This level was my entry into Steve Lee’s second level design jam. The themes for the jam were “Non-Violence” and “Verticality“. I decided to learn the Hammer Editor for this one as its still one of the best pure level design tools and allowed more time to concentrate on building and scripting the level. I tried to keep my scope small and focused, as time was limited.
Level Design work
Collected reference, designed level layout and planned gameplay beats
Created level blockout inside the Hammer++ editor
Conceptualized and scripted puzzles, interactions & environmental storytelling
Gameplay & narrative beats, intensity and level flow
Gameplay & beats
Arrive at the reactor
Wooden planks blockade
Water valve and crowbar puzzle
Broken stairs blockade
Collect the Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator (Gravity gun)
Discover the multi-level structure
Composition & signposting
To make use of the verticality theme, I decided to start the player up high to allow them to assess their options and decide on a path. Using this approached allowed me to stimulate the players curiosity and explore the space. I also included a windmill as a landmark to guide the player throughout the level.
I used the classic Bait & Switch technique to draw the player to an obstructed opening which blocks their path. Players can see that the crowbar is located on access walkway above them and they need to reach it. Backtracking, players can find the valve to raise the water level.
The use of gating was used to make the player stop and think about the crumbled stairway problem. The locked door implies that something the player needs is behind it. Affordances associated with scattered wooden planks and metal panels in HL2 provide multiple options for the player to progress.
Planning & Reference
The image gallery below shows some initial sketch work before block-out along with some reference imagery.
Gallery 1 – Initial sketches for the level’s layout
The following shows some of the various gameplay blueprints that I’ve scripted for the level e.g. actor blueprints for the Secruis doors so I can reuse them throughout the level, a teleport blueprint contained in the Level Blueprint and the sequence which plays the lighting event as the player enters the lighthouse.
Level Design Research
I began by replaying BioShock, BioShock 2 and Minerva’s den to get a general feel for how the levels are designed. As I played, I noted down, the general layout of the levels, environmental storytelling aspects, story events, splicer attacks and pickups.
This article will focus on my design process, work flow and responsibilities for the Toyama work camp level from the sci-fi horror game The Corridor on Behalf of the Dead. It will include planning, reference, design and artistic decisions.
Background, planning and reference
As the designer and part of a three man team on The Corridor, I was responsible for a range of aspects of the games development including some level design. One of the levels I took responsibility for was the Toyama work camp level which was the third level in the game. Up until this point, player’s had followed a fairly linear path up and I proposed that I create a space where the player had the freedom to choose how they approached their objectives and exploration.
Additionally, the core narrative idea I wanted to explore and present to the player was what had become of the citizens of the world after M.O.M (the ruling party/ organization in the game) had taken control.
The game in general was influenced by George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 and while re-reading the novel for reference, I was drawn to the work camp type environment with its rich visual design and strong environmental storytelling themes it offered which allowed players to construct their own version of the narrative.
Additionally, a new crafting mechanic was to be introduced to the player. They would need to use this to create something that would be needed to progress.
introduce new crafting mechanic to the player – items need to be collected and assembled to progress
break up linear flow of levels and support player choice to approach their objectives and exploration
strong environmental storytelling and visual design
Layouts & Sketches
To begin, I started sketching (fig.1) some ideas for the levels layout, keeping the ideas of player freedom, exploration and collection of items in mind.
Fig.1 – Early paper sketches to generate level ideas
Hub and spoke design
While in the process of sketching, I was reminded of certain levels from the Bioshock series, such as the Medical Pavilion, Minerva’s Den and Burial at sea.
Fig.2 – Level layouts from the BioShock series.
These levels make use of the hub and spoke level design layout which involves a central large space with pathways that emanate to smaller self contained spaces. Rewards and challenges can be provided for at the ends of these spokes. These large central spaces act as a reorienting space as players pass through this area as they explore each spoke.
Using the central area as reorienting space aligned well with the games design goals of providing an immersive experience along with player freedom. I wanted the game to omit any form of HUD or marker system and allow the player to freely navigate levels and fid their own path through exploration. In approaching the games design this way, it was necessary to communicate the players various option’s through the design of the level. Additionally, by focusing on exploration, we could use the self-contained spaces to distribute ephemera and along with environmental storytelling, allow the player to create their own version of the story.
I began looking into real spaces that might fit the general idea of a central orientating space with smaller self contained spaces surrounding it. I started looking at floorplans of large dilapidated or ruined buildings, places like slaughterhouses or old factories for reference. These generally had large central spaces as see here in this architectural plan (fig.3):
I incorporated the slaughterhouse ground plan into some of the earlier sketches I had made and then began thinking about how this place might look and feel, a place that people worked and lived under the watchful eye of M.O.M. Fig.5 shows some mood boards I drew up as I continued looking at spaces. I liked the idea of a place that used to function but which had been converted and reused as a work camp. Furthermore, these would help me incorporate some shape and colour into the design.
Fig.5 – Mood board examples
With these ideas and inspiration in place, I began a block out (fig.6) in Maya.
Once I was happy with the general feel of the level, It was time to move over to Unity and begin the blockmesh phase using probuilder.
Fig.7 – Work in progress – blockmesh phase
As the gallery above (fig.7) shows, I produced a general rough version of the entire level so that that I could get a feel of the space, pacing and scale. From here, I asked a couple of our team members to playtest which allowed feedback to be collected and fed back into the next iteration of the level’s design.
Shape and Colour language
As Naughty Dog’s David Shaver has suggested, establishing a consistent visual language throughout the level design not only establishes consistent affordances to the player but also speeds up collaboration with other team members.
Examples of the various colour’s used to donate materials are shown in fig.8:
Shapes and opening
I used a combination of shape and lighting in various areas of the level to guide players to specific paths or areas. Fig.9 shows an arch way section which leads to one of the levels main goals. In order to attract the player into this opening, I built a wall section which used three arches to create an opening and used warm lighting to generate a sense of mystery and safety to guide the player in.
Although this was used to guide players to where I wanted them to go, it doesn’t prevent players from exploring and still allows them the freedom to explore at their own pace.
This section was also used to show the door before the key. Directly through the middle arch, there is a locked door which the player needs to open to continue and this is seen as soon as the player enters the level.
Fig.10 – Leading lines used to guide player to important locations
Following on from fig.9, once players had entered the room beyond the arches I used a combination of pipework and a cable laid on the floor as leading lines to guide the player in the direction I wanted them to go (fig.10). The pipes and cable were given contrasting colour where added to guide players to important locations within the level. For example, a metallic grey was used to for pipe work to contrast against the “redish” brown of the brick walls, this has the affect of looking like a pipe would belong in this environment but also stands out and catches the eye of the player.
Along with the game UI, I established a consistent visual language for the levels affordances. For example, doors with handles would generally be interactable and were kept a consistent colour and scale. If a particular part of the game required that I deny affordance to the player then a logical obstacle would be used. For example, fig.11 shows an area where a door is barricaded, wooden planks were used to show the player that the door couldn’t be opened in its current state.
Items that could be interacted with where placed in well lit areas to focus the players attention (fig.13). Additionally the game used a subtle highlight on the object if it could be interacted with. This feedback was used to reinforce affordances and that the player could interact and collect the item.
Narrative beats, environment and ambiguity
One of the games design pillars was story ambiguity. I wanted the player to create their own personalized version of the story and to facilitate that, much of the story was told through environmental storytelling, ephemera, worker dictaphones and notes. As the players are given the autonomy or freedom to explore the environment and experience these blocks of story, they are continually creating their own personalised version of the story. This form of story creation is what researchers Tom Cole and Marco Gillies terms Interpretive fictional agency (IFA) (2019) and manifests in meaningful ways for players.
Again. using the hub and spoke level design layout allowed me to distribute these narrative blocks throughout the level.
Gameplay event scripting
Along with all the other levels from the game I was responsible for scripting all player interactions and gameplay events. I used the adventure creator visual scripting tool for this and an example of one of these events can be scene in fig.13 below:
NPC’s were setup using Unity’s Mecanim system and Adventure creator character setup. As fig. 14 shows, this particular guard character was setup top follow a path and patrol an area. Allow a passive character, players could still take damage if they got too close.
AI & Behavior tree’s
I also used behavior designer to setup behavior tree’s for enemy AI as shown below in fig.
Before and after
A selection of before and after sliders from blockmesh to the final game.
Temple Totus | Unreal Engine 3 | 2009
2009 – University module – Environment, Set and Prop Creation
This article will focus on my design process, including planning and reference, design and artistic decisions and reasons for importing to Unreal Engine 3.
The focus of the module was to design a small playable space within texture and polygon budget. The environment aimed to tell a story to complement the introduction of a new character.
fixed albedo texture budget of 1024×1024
fixed normal texture budget of 1024×1024
strict polygon budget
Planning and reference
The idea behind the game was a first person action adventure game set in alternative past that intertwined ancient human civilizations. My main aim for this space was to use environmental storytelling to immerse the player and to complement the narrative goal of the player meeting a new character and advancing the story.
The player would arrive and slowly move through the space while taking in the environmental storytelling before eventually meeting and talking with VIP at the end of the room.
Goals for the level
environmental storytelling – an secret inner sanctum for trusted guests
would be used for a meeting with an important character to the story, possibly of royal decree or religious importance
It would advance the story
The initial inspiration for the environment was based around a documentary about ancient culture I watched while involved in the module. To begin the process of planning the environment, I conducted research into various types of ancient buildings and architecture to gather reference images.
I decided it might be interesting to incorporate a mix of architectural styles within the environment as a sort of proto civilization or as a celebration of major ancient cultures varying from the Incans to the Greeks.
After I had developed the initial idea for the level and defined the goals, I began sketching (fig.2) some level designs and plans on paper to explore ideas, flow and pacing.
I wanted to keep the environment fairly small to keep within my time constraints. The pacing within the levels was to be slow to allow the player the time and freedom to examine her surroundings and contemplate the environmental story telling before meeting the character.
The final layout of the temple was based on an ancient Turkish foot pool or bath (fig.3).
The foot pool reference image had a very “royal” feel and provided an excellent place to begin designing the environment.
Block out, modelling and texturing
I began blocking out (fig.4) the level in Maya using modular pieces and a reference player to account for character height. This allowed me to ascertain the scale and dimensions of the levels architecture e.g. wall and doorway height and width.
Once I was happy with the general layout of the level, I began adding detail to the level geometry and began building some props to decorate the environment (fig.5). To adhere to low-poly game environment modelling the scene had a strict polygon budget. The higher polygon modelling was reserved for objects which the player could see up close or would interact with. For example, the props all used a higher polygon count to add detail to the objects.
Once the modeling was complete, I moved on to texturing the scene, again keeping in mind texture budget and reserving texture resolution for places players would see up close. The main focus of the environment was the final room or “Kings chamber” and a texture resolution of 512×512 was reserved for the walls of this area.
As mentioned previously, the textures were based around a selection of Incan, Egyptian, Turkish, Greek and Minoan architecture and this was reflected in the texturing (fig.6).
Unreal Engine 3
Although not a requirement of the module, I thought it was important to actually place the environment within a game engine and get a sense of the space and decided to import the assets into Unreal Engine 3. The result can be seen in the video below:
Crashed alien ship
Crashed Alien Ship | Unreal Engine 2
This was a 2008 University project aimed at introducing us to the Unreal Engine 2 editor.