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Zen and the art of retro level design in “Kudzu”

In this article, I discuss the patterns, process, and spatial design principles that I am using for my non-linear retro dungeon crawler, Kudzu!

(This article is re-published from my Medium blog)

A lot, if not most, level design writing is about 3D levels, to the point where I’ve seen it argued that 3D is level design, to the exclusion of non-3D work. To a degree, this makes sense: 3D worlds are the style of levels made by the biggest studios in the industry. While I try to write about level design in a genre-agnostic fashion, even I can’t help highlighting architectural principles which thrive in 3D engines: lighting, vistas, multi-level spaces, and so on. However, I rarely make 3D games in my role as an independent developer. I work individually or with very small teams most of the time, so full 3D production is something I don’t pursue lightly; it can have a severe impact on project scope. As a result, many of my games such as Lissitzky’s Revenge (an abstract art game made with paper cutouts), La Mancha (a tabletop game based on Don Quixote), and the upcoming Little Nemo and the Nightmare Fiends prioritize non-3D visuals. As you can imagine, this means that I’ve devoted a lot of thought into the pacing and spatial elements of non-3D games (yes, even in the tabletop game) and thought that I should give 2D level design its due.

 
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The cover image (until I can make something more permanent) of my new Game Boy project, Kudzu.
 
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Different character and enemy sketches from Kudzu.
 
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Truffle became an architecture student cat who sketches maps of the area to learn about the kudzu’s structure. He thinks it’s neat that the kudzu overwhelms other plants.
 
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When moving to GB Studio, I had to think of ways to have less kudzu on screen, but make it more interesting. This puzzle requires players to let the kudzu vine grow until it can pull down a rusted switch.
 
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An early version of the game’s kudzu bug and snake enemies.
 
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An example of Mark Brown’s Boss Key diagrams, showing how spaces and objectives relate to one another in Oracle of Seasons’ Gnarled Root Dungeon. It’s important to mention that this is not a literal floor plan of the dungeon, but a visualization of how many things players can see before solving key puzzles.
 
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The map of Gnarled Root Dungeon. Brown has laid the items from the diagram over the map so that you can see how different the diagrammed version is from the actual map.
 
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My Boss Keys diagram for the demo level of Kudzu. The leaves show where kudzu vines will block a door (can be cut down with the machete), the levers show a switch puzzle, and the levers with kudzu on them show rusted switches. Other icons are from planned side quests.
 
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Building the tileset in Aseprite. This helped me paint the level geometry in my level editor. The Game Boy 4-color palette I used is the one provided on GB Studio’s website.
 
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Pages from my sketchbook, showing initial room design concepts.
 
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Building background images from Aseprite-created tileset, in the Tiled level editor. These become the basis for the rooms in the game.
 
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Drawing collisions in the engine. Collision boundaries are built via red 8 x 8 blocks. Orange blocks are the triggers that take players from one room to another.
 
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From the demo level, the player sees this door and its inaccessible switch. In a future version, the passage that leads to the switch will open after the character defeats the first boss. This will ease travel between parts of the region.
 
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Level map with graphical overlay showing the explorable sections (in brackets) and areas with loops to minimize backtracking in red arrows. The main travel axis is overlaid in blue. Since this is the first area of the game, (non-overbearing) tutorial content occurs in the main axis. More areas may be added as the game expands.
 
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Animated gif showing a preview of some upcoming level themes and enemy types.

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