Levels… so many levels…
I’ve talked about a lot of different aspects of video games, that make them interesting, engaging, brilliant, and, quite frankly, make them art. I’ve written about their music, their gameplay, the innovativeness, and lots of other things that are all wrapped up into the whole of awesomeness that is a good video game. But what I really think bears talking about today is the level design of games in the past, and games today. They’re like night and day, but most people don’t realize this because they’re too busy killing Covenant/Zombies/Foreign Armies/Reapers/Whatever You Happen To Be Shooting At.
I honestly think that level design is an incredibly important aspect of what makes a game good! And let’s look at some old games: Super Metroid, Megaman X, and Mario. (Links at the bottom to download ROMS; make sure you download an emulator like ZNES before you try them.) You’ll note that these are all 2-D platforming games, a genre of game that has somewhat fallen by the wayside in the era modern gaming (and that makes me very sad). Starting with Mario: It’s a simple platformer. You jump, you get coins/mushrooms/flowers, you dodge enemies, and you try and go down every pipe you see because that’s a plumber’s instinct. It’s pretty flippin’ cut and dry. Now, with all of those aspects, how many levels do you think you could squeeze out of it? Maybe… 10? 12, if you’re good. And yet there are TONS of 2-D platforming Mario games, because the game mechanics that they add into these levels make it incredibly varied, exciting, and difficult. Underwater levels, lava levels, cave levels, ghost castles, regular castles, cloud levels, random levels with cape-wearing turtle-things and football players… They all have different bits that make it an interesting challenge. And now, with all of those added bits, you have the ability to design tons of great levels that engage the player and make them love the game (which, if you were born after 1989 and live under a rock, EVERYONE loved that game).
Next is Megaman X! The levels are all there is to these games! The boss battles are a lather/rinse/repeat of “Dodge this attack, find the power he’s weak to, spam the fire button. Oh look. He exploded. Big shock, there.” But the levels… they’re nothing short brilliant. They are smooth, not-always-linear paths that mix platforming with shooting in an incredibly epic way. They have extra mechanics that add variety to your gameplay, too, and they have those delightful little secrets and special items that you have to really work to get. Also, your special powers often have the ability to affect the environment, whether it’s creating a bridge made of ice to that upgrade, or using your flame weapon to torch an igloo and get a heart (and c’mon, the game has IGLOOS, how can you not love that?). But here, ladies and gents, is my favorite part: depending on what bosses you defeat, the levels you play afterwards change. If you defeat the ice boss (whose name is… Chill Pengiun… Folks, I can’t make this stuff up), the fire level’s flame jets and the floor made of lava are frozen over, making it a little colder and a lot less, you know, death-y. If you go to the power-plant level first and defeat its boss, another level’s exposed circuits no longer damage you, but the lights go off at another part in the level, making it more treacherous (and AWESOME!). That’s just ingenious level design right there, folks.
But the tour de force (why are all the cool words French?) of level design has got to be Super Metroid. This thing basically has five or six ENORMOUS levels: Brinstar, Norfair, Tourian, Crateria, Maridia, and The Wrecked Ship. These enormous levels meticulously guide you through the game by opening up paths to new upgrades only by using the upgrades you previously acquired. The platforming and shooting elements are used with unbelievable variety, requiring you to overcome more challenges than I care to count. And the secrets! There are probably a hundred optional secret things you can do in Super Metroid. They require you to be clever, observant, and have a lot of free time to be able to get them all. Of all the level designs of all the games of the classic systems, I will say that Super Metroid’s were the absolute best. The creative genius and perfection that went into those levels still astounds me, 15 years later.
So what about modern levels in great games? Like I said, in modern gaming, the 2-D side-scrolling adventure has given way to the 3-D, “richer,” more “complex” environments. (I don’t think quotes can even express how sarcastic I am right now.) I can’t help but think that this is a cop out that a lot of game developers use to avoid doing anything creative with levels. If you look at the so-called “modern” (more quotes) 1st-person or 3rd-person shooter (since there really isn’t much of a platforming equivalent in today’s games), the levels are boring, linear, remarkably lame examples of using a formula to dictate how to “challenge” (yep, quotes) a player. You traverse an extremely rich-looking world, with panoramic scenes of otherworldly landscapes, aliens blowing crap up, and you say to yourself, “Wow, this is so cool!” In terms of actual design… no, no it’s not. You have a main path that you must progress down, riddled with enemies, some easy and some difficult. There are optional side paths that nearly always lead to dead-ends with some sort of supply waiting for you: ammo, health packs, extra gear, a spellbook, or a sidequest. It’s inevitable, andi t’s BORING! Today, we believe that to have an engaging experience in a game, we must always know exactly where to go, and the vast majority of our concentration is spent discovering new ways to shoot holes in baddies.
Now, all the critics will say, “What about the free-roaming worlds of Skyrim and those MMORPG’s? They’re sooper cool!!” They’re equally as formulaic! The gamedevs think, “We have all these things that are interesting. Time to place them in a strategic order and provide clear directions as to the desired route. But we’ll make it free-form-y by putting a lot of empty space in-between.” It’s not what I’d call inspired. They probably label chicken bones with their dungeon names and toss them mystically over their drawing board.
However, there are diamonds in the rough. Namely, Portal. Portal has consistently brought incredible level design to the table, creating interesting, challenging levels that require serious thought to navigate. Portal 2 (which was, thankfully, funded a little better due to Portal’s success) was also really, really pretty. They used the game’s many mechanics to create an incredible assortment of levels at the beginning. Portal’s like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna– Wait, I have to JUMP over that deadly, bubbling pit of acid? Great. But then when things inevitably begin to go amiss, the developers create a smooth, high-action chase and escape, that really gives a feeling of thinking on your feet, punctuated by hilarious and slightly menacing British-isms. No wonder everyone loves it so much.
There are other games today that have interesting level designs, it’s true. Mirror’s Edge, while a horrible game, had pretty cool levels and an interesting way of navigating them. The new Zelda game was also pretty innovative, though it fell into a lot of classic Zelda traps (and you know what? Fans like myself were largely okay with that). But today’s big names like Mass Effect, Halo, Left 4 Dead, Skyrim and Deus Ex… they really need to wise up and include some variety, not just in the way the levels LOOK, but in the way we get through them. How cool would it be if you could jump on the Reapers’ heads and get 1-ups?