Level design "dramas", or: "what does Super Mario Bros. 3 level 4-6 have in common with and Half Life 2 episode 2?"
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Interesting experiences are not just about "good things happenning" and "bad things happenning"; it is better to say that they are about dramas. This is something level designers would do well to bear in mind; levels don't just have to be fight/reward/fight/puzzle/reward/fight/reward. Good things happenning and bad things happenning are important of course; but nobody should kid themselves that a game can give us truly memorable moments purely based on these things. So, let's look at an interesting "drama" in a classic game:
Super Mario Bros. 3 level 4-6
This level contains a setpiece that is imaginitive, dramatic, and classically "Mario". Specifically, it is a subversion of the invincibility-star powerup orgasm.
We'll go through the level in two halves. By convention, in Mario level maps like this, blocks or pipes with things hidden in them have those things placed visually in front of them.
So you start out. You kill a koopa. You see this rectangle-made-of-blocks. You have a go at bumping the blocks, even if you're small mario, because you'd like to pop off the koopa inside the rectangle.
A star comes out of one of the blocks! And it's easy for you to get it - "FUCK YES!" you say, and start rampaging. The rest of this picture is pure fodder for you: you get the coins in one jump, knock out the wonderfully chunky big-flower, get the koopa on top of the blue rectangle. It's straightforward, delicious, gratification.
Now, below is the second half of the level. See those three coins in dotty-outline blocks to the left of the second pipe? Those are the kinds of blocks that are invisible until you hit the spot with your head. This is important.
Notice that there's another star in this level, which is very generous (perhaps suspiciously so). It's a star "hidden" in a classic Miyamoto "we set it up so you would find stumble into this hidden thing and feel great about yourself". You can read about that in "Breaking the Law of Miyamoto", available here - but I want to talk about a different aspect of this.
So you get your star, feel awesome, kill the goomba, jump on top of the left pipe, probably killing the plant inside the pipe. You notice the koopa, and decide that while you're on your rampage you might as well kill it. You drop off the pipe and knock off the koopa.
You jump up onto the right pi- fuck, you hit an invisible block! Take a step to the left, jump up onto the block you just created- FUCK THE SECOND! Another invisible block! Another step left, jump- FUCK! SHIT! Another block - and now the star's run out and your rampage is over, with a large plant and a koopa that would have been so easy to get! You feel several emotions at the same time, and you might well laugh out loud.
This is engineered of course, and I think it's beautiful - a funny joke at the player's expense. It may sound maddenning, but look: it's dramatic, it's an adventure, you'll remember it! They tempted you in using that koopa. They teased you using that large plant coming out of the right pipe (which you now have to delicately avoid). They set up a feeling of entitlement using that previous, satisfying rampage.
The level designers are paying attention to subtle feelings here, all revolving around anticipation. It's a great little machine; it's a machine of the kind that the best Mario games are full of, and forms a major part of the highly creative and joyous spirit we expect from them. It's a clever, unexpected way to use invisible blocks, which are usually about letting you climb a bit higher, or pleasantly surprising you with a coin.
At first, and last, glance, we might not think there's much going on in this level. I'm pretty sure it was composed entirely around this "joke" (there's an unrelated beanstalk and some later koopas that I've not mentioned, but I suspect this was just stuff to avoid making it feel bare). If the level didn't have this joke -the three invisible blocks, above a koopa, between two flower-spouting pipes- it would be a boring level, just a "jumble of stuff". If you ever think you've found a jumble of stuff in an early mario game, always take another look!
If you talk to me on an optimistic day, I'll tell you that this level is a story about greed and sadism. It is definitel some kind of story - and one that's told without any words or interruptions to the player's agency. I find it
funny extremely sad to see game developers continuing to try to impose stories on us with cutscenes, when something as natural as this appeared in what is supposed to be the most pop-culturally-huge games there has ever been.
Half Life 2 Episode 2: a short case study in griefing the player
Here we see a less-elaborate but mechanically-unique "joke" told in Half Life 2 Episode 2, which like Mario's level-design joke makes use of misdirection and "player eagerness" to put a barnacle tongue in a place that allows it to surprise the player.
There's much to be said about jokes in level design and "griefing the player" - I'd encourage you to watch this lecture by Bennet Foddy, who made QWOP and worked on VVVVVV. I think the funniest level-design-joke that I have ever seen was in the soon-to-be-released indie puzzle game Engare. There's a line we can and should draw here for player-griefing though: note that in our examples from Super Mario Bros. 3 and HL2E2, the player is the butt of a joke, but they are not hugely disadvantaged by the joke, as they are in certain famous and detestable jokes in the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy text adventure game.
Broadening our emotional spectrum without things feeling unnatural
I want to indicate something bigger than "jokey levels" with this though. There any be many emotions that we may have ambitions to elicit from players; empowerment, vulnerability, frustration, achievement, and felicity are the major ones of course - games make us feel those over and over. From our Mario example we can perhaps add "guilt" (because you didn't have to go for that goomba) and "self-deprecation" (because, absurdly, it happened three times in a row). But this is quite limited in comparison with the emotions other media manage.
People often say the key to broadening the emotional spectrum of games lies in "mechanics" - and to be sure that's more likely to work than improving cutscenes or whatever. But we should perhaps look beyond "mechanics" even! In Journey, our characters get slower towards the end, a mechanical way of communicating exhaustion and hopelessness. It's a well-meaning idea, yet it is transparent and unnatural (though the rest of Journey is good!). When we see something like a "romance mechanic" implemented, it's clear what is going on, as there is something "cordoned-off", and probably predictable, about what it presents to us.
"Dramas" must emerge naturally from game engines - the mechanics must remain consistent. Level design is what we can use to make our most interesting possibilities into certainties. Our Super Mario Bros. 3 drama feels real, impactful, when it happens to you. Another example, though you may be bored of hearing it, is the Companion Cube level in Portal. A third: being hoisted out of the jaws of the first shark you encounter in Half Life - but you're hoisted out by a ceiling-dwelling barnacle. One more is the thought process you go through in this level of Super Meat Boy. Let's have more things like this!
Twitter handle: @hamishtodd1