Level Design Part I: Personification (environments are characters too)

Level Design Part 1: Personification

In this first of a three part post, I detail my process of characterizing a level’s environment. This is a great way to dial in a clear vision for a game, and ensure each environment is unique and entertaining.

Mushrooms just aren't the same in the real world
These are not equal

In the real world (as we understand it to exist) natural landscapes are not formed for the purpose of providing a challenging and fun path to traverse. A rocky ledge beside a waterfall isn’t going to be perfectly positioned so that one can time a jump to land on debris that is flowing over the edge at regular intervals. It’s sad, I know. While beautiful, the real world just isn’t pieced together so that one can fluidly adventure through it. It’s full of unreasonably difficult locations and dead ends. While containing many mushrooms, they are not strategically placed or have quite the same power up effect as a knowledgeable gamer would expect.

In the game world, its not in an environment’s best interest to provide only a couple of fun hops followed by an hour of uphill walking, just to duck under a fallen tree. A game environment needs to provide enjoyable and challenging obstacles every step of the way.

When developing my concept for level design in “The Legend of Sky”, I ran into difficulty trying to balance a believable look and feel, with a layout that is both fun and intuitive. My designer’s block was finally broken when I decided to start looking at the environment as a character.

I listed out character traits that should be common to all environments, and those that are unique to each environment:

Common environment character traits:

  • Mentor to player
  • Discernible allegiance

Unique environment character traits:

  • Back-story
  • Gender
  • Apparel

These design points are geared towards platforming levels; however, much of these principles can be applied to most types of games.

Using TLoS as an example, I’ll walk through how each of these points has been applied to the conceptual level “The Forgotten Cliffs”.

Environment Wisdom (player mentor-ship)

When we think of a mentor, gear your thoughts towards a sensei. A sensei will seem adversarial for the purposes of teaching. They will throw obstacles at you. They often talk down to motivate you. Through all of this, they will point to the strategy you need, to overcome the challenges they’ve created. In each instance, you will have learned valuable skills that will help you to understand and overcome challenges throughout life.

This is how a good level will play. The challenges are designed to give the player a little struggle, but through the use of camera angles, clever object placement, and experience with previous challenges, a clear strategy is presented that guides the player through. With presentation of obstacles and solutions, the environment is designed to mentor the player along their way.

Environment Allegiance

The environment should side with either the player the enemies, or neither. What this means is that while challenging and assisting the player, the level of challenge and assistance should be skewed toward the level’s back-story. If an environment is the home ground of the enemy, the challenges should be hard and the assistance minimal, and vice versa. If the environment is an area that is home to neither, there should be a blend, or medium difficulty.

We see this concept of allegiance demonstrated in most Mario games. For instance, the home ground in Mario 64 is the castle that serves as the hub world. There are challenges presented, but they are typically easy to accomplish. The challenges can get a little more difficult as you venture below the castle into the dungeon. Dungeon’s, regardless of who they belong to, are designed to not be friendly.

You got this.
You’ve been taught well. You got this.

Then we have the typical levels that are mostly reached via jumping into paintings on the wall. They are more challenging than the castle world, but not as much as the Bowser levels. The Bowser levels take place on the enemies home ground. The environment and obstacles can be downright frustrating when compared to the average (no allegiance) levels; however, if the player remembers everything the previous environments have taught them, then the player should be able to spot the strategy that even the enemy’s home ground is offering. In well designed enemy levels, it often doesn’t even feel that the strategy is offered. Everything happens faster and more intense. In these levels it should feel that the player found and took their winning strategy, as appose to having been guided to it.

Environment Back-story

It’s important to take time out and imagine what brought a level’s environment into existence. This will help in imaging what sort of challenges it will present, and it’s overall feel.

In the case of my level “The Forgotten Cliffs”, the back-story is one of geographic violence. The world of TLoS exists due to catastrophic events brought on by our near future modern society. Through a string of situations, our world shifted its plane of existence and merged with another reality. While most of the world as we know it was plunged below the Earth, the Forgotten Cliffs were the result of a volcanic upward thrust, that still exists as a vent for this new world.

The Forgotten Cliffs
The Forgotten Cliffs

This back-story has helped in determining visual style, and the types of obstacles to present the player with. Without a good back-story, a level’s environment can find itself suffering from meaninglessness. An environment should convey its purpose for existing through its obstacles and geographic features, which ultimately lead to better player immersion.

Is it a Boy, or Girl?

In graphic design it is taught that strait lines and sharp surfaces are masculine design qualities, while curved shapes are feminine; at least that was taught a decade ago when I had a design class. I suppose today’s world might throw in a gender neutral design standard – which would actually work well in this instance, because some levels work best with a design that is somewhere in between.

Looking to modern games as an example, let’s consider some of the environment designs in “World of WarCraft”. If we look at the Badlands, we see an area defined by sharp towing cliffs. This would be a more masculine environment. On the flip side, many of the night elf areas have rolling hills and structures with curves (note that the curves are often implied through textures).

World of WarCraft environments sample
Examples of masculine and feminine environments from WoW

It can help to picture a slider that slides a long a gradient from black to white. If we were to say Black is a boy, and white is a girl, where on this gradient would our level fall? As with most things in life, true black and white values seldom occur. This should also be true when thinking about our environment’s gender. Even with the example of the Badlands in WoW, you’ll notice that curves do occur at the base of the sharp cliffs and ridges.

Gender Slider
The extremities are rarely the case

In order to develop the our level’s environment into a unique and memorable experience, we not only declare the level to be a boy or girl, but how masculine or feminine the level is. This will help to conceptualize the defining elements and supporting features of the environment.

What to wear, what to wear?”

The final item on my “environment as a character” list, is wardrobe. This includes textures and peripheral structures/items that characterize the level. With my concept level, it’s back-story indicates that it represents a glimpse of the old world. It is masculine because of the violent, upward thrusting, volcanic activity that has forced sharp vertical cliffs. The personality of the level can be summarized as one angry dude that is trying to calm down as it reflects on the world that was. So what would someone like this wear?

It is draped in rocky cliffs, dirt ground, and green forestry that is slowly taking it over as it calms down. It has long flows of lava that vent through it and flow over the edges, almost as a sash. It is accessorized with debris and relics from the world past.

I’m still answering this question and it will probably be adjusted as the game moves forward; however, because I’ve designed so much of the environment’s character already, I have a clear direction to move in.

Part 1 Summary

By personifying our level and its environment, we can create a clear vision for each level to be unique, interesting, and to get the most enjoyment possible out of our ideas.

In part 2 of this 3 part series on level design, We’ll be looking at the purpose of everything. Every respect of the level should have a reason to exist for the player. It often helps if the level is abstract in layout. For examples I’ll reference toys and play sets, and how their designs can help us get in the right mindset for level development.

I’ll see you all at my next article. Thanks for reading.

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