I’ve added my contributions to the two Braingale EPs to the games page and front page. From Braintheatrecomes Variation 6: Detective, and from Architectscomes 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.
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):
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.
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:
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.”
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.
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.