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Designing Better Levels Through Human Survival Instincts
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Designing Better Levels Through Human Survival Instincts

June 21, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 5

Materiality and the Heroic Quest

In his book, The Origins of Architectural Pleasure, Grant Hildebrand describes Joseph Campbell's monomyth of the Hero's Journey, and the dangers to the Hero's survival during the journey, in terms of materiality. Materiality is the quality of materials in an environment.

The beginning of the Hero's Journey, Hildebrand argues, began in a land of natural and pleasant material landscape. There were often quaint villages and lush forests near the hero's hometown, as well as a water source. Eventually something terrible happens to the hometown or someone in it, otherwise the hero of the story would have nothing to do that would keep our attention, so the Hero must leave home and venture into the dangerous world.

Hildebrand goes on to describe how as the Hero gets farther from home, into what Campbell would describe as the "challenges and temptations" stages of his journey, the quality of landscape steadily decreases.

Where there were once happy forests for the Hero to travel through there are now rocks and cliffs. Steadily these conditions too decline until the hero finds him or herself at the "abyss", where a climactic battle with evil or transformative event is to occur.

The materiality of this location is often one of man-made industrial darkness or deadly swampland. In Beowulf's story of battling Grendel his journey takes him from the mead halls of Heorot to the slimy cave home of Grendel's Mother.

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo must leave the quaint and happy Shire, venture through Middle Earth to unpleasant landmarks such as the mountains of Emyn Muil, and ultimately reach the fire and shadows of Mordor.

The Hero's Journey can be expressed through the material qualities of each part's setting

In games like Zelda and Super Mario Bros., it is easy to see how this idea translates into the material qualities of levels. Zelda games in particular begin in brightly colored and cheerful forestlands, such as Ocarina of Time's Kokiri Forest or Twilight Princess's Ordon Village. Each dungeon is like a Hero's Journey of its own: each tasks Link with defeating an evil monster to find a sacred item that will help the greater population of Hyrule. In this way, the Hero's Journey that is The Legend of Zelda is constantly changing material qualities from safe and natural to dangerous and industrial. Likewise each world in the original Super Mario Bros. begins in a simple grassland environment, to either a cavern or lake, then to a dangerous platforming level, then to one of Bowser's fiery castles.

Changing materiality begins to describe the levels of danger present in these spaces.

These literary descriptions of materials stem from the survival instinct to be near Refuge-like spaces. As stated previously, Frank Lloyd Wright even responded to this strong human tendency by adding trees to his drawings of new building projects.


The final element of spatial survival that must be addressed is perhaps one of the most dramatic – height. Many people declare a fear of heights. However, high places can also serve as a strategic position for watching surrounding terrain. Towers, cliffs, helicopters, humans use all of these things to view their surroundings from a better vantage point. Le Corbusier believed that his architecture allowed man to "rise above" nature, and houses like Villa Savoye emphasize this by hierarchically organizing spaces with height. Grant Hildebrand, in his descriptions of Prospects and Refuge spaces, even says that high places can be valuable Refuges.

The key distinction is the security of the high point and the nature of the area around it. Height can be a terrifying thing when the ground falls away and the player is left tottering on the edge of a seemingly endless hole in the Earth's crust. Height can likewise provide a very secure feeling when surrounding structure such as walls or railings envelops players.

Why is this? In a way this is another example of the Prospect/Refuge relationship. High places with safeguards feel safe because there are things between the drop and us. Sniping would not be a very popular role in first person shooters were it not for this safe feeling. Le Corbusier uses height in Villa Savoye as the goal of the occupant in a building. If analyzed like a game, Villa Savoye's Core Mechanic might be "climbing." Ramps provide passage from the utilitarian spaces on the first floor all the way up to the roof garden. The reward for an occupant's passage is the ability to look down not only on the natural surroundings of the building, but on the other occupants within it as well.

Game levels can function in this way as well. Making a sniping position a prize to be won can have a profound impact on a level. This "king of the hill" style sniping contest could allow opportunities for other Prospect/Refuge spaces in a map, where properly navigating cover allows players to move in on a sniping player.

On the other hand, height when there is no enveloping structure keeping the player safe acts like a Prospect. The player is open to danger, but in this case, the greatest source of danger is not enemy creatures or combatants but the environment itself. This feeling is known as vertigo. Height used in this way is a very dramatic spatial element. Vertical elements such as structures or shadows can deepen the sense of vertigo by drawing the player's eyes deeper into the chasm.


Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman in their book, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, point out that there is pleasure in overcoming dangerous situations, a principle they say is one of the most basic ideas of game design. When levels are engaging, players know, even if they cannot verbalize what makes them so pleasurable. Some modern texts on level design only teach readers to model environmental models and scenery. The levels designed by learning from these books have no way of engaging the player and provide no discernable amount of experience, so level designers have to look to other sources for inspiration. The alternative is creating the experience boredom or frustration for players, which is counterintuitive to the goal of making a "fun" game.

Level designers can take the concept of "pleasure from overcoming danger" to heart by utilizing the human survival instinct to create dramatic environments that play with the comfort levels of people interacting with them in a way that is motivated by creating pleasure. As stated previously, utilizing these spatial survival concepts to create levels gives players opportunities to not only interact with the game on a functional button-pressing manner, but also on a cognitive one that speaks to the instincts that help make video games fun in the first place.

Also, while these concepts are incredibly important to the practice of level design, they are but part of an expansive whole. Concepts such as Operant Conditioning and the articulation of short and long-term goals were mentioned among others. Again, as Salen and Zimmerman have pointed out, pleasure is derived from overcoming danger. This article has been about the spatial dangers or elements of space that create the impression of danger for players. The other concepts describe elements of the pleasures that follow, and other methods for training players.

For Further Reading:

- Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert Pirsig

- Chambers For A Memory Palace by Donlyn Lyndon and Charles W. Moore

- Origins of Architectural Pleasure by Grant Hildebrand

- Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman

- Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman

- Space Time Play: Computer Games, Architecture, and Urbanism: The Next Level, edited by Freidrich von Borries, Steffen P. Walz, Matthias Bottger, Drew Davidson, Heather Kelley, and Julian Kucklich

Article Start Previous Page 5 of 5

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