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Beginning Level Design, Part 1
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Beginning Level Design, Part 1

April 16, 1999 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next


The most ancient form of entertainment, storytelling, has riveted mankind since the spoken word. Stories of adventure, triumph and disaster all pull at our hearts. They take us through a ride in someone else’s skin and often challenge our own convictions, illuminate our soul, or simply lighten our spirits. As game designers, you’ll concentrate on the latter.

Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis

Stories essentially come in three parts:

  1. The thesis, which is the introduction to the setting, the characters and the hero
  2. The antithesis, which is where the conflict and villains are introduced and is what amounts to the majority of the story
  3. Synthesis, where there is some form of resolution, be it triumphant or tragic.

We can see this model followed precisely in the three-act play. We see it in film scripts, and indeed, all the forms of entertainment that evolved from storytelling.

In games, your player is easily identifiable as the hero, and the game as a whole can be seen as one story, where each level is a portion of the antithesis, the interplay and conflict between the hero and the villain. The depth of the thesis may be limited to a cinematic that explains who you are and what the setting is. Some sequels will gloss over the thesis and jump right into the conflict, assuming you’ve played the prequel. The synthesis is everything that happens at the end of the game. You’ve either won or you’ve lost, and you may see a cinematic or read a few lines of narrative before you see the credits. Like Hollywood movies, the synthesis is never very long.

Understanding and Developing the Thesis in Level Design

Each level in itself is its own story. As level designers, you set up the thesis by preparing the initial situation. You position the player and perhaps indicate his initial arsenal or force or set of spells or pieces. You render the setting with your map or your puzzle board. The setting and the situation can change over the course of the level as portions of the level are revealed to the player or new characters or other elements are introduced such as power-ups or new player or enemy forces. As games are interactive, you have to be very conscious about every possible situation a player can be in at any given time or place over the course of the playing the level.

Each encounter has its thesis – that moment right before the battle when your fear, adrenaline, and anticipation kick in, and how observant you are of the situation right then and there will influence the fight. For example, a player may stumble into a rats’ nest of bogies and realize at that moment right before the fighting begins, that just next to the head rat is a large fuel tank within easy range of a missile salvo. But we cannot assume that players will always do the same thing and come from the same direction. A level designer has to plan for that and reward that behavior. Using the previous example, a player may come from a sneaky route from the opposite direction and see the fuel tank in his line of sight before he sees any of the bogies. Does he blow it up now to be cautious or walk on through? What if the enemy chooses to use it against him? To complicate matters, let’s say that there is a nice but destructible power-up right next to the fuel tank. What should the player do? In this situation, you don’t have to make it a single choice. Indeed, you really don’t want to make it a single choice. As part of the thesis, you need only present options to the player and he’ll decide what he wants to do.

Introducing and Refining the Antithesis in Your Level

The antithesis is where the players interact with your level. By positioning enemy forces and scripting their behavior, or by setting the timing and speed of the bugs they have to zap or the puzzle pieces they have to place, you are creating conflict. This should be where the core gameplay of your level is. If it’s not, then you’ll have a level that requires too much planning in the thesis stage. In other words, if the player doesn’t plan things out right from the beginning then the level is over before it began, and if the player plans correctly then there’s not much to it. Most people, with the exception of strategy wargamers, hate this kind of level. Players need the ability to resolve conflict as it arises – you can’t assume they are omniscient or psychic. A common mistake designers make is presenting challenges that are absolutely unbeatable unless you’ve played the level before and know what to expect. It is essential that players be capable of resolving the conflict and tackling challenges the first time they encounter them.

The antithesis is where you present the knife’s edge to the player. It divides the good players from the bad, the experts from the novices, and the dedicated from the dilettantes. Ideally there is more than just one victory to be won, because indeed the division of skills is not black and white. If only experts can beat your level, then you’ve lost 90% of your market and your game won’t sell well. Likewise, if any mediocre player can beat your level and reap all the rewards, then it’s not satisfying to 50% of the players who weren’t challenged. But if your level had a satisfying victory for the mediocre players and optional challenges to entice and reward the good and expert players, then you’re presenting multiple edges to challenge and satisfy a diverse group of players.

Synthesis – Making Your Levels End in a Satisfying Tone

Synthesis is the result of an encounter or the entire level. It’s a moment of reflection for players to evaluate the encounter or level and what they got out of it. Whether players fail or succeed, they should be able to recognize why and how they might do better next time. This keeps them interested in trying again or just replaying for a better score or reward.

Victory or failure should be obvious. Players should understand why they lost. Victories should come as the direct result of the final acts of the player, not as the result of something the player does midway through the level (the latter tends to make players bored). Ending the mission on a big, satisfying note leaves a player feeling good.

Worthwhile Content

Stories maintain your interest by presenting worthwhile content. People don’t buy a book or see a movie just to hear characters talk about the weather, unless the weather itself is the villain (as in disaster movies like Twister). All the details that a well-written story contains are those that render the setting, develop the characters or move the plot. While books can get away with including an awful lot of detail, films cannot. Films are aimed at short-attention span people who want to experience the whole story in 90 minutes or less. Films try to focus on the most important details and these usually are the ones involving character interaction.

The same can be said with level design, except that you have an even shorter amount of time to tell your story. As a result, you must focus even harder on character interaction details, especially those that involve the player. Everything the player sees or does must further the story. All of the players’ accomplishments should move them toward the completion of the story or pull them further into the conflict with the villain. As the game is played, players should discover more about themselves and their opponents. This can be achieved when players develop new talents, find new weapons or upgrades, gain insight into strategy, or encounter new enemy tactics and new enemy types. All of these suggestions may sound obvious to you, but you would be surprised how often designers make the mistake of spending a lot if time working on setting details that are rarely, if ever, seen by the players.

Most gamers have a short attention span, especially those who play console games. They don’t have as much patience with minor details and game subtleties. If you present them with too much detail, or if your gameplay hinges on the player understanding the significance of minor details (like a single dialogue message), then you will lose them. It’s very hard for non-computer game designers and RPG designers to not populate levels with all sorts of irrelevant content. Often this focus on details works to the detriment of gameplay. If you’re not making an RPG, then you have to understand that the finer details of the story come second in level design.

Spending a lot of time working on non-interactive details can be a waste of time and resources, although it’s important to put some effort into it because the player will pay some attention to it. For example, it’s ludicrous to spend a day creating the details of a farm that a player will pass in three seconds on his way to a tank battle. It’s better to just take a minute to sprinkle a few objects that give the player the feel of a farm, like a farmhouse, barn, silo and a few cows. Even if you have all the time in the world to create all sorts of non-interactive details, it’s still not a good idea. Players get distracted and suffer sensory overload from too many details. They also can get frustrated as they try in vain to interact with non-interactive details.

Duke Nukem: "Come get some"

It would be even better to make all the details of the setting interactive somehow. Duke Nukem did an excellent job of this. Even the toilets had some purpose, if only to give a little humor. The bar had a working pool table and the arcade had a Duke Nukem machine that prompted you to say, "Hmm, I don’t have time to play with myself." The extra effort it took was well worth it. The interactive setting created a great allure and set this game apart from all the other Doom clones.

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