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Level Design: The Linear Labyrinth

The level design process for my current WIP game is guided by three pillars: monuments, keep it fresh, and balanced pacing. This article explores what these pillars are, where they come from, and how have I applied them.

Jack Pritz, Blogger

March 4, 2020

10 Min Read

Hello, and welcome to part 1 of a ? part series on level design.

Warning: this article contains light spoilers for Dark Souls, Subnautica, the Dungeons and Dragons Lost Mine of Phandelver module, the Half-Life series, and my WIP game Gold and Glory.

Some games stick with us.  Years after we have played them, we can trace our way from start to finish, or at least through a memorable level or encounter.  For me, Dark Souls is one of those games.  I fought for every inch of progress in that game, and I can likely map every corner of the world map.  I still remember the drop in my stomach going down the elevator in the Undead Parish.  How far down does this go?  How close is the nearest bonfire?  Is this elevator also an exit in case I run out of Estus Flasks?  The chill in my veins melted into a crying glee when the stone walls of the elevator evaporated into a leafy expanse and I recognized that I was descending towards Firelink Shrine - the one area of the world map that feels like home.

I want to give that experience to those who play my games.  I want my players to feel the joy of discovery, and of knowing every inch of a level.  But at the same time, I'm making a linear game.  My scoping limitations demand it.  My current game project, Gold and Glory, is deep in the level design/creation process. So how do I intend to give players the sense of discovery and understanding of a level that I love so much?  My level design process is guided by three pillars: monuments, keep it fresh, and balanced pacing.  Where do these pillars come from, and how have I applied them?  Read on to find out!

A monument is a landmark that has a significance to the player and gameplay.  Where did I pull this pillar from?  Ok, so I kinda let the cat out of the bag in my introduction.  This one comes from Dark Souls.

To understand what a monument is, let's look at the first area of Dark Souls: Undead Asylum.  To the uninitiated, understand this: Dark Souls is very, very hard.  It is a game where you learn the enemies capabilities one death at a time.  If my statistics for number of deaths exists somewhere, I don't want to see it.  I would guess it is in the high hundreds, if not thousands.  That's typical.  Yep.  So when you find a new bonfire in the game, it is a moment of relief.  Bonfires are locations where you can refresh your health, level up, and save.  They are rare, and they are precious.

The first bonfire you encounter in the game is in a courtyard outside of a cathedral.  This courtyard becomes your home base for the entire area, and is an example of a monument.  This area anchors us.  It is our safe haven.  When we first enter it, we can see a locked door on the ground level, and a second floor above.  As we progress through path 2, "Sky Cells" as shown on the map above, we find ourselves on that second floor, and on the other side of that locked door.  From this side we can open it, use the bonfire, and anchor ourselves.  This pattern happens repeatedly as you progress through the level, as shown in the image below.

The path I just described?  It shows something neat about monuments.  Monuments work very well with large "loop" paths.  The courtyard is a beacon that a player can recognize and think "hey, I've been here before!"  The monument is a landmark.  But it is also more than a landmark. It is also a desirable place to be.  The player is happy because they have solved the puzzle of where they are, true enough, but they are also happy because this particular landmark has a bonfire.  In the context of Dark Souls, this monument is a refuge.  It is this additional positive that turns the courtyard from a landmark into a monument.  A monument must have some meaning to it.  It could be a place of great danger.  Sauron's Tower in Mordor is both a landmark and a place to avoid.  It represents the very heart of the enemy's strength.  A monument could also be a place of great boon.  The great wrecked ship in Subnautica is at first thought to be a place of refuge, but then discovered to be a place of great boon from all the technology found there.

A monument is a landmark that has a significance to the player and gameplay.

Keep it Fresh
Imagine this: you're in a goblin cave.  Room by room, hallway by hallway, you encounter parties of viscous goblins.  You slay all in your path until the caves are empty and you can claim their treasure.

Ok, now imagine this: you're in a goblin cave.  The goblins use pit traps and barricades to slow your progress. As you enter the final chamber they destroy the side of a reservoir fed by an underground waterfall.  A torrent of water washes you all the way back to the entrance of the cave system but, hello, what's this vertical shaft with food scraps piled under it?

Which sounds more interesting?

The second instance comes from a Dungeons and Dragons module, The Lost Mine of Phandelver.  It illustrates my second level design pillar: keep it fresh.  You can make fighting a single goblin as satisfying as you like.  You can give its AI interesting tactics; you can make it drop treasure or a new weapon; you can tweak the ragdoll just right.  That's all great, but if you don't put that goblin in different scenarios, players will get tired of it.

So "keep it fresh" means to vary scenarios that the player encounters, right?  Well, partially right.

It also means varying decor, and establishing distinct decor zones.  The cliched version of this is to have a "fire level" or a "sewer level" or an "underwater level."  Sure, that works - but we can do one better.  Let's return to the Undead Asylum map.

I've highlighted the five major areas in the map: Cathedral and Courtyard, Escape from Below, Sky Cells, Upper Level, and Ascendance.

In not very much space, the designers of this level sure did pack some interesting places.  Escape from below is an underground cell block.  This is a dingy place with pitiful lost souls imprisoned alongside a gargantuan demon.  The Cathedral and Courtyard open up into large areas of vertical lines, and you can see the sky.  The Sky Cells section is composed of a long hallway which is open to the sky.  The Upper Level opens up even more. It gives you a vantage point over the Cathedral, and the advantage of a plunge attack on the cathedral demon.  Ascendance is our exit from the asylum.  It is a vertical climb up a green slope and up towards a pinnacle.  Here the sky dominates your view.

As the player moves through the level, the sky opens up around them.  It represents the player freeing themselves from imprisonment, and it keeps the decor fresh.  Each area has a different amount of sky that is visible.  This changes the lighting and the feeling as the player progresses.  This same level could have been designed completely underground, with rooms and hallways of the same stone and rubble.  But that wouldn't be as compelling, would it?

The first two pillars in this article are focused around level structure.  This one is a bit less tangible than that.  In Dungeons and Dragons they have pillars of their own.  On page 8 of the 5e Player's Handbook, or page 6 of the basic rules, the three pillars of adventure are called out as Exploration, Social Interaction, and Combat.  These pillars of DnD can help drive a Dungeon Master's adventure design.  Different players appreciate different pillars more or less, but a campaign that fails to use all three pillars can feel "simple" or "hollow."

Applied to video games, let's finally get to the Half-Life series.  I recently played through the entire series again, because it's free to play between now and the launch of Half-Life: Alyx.  As I played through the series, I started to notice "fast" and "slow" moments.  During the fast moments you are fighting through an enemy stronghold, racing through a gauntlet of gunfire on an airboat, or surviving as waves of enemies crash upon you.  These are compelling and interesting scenarios, to be sure, but they are made even more compelling and interesting because of the slow moments that separate them.  In Half-Life 1, slow moments are built largely around platforming challenges.  In Half-Life 2, slow moments are largely built around physics puzzles.  In a slow moment you might find yourself piling objects into a counterweight that opens a gate; platforming above pools of nuclear waste; or squeezing under, over, and around mine tripwires.  These slow moments are a palette cleanser that keep the fast moments fresh.

Slow moments are also excellent opportunities for foreshadowing and hidden tutorials, but that's for another article.

Applying the Pillars towards Gold and Glory
My level design process is guided by three pillars: monuments, keep it fresh, and balanced pacing.  Here's the overview for Gold and Glory.

The monument I built the level around is a derelict pirate ship.  In tidal caves, this ship has sat and rotted for uncounted years full of a great treasure.  When the player gets their first view of the ship, they'll see that treasure glistening in the captain's cabin window.  From there, they will loop through caves with geysers powered by the tide, catacombs that are the final resting place of the pirate crew, and through the belly of the ship and the nest within before making it to the treasure.  The ship anchors the level.  All loops have views of it and lead back to it.

To keep it fresh, I've taken the idea of unique decor zones up a notch from my Dark Souls example.  Each loop passes through distinct areas that will have a different feel and a specific gimmick.  The water shot vertically through the geyser caves are a climbing and combat obstacle.  The catacombs have a necromantic flavor to them, with enemies that just won't stay down.  The nest is an organic gross fest.  By keeping these areas distinct and unique I plan to pull players into understanding how the denizens of the cave have interacted over time.  This will tell a story through the environment.

I'm working out pacing as I flesh out each section, but in general Gold and Glory is centered around combat, climbing, and treasure.  The gimmick of each loop feeds into these...well I guess I can't call them pillars, now can I?  Let's say themes.

Look out for my next article about level design.  It might be about foreshadowing and hidden tutorials, or maybe a case study on Half-Life 2's Ravenholm?  Feel free to poke at me on twitter if you would like to discuss the level design pillars I have laid out here or what I should write about next.

This article was originally posted on my website.  For more from me, check out my other articles at http://jackpritz.com/blog.htmlor here on Gamasutra

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