Three Inspirations for Creative Level Design

While Level Designers can learn a lot from classical and contemporary ideas in structural architecture, they are free from many of the constraints of real world builders and architechs. Paul Warne presents the works of three great visionary designers and architechs to inspire new thoughts on the nature of spatial design, and consequently new ideas on particular aspects of the art of level design.

While we as Level Designers can learn a lot from classical and contemporary ideas in structural architecture, we can also draw inspiration from the visionaries that work outside of the restrictive hierarchies of reality. These experimental architects are able to spend their energies solely on the expression of their creations, as is our own modus operandi: to design and construct that which entertains or informs.

This artilce presents three great works that have inspired in me new thoughts on the nature of spatial design, and consequently new ideas on particular aspects of our art. In a vein similar to that of Duncan Brown's GDC 2001 presentation on contemporary architecture, I present three works from the realm of experimental or visionary architecture. I hope to give you insight into their ideas and processes, and toss in a few of my own notions on their expressionistic relationships to our work as geometricians of time, space and experience.

Lebbeus Woods' Terra Nova

"Experimental architecture…transcends the logic of its own construction."
— Lebbeus Woods

Lebbeus Woods is one of the planet's most renowned visionary architects. His publications can be hard to come by since most are now out of print (but they are certainly worth the effort and tragic losses required to obtain one). You may also come across his work at your local art museum where it has been known to pop up from time to time (the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art actually has a couple works in their permanent collection).

Terra Nova is a collection of six projects that Woods assembled to present a thesis on, and created nothing short of a complete rebirth in architecture, culture, and humanity — a new earth, as the title suggests.


Just looking at the physical qualities of his drawings is an exercise in rethinking spatial composition.

At first glance, you notice Lebbeus Woods the artist. Just looking at the physical qualities of his drawings is an exercise in rethinking spatial composition. The freedom and discipline with which he breaks down and reassembles typical notions of architecture using line, color, texture, and shape are worthy of study alone.

Then you sense the immensity of the environment evoked by these compositions. The quasi post-apocalyptic aspects that lend the pieces a prophetic sensation, existing somewhere between science fiction and science fact. The acceptance of architecture becoming truly fluid and organic, and in turn unfamiliar to our fuzzy, four-walled notions of a home or dwelling.

In a nutshell, these structures are accomplished by breaking down the very hierarchies that shape architecture, as we know it, partially in terms of technology, but moreover politically. For Woods, breaking down bureaucratic hierarchies is the only way to truly advance not only architecture, but the human condition as well. Some might call it anarchy, but Woods likes to think these constructs are products of an assemblage of "heterarchies", a term he borrows from cybernetics which Woods defines as "a spontaneous lateral network of autonomous individuals; a system of authority based on the evolving performances of individuals (e.g. a cybernetic circus)."


The structure exists as another thin crust among the strata of geological time.

DMZ is a conceptual project consisting of a massive structure assembled along the demilitarized zone in Korea. It is difficult to interpret all of its implications, however, what is understood in part, is Woods' simple idea of architecture being just an additional layer of the earth. It exists as another thin crust among the strata of geological time, a regenerating skin or film that undulates and transforms along with the body of the Earth from which it grows. Such seemingly unrelated concepts (such as architecture and layers of strata) when put together, can produce the most interesting designs. What else could architecture be blended with and what might that look like? What if one was to combine two unrelated objects such as a wall and tofu? An individuals initial reaction towards that combination might simply be the idea of edible architecture, where the inhabitants create their own spaces and passageways by consuming their bland tasting environment. One can even reverse engineer an architectural design to define the inhabiting culture itself. This brings up a point that makes Woods' images intriguing: you as a viewer are invited to imagine how you would interact with these landscapes and structures. This is the same imaginative leap that is often the challenge in level designing.

Solo House, another project in Terra Nova, contains an interesting narration in the art of visionary architecture. Aaron Betsky describes the project in Terra Nova's introduction as a place where:

"…Woods imagines a new home on a far away range for a single inhabitant who starts by using the instruments supplied to him to measure the universe outside of his armored egg, and then slowly turns the optical penetrators inward, so that he ends up by comparing his own atoms with those of the metal all around him. The implication of the little narrative supplied with the project is that man goes from seeing architecture as a traditional shelter that he can use to define himself in relation to the world around him…to realizing that in essence he is the same as the world around him."


Woods' designs maintain an eerily realistic quality of being functional constructs, as shown here in Solo House.

Studying Woods is great for designers of both real and fantasy worlds. As fantastic as his designs are, and as far as they may stretch the bounds of logic, they maintain an eerily realistic quality of being functional constructs (which, I suppose, is why Woods is considered an architect, rather than just a good illustrator). He accomplishes this visual functionality in part using recognizable and believable frameworks, and through the amount and scale of architectural detail. All are important elements to be aware of when designing an environment. When it comes down to it, like Woods, we all are creating nothing more than the illusion of space.

Pamphlet Architecture

"There was an old lady who lived in a shoe."
— M. Goose

In 1978 architects, Steven Holl and William Stout founded the Pamphlet Architecture series. It was to act as a forum for new ideas introduced by a younger generation of architects. Each issue is completely designed by its author, giving each a unique feel.

This series is one of the greatest collections of small exercises in rethinking architectural design and functionality. Some of the issues are a quite academic, however, most are very accessible. Issues 1-10 have fortunately been reprinted in one volume (Pamphlet Architecture 1-10), and even though these first editions were introduced at the dusk of the 20th century, they are still regarded as progressive works.

Cover Picture for Pamphlet Architecture 21, Situation Normal:

Where Lebbeus Woods' Terra Nova stretches the mind with a couple of broad, holistic notions of architecture and society, this series deals more with collecting a variety of small experiments in spatial design. They present fantastic tools for breaking down spatial preconceptions and opening up new ideas with ways in which spatial design or narrative might be expressed. There are so many different notions explored in Pamphlet Architecture, that it is best just to present it through a couple examples:

Here is an excerpt of Mark Mack's 10 Californian Houses, Pamphlet Architecture No. 10: House for Two Fighting Brothers.

"Dropped into the ground, this energy-conscious building commemorates the aesthetic of the unseen. The ambiguous separation of the building by the mound of dirt becomes a metaphor for separation within a small area. Depending on the actions of the inhabitants, the mound could be removed."


House for Two Fighting Brothers.

The following is an excerpt from Container Building by David J. Lewis, Marc Tsurumaki and Paul Lewis from Pamphlet Architecture 21, Situation Normal:

"What if the different notions and configurations of containers in office and residential units, grocery stores and transportation systems were reconfigured to maximize efficiency? Here, the elevator core, typically buried within a building, is brought to the exterior facades, to serve as front door, reception lobby, picture window, and bridge to the street-level store. Semi-trailers delivering goods to the grocery store are hydraulically lifted from the basement level and open up, becoming the store's shelves and thereby mitigating the cost and time of unloading and restocking. Above, each floor unit is split by a utility core, dividing the space into an apartment and an office. By moving this core, rapid changes in the economy can be matched by instantaneous redistribution of the space allocated to each renters living and work areas."


Design plans for Container Building by David J. Lewis, Marc Tsurumaki and Paul Lewis.

Here is an excerpt from Einstein Tomb by Lebbeus Woods, Pamphlet Architecture No. 6:

"His tomb-if it is to house his remains-must not only honor his memory but must also embody his ideals. The Tomb is a vessel journeying outward on a beam of light emitted from earth, following an immense and subtle arc through the stars. For eons it will inhabit the dominions of space, until in a distant time it must return to the world of its beginning. Thus, a cycle, the epicycle of Space and Time will close. On that remotest day the dark corridors of the infinite will again become thresholds for departure, fading shores on the dark gulf of eternity."


The Tomb is a vessel journeying outward on a beam of light emitted from earth.


Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities

"Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant."
-Gore Vidal

While the previous works are categorized within the field of experimental/visionary architecture (all with pretty pictures and such) this particular work is in the form of a short fiction novel whose themes, content and observations manifest unique and magnificent places through the detailed interactions and perspectives of inhabitants and visitors.

Where Woods and Pamphlet Architecture present the structure, form, and function of space (and even possible narratives that motivate it), Calvino sculpts a kinetic living environment through his magical and realistic spatial expressions and observations. It is through the perspectives of these environments that he illustrates his ideas, and demonstrates elements of parable and fable.

The book is set in Kubla Kahn's Imperial gardens where the young Marco Polo and the elder Kahn sit and converse. Polo is describing his travels throughout the cities of the Kahn's vast kingdom. Within these fantastic descriptions comes the realization that Polo speaks not of many individual cities, but of the many cities that exist within one. Here, in a brief narration, Calvino is able to render meaning from the simple architectural structure of a stone bridge:

Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.
"But which is the stone that supports the bridge?"
Kublai Kahn asks.
"The bridge is not supported by one stone or another, "
Marco answers, " but by the line of the arch that they
Kublai Kahn remains silent, reflecting. The he adds:
"Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch
that matters to me."
Polo answers: "Without stones there is no arch."

I have found that the themes in Invisible Cities can be applied to thematic elements in level designing: one should enforce (or even create) the narrative of a game or a moment within a game using the structures of the environment. The previous passage is reminiscent of the practice of using structures as metaphors in the narrative. In this case, Polo is talking about the individual people that make up Kahn's empire, whereas Kahn is only concerned by the one man who "supports the bridge" or the "arch" (i.e. government). Polo expresses that without the individuals, there is no empire.

A bridge can also represent the voyage and choice of transformation. So, in a game, what could the action of crossing a bridge mean (beyond being just a way to get over the lava pit to obtain the red key to open the red door)? When would it be appropriate for the character development to cross such a bridge? Whom would the character meet on that bridge and what would that person represent? Even if the player is not consciously aware of such metaphors, this type of construct is meaningful and effective in creating an overarching gestalt to the experience.

On a related note, one theme of the book is the expression of places and experiences in terms of symbolism, and in turn, the language that is spoken by those symbols, which is exhibited in this excerpt:

"Newly arrived and totally ignorant of the Levantine languages, Marco Polo could express himself only with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder and horror, animal barkings or hootings, or with objects he took from his knapsacks- ostrich plumes, pea-shooters, quartzes…the ingenious foreigner improvised pantomimes that the sovereign had to interpret: one city was depicted by the leap of a fish escaping the cormorant's beak to fall into a net; another city by a naked man running though fire unscorched; a third by a skull, its teeth green with mold, clenching a round, white pearl…everything Marco displayed had the power of emblems, which, once seen, cannot be forgotten or confused."

The next time you have to design a space from scratch, you could assemble and mix a cacophony of objects and actions to create such symbols (though running naked through a fire at work might be tough to explain as job related) from which you can construct new places that these symbols might represent. For instance, "a skull, its teeth green with mold, clenching a round, white pearl." Perhaps such a place conjured by this image is a city deep within a dark swamp, where the buildings are constructed entirely of bone and the inhabiting skeletons dive to gather pearls from oysters that cling to the roots of the bone trees. The images can also simply represent a city whose inhabitants' greed and materialism lead to untimely deaths, and so on and so forth.

In this example, Italo Calvino describes his own formula for crafting such magnificent environments:

"From now on, I'll describe the cities to you," the Kahn had said, "in your journeys you will see if they exist."

But the cities visited by Marco Polo were always different from those thought of by the emperor.

"And yet I have constructed in my mind a model city from which all possible cities can be deduced, " Kublai said. "It contains everything corresponding to the norm. Since the cities that exist diverge in varying degrees from the norm, I need only foresee the exceptions to the norm and calculate the most probable combinations."

I have also thought of a model city from which I deduce all the others," Marco answered. " It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions. If such a city is the most improbable, by reducing the number of abnormal elements, we increase the probability that the city really exists. So I have only to subtract exceptions from my model, and in whatever direction I proceed, I will arrive at one of the cities which, always as an exception, exist. But I cannot force my operation beyond a certain limit: I would achieve cities too probable to be real."

The description of this next city is a great example of how Calvino simply reverses environmental roles, and shows what a great effect that can have on the narrative:

"The city of Sophronia is made up of two half-cities. In one there is the great roller coaster with its steep humps, the carousel with its chain spokes, the Ferris wheel of spinning cages, the death-ride with crouching motorcyclists, the big top with the clamp of trapezes hanging in the middle. The other half-city is of stone, marble, and cement, with the bank, the factories, the palaces, the slaughterhouse, the school, and all the rest. One of the half-cities is permanent, the other is temporary, and when the period of its sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it, and take it off, transplanting it to the vacant lots of another half-city.

And so every year the day comes when the workmen remove the marble pediments, lower the stone walls, the cement pylons, take down the Ministry, the monument, the docks, the petroleum refinery, the hospital, load them on trailers to follow from stand to stand their annual itinerary. Here remains the half-Sophronia of the shooting galleries and the carousels, the shout suspended from the cart of the headlong roller coaster, and it begins to count the months, the days it must wait before the caravan returns and a complete life can begin again."

The following passage is another great example where environmental roles are toyed with creating a completely new idea of a city:

"What makes Argia different from other cities is that it has earth instead of air. The streets are completely filled with dirt, and clay packs the rooms to the ceiling. On every stair, another stairway is set in negative; over the roofs of the houses hang layers of rocky terrain like skies with clouds. We do not know if the inhabitants can move about the city, widening the worm tunnels and the crevices where roots twist: the dampness destroys peoples bodies and they have scant strength; everyone is better off remaining still, prone; anyway, it is dark. From up here, nothing of Argia can be seen; some say, "It's down there," and we can only believe them. The place is deserted. At night, putting your ear to the ground, you cansometimes hear a door slam."


While we as Level Designers can learn a lot from classical and contemporary ideas in structural architecture, I feel we should include, the visionaries that work outside of the restrictive hierarchies of reality. These experimental architects are able to spend their energies solely on the expression of their creations, as is our own modus operandi: to design and construct that which entertains or informs. However, as fantastic as these works may be, their constructs and perspectives still do not cross over into the abstract. These creations operate within a familiar system of logic, as is often a requirement in our own efforts as designers.

There is an essence to the unique processes by which these designs have come to be (individually and collectively) that I feel can be studied, explored and creatively applied in the art of level design: the careful incorporation of narratives within the environment, the process of rethinking the functionality of commonplace constructs, and the idea of space as a form of expression itself. We are quite fortunate to be designing and constructing in the same unbound system as these masters, and, unlike the architects and builders in the real world, we have the privilege of being able to immediately apply many of these ideas and techniques to our trade, so that perhaps others might be able to physically take part in such ideas, even if it is only as digital experiences in multi-dimensional illusions.


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