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.