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Simple Thoughts for Artistic Level Design

Introduction

  • These are not rules or definitions - they are simply things I have found useful for myself from studying the work of others or small discoveries on my own.

Storytelling

  • Always strive to tell a story with every shape, texture and prop placement. Become familiar with the response for the types of shapes you use throughout your spaces- then use them to your advantage with purpose! Furthermore, always strive to have intention behind every choice. While appearing simple, oftentimes we can rush our work and create without thought.
Making art is not about speed. Making art should be about the right emotion, good drawing and good design. Speed comes with experience.
— Robh Ruppel
  • Always ask meaningful questions about the environment you are focused on!
  • Recognize the story beats you are trying to hit in each scene or level.
  • Strive to identify the theme of each level or area.
  • What is the purpose of this area? Who lives here? What part of the story are we in? What is missing that could help refine the environmental storytelling of this scene?
  Naughty Dog is one of the best at environmental storytelling. Be sure to play and study The Last of Us for a masterclass on the subject.

Naughty Dog is one of the best at environmental storytelling. Be sure to play and study The Last of Us for a masterclass on the subject.


Proper Scale

  • Proper scale is the foundation for the rest of your design. Focus on this early and you will avoid many issues down the line.
  • Ask for feedback and refer to reference photos to perfect your scale.
  • Continually ask yourself if the scale feels right as you begin to shape your spaces.
It is not important that 3D spaces have realistic 2D blueprints. All that matters is how the space feels when the player is in it.
— Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design

Shapes, Forms & Composition

  • As shapes are being defined in your levels, try to continually observe, critique and refine.
  • Examine your lines of sight and prepare your compositions at this stage. More on this coming up...
  • Stay working with the most basic shapes in your grey-box levels until your are completely satisfied with the result both in composition and gameplay.
    • There is no rush to add props, materials, lighting or any other distracting elements at this early stage. This is a common mistake that I have learned the hard way multiple times. Stay focused on your shapes and compositions at various node points throughout your level.
    • Examine both positive and negative space in your designs. Can they be improved? How?
In architectural drawing, you are trying to capture the shapes, the two-dimensional boundaries of objects; forms, three-dimensional masses of objects; and relationships, how each object interfaces with one another in space.
— Christopher Totten, An Architectural Approach to Level Design

Separation of Shapes in Source SDK

  • Through various titles on Valve's Source SDK, I have found a few ways to help define my shapes in this engine.
  • With Source Engine, it is important to understand the separation of shapes. While other engines have more advanced lighting and shadows to assist with this, much of this extra work will be done manually in Source.
  • What are some ways to enhance the separation of shapes in specifically Source Engine?
    • Extra attention to shape language used throughout your spaces
    • Using shapes to enhance Shadows and Highlights
    • Framing your compositions where possible
    • Trims (Manmade and Organic)
    • Small Details (Stains and Implied Ambient Occlusion)
    • A small trick I used in later years was adding "fake shadow" decals to imply ambient occlusion
       

Unique Gameplay Spaces & Weenies

  • Even the most beautiful games can become monotonous without unique spaces to provide contrast. Take great care to define your spaces and volumes.
  • Defining objectives and areas of importance helps orient and ground the experience for players. This intentional work helps create the player's internal compass.
  • Naughty Dog has openly discussed their use of Walt Disney's idea of "weenies". These are objects of orientation for guests in Disney theme parks. They help guide and direct guests. Examples include Cinderella's castle, Tower of Terror hotel, and the Matterhorn.
  • Emilia Schatz of Naughty Dog reminds us that these landmarks are not prohibited to distant objects, but they can be local landmarks as well. Find ways to employ landmarks to better serve the player's internal compass.
  • As you can imagine, these are powerful shapes that can help navigate a player throughout your design.
  In The Last of Us, the yellow, arched bridge in the distance provides a perfect "weenie" as the player navigates their way towards it. Notice the  contrasting shape language of the curved bridge in addition to the distinct color.

In The Last of Us, the yellow, arched bridge in the distance provides a perfect "weenie" as the player navigates their way towards it. Notice the contrasting shape language of the curved bridge in addition to the distinct color.


Contrast

  • Much of the ideas described here relate to one simple idea: contrast. Contrast is interesting.
  • Always look to improve and intentionally use the idea of contrast in your design.
  • Designers should work together with artists to intentionally employ contrast.
  • Some recent examples of great uses of contrast:
  Uncharted 4 showcases contrast in  shape, light, height and color  in one scene.

Uncharted 4 showcases contrast in shape, light, height and color in one scene.

  While taking place entirely in New York City, the Division constantly uses the  contrast of color, light, height, shapes  to define their world. Beautiful!

While taking place entirely in New York City, the Division constantly uses the contrast of color, light, height, shapes to define their world. Beautiful!

   SPOILER:  In a later level, the fantastic campaign of Titanfall 2 contains one of the most memorable uses of  contrast  ever created. Check it out!

SPOILER: In a later level, the fantastic campaign of Titanfall 2 contains one of the most memorable uses of contrast ever created. Check it out!

Level design is an art of contrasts.
— Christopher Totten, An Architectural Approach to Level Design

Final Thoughts

  • I am not a master of these, but I strive to be. I continually fall short, so I felt it best to document the things I should focus on. In acknowledging my own faults and weakness, I hope to improve and grow as a designer.
  • I hope to continually add to this if only to remember all the great things I have learned from those I look up to.
  • What ideas and concepts do you find useful for your own work?

Thank you for reading and hope all is well!

Jonny

 

Jon Hickenbottom