This way, stupid!

Most computer game designs of recent years conspicuously neglect level design. A level designer’s job isn’t limited to level architecture and scripting — a game can benefit immensely from consistent atmosphere and psychological steering of the player. Modern level design should also be understood as a reality check for game design ideas.

Instead, many current games have filled this position inadequately or even tried to make it into a (minor) part of the game designer’s role. Ideally, the game and its scenarios should be believable and understandable, and the player’s actions should be cool and fit into the world; instead of adapting real life to achieve this, new games have introduced specialized, more or less awkward mechanisms.

In earlier games, all openable crates looked the same, and any slope that could be climbed had the same vine hanging from it. Such conventions were tolerable in the graphics of the time.

Such repeated elements aren’t welcome in today’s nearly photorealistic games, which makes levels harder to “read”. Thus, the aforementioned new mechanics:

Wolverine offers “smell-o-vision”, which highlights interactive elements and the path onward. However, this only forces us to play much of the game in false colours.

In Watchmen – The End is Nigh, a button press turns the character to face the direction in which he should next go, rather than designing the level so that the player can figure it out, or at least including a compass in the HUD.

The first clips of the new Splinter Cell show a system in which the character is shown as a ghost in the last place he was seen by the guards. Also, we can storm a room in the style of a modern action film, quickly and precisely eliminating multiple opponents that we have previously observed and marked. This will probably push the game toward an arcade feeling, because it doesn’t allow the player to know intuitively where his enemies are hunting him — it just breaks the atmosphere to show him directly. Also, storming rooms won’t feel fast-paced and cool, because it’s achievable only after a planning phase rather than simulating rapid and accurate shooting through e.g. discreet autoaim.

There are, however, counterexamples: while fleeing on the jetski in Half Life 2, for example, the level design uses the size and lighting of areas and scripted events to push us subliminally through the canals, so that we feel as if we were spontaneously choosing the right path from several alternatives. If we examine the map afterwards, though, it turns out that all of those (not so appealing looking) branches are actually dead ends. Skillful placement of eyecatchers makes the rail feel like a huge open space.

Clearly, there is much to do in the discipline of level design if the next generation of games is to offer a play experience as beautiful as its graphics…

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