Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Levels must support gameplay

As I mentioned in my previous post, I feel there a few lessons to be learned from Mirror's Edge in terms of game design.  The first of these pertains to the gameplay design and mechanics of a game, and how a game's level design should support these mechanics.

First, one the best things about Mirror's Edge was its parkour gameplay. Running as fast as possible across various cityscapes, leaping off buildings, running along walls, performs leaps and slides to quickly bypass obstacles were the core "fun" of the game. That's what the first person camera (which I discussed in my last post) was designed to augment, so that's what the core gameplay should deliver to the player.

Run, Faith, Run

Unfortunately a significant culprit in stopping this aspect of the gameplay was the level design.  In certain cases, you were forced to stop and analyse your surroundings in order to determine where to go next. Some instances made it quite difficult to actually work out where the next jump was or how you could reach your desired destination. One case that springs to mind is a level inside a mall where you had to made your way upwards while being chased by armed police. At one point, there was only one corner (at least that I could find) from which you scale the walls to reach the next tier of walkways. This resulted in numerous deaths while I ran around trying (and failing) to find a means to progress. The threat of death in this case does not add excitement for the player, it merely adds annoyance.

The player expected to have to think where they needed to go when there was no time pressure involved, the level generally involved sections required more precise or well-timed actions. Timing leaps between jets of steam or a delicate series of jumps to navigate a building under construction were done without the threat of imminent death except for at the player's own mistake. In some cases they did feel a bit like a poor man's Prince of Persia, but there was still some genuine fun in navigating the heights (or depths) of a modern/futuristic city setting. The almost vertigo-inducing first person perspective accentuated the feeling of height in these more relaxed situations when compared to its third-person camera counterparts.

For me the most memorable example of breaking flow was early in the game, where the player is on the run and has to make their way down a giant vertical storm drain. The player must leap onto beams suspended over and inside the drain before leaping onto the walkways around its edge.  However, in a sever failing of level design, the player must actually pause their run in order to wait for the second set of beams to drop and turn. The player is under time pressure in the threat of police and a helicopter bearing down on them, and the level design demands that they stop running in order to make the jump cleanly. This is entirely counter-intuitive to the situation at hand, not to mention the gameplay mechanics that have been introduced to the player at this point: both of which dictate is that speed is all-important. Even the momentary pause required in this situation disrupts the flow of the game, and resulted in numerous deaths on my part as I tried to reach my destination at the break-neck speed that the game implied was necessary.

The player should not have to stop here

Level designers must keep the core gameplay mechanics in mind when creating levels. They must remember the aim of the game itself in making a level.  Imagine the Thief series of games with linear and brightly lit levels. Thief was about the player finding what they thought was the "best" means into a location, whether it be through the basement, a window, or through the roof. The player was given the choice of which of the many corridors and rooms they would use as hiding spots to avoid detection by their adversary. They could choose whether to hide in a separate room, or whether to douse a torch and hide in the patch of darkness that created. The Thief series stands as an excellent example of the gameplay being not only supported, but in fact created by the level design.

"The Shalebridge Cradle" wouldn't work without shadows

The parkour gameplay of Mirror's Edge was based entirely on level design, and this was where it shone. However, sometimes the gameplay and the level design were at odds, and these cases almost certainly result in the gameplay losing out, which inevitably resulted in player frustration. Level design is not simply eye candy. No matter the game genre, elements of level design can assist and enhance gameplay. For a truly great game, they must do this.

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