Level Design - Environment Stories
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Here's a lovely screenshot of the map editor that Henrik and Jo-Remi have poured their cyborg blood and dragon tears into making. They're techromancer wizards!
This was originally posted on the D-Pad Studio Blogs, August 2nd, 2013
I get a number of emails from our fans asking questions about Owlboy's development, and while I love answering each person when I can, some of these questions are a little too much for an email. Today I will answer a common question about level design and world building. Later I'll expand this with entries about transitions and theming.
Design is something you can approach from a variety of fields, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. My background is in English literature and it means that I look at everything through a story and thesis lens. Much of what I do involves critical thinking and close readings of material to tease out an interpretation. I don’t however stay within my narrow field. For example, when I took courses in geology I saw the process of building mountains and rivers as a creative story to fill in the data gaps. I find these stories about erosion and weathering to be highly fascinating. No one was there to see any of this and we only have educated guesses. A data sheet charting out these changes in size and water content won’t work for anyone but a geologist. A nature documentary about animals wouldn't be nearly as interesting without Morgan Freeman’s velvety Morgan Freeman voice. Morgan Freeman~.
Footage without Morgan Freeman would be snippets of data for biologists who understood the details not shown, or we as an audience would interpret that sequence in our own ways.
Stories are important because they package information neatly for others. It’s an efficient way to send information, with context included, so the receiver can understand and interpret it in a meaningful way. However, I'll never efficiently convey what I want until I hone my ability to tell a powerful short story. I can’t expect every player to sit and think about every detail I've provided; that’s if I can express them through the tile art I’m using. You only have so much time and money to produce all the art you’ll want to work with and you need to be as creative as possible with limitations. Make your unique tiles after you have found a rough unrealized potential idea in the scenery. Another problem is that stories can be based on obsolete ideas or ill assumptions. I learned to tell stories about the environment through the sciences, and since these stories can become obsoleted at any time my understanding becomes encoded in that time and place. For example, steampunk worlds are built on Victorian era science and philosophy. The same applies to any culture that happens to see the world differently than I do. It just happens, there’s little you can do to avoid this, but why would you? If the world you create sticks to a set of rules and is consistent enough to suspend disbelief then you've succeeded. Pick your rules and stick to them else your environments won’t feel as if they belong together in the same world.
If you’ll indulge me for a little while I have a short story to tell of the Owl Temple (not shown in the old demos). I’ll have more of my design process at the end. I rarely write things out in this much detail. The following is what I try to tease out of the maps as I build and test and redesign with each play through. Most of the time I work from a loose outline of what I want to accomplish and why.
Otus descends the twisting maze of rocky tunnels clutching Geddy firmly with each change in direction. Their path leads to a small flooded chamber, cylindrical in shape. They pass through an opening above the water line. The door was once perfectly crafted, but now it seemed as if time had become too impatient and too large for the business of doors. The great basement hall was open to the eye of the storm on two sides, the ceiling held up with large evenly positioned stone arches. All of them were engraved with faint runes, or was it just the imagination making sense of weathered scars in the awe of this place. Great owl statues stood defiant of erosion but the slow relentless dripping has claimed their numbers. The collapsed became a thousand scattered islands in the crystal clear lake under the temple. Moss clung to whatever had not been claimed yet.
Molts howl and ready the fires deep in their bellies for the flying intruders. Otus dives and climbs quickly. Flashing amber coloured beasts pull themselves from their watertight burrows. Clouds of smoke and fire erupt from their mouths obfuscating Otus’s eyes and nose. They push through into to the stairwell at the end of the ruins.
The walls in this place lay bare, the stairs resting along the floor looked as if they were never raised, but the door at the top remains waiting patiently as ever. There isn't much light in the hallway above. This new place is heavy with shadows and vines. The odd pink vines have taken full advantage of this to strangle the temple rocks further. Cascading water droplets are flung from Otus’s wings as he flies on. Geddy shakes the moisture from his hands to reaffirm his weapon’s grip. The vines are getting thicker and harder to see through. Bulbs growing from some of the vines glow with a pale luminescence, a sickly cold imitation of the sun. At the end of the hall is the familiar rubble that had blocked the path earlier. They head through another hole in the ceiling.
The vines here carpet every surface, working up around any protrusion from the floor. The two come across a large purple pod at the heart of this confusion of vines. This might be the heart of the strangling plant, or one of many. Withered vines create a stubborn mesh around a spot in the ceiling. Geddy suggests to Otus that he might loosen the mesh with water. Otus rummages through the pile of nearby vases. Most all of them are cracked and hold no water.
Otus returns from the small pool and releases the vase’s contents. It worked, the dry vines swell and surge to life for a moment. The dislodged rocks bounce freely only to be caught once more between the vines on the floor.
The dark passage is narrow, wet and rocky. Darkness expands the otherwise small space. The ground crunches and snaps under foot. Scattered everywhere is an unrecognizable mess. Bones. They've been stripped clean and don’t belong to any one person or creature. Otus and Geddy disengage their interest for a moment. An ominous carved stone gate hangs above ]them looming like a cold finger wisping the backs of their necks. The pitch hole inhales slowly without pause. Reluctantly they continue on without any other options.
The air is quiet and afraid to move. Water streams quietly as it can down the back wall escaping through the cracks. A sickly green flame grows in the distance. It dances atop a short pike held by a tiny round creature. Gurgles of hunger and splashes of saliva erupt from a mouth already too full of jagged needle teeth. More of them awaken higher up. The gate seemingly takes advantage of the moment and closes tightly. High above a spec of light beacons the only way out alive.
By now Geddy has already hidden himself. Otus begins his climb, too afraid to fly for his wings will betray him with both sound and smell. There are dozens of these snarling creatures and dozens more unseen. After much climbing the last platform is under his feet, but the exit is still a great distance higher. Otus will have to fly hard and fast or they will catch him with their teeth and each will have it’s own direction to go with that mouthful in the dark. At the very first flap of his cloak the pack is sent into bloodlust. The scrambling terrors gain on him. The snap Otus hears is the stone gate behind him. Otus fumbles for the Owl relic and brings Geddy to his side.
Two great waterfalls crash down down behind them, the source of all the flooding below.
Usually when I redesign an area I take into account where it is in immediate relation to others and the whole map. As I come up with something I look at what I need to change to transition the rooms smoothly. When I began redesigning this part of the map I needed to do something about the pieces already set in place. I had a gnome room and the waterfalls above. I needed a way to connect these pieces in a coherent way. There was nothing to capitalize on these pieces. I decided to tell a short story of a great hall that had been destroyed by water and time. It may not be much of a story really, but a flooded basement isn't in itself visually striking or interesting. It makes sense to put a great lake below all this water, there is no way it would remain watertight after the uncounted years of existing.
This all sounds really simple and basic when I explain it like this, and it is, I don't mean to beat anyone over the head with it. The rooms in your game are a part of a larger structure be it a temple or lava mountain fortress or a spaceship or a cake or a wizard’s beard. Keep in mind the macro structures and decide on what kind of rooms should exist in such a place. Once you've figured out a loose of idea of that, begin linking these places. Write out the room ideas you have. Overall shape can help draw out themes. Also by joining a few areas at a time it can help create direction and small goals for the player. Hopefully if done right by giving an area purpose it becomes a landmark to remember and all of this working together will orientate the player in a confusing dungeon.
Also, some rooms have elements that follow a natural direction. Water falls down, easy. But what about a structure with materials being piped in and out. Symbolic structuring requires you to think before you lay these rooms down, or choose from the most appropriate ideas in you sketchbooks. These things get complicated quickly so it’s best to leave the complexity to the sum of the whole structure. Be elegant and use the smaller groups of rooms to build your grand plan.
A huge issue I call “tubes and boxes” is when you have all these ideas, but the means to joining them are passages of nothing in them and no purpose to the downtime. A breather is fine but the game’s pace becomes erratic, spikes of life and flat lines, evenly pulsing, on and off. So. Boring. Tubes are a sign of a poorly organized map. In stories you have something to develop in the downtime, or you leave it out with a good transition. RPGs are able to hide behind a wall of walking between key locations with a smattering of battles. There’s rarely any idle dialogue between characters for these long walks, but I'll talk more about transitions in another article.
There’s no formal rules for how to do all of this, you just have to be a practised designer and work this stuff out in your head or paper or excel sheets or with other people or whatever works best. I work these problems out through stories and graph paper, but many of the details will be uncommunicated so I need to stick to what actually comes across. Help your player out and give them a reason to remember where they are and what they should be doing. Don’t just resort to a map conveniently located in the dungeon.
What I want to achieve in my level designs are not necessarily obvious to the player. I want to make subtle collections of logical structures that help immerse you. I want this place to tell you about the world you're in and that it existed long before you came tromping in and will continue to later. Environments can be characters too and by developing your environment you create situations that can only happen in the world you've created. Puzzles and action sequences become memorable and unique because they're bound to your world’s rules.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.