Level Design Primer Part 15: Naturalism

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.

  <–Part 14: Rules of Composition   ——– Part 16: Environmental Storytelling –>

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Level Design Primer Part 14: Rules of Composition

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.

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Level Design Primer Part 13: Level Geometry

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.

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Trailer – Emo McGothington: Sad Candy Shooter

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Level Design Primer Part 12: Hubs and Shortcuts

This time around I want to talk about some ways to make navigation easier in non-linear space, and I want to specifically deal with the issue of backtracking. Backtracking is when the player has to go back over the same are they just went through to get to where they started. Here’s an example to demonstrate what I mean (note, in this example, you don’t start with the gun.  You’ve got to find it):

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Level Design Primer Part 11: Designing Around Failure

There’s a level design idea which I’ve been trying to resolve into a concrete topic, but I was having trouble getting to the core of it. Then I played the new Strider and it resolved itself. So far we’ve been talking about non-linear level design in terms of each area being a challenge the player should want to go to and complete. In other words, in the best possible playthrough, the player would end up trying to go to every area.

However, there’s another option. You can have areas that exist for the player to end up when they fail at completing a challenge perfectly. You can design levels such that if the player completes it flawlessley, they might only see a small percentage of the level.

How Strider accomplishes this is by making it so that there are no bottomless pits for you to fall down. Instead you just fall to a lower part of the level and have to fight and climb your way back up. Large areas would often have multiple tiers, with the upper tier offering the fastest path, but requiring perfect timing and platforming, and lower tiers possibly taking longer to get through, but offering more hiding places and movement options.

This sort of design can be seen throughout the original Sonic the Hedgehog games. The game was about maintaining your momentum, and doing so would allow you access to a certain path through the level. If you timed everything perfectly and maintained your momentum, you’d be able to stay on the upper path. However, if you either fall down, or don’t have enough momentum for certain jumps, you’ll end up on one of the lower paths.

Here’s an example where there is an upper path of platforms with shooting enemies on them. If you miss a jump, you’ll fall to a lower path with hopping enemies and a climb back up to the goal.

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The game Antichamber by Alexander Bruce is a fantastic example of this sort of level design. The game is full of strange areas that you reach if you make a wrong turn or get lost. You’re likely to see most of the game world in your first playthrough, which could take hours, since you’ll be making plenty of wrong turns. The game plays around with illogical space and non-euclidean geometry, so getting lost is a large part of the experience. However, if you know what you’re doing, it’s possible to speed-run the game in less than 10 minutes, and see only a small fraction of the game world.

This sort of design works in more subtle ways in games where enemies can move around the level quite a bit. You can make areas whose purpose is to give the player a place to run or hide if they get spotted by enemies, or places for them to be chased by large groups of enemies. There might be an optimal path through the level which doesn’t involve these side-areas, but the player either doesn’t know that route, or has botched the timing of it, and now has to improvise. Think to games like Metal Gear Solid, which would contain side-rooms which served as hiding places in case you got spotted by an enemy, or games like Bioshock, where each area was a fairly open space with a network of hallways and rooms which could provide the player with strategic options if the situations turned against them.

In addition, you can use areas that the player reaches through failure in interesting ways. Ninja Gaiden 2 has an area which requires successful timing on wall-running and jumping. If you fail, you fall down a pit. The pit contains a broken staircase which makes you practice your wall-running and wall-jumping before returning you to just before the challenge you failed. Instead of automatically assuming that everyone needs the same amount of coaching with the skill, they put a test in place, and give an extra learning challenge to the people who fail that test.  See the following example:

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The bottom area is an easier, lower risk version of the challenge on top.  (Also, take note of the way I block off the bottom path.  The descructable blocks are placed in such a way that you can’t get through them from above.  This serves as a sort of one-way gating mechanism to keep the player from intentionally exploring the bottom area, expecting some sort of reward.  If they fall down there, the reward is getting back up, and thus the area makes sense.  However, if they notice the path down at the beginning, they might venture down there and feel cheated that they didn’t find anything)

You can also build in negative feedback into your level design by utilizing areas that the player reaches through failure. (For those who don’t know, negative feedback is when a system tries to push itself away from extremes. For example, a mechanic where you deal more damage the less health you have would be a negative feedback loop, as the worse you’re doing, the more chance you have to recover and do better. The blue shell in Mario Kart is another example, since it specifically targets whoever is in first. This is as opposed to positive feedback, where the system pushes itself towards extremes, for example, a mechanic where the less health you have, the less damage you deal.) For example, you could put health items and ammo in a room the player might be chased into by enemies, or extra health items in an area they might reach by failing some challenge.  Although be careful, or you might end up making what you intended as a failure area into the optimal path.  And, of course, something could be a little of both.  You could have an area that’s there to either reward exploration, or provide a little boost to someone who has been pushed there.

In other words, when designing an area, it’s important to think “what would bring the player here.” However, the answer to that question isn’t necessary “a shiny new item” or “progressing the story”. Sometimes it could be “because they missed the jump and fell down here” or “because they bit off more than they could chew, and were chased here by a gang of enemies.”

 <–Part 10: The Revenge of Planning Out Levels   ——– Part 12: Hubs and Shortcuts–>

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Level Design Primer 10: The Revenge of Planning Out Levels

I want to take what I’ve talked about so far in terms of non-linear level design and show a practical application. Thus, I’m going to do another “Planning out your Levels” article, this time showing my process behind the level design from Treasure of the Abandoned City, specifically the space between starting the game and actually entering the city.

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Level Design Primer #9: Navigation through Non-Linear Levels

We’ve talked a bit about arranging challenges in a non-linear level. But what about the person actually playing your game? How do they find their way around? In linear games, it’s easy. “Which way did I come from? I’ll go the other way”. In non-linear games, it’s a bit more complicated (hell, sometimes the answer IS “back the way I came.”).

Now, the easiest way to do this, which a lot of modern games do, is to give the player a map, and put a marker on the map telling them where to go and an arrow pointing them how to get there. Now, this works to get the player from point A to point B, but it takes away a lot of the fun of actually exploring the space and finding your own way to the goal. It can also feel unnatural and immersion-breaking. On the other hand, if you give no guidance, there’s the possibility of the player getting lost and frustrated and not even know where they’re supposed to be going.

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Level Design Primer #8: Gating and Implicit Linearity

As I said in the last part, there are a lot of benefits to linear design. You can control the pace at which the player is introduced to new content and harder challenges. What if we want the feeling of exploring a non-linear space, while also creating a sort of linear-experience of introducing challenges to the player?

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Level Design Primer 7: Non-linear Level Design

We’ve talked so far about stringing together challenges in a linear order. Challenge 1 is followed by challenge 2 is followed by challenge 3 and so on. There are many advantages to building a game around this structure: you can tightly control the difficulty curve, easily make sure everything is introduced in the right order and you can know where the character will begin a challenge and design all the obstacles to block that specific path. But, of course, many games benefit from giving the player more freedom in how they explore the world of the game. And you can still apply much of what you’ve learned about linear level design to non-linear level design, it just takes a bit more consideration.

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