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Level Design pt. 2: Structure and Challenge

Matt Judge

Originally posted 8/6/2016 on Kickstarter

Hi! Last time I talked about the technical aspects of designing a level; this time I'm going to discuss level design in terms of challenge and structure. The Snake Town level from late in the demo is the best way to explain this, so be warned that the rest of this post will have spoilers for that part of the demo. On the other hand, if you're stuck in Snake Town, this might be exactly what you're looking for.  

OK, so, in order to learn how to make the magic of fire, the player has to undertake a quest that proves they can handle it. This was inspired by a weird phrasing in the original Legend of Zelda; at one point, you find an old man who offers you a better sword, with the line of dialogue "Master using this and you can have it." What he really means is that you need a certain number of heart containers or something, but I liked the idea of the player having to demonstrate mastery of an item before they can walk away with it. Since there's a mechanical difference between having some fire magic and being able to make more of it on your own, this quest seemed like a good opportunity to use that idea.  

The goal here is to retrieve a "holy stone" from under Snake Town and return it to Moustapha. Since there's no human-accessible entrance to the ruined town, he gives you, in addition to some fire magic, a potion that turns you temporarily into a snake. When you find the stone, your human form is restored, and then you have to escape with it.  

There are three discrete areas to the Snake Town level: the inner part of the ruined town, the cave underneath it where the stone is, and a series of snake tunnels that connect the other two, and which you can only enter in snake form. 

 I've added some labels so you can see how the three areas connect-- "A" connects to "A", "B" to "B," etc. An orange label shows a passage you can only fit through as a snake, while green means it's accessible in human form too.

 I've added some labels so you can see how the three areas connect-- "A" connects to "A", "B" to "B," etc. An orange label shows a passage you can only fit through as a snake, while green means it's accessible in human form too.

So, right there, that's a structuring mechanism for the level. When you're a snake, you can enter a separate area that's otherwise unavailable, but you can't jump across the gap to the level exit, on the far right of the first screen, nor can you climb ladders. Since you can go down but not up, you're subtly pushed towards the stone. Because you're trapped until you find the stone, the whole thing has an oppressive bad-trip quality. Being a pit viper, you have can see living things in the dark, which helps you figure out where the paths you can take are...  

...and shows you this "witch" enemy. You're also very fragile and unable to dodge or parry in this form, so most players will be inclined to run away from the enemy, towards the glowing snake passage, which was established by the previous scene as a path you can now take (because a similar passage is the only way out of the abandoned kiva where you transform.)  

u2 unintelligible.png

As soon as you transform, you can no longer understand human language, adding to the nightmarish feeling of the level. You can understand other snakes now, but they have snake-centric concerns that don't necessarily help you.

There's an ancient altar in the middle of the level, glowing like a living thing, but the obvious passage to it is blocked. That's something optional; I won't spoil that one for you.  

There's an ancient altar in the middle of the level, glowing like a living thing, but the obvious passage to it is blocked. That's something optional; I won't spoil that one for you.  

Moustapha specifically says that the stone is "under" the city, so that's another good reason to head straight down, even though the tunnels themselves are nonlinear. The cave where it's located is even specifically called "Under Snake Town" on the loading screen card that pops up when you enter a new area. By giving the player more than one path, but also a clear sense of which direction they're trying to go in general, I want to create a feeling of exploration while mitigating the risk of getting lost and just having to comb every inch of the level for a way forward, a frustrating experience that anyone who plays video games is probably familiar with.

The holy stone, like the altar, is slightly visible in the dark; there's no particular plot reason for this one, it's just to help the player avoid getting lost. If you approach this general area from one side, you see human-built walls instead of the natural walls of the cave, suggesting that there's something beyond them;  

and from the other side, you see a tunnel full of bats, signalling that there's a passage over there in the dark. Touching the stone restores the player's human form.  

Now the real challenge starts. When the player takes the stone, a horde of ghosts shows up to defend it, and when those ghosts spawn, a gust of wind puts out the player's torch, if they have one. The ghosts can pass through walls and regenerate from a central point in the level after being killed, so the player should soon figure out that standing and fighting isn't an option here. The player may also notice that they might not want to use a torch at all, since it makes it impossible to hide from the enemies in the otherwise completely dark cave.

The player is likely to realize at this point that they have no idea how to actually get out of Snake Town. If they're resourceful, they'll notice that by exploring the level in human form before they take the stone, they can decide on an escape route, take out some of the defenders, and even set traps.  

This is kind of important: the game never points out that you can do this. The first time the stone restores you to human form, you'll probably take it right away. After a failed escape attempt or two, you might wish you could explore the level with no enemies chasing you. Then you'll realize that you can; no one's stopping you. By giving the player more freedom than they are ever forced to use to make to progress, I'm trying to reward exploration and strategic thinking.

There's an unlimited source of clean water in one corner of the cave, so there's a chance to rest and recuperate here. Unless the player is in danger (signified by the candle flame on the top of the energy meter), they can sleep to regain energy, or make arrows, torches, and magic. Realistically there'd be no arrow material in the cave, of course, but I'm trying to be pretty scrupulous about not wasting the player's time, and making them leave and re-do the whole level just to restock would definitely qualify as a time waster.  

Most of the level is a warren of small rooms and tunnels. When the player is unfamiliar with these, and trying to escape in the dark, they're likely to get turned around or stuck in dead ends, like this misleading structure in the cave, or the top of this ladder in the town. The narrowness of these passages turns them into a deadly shooting gallery when the player is pursued.  But it also means the player's fire magic can block them completely.

Once the player knows the level's layout, they can use it to their advantage by luring enemies into a trap. There are multiple routes the player can take through the level, so it's possible to mislead the enemies onto one path and then follow another, using the darkness or a little bit of cloud magic or even the smoke from the fire as cover.  

The sling comes in handy here; the noise of a rock hitting the wall or floor can pull enemies away from the route the player intends to take. But the sling requires some practice, because a poorly-timed throw will be inaccurate, and in these narrow corridors an inaccurate throw will probably land a lot closer to the player than they intended.

Here's a place where player feedback was important; people were having a lot of trouble finding the exit, which is in a passage that extends further to the right than the rest of the town. I added this beam of light from a crack in the wall to highlight it. Because of the way the game's lighting system works, things like this that are visible in the dark in any context stand out a lot, I hope.

And getting to the exit involves jumping a pit, which requires a tactical choice. The player can memorize where it is in order to clear it in the dark, or they can light a torch and risk being chased.