Have you ever been playing something so incredible that it stuck you on the screen for hours and days? Following each part of the story, each challenge as if it were the first and last? These memorable games are the result of good level design. see how great designers use this knowledge!
The Power of Level Design
Some stories can use something discreet in the structure of their levels, Other titles can choose to be more direct, with a level design that stands out. Planning how the level looks is one of the pillars of the games, hidden behind the graphics and the story.
It is unusual to find a game in which the level, scenario or situation to be overcome is not important. From platform games, puzzles, action to RPGs, everyone needs a good level design to tell their storylines.
It can be as subtle as the architecture of corridors and rooms, as in walls or blocks used as cover in Hitman 2, or as explicit as the placement of enemies and obstacles, like the skeletons in the background of Firelink Shrine in Dark Souls.
Have you noticed how the levels are made in games? Nothing is by chance, even in a city full of zombies like The Last of Us or an open world like those in Assassin's Creed saga. The producers think about all this before they define what the world of their game will be like!
It is important to know that it is not right or wrong, as each game is its own work of art. Each level design style meets some game needs, using each strategy when it suits. One of the most common:
1. Level Design for storytelling
Whoever played Bioshock knows: the game world is in ruins. Much of this story is not told by the characters, but by the environment and the paths we went through during the game. The place is destroyed, but it shows that it has just left a happy moment (the new year in 1959), all under an ocean.
The people we meet are even worse, with psychopaths and iconic killers on every level. Even when they are not talking to the player or attacking, they still tell their story. Statues that were once people, or bodies lost in the corridors ... Despite being full of death, the submerged city is rich in life, even if in the form of stories. A little more about Bioshock level design (The video is in English, but with Portuguese subtitles. Don't be shy!)
Level design, therefore, can tell stories in a totally unique way! It is like your home, your room, that say a lot about you, your tastes and your life even if you are not there to explain the details. The books you like to read, pictures and posters you chose to hang, your organization (or mess), all of this tells your story!
In Half-life 2, for example, “Ravenholm” is an abandoned city, infested by zombies. Even though it seems completely open, the path is revealed by tips such as the position of enemies or the path through which they pass.
An electric grid with a zombie trapped creates the idea of using an electric weapon against them. A zombie broken in half with a saw, stuck to a wall, suggests the launcher as a good strategy in that area, to the point of being a recurring idea. You are not the first to enter that abandoned city, after all.
If the scenery and the position of each detail were not thought out carefully, we would never see most of these things. The player's attention is limited, so that's usually what happens. The next time you play something, give the scene around you a try!
2. When Level Design is the challenge
In puzzle games, puzzles and riddles, one of the main tools of the level designer is the level itself. The rooms in the levels are designed so as not to give the way up front, but to allow deductions and hypotheses.
When we don't know what to do in a game, the first way out is to look around, find out what the place has to say. Level design allows the construction of a good challenge, neither so obvious nor so impossible.
If you've played Portal (1 or 2), Do you know what this is. When you face the surroundings, after understanding how the gun portal works, you start testing, looking for ways to continue the path and pass the level sometimes even shooting wildly against the walls!
Each level meets the concept of level design by giving the small tips necessary for the player to get to the form to complete the challenge.
With the mechanics of the gun portal, even mistakes and accidents help to get closer to the answer, as when shooting against a wall shows us a new perspective from the same level, opening doors to the player that previously seemed unreachable!
There is a totally different form of this concept in the Assassin's Creed franchise. Each exploitable city, region or area (except the Black Flag and Rogue seas, which are a separate thing) is full of obstacles, scalable walls and paths suitable for parkour, all this immersed in a scenario that seems to be something common!
Thanks to this, each mission or objective is, before a combat challenge, a question of positioning and movement. In AC: Rogue, one of the most memorable moments occurs during an escape, not a fight. Enemies on all sides force the player to keep pace, even if it seems impossible.
In Shadow of the Colossus, most fights take place over the colossus itself, but some fights are the exception. The battle against Celosia, the eleventh colossus, we find out that he is afraid of fire, and we conveniently use it to our advantage, by flaming it away with torches!
3. When the Level is your ally
This is very common in shooters and arcades. Whenever you find a cover to protect yourself from gunshots and regain life, you benefit from a level design designed for that. Many games "help" the player by the way the level is planned, delivering the right resources at the right time.
Gears of War 3 have great examples of this across the map. The stools, walls, sandbags and crates are "strangely" positioned if we talk about their normal function, but perfectly aligned with the player's need to have a cover at the time of combat. With the speed of the game, we often don't even notice!
In racing games like Forza Horizon and Need for Speed, the player finds tickets, shortcuts and ways to gain small advantages in the race. In this case, the opponents have the same chances, but they are ways to retake the lost advantage in a bad corner or to cause twists in a race.
The places where we find healing items, friendly NPCs or bonfires in Dark Souls bring a moment of peace amid the chaos of the game world. We know that, at least for a moment, we are safe.
Each campfire had its position very well chosen so that it would not be found too quickly or too quickly, just as it would not take so long to find it.
A simple but classic example: space invaders. The rain of shots would be practically unbeatable if we could not count on the floating protections between the ship and the aliens!
Developers never create a game that is against the player. At most, they make the player believe that he is. Regardless of the difficulty, all games are intended to be played and completed by your players.
Remember this if you try to play Dark Souls again, hehe.
4. Level Design and nothing else
Games Runner and Platform sometimes have no enemy or opponent to be defeated, only the scenario itself. The player's ability to overcome the course is the challenge in these games.
It is unusual to see a big game with this type of approach, but in mobile and casual games it is quite common. The disposition of the parts of the environment are crucial for the resolution of each phase.
Games like Geometry Dash (I recommend), in which, following the rhythm of the music, the scenario moves forward with the character having only his jumps to control. As the difficulty increases, the speed also becomes greater, making it more difficult to overcome each obstacle.
Super Mario, Megaman and even Castlevania have some traces of this, but they are not limited to level design to tell their stories. Games like Super Mario Maker are literally builders of Level Design!
The first Sonic games also carry this feature in part. The faeces are designed to let the player slide through them at the fast speed the hedgehog reaches. The Power Ups and check points need to be in the ideal places, where the player tends to slow down (something that, you guessed it, is built by the level design).
5. The “Non-Level Design”
Although, in most games, planning how crucial each level is, it is possible to follow a completely opposite path. Games without any predefined level or stage, which still make perfect sense. One of the most famous in this group is also one of the most famous games in the world: Minecraft.
This type of game is in line with the principle of programming, a way of structuring the game called “procedural programming”. The developers determine the rules and components of the level (in the case of Minecraft, the world) and charge the machine, whether console, cell phone or computer, to generate the scenario based on these rules and components.
This topic is a bit more technical, so don't worry if it looks confusing. In minecraft, we find forests, deserts, glaciers, caves, all built by the CPU, not by any human mind in its details.
This allows for the infinity and breadth of the worlds of the best known block game of all! We rarely see a world completely identical to another, except when we replicate them.
Rogue-like games are known for this style, such as Enter the Gungeon or Wizards of Legend. With each new round, new game, the map or the levels are generated again, based on the rules defined by the producers.
Although it seems monotonous to explain, the opposite happens in games: each experience is the most unique and exclusive it could be!
In minecraft, your world is, most likely just yours. Each challenge in Enter the Gungeon is new, albeit similar, not becoming repetitive or sickening even after repetitive matches.
"Infinite" games, like No Man's Sky and the aforementioned Minecraft, need to use this feature or else they would be a nightmare for any computer or console, even the best. It opens the door to unique and, in a way, bigger experiences!
6. Helping to create a climate
The structure of the scenario can, in addition to telling stories, also be the perfect tool to give a certain tone to what happens. A closed or small section in the middle of an escape can cause great distress, without knowing whether it escapes or not.
Level design, when used with the player in mind, is very powerful. Horror and suspense games usually use these resources very well, with emphasis on the Resident Evil franchise.
Since the first games, we have seen this technique in action. When the camera does not let us see for sure what is ahead, after a corner or curve in the corridors, or outside windows, the tension is already created. We don't know what to expect, and the suspense grows with each step.
Right away, we may not realize it, but the construction of the entire level was designed to make us feel this way! The tension and suspense that we believe to be Leon and Claire's is translated to us by the situation that they and we need to deal with.
Resident Evil is not the only one capable of doing this. In the recently released Little Nightmares 2, we have a very effective construction of tension in the second part of the game about the little protagonists.
Without giving spoilers, we are chased by a creature that even invades the ventilation ducts (while we are in them). The previous feeling that it was a safe place is broken, and we need to run.
The character's fear is quickly linked to ours! Even if in scale, the connection with the game and what it tells is generated differently from the one created by hearing the story being told.
This does not apply only to terror and suspense. Games like Sonic or racing titles are long in length, so that the feeling of speed (as well as reaching it) is maximized.
The great slopes and spectacular climbs are part of the experience, like summits and lulls in a song.
In Shadow of the Colossus, we are always alone. The vastness and silence of the game areas, in the middle of the solitary search for the colossi, places us side by side with Wander, on Agro's back.
7. Developing the world
This topic is similar to the first, but has other implications. The construction of the world and its history are related, but they are not the same thing.
For example: we know that, in dark souls, we need to seek the great souls to rekindle the primary flame. The fact that there is an entire social crescent, described literally by the height (with Anor Londo castle far above, and Blighttown far below) is not something that is revealed by the narrative, but that is there!
Each area of the game is connected with the rest in a subtle and calculated way. If we go down, we have more suffocation, darkness, rot and dirt. The higher, the more golden, elegant and shiny the environment is.
Regions tell how the world works just because they are as they are.
In Dead Rising 2, even in the midst of the zombie apocalypse, the large and vast shopping and city is surrounded by light and colors, as well as a great diversity of tools for the work of surviving.
Even in the midst of chaos, the same life that society had built seeks to emerge, leaves its mark and its tracks. Even the simple fact that there is still electric light demonstrates human resistance in that situation!
The Level Design of a game, as a story or just a casual experience, can define its success or failure. The way the message is delivered is as important as the message itself.
If a horror game fails to generate tension, it (probably) failed as a horror game. In a racing game, speed and adrenaline must exist, or we will be playing a ride simulator.
Each story has its way to go. The important thing is to find and recognize which path of history we are on!