Self Destructive Level Design: How Good Intentions Go Wrong

In this article, we cover self-destructive level design and how a designer's good intentions can dilute good level design. We go over three core categories unnecessary content, classification shifts, and ludonarrative dissonance.

Video Link for those that prefer a visual learning style:

Nothing breaks my heart more than hearing stories about self-destructive levels in some great games that brought about the very end of a player’s playthrough.


In this video, we are talking about sections of level design in games that completely turn player’s away from them and we're going to try to infer why this happens and how to prevent it in our games.


Self-destructive level design is something you’re generally going to find in good games. 


It’s when the level designer has some amazing aspects to their missions or levels but ends up including things into their level or games that end up actually harming it.


Now there are many ways level designers can do this but it's important to recognize that this design problem usually comes out of good faith.


Designers are proud of some of the things they’ve worked on, sometimes with really great individual features.

or they just want to overwhelm the player and include as much content as possible that they think will keep them engaged.


A lot of the examples we are talking about today are games that I admire and respect that made these very choices that I believe were a detriment and falls under self-destructive level design.


I like to divide this self-destructive level design into core categories.


The first category is unnecessary content. 


This is when a designer either includes way too much to a detriment of the level’s flow and purpose or includes the wrong type of activities in that level for the existing subject matter that’s already established.


The best example I can think of that checks all of these boxes for self-destructive level design is something I like to call ‘The Hinterlands Dilemma”


Minor spoilers for Dragon Age Inquisitions opening segment here.


The Hinterlands is one of the earliest zones introduced to the player in Dragon Age Inquisition. 


It takes place in the world of Thedas and is described as a vibrant world of rugged wilderness, treacherous labyrinths, and glittering cities. 


You the protagonist find yourself at a time of warring nations, savage combat, and secret magics. Now, the fate of this world teeters on a knife's edge. 


And the game does its very best to reinforce this from the very beginning.


You claw your way from the depths of the abyss, find yourself imprisoned and interrogated for the power you now possess.


You decide to use that power to push through the rugged wilderness of the snowy mountains, you push back the demons falling from the sky to find out you have the power to seal the very rifts they pour from.


Desperate to stop the demons before it gets too late you mount an all-out assault on the largest of the demon rifts. 


You’re only partially successful, the rift isn't gone but it's sealed, temporarily, you’ve bought yourself the most important resource, time.


And what if I told you the follow up to this knife’s edge opener is the Hinterlands, a region brimming with all the things we spoke about earlier.


Well, I'd be only half right because this region also is plagued with dozens of sidequests, hours upon hours of Hunting druffalos, collecting blankets, pitching tents, and racing horses against a timer.


So much of this region exemplifies the very pillars of this title, there are some great quests here that check all of the boxes.


But unfortunately, the level design waters it down, dilutes the very successful elements 


  • The rugged terrains of the hinterlands a perilous mountain region.

  • The treacherous labyrinths of fortresses that have been taken away from you.

  • The glittering dwarven cities in the underdark beneath this region

  • Warring nations of mages and templars in an endless conflict, turning on the very people they’re sworn to protect.

  • And a devastating dragon roaming its lair and burning all who enter to a crisp.


But the overall level contains way too many things that fight against this and not only is it a detriment to the levels flow and purpose, It also chooses to include the wrong type of activities for the existing subject matter.


A perfect example of unnecessary content in a level design that is otherwise great conceptually with the core pillars already checked.


A game I love but one that is unfortunately plagued by an element of self-destructive level design.


The next is classification shifting.


The stealth section, the escort mission, the water level, the racing segment.


This is when a great game with otherwise great level design decides to include an entire segment or level dedicated to a shifting of genre or classification. 


We include a stealth segment in our shocking action game for example.


While there are some amazing exceptions that certainly exist, levels that are handcrafted to include these unfamiliar and unique sections benefit the level design. 


These more often actually damage the existing experience when your game levels aren’t built around it or they can just feel shoehorned in.


I think examples of this self-destructive level design are probably the easiest to spot given how much they really stand out from the rest of the experience.


I’ve recently been going through the Kingdom’s Heart series and in the second game, I experienced the most bizarre and I would say the best example of this abrupt classification shifting.


Suddenly the Disney themed  RPG turned into a very weak and offbeat rhythm section. You find yourself in the midst of an underwater musical where the gameplay is reduced to watching Disney themed songs while participating in very weak quick time event segments.


It pulls you completely out of an amazing existing experience and into one that feels off and wrong even. 


It's like from one level to the next is completely different, almost as if an entirely new level designer is coming in and wasn’t aware of any of the content leading up to that point before they got to designing.


Solo Stealth segments can be amazing in games that are built around it like Metal Gear Solid and Dishonoured.


But put segments like this into games like Lost Odyssey or Final Fantasy 15 where the strength of level design comes from the party and your bonds with the characters.


And you find yourself with sections or levels where you are locked away from these strong gameplay elements and thrust into a completely different experience that the level design is not built for.


You never want to be in a situation as a level designer where your community is legitimately asking for patches to skip an entire chapter like in Final Fantasy 15 and that's a very real potential danger with classification shifting.


And last but certainly not least the final category is one that really deserves its own video but has been touched on a lot already in the game design community and this is ludonarrative dissonance


Easily described as the conflict between a game's story and its gameplay this is a truly familiarized problem among level designers.


A level designer works with a vast amount of departments and it increases the possibility of miscommunication 


This is when a level designer actively fights the very thing the narrative is trying to convey, the stories the game is trying to sell you.


And in doing so not only is it self-destructive to the narrative but fragments into the level design itself.


Games that have a narrative that is trying to emphasize that you are the chosen one, yet in levels or missions makes you feel fragile, doing feeble tasks and activities.


Look no further than some of the games we spoke about today


Dragon Age Inquisition has a rich narrative story, it presents you with high stakes and flips over the hourglass with claims of lack of time.


But what happens to the world in reality, nothing, for purposes of gameplay the level designer’s have it remain stagnant, a dead thing waiting for you the player to interact with it.


While the narrative is trying to light a fire under your ass to save the world, the level design reflects a different priority, it is quite happy to exist in stasis as you go around collecting blankets and exploring the world dungeons and dragons style.


It’s understandable why we choose to go this route as level designer’s especially in RPGs, but working against the narrative or story in ways like this will negatively affect the level design as the two are so closely entwined in the creative process.


If you light a fire under the ass of your player’s one way or the other you need to address it with your level design. Doing anything else is a surefire example of self-destructive level design.


Whether it's unnecessary content, a shift in classification, or ludonarrative dissonance there are many ways level designers can find themselves sabotaging the very experiences they're trying to create.


And if there is anything you should take away from this video it's that even the best of design intentions can sometimes do more harm than good.


I'm curious to hear your thoughts on self-destructive level design, maybe you have an example of a game or level that exhibits a category I spoke about or even maybe one I didn’t. I’d love to hear about it in the comments.


Until next time this is CantResistTriss, keep designing, never lose your passion, and I will see you guys in the next game design talk. Bye guys.

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