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Educational Feature: A History and Analysis of Level Design in 3D Computer Games - Pt. 2
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Educational Feature: A History and Analysis of Level Design in 3D Computer Games - Pt. 2

April 29, 2006 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[Note: The following is the continuation and conclusion of author Sam Shahrani's article. The first half is available here.]

Doom created a sensation in the gaming community and popular media, but it was far from being the only title pushing the boundaries of technological innovation. In March of 1994, Looking Glass released System Shock, a science fiction title built on a modified version of the engine used in the Ultima Underworld titles. The gameplay of system shock is that of a first-person shooter merged with an RPG and an adventure game, much like that of Ultima Underworld, but with an enhanced role playing system. Indeed, much of the success of a System Shock player centers on the ability to make wise choices when literally upgrading and modifying the player’s avatar. Since the player is a hacker that has been turned into a high-tech cyborg, the player has a number of abilities and skills that can quite literally be upgraded, as well as allow the player to interface with a virtual reality cyberspace set inside the game, a sort of world within the world. The antagonist of the game, an amoral female artificial intelligence known as SHODAN, routinely taunts the player from displays and interfaces, as well as sending cyborgs, mutants and robots to attack the player. The game is not a fast paced title, with designers choosing instead to emphasis story and character development, as well as providing a complex mystery for players to unravel. This type of gameplay is a marked contrast to that of Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, which emphasized a faster paced, higher-body count approach to immersion.

System Shock’s engine had many graphical features in common with Doom, but was designed to create a much more detailed environment, as well as for a slower pace. A purely singleplayer game with no multiplayer capability, the emphasis in System Shock was not on “run and gun”, but instead on slowly unraveling the mystery of what had transpired on the Citadel Station space research and mining facility. The engine supported almost all of the features present in Doom, many of which had been present in the earlier Ultima titles. System Shock supported higher resolutions than most other games, allowing up to 640x480 resolution, which was necessary for the full amount of detail included in many of the textures to be completely visible. These abilities came at a price, however, as many computers couldn’t run such a complex game at a reasonable speed. Conversely, Doom was engineered to run very quickly on as wide a number of systems as possible. Since the engines were designed for games with two completely different approaches to interactivity, comparing the two on merits of mere speed is unfair, and any comparison must take into account the different approaches to gaming.

The creepy, almost oppressive atmosphere of System Shock was enhanced by the utter lack of non-player characters to speak with. All humans encountered in the course of the game are corpses, whose bodies can be rifled through. Many of the bodies contain data discs with audio or text messages that provide the player with clues as to what happened on the station, as well as information on how to defeat SHODAN. The original release of the game provided these logs and messages as merely text, but a later CD release of the game added an extensive amount of audio to the title, heightening the immersion and fear factor of the title significantly. Ambient audio combined with the vocal performance were an integral part of the game, providing clues as to hidden enemies, as well as allowing SHODAN to harass the player as they moved throughout the station.

The level design in System Shock emphasized giving the player choices and rewards for thorough exploration of the station. The levels varied between the computerized corridors of Citadel Station to hydroponics bays filled with mutant creatures and plants run amok, orange tentacles creeping across the walls and integrating with the digital systems. In certain cases, the player actually had to jack into a representation of cyberspace in order to achieve goals such as unsealing doors or repairing systems. The need for the player to balance choices, as well as having to actually interact with computer and security systems in the game were innovative features in the genre, and significantly increased the direct influence that players could have on the game world besides merely butchering enemies and throwing switches.

System Shock’s design choice to eschew non-player characters in favor of using logs and messages left before their death is an interesting choice from a game design standpoint. In a postmortem on System Shock 2, Irrational Games developer Johnathan Chey notes that System Shock made this decision primarily because the computer technology of 1994 “was simply inadequate to support believable and enjoyable interactions with them” (Grossman, 12). While the decision was made out of necessity, it served to greatly improve the feeling and immersion of the title, and was a decision that was carried through in the August 11th, 1999 release of System Shock 2 by Irrational Games and Looking Glass.


System Shock 2
System Shock 2 used technology limitations as storytelling devices,
creating one of the most memorable gameplay experiences



While System Shock and Doom took a grim and serious tone towards their gameplay, other titles such as Apogee’s 1994 Rise of the Triad took a somewhat more light-hearted approach to the violence that was such an integral part of FPS titles. With a design team led by former id software member Tom Hall, Rise of the Triad, or RotT, used a modified version of the Wolfenstein 3D engine. Since Apogee had been the distributor of Wolf3D, they had the rights to use the engine; Doom was made and distributed by id software itself, meaning that Apogee would have had to license the Doom engine if they wanted to use it in a product, a costly proposition.

RotT featured several innovations for the Wolf3D engine, including adding the ability to move vertically. The game added a number of both humorous and deadly methods of interaction for the player, including “jump pads” that could launch players and enemies high into the sky, razor sharp spinning blades that could eviscerate unwitting gamers, weapons that could leave bullet marks on walls and the introduction of explosive deaths for all enemies. In RotT, when an enemy character was hit with a rocket they would frequently be reduced to a shower of digital meat, completely obliterated, seeming to fly out towards any nearby player. This shower of exploded body parts included an eye, bloody skull and, occasionally, a severed arm with its middle finger upraised. This was a graphical advancement over Doom, which simply showed a shredded pile of an enemy after a rocket hit them. While a small addition, it made for some truly amusing kills in multiplayer, called Comm-Batt.

RotT’s deathmatch also introduced a variety of inventive new ways of dispatching enemies, including homing missiles, heat seeking missiles, flame wall bombs, fire jets, floor and ceiling spikes, and weapons such as the Excalibat, a cursed Louisville slugger. These weapons and innovations allowed players, who were frequently in the same room or near one another on a Local Area Network, to truly embarrass their opponents as they beat them, as well as pulling off impressive feats of acrobatics.

Other technical innovations included walls that could move inwards and crush players (a feature not present in Doom, where walls, ceilings and floors could only move vertically), poison gas that required a gas mask to evade, fireproof jackets to ward off flame-based weaponry, and enemies that could steal a players weapons and also feign death. While seemingly superficial additions, these ideas were innovative and forced RotT players to be more aware of their surroundings.

While Apogee was busy with RotT, Volition software was busy with their space-combat FPS, Descent. Released on March 17, 1995, Descent was the first PC game to feature a full three dimensional environment as well as fully three-dimensional enemies.
The engine was not completely three dimensional, as it still used sprites for doors, pilots to rescue and item pickups, but was a significant improvement compared to Doom.

In Descent the player flew an upgradeable space-fighter through narrow twisting corridors of a robot-infested mining colony. The goal was to clear out the robots in a given mine and then locate the reactor for that mine and destroy it. After destroying the reactor, the player had a set amount of time to reach an emergency escape door before the reactor went super-critical and destroyed the mine.


Descent’s totally 3D freedom brought flight simulators indoors.



Descent’s level design was intriguing because it blended the narrow corridors of Doom with the spacecraft-based combat of the earlier Wing Commander and X-Wing games. The 1993 release of LucasArts’ X-Wing featured three dimensional ships like Descent, but X-Wing was set in deep space, and the ships were simple colored polygons, similar in nature to the walls of Hovertank 3D. LucasArt’s 1994 sequel to X-Wing, Tie Fighter, would add polygon shading but few other graphical enhancements. Again, faithful to the Star Wars movies, all combat took place in deep space.

Descent on the other hand, featured fully three dimensional ships with texture maps applied to them, allowing a greater level of detail. The various colors helped players to quickly identify the types of enemy robots they were engaging, even from a distance. Descent also took place exclusively inside the mines, though 1999’s Descent 3 would add the ability to leave the mines and do battle outside using its Fusion rendering engine.

Since the environment of Descent was fully three dimensional, that meant shafts could connect at unusual angles, requiring players to look up, down and to both sides when moving through the levels. Making it to the escape hatches after destroying a reactor either required extraordinary luck, or carefully pre-planning a route of escape before trying to detonate the reactor. It also meant that level design could be challenging, since the 3D engine had very specific requirements about how levels could be constructed.

Descent was also an innovator in its lighting. Where Doom’s lighting was relatively static, Descent had a dynamic lighting system that enabled the use of flares to light areas, as well as laser blasts and explosions. The dynamic lighting also allowed more gradations of light in the mines, which gave a more natural and realistic appearance to in-game lights.

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