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A Meandering Manifesto- On Getting Lost

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A Meandering Manifesto- On Getting Lost

To be fair, it isn't exactly the world's most readable map.

To be fair, it isn't exactly the world's most readable map.

The last time I got fundamentally lost in a video game, like, I-have-no-idea-where-I’m-going-I’m-pretty-sure-we’ve-circled-this-one-tree-five-times-already lost, was in Shadow of the Colossus. I was following the light beam from my magical sword to the next Colossus when I hit a wall. More literally, it was the side of a mountain. Then, I turned to try and find a path around the mountain, got distracted by a lizard scampering across a plain, and by the time I caught the lizard, I had no goddamn clue where I was.

The mountain wasn’t rendering anymore, so there went my landmark. SOTC has a map, but I wouldn’t call it detailed, so using that was out the window. My mad dash for sweet lizard meat found me standing on the edge of the world, looking over at some seagulls flying over the ocean. I didn’t catch the lizard, and for a few minutes, I was pretty sure I wasn’t even going to find a Colossus out there. The edge of the world is a lonely place, after all. Of course, I quickly remembered I could pull out my magical sword again and follow its light back to the mountain, but for a brief, shining moment, I was totally lost. And no matter how big open worlds get, it’s never happened since.

This isn't where I was, but considering typing "shadow of the colossus seagull" into google will probably bring back porn, it's as good as I'm willing to get. 

This isn't where I was, but considering typing "shadow of the colossus seagull" into google will probably bring back porn, it's as good as I'm willing to get. 

I don’t actually play a ton of open world games. I often find the lack of direction frustrating, and I’m more likely to finish something that gives me motivation on a regular basis, not just whenever I happen to be in the right mood to push myself along the critical path. That’s mostly just a symptom of the kinds of games that use open world design though. Traditionally, open world design meets sandbox-style gameplay and they go hand-in-hand forever into the night, but that’s not necessarily a given. You can have a sandbox without an open world, just take a look at Animal Crossing or SimCity’s sandbox mode, and you can have an open world without a sandbox, like in Shadow of the Colossus or Dark Souls.  The latter is uncommon, the former barely exists, and the combination of the two is pretty much every game in existence right now. Grand Theft Auto is the progenitor of the open world sandbox genre, sure, but Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, Sleeping Dogs, and all manner of dog-and-non-dog-related games occupy that same ever growing category.

Sandbox, meteor-box, whatever.

Sandbox, meteor-box, whatever.

But clever open-world design can actually add a lot to more traditional, directed genres. Recently, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds applied the open world concept to the entrenched and unchanging Zelda formula to pretty interesting results. By giving players access to every tool in Link’s arsenal from the beginning of the game, the traditional dungeon design had to be rethought and refocused on the player’s potentially wider tool belt. Additionally, being able to leave a tricky dungeon to go try another was a welcome change from having to bash my head against the impenetrable wall known as “Zelda logic”. Dark Souls takes a step further, giving players a huge open world and absolutely no tools with which to work off of, but works in that same action-RPG context.

Dark Souls as the glowing exception to the rule though, these worlds tend to be sterile. Link Between Worlds uses the same overworld map from Link to the Past, a 23 year old game. Wind Waker, another Zelda game with a relatively open world, is content to situate its Great Sea on a grid, only letting each square contain one island. The recent Tomb Raider reboot lets you travel around an open world, but then railroads you down action set-pieces that block off exploration. Maybe you’ll go back to an earlier area later to pick up a few trinkets and collectibles. You probably won’t though.

You definitely won’t get lost.

Those guys are pretty lost looking too. Can we be lost....together? This summer on ABC.

Those guys are pretty lost looking too. Can we be lost....together? This summer on ABC.

Shadow of the Colossus and Dark Souls are, in some small sense, bastions of an older kind of game design. Of building a huge world and refusing give players direction in exploring it. SOTC leads you to the next colossus fight with its magic glowing sword, but you’re sure to miss the helpful stat-boosting lizards and birds along the way. Of course, they aren’t necessary, and most people’s major complaint about SOTC is the lack of things to do in its huge world. It’s a fair one too, considering that the enormous map is entirely empty outside of the next colossus you have to fight. But that’s what makes the world so appealing to me. It’s not a terribly well designed world in the gameplay sense, there’s nothing really funnelling you towards the colossi or any interesting challenges outside of them, and the arenas where you fight the colossi are pretty barren for the most part. But aesthetically and atmospherically, it’s second pretty much only to Dark Souls in setting a mood for a living, breathing world. Though, in SOTC’s case, it’s much more of a dead, barren world.

Play undead. Good boy,

Play undead. Good boy,

Huge expanses of nothing, ruins that serve no purpose, every little bit of SOTC’s map tells a little story about the world, or is at the very least fascinating to look at. That doesn’t make it a super fun game for everyone by any means, but the world enamours me. It makes me want to get lost. Dark Souls’ Lordran hits me in a similar way. It’s much tighter and livelier than SOTC’s barren wasteland, but it has the same sort of lore-revealing efficiency in its world design, with the added bonus of constantly teaching you how to play while forcing you into battle. Fighting the dogs in the tight corridors of the thieves’ down beneath the Undead Burg teaches you about how easy it is to stab them as they leap at you, which is a skill you’ll find comes in very handy during the Capra Demon boss fight, where two attack dogs stunlock you before the demon slams his axe down on your head.

To go back to Zelda for a second, the worlds remind me a lot of Zelda 1. Of course, Zelda 1 suffers from a lot of the same problems that SOTC and Dark Souls do. The open world often lacks direction, you’ll sometimes find yourself with a lack of things to do, and you cane stumble into areas far beyond what you can handle. But they’re also scary, lonely worlds at times, without much in the way of a home base or safe zone. Mind you, SOTC doesn’t have any enemies anywhere, but the world is enormous and labyrinthine for non-gameplay reasons. It feels threatening in a way that a world designed around constant combat just can’t. It feels dead, and that’s not “right”. You never feel at home. Firelink Shrine in Dark Souls may be the centre of the world, but it’s definitely not safe, and Zelda 1 starts on a non-descript square at the bottom of the map with no location-significance whatsoever.

Square H-8, in case you were wondering.

Square H-8, in case you were wondering.

There’s a sort of focus to building a world like that. An open world that isn’t meant to lead you down one path or let you do anything you want. Go anywhere, but do only a few things. It doesn’t sound like a very good selling point, and that’s probably why we don’t see too many games like that, but in my experience, it lets the world speak for itself, with atmosphere and character all its own.It makes for something very different from having the world be defined by dozens of minigames and pointless encounters created to pad the experience.

To be fair, the Colossi themselves are pretty sweet too.

To be fair, the Colossi themselves are pretty sweet too.

Big worlds are so often full of junk that isn’t, well, interesting. I enjoy Saint’s Row IV, but its rows of cloned skyscrapers are punctuated with, for the most part, variations on minigames I got bored of halfway through my first time playing them. And the bigger a world is, the less likely it is to have constant unique elements. Everything has to serve some player purpose, and the purpose is usually to keep them engaged and entertained from a gameplay perspective. At least SOTC’s emptiness serves the purpose of being negative space for the colossus fights, that’s something unique.

I don’t want to get lost in Liberty City, I don’t want to get lost in Skyrim. In fact, there’s no way I can get lost in them. There’s something around every corner, every nook and cranny has purpose. That outcropping with the seagulls doesn’t really serve a purpose, and there’s something realer about that. Or at the very least, something a little more magical.

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Diaries From Drangleic- Dark Souls 2's Open World

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Diaries From Drangleic- Dark Souls 2's Open World

In Dark Souls 1, I never really felt safe in the Firelink Shrine.

What you can't see is the the skeleton army. Or the zombies on the bridge. Or the giant serpent that chills in the pool.

What you can't see is the the skeleton army. Or the zombies on the bridge. Or the giant serpent that chills in the pool.

From the moment I was dropped unceremoniously next to the bonfire by a massive crow, Firelink Shrine felt like a place I was in not because it was in the centre of the world, but because it was the only spot that was free of enemies within a 30 second walk in any direction. Firelink Shrine scared me. It was dark, there was weird snoring coming from the pool in its centre, and that weird cleric off to the side was always cackling evilly. But, it conveniently connected three totally different areas that required totally different skill levels to conquer. Of course, that meant me, a first-time player, had a ⅔ chance of walking into an army of giant skeletons, or falling into an abyss full of untouchable ghosts. Firelink wasn’t a base of operation, or a home, or even a hub world. It was the scary gate to an open world full of horrors that would chew your face off and have your hands for dessert.

The Capra Demon's diet consists of your hands, your feet, and your face. They are delicious.

The Capra Demon's diet consists of your hands, your feet, and your face. They are delicious.

Dark Souls 2, on the other hand, tries to make me feel as safe as possible at any given moment. Every bonfire is just a loading screen’s worth of fast travel away from beautiful, seaside Majula, a magical town without an enemy in sight. Majula is not only home to every NPC you “save” over the course of the game, but also a handy-dandy covenant manager, level-up mistress, and merchants and blacksmiths galore. It’s bright and gorgeous, with probably the nicest fictional sunset I’ve ever seen outside of an anime ending credits sequence. Plus, like Firelink before it, Majula also connects to at least two other locations right off the bat, and more as you explore. Of course, unlike Firelink, those two areas are actually both fairly manageable your first time through. Even though speedrunners and high-level DS1 players found more efficient paths, the Undead Burg was usually your first stop after Firelink. Majula on the other hand hooks you up with the Forest of Fallen Giants, a fairly simple beginners area, and Heide’s Tower of Flame, which is patrolled by seven-foot-tall Knights who wield greatswords twice their size and make you turn around screaming “nope” all the way back to the bonfire.

A view to die for! Repeatedly, and painfully.

A view to die for! Repeatedly, and painfully.

But Heide’s is manageable for a player who’s quick enough on their feet to dance around the lumbering knights. As a bonus, it's also home to some items that could make the early game much friendlier for a first-time player. Emphasizing that, both Heide’s and the easier forest loop around to the same end location after a while, merely approaching it from different ends.

But the way from Majula to Heide’s doesn’t feel terribly organic. The path is through a tunnel that goes through some sewers before spilling out to a beautiful ruin floating in the ocean. You can’t see Majula past the high cliffs, and you definitely can’t see the underground catacombs that Heide’s will lead you to by the end. It’s a distinct shift from DS1, which delighted in showing you what was coming, only to pull the rug out from underneath just before you got there. You see the foot of the Undead Burg’s drake long before you see the drake itself, and the first bell is visible from the moment you walk into the city. The world doesn’t only let you go anywhere, but it’s willing to show you everything, almost as if to say “you see that belltower? It’s not just scenery, you can climb it.”

My god, it's full of shortcuts.

My god, it's full of shortcuts.

That’s part of what made DS1’s open world so enticing. Everything was not only interconnected, but also visible from anywhere else. Everything fit together and became accessible in logical ways. The Valley of Drakes opens up to the Darkroot Garden, which leads to a backdoor into the Undead Parish, giving a smart player a quick shortcut up to the first bell. Learning the world and its labyrinthine connections was as much of a strategy as learning how to fight.

But I still haven’t gotten that feeling from DS2 yet. Sure, it took a few months and constant speedrunning to find out how to best use DS1’s dense, tightly wound world to avoid challenges and run through the world without a care, but the evidence was there from the beginning. Everything up until Anor Londo was deeply and intricately connected in a way that made sense- in a way that made Lordran feel like a real world. DS2’s Drangleic feels more like Peach’s Castle from Mario 64 than anything else.

Basically Dark Souls.

Basically Dark Souls.

It’s classic hub and spokes design. Majula branches into three or four areas as the game goes on, each in turn then branches out again. Some of these branches intersect, but nothing ever winds back into Majula. Peach’s Castle opened up into dozens of areas, including new floors of the castle when it came time to open up a few more levels. Of course, Drangleic is a little bit more open and intricate than that, but it’s the same basic design philosophy. Lordran was tightly wound to the point where some levels suffered from having to fit back together into a greater whole, but it led to a dense, cohesive world. Each of Drangleic’s areas are vast in scope and feel like fantastically designed individual challenges, but never quite come together as a single unit. I know that Majula and Heide’s are both by the sea, but I honestly couldn’t place them on a map for you.

No, that tower ISN'T Heide's, nice guess though.

No, that tower ISN'T Heide's, nice guess though.

The problem is only exacerbated by fast travel, which DS2 gives you from the word go. You’ll need it, because areas are much bigger and getting between them would be a pain without it, but I get the sense that the chicken came before the egg here. DS1 gave you fast travel as a reward for finishing half the main game and making it to Anor Londo, the bottleneck-y, hyper-linear, vipers nest of an endgame. Fast travel was meant to be freeing and empowering, giving you control over this world that you’d been struggling to navigate for the last thirty hours. The designers may have reacted so positively to it, they gave it to you at the beginning this time, which made them able to make much more compartmentalized levels. It all smacks a little bit of Demon’s Souls, the predecessor to the Dark Souls series, but since I haven’t played a lot of Demon’s I can’t really speak to that.

Majula is beautiful, ruined, and toothless.

Majula is beautiful, ruined, and toothless.

I’m not sure if that really matters in terms of designing an open world though. It’s nice that DS1 is a tightly wound coil of a world, endlessly circling back into itself again and again, but DS2 features such incredibly different areas, all with fantastic, individual designs. At the end of the Heide’s/Forest loop, you’ll find an area called the Lost Bastille, which can be approached from whichever entrance you happen to find first. It’s a beautifully designed level that is challenging both forwards and back, and has a sort of high road/low road balance that makes it super fascinating to explore over and over. But, you get there through what basically amounts to warping. The Lost Bastille doesn’t really feel like it’s part of the same world as Heide’s and Majula, but if it had to open to those, I can’t imagine it would have the same scope or style. It looks nothing like the rest of Dragnleic, which is great and refreshing, but stops it from feeling like it’s as real a world as Lordran.

Then again, DS1 started extremely open before completely bottlenecking you towards the middle chunk of the game, and DS2 shows no signs of slowing down the rate it gives me new areas to explore. A big part of what made DS1 so open was also the master key, which opened almost every door in the game, and was available on the character creation screen. There’s no item like that anywhere in DS2, as if to say off the bat that you aren’t going to get to dictate your movements through the world as easily this time around. It leads to DS2 being a much more directed game, with more set pieces and planned ambushes. It’s a great game, but I’m not sure if it really uses the open world concept quite as effectively.

Press X to Enter the Mis-wait wrong game.

Press X to Enter the Mis-wait wrong game.

It’s interesting, however, to see DS2 take a much more classic stance on open world design, drawing directly from Super Mario 64, the granddaddy of 3D sandbox games. The world is huge, but it is it really a world? Or just a collection of levels hidden behind paintings?

Actually, DS1 had a world hidden in a painting as well, so it tried that too. Nevermind, Dark Souls 2 sucks, everyone go home and play Mario.


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