Level Design Primer Part 19: Familiar and Unfamiliar Space

After a hiatus, Level Design Primer returns! This time around, I want to talk about one of the evocative qualities of level design. Specifically, the ability to create familiar and unfamiliar space.

But first, as a way of illustrating what I mean by familiar and unfamiliar space:

There are two kinds of stores. The kind that you go to to because there’s things you specifically need to buy. The electronic store where you look around for the memory card section, pick one off the shelf, bring it to the counter, buy it and leave. The grocery store where you go up and down the isles picking up all the things you’ll need for the week. Then there are the shops you enjoy going to. You walk into the store, and you don’t know what you want to buy, but you know where the first thing you do when you enter the store will be. You’ll take a beeline to the coffee dispenser, or the stack of 25 cent comics, or the PS2 bargain bin. You make yourself at home. The experience is different.

This is what I mean when I talk about familiar space in games. Not just a place that you know the layout of, or know what to expect, or know your way around. A place where you feel at home, where you have control over your environment, where you already know where you want to go, and what’s the quickest way to get there.

Familiar space could be the home town in a JRPG, it could be your ship in a sci-fi adventure, it could be the hub area. It’s the player’s comfort zone. They know their way around they know where things of importance are. If there are obstacles, the obstacles are far below the current level of the difficulty curve, and the player can deal with them with barely a thought. Familiar space is not just safe (or safe-ish) but open and easy to navigate, with recognizable landmarks.

Unfamiliar space, then, would be the places the player goes when they’re leaving their comfort zone. The dark cave, the alien planet, the abandoned building, unexplored continent.

There is an evocative power to familiar and unfamiliar space. If you’ve played a Metroidvania, I’m sure you’ve had this experience: You’re delving further and further into an unfamiliar location, getting through challenges, and finally you find a new item. The item lets you pass through barriers that you couldn’t before. But you went through a one-way passage to get here. You can’t turn back, you have to push forward. You finally get to a passage blocked by the barrier that you can now open using your weapon. You walk through, and suddenly you’re greeted by an area you recognize. That door you just opened was one you walked by a hundred times, always wondering where it led. And now you breath a sigh of relief. You know where you are, and, what’s more, you know how to get to a save point from here. Tension and release.

Unfamiliar space can become familiar space over time. The perfect example is the Link to the Past overworld. At the start of the game, everything but your house is unfamiliar space. For a while, the overworld is presented as a series of challenges that you need to overcome. But after a little while, a chunk of the overworld becomes familiar. The enemies no longer pose a threat and you know your way around. You might unlock an item that lets you remove various barriers, thus opening up shortcuts that makes traversal easier. What was a linear path from your house to the castle at the start of the game opens up and becomes a zone that players can move freely around. And as you progress through the game, you open up more and more of the world, and those parts of the world go from unfamiliar to familiar. The dungeons, on the other hand, as the main challenge sections of the game, have the job of always being unfamiliar. You might hang out and just wander around the overworld, but in the dungeons, you have a specific goal, and obstacles in your way.

One thing to note is that openness can lend both to the quality of familiar space and unfamiliar space. If the player is dropped into a new area, and the area is very open, it can overwhelm them and lend to the feeling of unfamiliarity. One tool you can use to turn unfamiliar space into familiar space is to have it open up over time. Introduce it to the player as a linear or semi-linear set of challenges, and guide them around so that they start to recognize the landmarks. Then give the player ways to open up shortcuts and thus give them more freedom of movement through the area.

Some games will also subvert familiar space. Take a place where you felt comfortable and safe, and make it dangerous and unfamiliar. This can be a powerful moment. In Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, when you jump forward 7 years and become adult link, your home town, Kokiri Forest, gets invaded by monsters. It’s no longer the safe haven you remember it as. And what’s more, the Kokiri no longer recognize you now that you’ve grown up. It is no longer your home.

Probably the most interesting (and frightening) parts of The Evil Within were when the safe room, where you go to save and upgrade your character, suddenly becomes different and threatening. These sections are all the more frightening because they are happening in a place that the game had set up as a safe haven. They’ve invaded your safe place.

Keep in mind how the player interacts with the space in your game, and, moreover, how the player feels about the areas of your game. Where does the player feel safe, or comfortable, or at home? You can use these familiar and unfamiliar space to create emotional and dramatic arcs through the level design itself.

 <–Part 18: Emergent Objectives ——– Part 20: Coming Eventually…

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