Category Archives: Level Design
When Jonathan Blow’s masterpiece Braid debuted in 2008, the gaming community had a lot to say about it. Many were impressed with the game’s clever mechanics, while others found themselves intrigued by the perplexing story elements. Others were taken by the surreal, painting-like art style. And then there were folks that didn’t like it at all, finding it to be pretentious or difficult or simply uninteresting. Whatever the feedback, there were hardly any blogs, communities, and classrooms that weren’t mentioning Braid in some way or another.
One of the particularly striking elements of the game is its use of symbolism. The game manages to simultaneously present a very exact yet ambiguous message, largely through the many texts available to the player before each level, and secondarily through subverted visual storytelling. However, I’m not here to wax philosophical on the prose, which has already been scrutinized to pieces by the internet. I’d rather examine something else in the game — something so miniscule that I never noticed it for five years, but so profound that it sent me on a hunt for other pieces of the puzzle.
(Spoiler warning for those that have not played or completed the game.)
Since I posted that news blurb, I got to reminiscing about the NES game released by Capcom in 1990. Little Nemo: The Dream Master was one of my favorite games as a kid, mostly for the novelty of transforming into different animals to use their powers, although I never did beat it back then. Now that the Nemo comics are getting a revival, I’ve decided to see how well it stands up against my knowledge of game design.
The results are… mixed.
With the dance floor from hell behind us, we continue on toward our good ending into a level that’s almost as unpredictable horizontally as the previous level was vertically. The “speedway” portion of this level’s name is very appropriate, as it has a habit of propelling you forward whether you were planning on it or not. This level is somewhat easier than Wacky Workbench, but by no means does that mean that it’s easy. It’s a fun level to blaze through if you’re not worried about endings, but with our specific goals in mind, I recommend taking your time and being very careful about your footwork.
If you were ever under the impression that level designers love you and want to show you a good time, prepare to have that illusion shattered. Even the best level designers snap every now and then, and considering that there are four versions of every first and second act in this game (as well as two versions of every third), it was only a matter of time before Sonic CD’s designers decided to blow off steam by making an evil level.
The primary gimmick of this level is the fact that the ground floor is extremely bouncy, and if Sonic touches it even for a second, he gets shot up to the ceiling. This wouldn’t be such a problem if not for the fact that there are electric coils near the ceiling in most areas. Interestingly enough, they still managed to make Wacky Workbench’s insidious level mechanics enjoyable (who doesn’t like kooky sound effects and flying through the air?), but just because it’s fun does not, by any means, mean that it’s easy. Put on your big kid pants, because the difficulty is going up.
This level introduces an interesting new spin on an old gimmick. Conveyor belts have been used in lots of other Sonic games, but Quartz Quadrant is unique in the fact that you, the player, are allowed to decide the direction of the belts. This will make a difference more than once as we progress, so keep a careful eye on the directions. (Also, if you’re the type of person that likes to stand still on moving sidewalks, you might want to keep in mind that there’s a 10 minute time limit per level!)
As we continue our quest for a good ending, we come upon the most loathed category in all of video games: The water level. Whether it’s the fact that movement is more difficult, certain weapons become unusable, or the character’s health is in danger, no gamer on the face of the planet has ever looked at a water level and said, “That looks like a good time!” Sonic CD at least cuts its audience a break by omitting the nightmare-inducing drowning countdown when Sonic’s running low on air.
Just as every Sonic game has its paradise level, many of them also have a casino/pinball zone, and this is it for Sonic CD. While it does lack most of the casino aspects, it makes up for it with its sheer volume of bumpers and springs. This area can be tricky to navigate, whether you know the game well or not, and it’s designed to be difficult to backtrack. Let’s be sure we don’t give ourselves a need to do so.
If there’s one thing that most Sonic games have in common, it’s that they start out in an idyllic, paradise-like setting. The colors are bright and vibrant, and there are beautiful waterfalls and mountains. We get this first impression of beauty and happiness in order to appreciate just how dark and ugly the later levels become. Sonic’s games are often criticized for cloning Green Hill Zone over and over again, but I must say that I give this level some credit for coming up with some new gimmicks and not including the word “hill” in its name.
Project Length: 20 Weeks (10/16/12 – 3/12/13)
Team: Rotten Ideas (5 Members)
My Roles: Concept art, Story, Level Design, Character Development, Set Pieces, NPCs, Easter Eggs
End Product: Game Demo
In the winter of 2012/13, I was part of a game design team called Rotten Ideas. Over the course of 20 weeks, we developed Shape’Scape, a multi-character puzzle-platformer. I was responsible for the story, character designs, facial expressions, NPCs, set piece assets, and about 30-40% of the level design. I also participated in the overall concepting of the game, but that was a shared process amongst the entire team.