Level Design Study: The Last of Us Part II gameplay trailer level
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Hi, my name is Ovidiu Mantoc, a passionate level designer with +3 years working on professional and personal projects. I am currently working as a level designer at Gameloft.
In the past month after E3 2018, I started my breakdown study of the The Last of Us Part II gameplay trailer level design. This is my personal study analysis, of the level design that is in the video trailer. Here it goes:
Studying the masters!
Naughty Dog designers are one of the level design masters in the industry. Therefore, it’s logical to take the matter into your own hands and try to crack the “code”, to understand how they achieve that awesome level from the trailer and try to figure out all the bits and building blocks of the level design behind it.
I took this as a study challenge and practice, for my level design blockout skills, just like a concept artist is looking at reference images, using all the things around them to enhance and practice their craft. Why can’t Level Designers do the same for level design or any other discipline?
Drawing the top-down map
First, I started to do a mental map of the environment and draw a top-down sketch to see how the map flows, where the edges of the environment are, as well as obstacles and different paths the player can take.
This part took a lot of replaying the trailer over and over, drawing every bit of the environment on paper, but in the end, it paid off in understanding the overall structure of the level.
References and study
Knowing the action takes place in Seattle, I started searching for the area where the gameplay is located and found some key buildings I think were used as an inspiration and starting point for the level.
I found that in-game buildings are not at the same scale as the ones in real life but the shape and structure are very similar. This is for gameplay purposes (real life is boring), no need to walk 10 minutes in the game just to get to the next area.
I think this is a fine balance between making the gamespace feel “real” and not losing the player inside a real-life size space.
Blockout the level
After the paper-map, I started a blockmesh level layout in Maya.
I started with the parking lot and spread out from there with the surrounding buildings. This was one of the most iconic buildings in the level and it was a great starting point to get the “right” size of the level and props. The odd shape of the parking lot was a little tricky to get right but I think I’m pretty close to the one in the demo.
Seeing the level from many angles gives you the feeling of space, options, and different paths the player can take. This way you can see how all combined elements click together and support all gameplay mechanics in the environment.
This process of making levels also helps in improving your level blockouts skills. It is really interesting doing this type of analysis, creating and studying levels.
The level is rich in guiding the player’s eyes in the right direction, with the subtle help from leading lines that are present through the environment.
At first, they can go unnoticed but when looking closely, they do the job of guiding the player subconsciously in the correct direction.
Playtesting in engine
I imported the blockout of the map in Unity engine, added a 3rd person character controller and did a lot of playtests in the environment, trying new paths and setting the right scale and size for all the props and environment.
Doing this in the engine made it easier to establish a relationship between objects and get the sense of scale and distances between them.
Getting the right scale of the space, compositions, leading lines, and readability, helped a lot in defining how the player is guided through the environment.
As far as I can see in the gameplay trailer and in my rebuilt level, the Naughty Dog team did a great job making the flow of the level feel natural, with lots of options and multiple paths the player can take and elements that contribute to the overall structure in creating a non-linear level.
Some people may think that in that small video trailer there is so little info, but actually there is a lot, from spatial arrangement, sizes, and distances, enemy types, placement, and behaviors, even spawning enemies, everything, you just need to know where to look and how to analyze each area pixel by pixel.
Analyzing levels in any form (taking notes when you play, rebuilding levels you like, build from memory, even top-down drawings and videos analysis) is a good practice to boost up your level design skills, helping you learn something new each time.
This was a pretty fun challenge, I really enjoyed it. I will try to do more of this in the future.
Thanks and have fun making your levels!
Note: The Last of Us Part II is the property of Sony Interactive Entertainment America LLC ©2018. Created and developed by Naughty Dog, Inc.