning to end.

Note that action challenges can also have elements of puzzle solving and planning involved in them. Finding the optimal path through a stage and figuring out the timing can be an important part of an action game, especially a difficult one. This brings us back to a point from before, when I said that if there are multiple ways to get through a level, but one is obviously easier, the player will chose that one. But what about when the easiest path isn’t so obvious? In other words, figuring out the easiest way through a level could itself be an obstacle. Instead of thinking of it as a choice between the easiest path and the more difficult path, you can think of it as the difference between taking the time to figure out what the easiest path is and then taking it, and rushing ahead and possibly doing this the hard way because of it.

Next up is “prepare”. Preparation almost always works in conjunction with another obstacle, making that obstacle easier if you’ve prepared. A good example of this would be any RPG where there is a town with an item shop before a big dungeon. You could rush head-first into the dungeon, or you could prepare and get helpful items first. Thus a game design or a level design that provides you both opportunity and cause to prepare will test your preparation skill. But how do you keep the preparation interesting and keep it from allowing the player to completely minimize the challenge?

Well, that brings us to “manage resources”. This comes into play through the games mechanics whenever there is something useful the player has which they only have a limited amount of. Be it money, healing items, ammo or even time, resource management says “okay, you’ve got X amount of this, you need to use it, but use it carefully”. Where level design plays into this is A) how much of the resource you are given and B) how much of the resource is called for.

Let’s take a look at this example. I’ve done a few things here. First off, I’ve put a limit on how much ammo you have. Second, I’ve added an item that replenishes your ammo, but I’ve put it in a difficult spot to reach (remember this idea from the last article? Resource management mechanics are a great way to provide opportunities for the player to make risk/reward decisions). Finally, I’ve made it so that there are more enemies than there is ammo. Thus the player has the following things they have to do when playing this level: Choose which enemies to shoot (and successfully shoot them), not waste ammo (each bullet wasted is one more enemy they can’t defeat), decide whether the extra ammo is worth the risk/bullet expenditure to reach it, avoid the enemies that they don’t have the bullets to deal with.


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And that brings us to “explore” and “search”. Many games reward the player for fully exploring the space. It could be as simple as a box of ammo tucked away in a side-path, or even rewarding the player with whole new challenges (with extra rewards) for going off the beaten path, or noticing a hidden passageway. You can even make easier paths available to the player if they search the area well (for example, hiding the entryway to an airduct which will let you sneak past the enemy behind some boxes)

Let’s think back to the classic example of Super Mario Bros. The game at first glance seems entirely based on simple reflex and precision, however there are many mechanics and pieces of level design that reward exploring. Hitting Blocks can produce power and vines which lead to secret areas, pressing down on some pipes can lead to bonus rooms. And one of the biggest examples, at a certain point in the second level, it’s possible to bypass many of the challenges of the game by thinking outside the box. The famous “warp zone” can be reached by getting outside the bounds of the level, running along the top, and ultimately past the normal exit to a secret room full of pipes which let you skip ahead in the game. At first glance, this seems like a negation of challenge. This is clearly the easiest way to get through the game, and therefore the path people will always choose. However, discovering that this is even a possibility constitutes a challenge. The player had to notice that there was a gap in the top of the level, and that there was a way, through some clever platforming, to leap through that gap. While it might seem trivial to someone who already knows the secret, it takes a fair amount of observance and problem solving to figure it out for yourself. This challenge is then rewarded not only with being able to bypass that level, but with a warp room which lets you bypass whole worlds (showing the value Miyamoto placed on exploration in his games).

Let’s look at another example. At first it seems pretty straight forward. You’ve got to fight/avoid your way through the enemies. However, an astute eye might notice that some of the tiles seem a bit off. They might experiment and try shooting those tiles. This would then be rewarded by revealing a secret passageway to bypass some of the enemies. We’ll talk a lot more about exploration once we’ve moved to non-linear level design.


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For now, remember that there are many cognitive skills the player can take advantage of, and which you can test with level design. Puzzle Games obviously are entirely made up challenges relying entirely on these skills, but action games can make use of them as well.


Next week we’re going to move on from talking about building individual challenges and talk about how to string challenges together and pace your game.


<–Part 3: Obstacles and Player Choice  ——– Part 5: Pacing Challenges –>

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