"Inside" the Game, A Story Without Words

Inside is a 2D puzzle platformer developed by Playdead (the developers of Limbo) that quickly immerses players into a mysteriously dark world. There are Limbo influences the style of the mechanics and puzzles, but Inside stands strongly as its own because of how the level and world design ties together its gameplay/puzzles in the overarching narrative.

I want to discuss how narrative and gameplay are communicated through level design. How the world sets a high concept that informs the puzzle and gameplay through key design elements needed to achieve a narrative without words. 

** And yes, spoiler-ish alert if you haven’t finished the game ** 
Will do my best to reduce specifics, but will need to describe some stuff regarding the narrative.

“Inside” - The High Concept

The main concept was all about the literal and figurative word, “inside” -- To tell a story and experience of a boy trying to figure out what is happening inside the mysterious facility.  

In the game, it was all about what was inside. How your objective was to get inside a facility. That inside was the reason the world was unsettling, mysterious... that it was up to you to figure it out, and perhaps, fix what was happening inside. And, as you progress, one could argue how the inside was a reflection of the main character in some way. That the boy you play is connected to the inside. That all along, you were inside this boy to help him “fix” or “free” what lies within. Or, perhaps, the inside is a dark reflection of mankind and how far people are willing to go for their own motives, experiments... making the boy a character of innocence, something that lives because of its opposing darkness, symbol of color in a gray world.

Whatever depth or conclusion players draw from their experience, the concept of the game was to penetrate the boundaries, literally and figuratively, and get to the core of what was happening with this world and feel its terror and suspense.

Setting the World

Once the main idea and theme was established, the world design was next:

The beauty of nature’s rural lands leading into a massive man-made compound. From outside to inside. From light to darkness. A descent.

(Playdead's "Inside" the game and its aesthetics)

(Playdead's "Inside" the game and its aesthetics)

The game’s narrative is in direct correlation with its setting. The early parts of the game take place outside where it establishes that something once peaceful is now unnerving. Once beautiful, but now dark. You are always moving to the right of the screen, almost like a field that extends forever with grasslands, farms, swamps, and roads. You begin to stumble upon danger but you push forward until you discover a warehouse or factory where mysterious people are entering. Crossing that threshold represents your objective of finding out what is happening inside. That you know the source of the darkness and mysteries around you must be deep within. You are always moving to the right, but this time, you mostly descend as you move deeper in the warehouse. So you are falling deeper inside as the level guides you relative that way to the world. With the setting of the warehouse as the remainder of the game, it contains layers and layers of unnatural and strange architecture. This factory is like nothing you have ever seen. And you may likely never get to see that outside beauty of the world again after going this far. 

(Inside the factory – layers that get deeper and deeper)

(Inside the factory – layers that get deeper and deeper)

Once you reach the core, no matter which ending the player ends up with, it is about the final descension, relative to the world location, and the boy’s final act with handling the inside.

The setting of the world now sets the tone for the design of the levels and game mechanics.

Identifying the Mechanics and Puzzle Elements

Inside is a 2D or "2.5D" puzzle platformer. (Will go over ‘2.5D’ in next section). The 2D platformer basic mechanics, at its core, are run and jump. The puzzle aspect brings mechanics of push, pull, climb, and interact. And as the game progresses, environmental and narrative context introduces the player to swim, swing, mind-control, and underwater-pod control.

The tool belt of mechanics allows for a different puzzle types and interactable objects. And will scale in difficulty and complexity as the player advances deeper into the game. 

Levels Design Teaching Mechanic and Puzzle Development

The goal of the level design is to inform story and gameplay using minimum words/UI. And the overarching world design introduces these mechanics and expands complexity of the level and puzzle design appropriately to its narrative.

Inside’s level is best described as “2.5D environment” which creates depth in the background. Although the playable space is truly a 2D platformer, various environmental dangers or storytelling occurs in the layers behind the player. Dangers such as dogs or humans emerging from the background towards the foreground enter the playable space. Think of the background as storybook you walk through and the playable layer utilizes shape, lighting, color, and camera placement/framing to hint to the player what they need to do in order to advance. These are the design elements used to make a successful puzzle platformer.

Utilizing Design Elements

Very early in the game, the player sees a car driving through the background with flashlights beaming out towards the playable layer. This is triggered while the player is running out of the woods and the lights in the darkness communicates that this is dangerous and you must to avoid being seen. 

(Player running to avoid being detected by lights, ridge below)

(Player running to avoid being detected by lights, ridge below)

The level is flat at first. But then slopes up and is quickly met by a ridge where the player has to jump down. The way the ground slopes up creates a cave-like shape at the ridge. As soon as the player lands, the camera frames this shape in the center, immediately hinting the cave’s importance for shelter, especially right as the enemy flashlight points directly towards the cave, enhancing its silhouette. 

(Cave-like shape hinting where the player should go)

(Cave-like shape hinting where the player should go)

This is a simple puzzle moment that the game is trying to communicate to the player. If the player chose to avoid the cave and kept running, they will be shot down by the enemies since the open field guarantees being spotted. As you can see, this was accomplished through simple level geometry supported by shape-language, lighting, and camera framing. It is these simple but powerful moments that communicate mechanics and dynamics to the player without using a single word – that’s the level design goal.

Two Types of Puzzles

Whether the player feels like they are endangered or just pondering over a room, all of these moments and encounters are puzzles -- all meant for the player to solve and overcome in order to advance. A good way to categorize puzzles is “time-based” and “brain-teasers”. 

1) Time-Based Puzzles - Requires either a certain amount of time to complete the puzzle or timing of certain environmental factors in order to move player to completion. Thematically, these usually involve some sort of danger to the player like dogs or people chasing the boy. Or deadly spotlights that move back and forth that you must avoid being seen. Sometimes, the player will learn through trial and error (error typically means death) to understand how to complete the puzzle if they do not notice the solution immediately. 

(Example of time-based puzzle - avoid moving spotlights)

(Example of time-based puzzle - avoid moving spotlights)

With the inherently dark environment, light sources can be used to communicate danger or guidance depending on their context. The image above shows a very straightforward time-based lighting puzzle. The player must simply move across without being spotted because light equals danger. The spotlights move left and right creating dynamic shadows cast against the playable space, in this case, the structural column, where the player objective is to remain in the shadows.

That was an easy introduction to spotlight time-based puzzles. As the game progresses, these time-based puzzles will add more and more intensity.

Time-based puzzles arguably welcome death as its trial and error when figuring out how to solve the environmental puzzle. Players may often die a couple of times when they first encounter a scenario because the camera and level does not always frame the answer in one screen, but instead, tease the goal. In previous spotlight puzzle, it turns out that if the player turned on the power switch and made it across utilizing the structural columns dodging lights as expected, they’ll find that there won’t be enough time to lift the door open without the spotlights catching the player – this was designed with death on purpose. Once the player dies, they’ll realize what they actually need do: open the gate first, run back to turn on the power, and then dodge the lights. Therefore, respawn points are carefully place to encourage the player to try again with ease, not punishing them for messing up.

The image below is another spotlight time-based puzzle that occurs not long after the first one.

(Example of time-based puzzle increasing in intensity/difficulty)

(Example of time-based puzzle increasing in intensity/difficulty)

Upon arriving, the camera zooms out to frame this view for the player in the image above. The boy looks up to acknowledge the spotlight that frames the steering wheel hinting its relationship to an adjacent hanging crate. This moment alone communicates what the player should do, but now it is a matter of how they should do it. 

(Utilizing dynamic shadows to cross to safety)

(Utilizing dynamic shadows to cross to safety)

Immediately, the spotlight will move left and right slowly casting its dynamic shadow for the player to safely cross. You must interact and spin the wheel and watch the cage go down. But the player will notice that no matter how fast they spin the wheel, it does not have enough rotation to complete its cycle without the spotlight returning to endanger the boy. So, of course, the player must run back to take shelter under the pipes in shadow then rinse and repeat to complete the puzzle.

(Taking shelter again under dynamic shadows as spotlight paths back)

(Taking shelter again under dynamic shadows as spotlight paths back)

The player is put on a timer and thus, creates more intensity in the puzzle. This sense of urgency due to timing will continue to grow as the puzzles get more complex later in the game.

With these two examples, we see the importance of camera framing the obstacle as lighting and shape-language communicate how to traverse the space. Even if the player may die in a time-based puzzle, the level’s design elements actually teaches the player and provides agency through their mistakes as it arguably becomes more obvious what they should do next. Death is not punishment, but encouragement in a good puzzle platformer design.

2) Brain-Teaser Puzzles - Puzzles meant to rattle the player’s brain as they ponder over how they should interact with the environment to bypass a dead-end or door. These are not time-sensitive, giving the player all the time they need to traverse the level and interact with the playable space. These are designed with a specific number of set pieces to interact with and can be solvable through trial, error, and exploration. It is also designed so that the player won’t get “stuck” if they mess up, but rather, the level allows them to interact, fail, analyze, reassess, and then try again. 

The example below is brain teaser early in the game where the player needs to figure out how to get up on higher ground in the warehouse. In the image below, the player quickly meets a dead-end and probably figures that they need something to climb on in order to get up. A box (marked with red arrow) can be found above and is probably the key to getting out. The camera frames the player in the image below so that they can assess there are two interactable objects (marked in green) and perhaps the suction (blue) is the key to knocking the box over.

(Camera frames the brain teaser for player assessment)

(Camera frames the brain teaser for player assessment)

After fiddling around with the two interactable pieces, in a matter of time, the player should recall an interesting environmental interaction that occurred right before entering this warehouse. Small baby chicks (marked in blue below) gathered and followed the player outside as they journeyed towards this building. These bright yellow creatures stood as a strong contrast to the gray monochrome environment. The level uses color to denote visual cues.  

(Recalling yellow chicks previous to puzzle encounter)

(Recalling yellow chicks previous to puzzle encounter)

Although peculiar at first sight, the player should have a light bulb go off in their heads: small chicks must mean they can fit in the small suction. So they became the key to finishing this brain teaser.

(Putting the final piece to together to solve the puzzle)

(Putting the final piece to together to solve the puzzle)

Once the player leads the chicks through the suction, the box will knock over for the player to move on. Whether the player gets the puzzle immediately or ponders, agency and sense of accomplishment awaits after every brain teaser encouraging the player to continue the game.

Conclusion

By understanding how to utilize different design elements in a level, a game can provide a lot of visual information without heavy gestures from UI and words. Personally, I believe that the camera placement and framing is the most powerful tool for puzzle platformers (working with its level/environment). It wraps up art and design elements into a nice package on the screen as it sets the goal in sight (or teases it) and hints at the requirements to meet that goal. If the camera cuts off or does not frame a hint in a good way, the player may completely miss it, even if it’s been lit, shaped, or colored differently. And if the player is being teased of the goal off-screen, the hints that are framed in the perspective, camera angle, and zoom provide scale to how far they must venture to satisfy the conditions.

Inside’s level/world design orchestrates fun mechanics and dynamics in a way where gameplay feel intuitive and the world immersive. I always enjoy a good 2D puzzle platformer, so this one is must for level designers! 

 

Analysis: Uncharted Building Blocks

Post originally written on May 2, 2016

I want to look at the Uncharted series’s (1, 2, 3) levels before the release of Uncharted 4. The purpose of this is to identify and understand the “building blocks” used to create levels.

My primary focus is level design and how that supports the narrative and gameplay of this story adventure title.

Narrative First

Before I cover level design, it is important to remember narrative drives the game’s development. First and foremost, Naughty Dog games are all about character relationships. The bonds forged between characters drives the narrative of the game. And that narrative creates a tone that resonates with the player. All aspects of development (audio, level, environment, systems, gameplay, etc) must support that narrative tone.

In each Uncharted game, there are two parallel stories to unravel: the story of Nate & company, and the story of the treasure heist. How these two are interwoven is how we get a complete action-adventure game and determines what/how environments get developed. 

For the story of Nate and the cast of characters that relate to him, we learn more about each individual character and what they mean to Nate. Nathan Drake is adventurous, light-hearted, funny, stubborn, conflicted, and determined. He is surrounded with people who love him and hate him. Despite the over the top adventures they undergo, these characters exchange silly banter and emotional struggle, making them believable characters. Hence why people can relate to Nate and the cast. And these relations between the player and Nate grow deeper as the series moves on. The tone of Nate’s story is humorous and playful, yet emotional and touching. 

(Those close to Nate and their relationships) 

(Those close to Nate and their relationships) 

The second parallel narrative of the treasure heist provides the basis for where the story takes place. Each Uncharted game involves a rich history of fortune and fame lost to the world long ago and becomes a race to riches between Nate and any interested parties to reach it. Whether it’s the elaborate tales of El Dorado, Shambala, or Ubar, the game’s narrative structure is paced by a scavenger hunt yielding the depth of the treasure’s history. The tone is mysterious and secretive yet thrilling and adventurous.   

With the two parallel narratives of Nate and fortune, the tone equates to a thrilling, action-adventure filled with tugging of the heart strings. So the world of Uncharted and its levels need to provide excitement in its action but also allow for reflection of awe and depth in its adventure. 

So what better way to accomplish that through a combination of combat and traversal.

Core Game Loop & Mechanics

The narrative action-adventure of Uncharted is a simple game loop: 
Traverse/Puzzle > Combat > Cutscene

Not always in this order, but you basically move through an environment as the puzzle, fight the bad guys, then receive narrative progression as your reward.

The game mechanics can be derived from those core game loops:
Traverse/Puzzle = Climb, Jump, Interact
Combat = Punch/Fist Fight, Aim, Shoot, Cover, Toss Grenade, Dodge/Roll

And with the narrative and the mechanics established, we can actually see the building blocks of level design derived from the core game loop.

Uncharted Level Design

Story beats of the plot establishes different levels within the world of Uncharted. They organize the narrative by chapters that has a number of levels within it reflecting the pace of the story. Using my own terminology, levels are categorized as: Puzzle Traversal, Combat Arenas, and On-the-Rails

1) Puzzle Traversal Levels - 

Levels that require navigating the environment where the level itself is a puzzle. Sometimes, the puzzle is figuring out how to move throughout the space like jumping from one chandelier to the next then climbing up a series of poles where the puzzle is the environment. And other times, there may be distinct room(s) where the player needs to interact with the objects in the space, usually using hints from Nate’s sketch book, to solve the puzzle. These puzzle traversal levels allow for a variety of scale as they take place within exterior, interior environments, or a combination. And giving an explicit puzzle helps break up the pace of simply moving through the environment.

(Environmental hint using color, shape, and vibrant textures) 

(Environmental hint using color, shape, and vibrant textures) 

Using Nate’s mechanics of climbing, jumping, and interacting with object, the player must find their way to the end of the level to unlock narrative progression as their reward. The level guides the player by using vibrant textures/colors (often, classic Naughty Dog yellow) to show what ledges or objects to climb on. These ledges or objects are clearly different such as bricks that bulge out with detailed textures giving hints to the player. In addition, the cameras plays a role in providing hints. Although the camera is freely adjustable by the player with Nate as its pivot point, certain areas script the camera to force a perspective/direction to hint at what they should pay attention to next. This is limited as Uncharted wants the player to have full control of the camera but give a nudge when walking up against a tall wall or vista; a slight helper. And of course, if the player has a hard time figuring things out, there’s typically a fail-safe by giving a hint (pressing d-pad up) after a certain amount of time has passed and Nate verbally expresses / someone expresses to him about being stuck or lost. 

(Mirror puzzle room with Nate and Chloe)

(Mirror puzzle room with Nate and Chloe)

In Uncharted 2 Chapter 8, Nate and Chloe are in the temple where a large room requires them to use mirrors to reflect light towards the center of the room to unlock the puzzle. The size of the room has Nate run across ledges, climb up and down bricks, and interact with mirrors while having Chloe as the companion assisting him and verbally giving hints. Yellow ledges and detailed textures lead the player to where their next step may be but also uses light to guide this puzzle. This larger scale traversal puzzle gives the player an appreciation of the environment according to its narrative but also providing some brain teaser as a break from a previously action-packed combat arena level. 

(Mirror puzzle room use of vibrant textures for climbing) 

(Mirror puzzle room use of vibrant textures for climbing) 

These levels are important in slowing down the pace of the action and gives time to the players to appreciate the world Nate has gotten himself into.

2) Combat Arenas Levels - 

Levels that provide appropriate amount of cover (or lack of) built in a manner that allows the player to fight through different encounters. These levels utilize Nate’s mechanics of climbing, shooting, fist fighting, and cover to defeat enemies so the player can advance to next narrative objective. The overall direction of these levels vary in scale and arrangement but overall, provides a clear direction of where Nate can position himself against incoming enemies. Most combat arenas have Nate placed on one side or corner of the level while the enemy are placed throughout. Typically, it feels like Nate will fight in a manner that feels like he’s pushing forward whether the level is a narrow space or open area. This linear combat progression can be as literal as fighting in a train where the space is physically narrow moving from one car to the next and fighting enemies that are literally in front of you. Or, if the space is large with varying height, Nate will typically be on one end of the map and must push his way “forward” by taking out each enemy then making his way to the “other end” of the map. It’s all about reaching one side to the next.

(Always “pushing forward” - Nate one side, enemies on the other)

(Always “pushing forward” - Nate one side, enemies on the other)

I think Uncharted 2 had some of the best combat arenas because it created fantastic moment to moment combat utilizing its level design. For example, at beginning of Chapter 12, the city street level where Nate and Elena escape close call with the enemy, they are in the dense city where enemies clearly have access to various balconies for fighting. To counter balance that, tall sign posts are placed throughout the level and have a number of signs on each side like a branches to a tree. Nate can climb onto different “branches” but also orient himself on either side of the metal sign and use that as cover during encounters.

(Combat arena on the sign post) 

(Combat arena on the sign post) 

It serves as tactical advantage of traversal and cover. In this particular level, enemies spawn from a couple of spots on rooftops/floors where it forces the player to utilize all aspects of this sign post. I found myself swapping on one side, shooting a guy down, hearing bullets fly at me somewhere else, then quickly hopping up then swinging Nate over to the opposite side just to take out my newly angered enemies. And scripted events caused a sign I was using to fall in a manner that oriented Nate a different direction but acted quickly to take out threats. It was thrilling as I had to act quickly and use the environment to my advantage. Even though this was merely a small moment within the level itself, it was clear that it was arena for fighting creatively. 

These levels are about Nate and company defeating the enemy and move onto their objectives. Aware of Nate’s capabilities and enemy design, level designers find different ways and arrangements to keep combat engaging and exciting through scale, enemy placement, environmental challenges, all of which are obstacles for Nate to overcome and push “forward” in the story. 

3) On-the-Rails Levels

Time-sensitive levels dictated by a major threat on “the rails” that is chasing Nate and will kill him if the player does not react/respond within time limit. These levels are linear because there is only a single, straightforward path to navigate and requires Nate to use any of his mechanics quickly or he will die and/or cannot reach the objective. And the idea behind all of this is the notion of a “moving level” in this thrilling adventure of Uncharted.

This can actually be broken up into two sub-categories: On the rails combat (where Nate is “stationary”) or on the rails traversal (where Nate is moving).

“On-the-rails Combat” - The level and camera experience is scripted on the rails, or moving in a linear path, while Nate is “stationary”. The objective is to defeat enemies within a certain time and/or distance to protect his life or the objective at hand. These levels typically have Nate in a moving vehicle operating a machine gun or limited movement on a platform. The player typically has control of turning the camera around despite Nate’s limited movement himself.

(Uncharted 1 - Some classic on the rails combat)

(Uncharted 1 - Some classic on the rails combat)

These levels do not have a lot of traversal but Nate must still respond to killing enemies within a time limit. 

“On-the-rails Traversal” -  The camera dictates the experience as its scripted on a rail and Nate must traverse the level in time to keep up with the moving screen. Unlike the “on the rails combat”, the game briefly becomes a platformer where Nate must jump/climb very quickly across the map as obstacles and enemies serve to prevent Nate from doing so. And like the puzzle traversal levels, the environment hints to the player where they should go through shape language, detailed textures, vibrant colors to get them to head the right direction to escape danger.

Uncharted 3 did a great job on these types of levels and provided great variation of them in their narrative context. One of my favorite on the rails traversal level is in the first chapter where a flashback of young Nate is running across the city rooftops. 

(On the rails traversal - Enemy placement, use of lines, and birds flying away) 

(On the rails traversal - Enemy placement, use of lines, and birds flying away) 

Despite the city density of dozens of rooftops and balconies in what seems like “too many choices”, there are a number of things at work: the camera placement hints to what to jump onto next, strong forms of lines within the architecture guide player’s eye (i.e. direction of gable roofs, direction of Spanish terracotta rooftops patterns), avoiding where enemies pop out of windows, and even the direction of white birds flying that catches player eye. And during this intense platforming, the camera is actually not completely on the rails. It is actually moving at the player’s speed with many minor scripted moments where camera will shift to hint next direction. But the sense of urgency feels like the environment and camera moves forward, and thus, the player needs to “keep up” before it’s too late. These “on the rail” levels creates high amounts of intensity as time pressures the players to react quickly. And these quickly paced moments provide great variety to the narrative experience as a whole. 

Mix n’ Match Building Blocks

With these three main categories of levels, Uncharted can mix and match to create variety in their levels but also maintain gameplay challenges and expectation. With the narrative plot in mind, the level can then pace itself to match the beats. 

For example, Uncharted 3′s ship level (chapter 14 and 15) is a good example of a holistic narrative level design. In chapter 14, Nate infiltrates a ship to find Sully and finds himself in a combat arena in the main room of the ship. He wards off enemies in this multi-story room, moves on through the corridors of the ship and finds himself in a bit of mess. But as certain events causes the ship to sink, this once familiar level now gets flipped on its side as it becomes an on-the-rails-traversal level. So chapter 14 used this ship as a traditional combat arena level but with certain unfortunate events, turned chapter 15′s version of the ship to a faster pace thriller as Nate needed to move fairly quickly in the same level that was now turned over and flooding waters.

(Chapter 14 - Combat arena in main room of the ship) 

(Chapter 14 - Combat arena in main room of the ship) 

(Chapter 15 - That very same boat/room flipped on its side with inherent danger) 

(Chapter 15 - That very same boat/room flipped on its side with inherent danger) 

Understanding the narrative and mechanics calls for three types of “building blocks” within level design. This establishes expectation for the player as they’ve been trained to understand what they (Nate) can do, and expect to perform those actions within the environment given to them.

What Could Be Improved, Changed?

Uncharted level design and narrative follow a linear formula. I don’t want to take away or throw odd curve balls at player expectation, but I would try to introduce some variation or branching diamond structure narrative within the level design itself. By having Nate make a decision in a level, perhaps the environment may force the him to navigate else where or make other decisions that wouldn’t make a completely different narrative as a whole, but rather change that player’s experience within a certain level that can be 1) different that someone else’s, and 2) curiosity to create replayability. Imagine, in a puzzle traversal level or on-the-rails-traversal, if the player decide to quickly hit a switch that requires Nate and companion to be split up for a little while within a temple (reunited after the level), equates to a different narrative experience were he to make a decisions to see them together. Or maybe, Nate chose to shoot all but one or two bad guys who ended up escaping the level and popping up later forcing a different combat arena. This can reward additional narrative lines or extra VO you may not get otherwise. Or even different combat encounter. It may not change the experience as a whole, but they would experience that segment differently that could alter how they feel. Uncharted 4 has already alluded to the idea of narrative decisions choices within dialogue, but they appear to be within cutscenes and may not necessarily branch the narrative. I suggest taking this idea to the building block level where certain decisions forces the player to experience the level differently. It will still follow the overall formula of linear story telling (both literal to the level and narrative) but still can give some variation and make players wonder “what if I did this instead”?

So What? And What About Uncharted 4?

I write all of this, well, because I treat these analysis as a “note to self” for games I play… but because the release of Uncharted 4 is within a few days, and this was a way to recap and understand the overall structure of the Uncharted series. A series that dates back all the way to 2007! Nearly a decade of working and learning from this series, we are nearing the end as they release the final piece of the Uncharted story. There have been development videos discussing how Naughty Dog has learned a lot from making The Last of Us and how they plan to tie those lessons in making Uncharted 4 the “best Uncharted of the series”. So by understanding the building blocks set by the past three games (and having played The Last of Us), I look forward to see what the last one has to offer. 

-C

Colorless - Portfolio Update and Revision

Thanks to awesome feedback from people and fans of the game, I just updated my portfolio on my game project, "Colorless", where I discuss my contributions and get into detail about the design and development of the project. Check it out and/or play the game if you haven't yet!

Under my Video Game Portfolio > Colorless.

Thanks everyone :) 

-C

Storyboard Portfolio Section

Just launched a new section in my game portfolio that I've dedicated to Storyboard art/design :) Check it out at Video Game Portfolio > Game Storyboard Art

-C

Let's Talk Level Design! (Part 1) - My design for the new level in Asunder

Hi all,

So my focus this week was designing and developing the latest level for our game, Asunder. The majority of the game takes place in a old, ruined civilization that has fallen from the sky and is now in the depths of a cavern where the earth has swallowed it up over the centuries. The level I am focusing on this week is the marketplace. This part of the story takes place after you leave the temple and your encounter with the spirit, Luddite. You leave the side exit of the temple and make your way down the cliff side and stumble into what appears to be a marketplace in ruins, as if it was the old downtown of Aegeros. 

So what are the goals of this level?

To guide the player to the next destination, the arcade, but also convey that the environment was once a busy, active part of the city's past.

This is important to establish the appropriate characteristics to the level from a narrative standpoint but also a gameplay and design one. 

So how do we accomplish these goals?

1) Understand general flow and expectation from narrative standpoint
2) Note important landmarks and identify where to place clutter/buildings
3) Elevation/height changes for wayfinding, views/vistas, and awe-moments
4) How all 3 of those inform general circulation and mood of the level

(Level planning and concept from my sketchbook)

(Level planning and concept from my sketchbook)

The Concept

Starting off, I had to sketch the general flow: leaving the temple, change of elevation downward on the cliffs, marking important landmarks, and general thoughts on circulation to the arcade. Key thing was to understand height changes and how to establish views for the player for both wayfinding reasons but also awe-moments to keep the player engaged. Gotta keep them interested and say, "Oh man, I want to go over there!" So, if this is a dense part of the level, then the player needs to lock onto a central point like a tower so that they can establish a relative location and use that navigate around the space if they feel lost. This will also provide a reason and location for the next puzzle or action to take place (which will be in the next sprint's iteration). 

(My quick thumbnail sketches of what I want to capture and accomplish within the level)

(My quick thumbnail sketches of what I want to capture and accomplish within the level)

Then I needed to identify moments and other critical details I wanted out of this level. In these quick thumbnail sketches, I essentially made a visual to-do list of what all I wanted out of the level. 

From Concept to Whitebox

Next step is to actually build it!

So I needed to create a whitebox of the level in 3Ds Max with elevations in the terrain, the mountain/cliff sides, and basic buildings of varying heights and size to mock up the level. 

Had my team run through the whitebox and made changes based on comments and this was the whitebox results. Feedback and testing is key!

Whitebox to Modeling - Technical Process

Now we begin to model the actual level. The slideshow shows the order of my process. When it comes to constructing the cave geometries, our pipeline is to create a series of 8m x 8m squares to keep track our scale, but also, thanks to our technical artist, strategize UV mapping efficiently by using just a single texture and applying them in a series of 1x1, 2x2, and 3x3 squares to keep performance in mind. We can create a variety of scales of cave textures with a single 1024x1024 image and generate additional maps based on the desired shader we want to use (which we are still experimenting with). From the square grids, I began to modify vertices to make more organic shapes like mountains and cliffs but keeping the general square in mind in order to not skew the textures too much. The goal is to get each level to about a 50-60% state as we come back topolish and add in more art and assets to liven up the place. 

Importing Level into Unity (Pre-art stage)

Dropped my level from 3Ds Max into Unity with just basic whitebox buildings. We are still developing more 3D art for this level but you can see some of the destroyed buildings that provided by my fellow 3D modeler/artist. We tend to trade off from week to week being either the environment artist or the level designer. As you can see, I was the level designer this time around.

But you can see all the different points and details I've touched on such as views, circulation, scale, and moments I mentioned earlier in the post. It's all about player engagement and wayfinding! I love designing levels :) Gotta put my architecture skills to work.

We're still developing and deciding on our shaders and textures at the moment. So the image only shows temporary placeholders materials. The next step is to implement the more environment art like the tower and additional and test some visuals :)

So I'll be posting more within the next week or so as we develop our next steps.

Thanks for reading :)
-C

Project Chimera - From concept to early development!

Hey all! My team, Chimera5, is currently developing our game... and that means designing and development is being cranked out on a weekly basis. Busy, busy. But I am trying my best to post all my work as I go. 

As a designer on this team, I've got my foot in all parts of the design from gameplay and puzzles to aesthetics. I've especially got a huge part in the architecture, environment, and level design. First thing, the architecture in our game is best described as a mash of Shinto + Gothic + Sci-fi influences in order to match the themes in our narrative that have to deal with advance technology/development and mysticism. The image below is my concept of the general architectural set pieces to help visually communicate to my team the direction of our buildings. I've included a color palette that address both the caverns (small palette set) and the architecture's (larger palette set).

ArchitectureSetPieces001.png

Anddddddd, check out this slideshow below - Here are my drawings straight from my sketchbook where I'm trying to figure out the general design, architecture, and my strategies for modeling & UV mapping this particular level where you've entered an ancient civilization in the caverns and come across a plaza and temple. Guess my architectural skills come in handy here :) This gallery shows concept to my 3D model to my import into Unity. Still in its early stages of lighting and texturing but wanted to show you guys my process and development! 

(In order of slide progression, I'm figuring out the design of a temple you see once you've entered this old civilization and crossed the gate. I've got floor plan, roof plans, elevations, sections, and one-point perspectives to help me understand the space and scale of everything. Then I modeled my temple in 3Ds Max and dropped it into Unity to see how it felt. Again, this is just early texturing and lighting so this is currently being worked on. I'll definitely update more as we go!)

^-^ Thanks for tuning in! I'm working on whiteboxing the next level as we speak!
-C

 

 

Up and running!

Hey all,

Just launched the website. It is pretty much good to go, but if you do see any mistakes/errors/glitches, do let me know. I will be making additions as time goes on. Thanks for visiting.

Cheers!