Saturday, April 28, 2012

What makes "good" writing on level design?

Liz Ryerson recently did a great write-up of level 5-5 from Wolfenstein 3D (and makes a good case for the surrealism of 4-3) and it occurred to me that there's a pattern to this type of writing -- it's usually very specific, talks only about a single level (but contextualizes it within the whole game), and makes ample use of screenshots to help the reader understand the layout.

Writing about level design is incredibly important because we often run through levels so fast and understand "the language of games" so intuitively that it can be difficult to verbalize and explain. In playing levels, they exist more as tools to express our intentionality, not as objects to be studied and examined. The reality of it is that it would take a long time, or sometimes it's very difficult, to gain the type of fluency in platformers or Wolf3D that the best levels require.

But this is how we do research -- we make games and play the ones we can. Articles and essays are the best way to learn about levels that you haven't played / can't play.

Here are two authors of "level criticism canon" that, in my mind, show us how to do it...

Anna Anthropy has a shitload of level design articles, but the ones that get cited most frequently (at least in Parsons) are her Super Mario series. Her dissection of the notorious world 1-1 is fantastic, and a more "advanced" analysis of world 1-3 in Super Mario Land is really enlightening. I think she has truly keen mechanical insight. However, I find her less convincing on platforming and storytelling -- in her posts on levels from Face of Mars and Jill of the Jungle, it's difficult to disagree with her prediction of player behavior, but I think sometimes she attaches emotions to those behaviors that simply might not be there. Just because the player does something doesn't mean they're conscious of it.

Kieron Gillen's PC Gamer UK feature on "The Cradle" from Thief 3 is kind of the opposite of Anna Anthropy's style. There's enough material here on process and narrative design to turn anyone into a Jordan Thomas fanboy! Gillen presents some great documentation of worldbuilding / storytelling, and how that works in The Greatest Level in the History of FPS Games -- but he more or less glosses over the mechanical workings of the level and how the floorplan functions on a basic layer of gameplay. Yes, the lights in the Cradle may certainly slowly pulse like a heartbeat, but where does the player actually hide and find loot in this game about hiding and finding loot?

I don't think either authors are weak writers, they simply chose to focus on the aspect they found most fascinating. In criticizing them, I don't wish to invoke this false dichotomy of "gameplay vs. narrative", of an either/or mentality. Instead, we should think of it as a matter of both/and, that the best levels are compelling fusions of all aspects of play, and insight can emerge from any dimension.