Designing A Game Like An Amateur [Part III] – Lazy Level Design

I think it’s safe to assume that each and every one of us has a collection of masks we keep locked up in a tansu for convenient storage and easy access for the various social situations we put ourselves in as we bustle about our lives. For instance, a teenage boy hanging out with his other teenage boy friends might talk up what a man-stud he is, but when he goes home to babysit his baby sister, he’s one half of the Mr. Wiggles and Ms. Rose crime-fighting duo. This isn’t a bad thing by any stretch. Swapping out masks is how we navigate our daily relationships, and without them, things would get incredibly awkward incredibly quickly. You wouldn’t be all lovey-dovey with your spouse, then go into work and be all lovey-dovey with your boss, unless you’re doing some sort of kinky roleplay, would you?

“What the hell does this have to do with Fragile Dreams?” you’re probably wondering from that cliff I left us on in the last post. “Oh, I get it! You’re gonna talk about that one masked guy who keeps showing up to become Seto’s personal punching bag, and this is your super smooth transition into that topic, isn’t it?”

Indeed, that one masked guy is a giant floating mask, isn’t he? He has as much to do with this analogy as he does with the game he’s in. (Hint: the answer is next to nothing at all.)

Everything I talked about in Part II of this three-part mini-series on Fragile Night Flight: Farewell Cellphone After I Thought It Was A Good Idea To Text In The Bathtub was about design choices made in the first half of the game. The first half is what I affectionately refer to as the Happy Mask, which I liken to a two-year-old attempting to draw a tyrannosaurus rex: not very good, but you can tell they’re trying their best, and you just wanna give them a hug and a gold medal for their efforts.

The second half of the game, however, wears a completely different mask, one that I’m likening to a middle schooler whose mother keeps nagging him about his homework, so he rushes through it so that he can maximize his Fortnite playing time. I call this the Bored Mask.

The funny thing about the Bored Mask is that there’s a precise moment in the game where it happens, which is immediately when you crawl down a manhole after checking off the scary old lady’s shopping list. Before, Fragile Dance the Night Away: Farewell Month Of My Life After Binge-reading One Piece wanted to take you by the hand across a ruined if eerily beautiful landscape and show you all the characters it made up and the things it has you doing with them, but once you fall down that sorta kinda literal rabbit hole, it’s one long, grey corridor after another long, grey corridor after another long, grey corridor after another long, grey corridor after another long, grey corridor after another long, grey corridor after another—

Where was I? Oh, right. Fragile Saturday Night Special: Farewell Lower Back Pain After I Became A Cyborg gets lazy with its level design.

Even when it was tottling around with its Happy Mask on, it was no angel to level design. One piercingly interminable segment of the theme park has Seto hiking up and down the tracks of a roller coaster, which sounds like cool, creative level design inspired by the likes of Dark Souls or Painkiller, until I remind you of which game it is we’re dealing with here.

The tracks have guardrails to protect you from the effects of gravity, but not every section has guardrails, and if you come so much as thirty-three centimeters near an unguarded edge, the faintest wind will blow, and Seto will cast himself dramatically off the rails and to his demise. You can’t rush through because then you’ll wind up tumbling over thirteen times within the span of two meters, and if you take your time by crouching across it, you’ll be stuck on this section of the game for so long that Seto’s knees will ankylose and he’ll go down in history as the duckboy who duckwalked the earth. And if this somehow doesn’t sound annoying enough, the game’s charitable enough to insert hostile pigeons, because everybody knows that when architecture crumbles and mankind vanishes, avians will awaken their inner beasts and become bloodthirsty savages whose taste for flesh cannot be sated.

The problem I mentioned in my last post with slower pacing being used as a fill-in for true difficulty applies equally here, but more than that is the setup of the coaster, with how there’s next to no room for error when traversing the track. It feels like there’s an invisible curtain hung up along the track, and if a pixel of Seto’s model brushes against it, he go tipsy-turvy over the side.

In most games, you can bring a character to a cliff, stand so that their one foot is hovering on thin air, then blow yourself up with a bomb so that you magically teleport to the final boss chamber as part of a speed-run. Little touches like these may come off as amusing glitches but are more often than not intentional programming so that the player has some leeway with how much they can mess around or mess up before the game punishes them for it. Do a little bit of research and you’ll find that programmers will tweak their games to give the player a slight advantage. Splicers in Bioshock always miss their first shot, and just about any decent platformer has what’s known as Coyote Time, which is when the player doesn’t bother pushing the jump button until the very last second and they springboard off of the thin air beside the platform. These sorts of alterations may seem like automatic cheat codes, but without them, a game is what can be described as an “absolute horrid experience, and now I want to drown my sorrows in battery acid.” This paragraph is a long-winded way of saying that if Fragile Spirit in the Night: Farewell High School Crush After I Overheard Them Tell Their Friends That They Don’t Even Know I Exist had let Seto hang one foot over the coaster track, it wouldn’t have been such a frustrating ride.

The roller coaster is a misguided attempt at careful level traversal, but fortunately, it’s the only atrocity of its kind made by the Happy Mask. Unfortunately, the Bored Mask picks up the torch and hauls it to Haiti with it.

I mentioned the game’s love obsession with corridors, but “corridors,” really, is shorthand for any asset Fragile Night Fever: Farewell Everything I Own After My House Burned To The Ground decides it wants to copy + paste over and over until the player finds more excitement in the paint on their bedroom wall. The game has just enough common sense to realize that a player more entertained by a bland color is a bad thing, so it attempts to shake things up by inserting baddies at regular intervals, though that’s just slapping a band-aid to a punctured lung. Give Seto a rifle and you won’t be able to tell the difference between this and Call of Duty.

Corridors are the favorite of Fragile You Shook Me All Night Long: Farewell Rockstar Dreams When I Realized I Have No Sense Of Rhythm, but it has enough loving to spread around to stairwells, individual rooms, and catwalks, and the catwalks can be their own chapter of a book on game design. Sprinkled throughout are rusty catwalks or cracked segments of floor which will give way if you’re doing anything other than a duckwalk. At first, I welcomed their inclusion. It added a sense of realism to how even the floor was crumbling in places in this decaying world. But later on, the game will lay down an old slip-on and put it at the end of a three hundred kilometer walk, and in the middle is a rusty catwalk you have to slowly duckwalk one way and then slowly duckwalk back, and duckwalking, need I remind you, puts you on par with a banana slug, speed-wise.

“But, C³, don’t you see the higher purpose in this? Slowing down the player’s progress delays the moment they get the gratification of reaching their old monk straps. Don’t you see? It’s delayed gratification! You only wrote an entire blog post on it once.”

Why, yes, I did, and my fans tell me it’s a very engaging read, but if you’ll remember one of the finer points I made, you actually have to earn the reward. The hero needs to defeat the big bad to get the girl, the detective needs to untangle the convoluted mystery to catch the killer, and the player needs to conquer the dungeon to get the Super Sword of Awesome. There’s no sense of payoff if the game tells you to do something at no additional cost aside from a few seconds or few moments of your time. It’s the difference between taking fifteen seconds to kill a baddie to open the door to the next room and waiting in a room for fifteen seconds before the door will open by itself. Which of these two scenarios would you feel that you’ve earned your right forward?

Something that Fragile All Night Long (All Night): Farewell 150,000 Word Novel I Just Finished After The Document Got Infected With A Virus gets right yet wrong are giant chambers which typically act as hub areas. The right part is how cool they are because they’re so huge. They’re a breath of fresh air after you’ve been trapped on a ladder long enough to bring you out at Singapore, but, like the ladder that went on long enough that you picked up Peace & War to pass the time, they’re a bore to footslog across. Which got me wondering why games like Fallout and Skyrim, which are like a million times larger than Fragile December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night): Farewell Waistline After A Bakery Opened Up Next Door, aren’t a snore to explore. Their overworlds are ginormous, and you could walk a fair distance before stumbling upon something of actual substance, such as a barrow or a couple of travelers who’ll tell you how wonderful the radiation is today. In theory, world traversal should’ve killed those games, but instead everybody and their grandmother loves them, and that includes me. So what do?

I think the secret lies in the little touches. First off in Fallrim, terrain isn’t flat. The topography dips and bulges, and when you’re ascending a mountain, you have to figure out how the hell you’re gonna hop over to that ledge without missing it and ragdolling your way back to the bottom. Contrast this with Fragile One of These Nights: Farewell Single Life After I Mustered Up The Courage To Ask That Cute Girl Out, where every surface everywhere is flat, even stairs, which are flat surfaces at 45° angles. A change in the shape of the floor may seem like a stupidly inconsequential difference, but pay attention the next time you go freewheeling on the streets and notice how much more alive you feel on slopes or hills versus when you’re driving through the state of Kansas (hint: that state is nothing but wheat fields).

Of course, plenty of games are made of flat surfaces, so more than making the floor into the warped imaginings of an architect high on LSD, the proper fix for level traversal is how the game engages the player. Skyout, while almost nothing goes on during the player’s trip from point A to point G, they’re not just mindlessly shuffling their feet along. If their experience is anything like mine was, the little dots on the compass which tell you that an undiscovered location is nearby were always veering me way off course. Plus, I had to be on the lookout for baddies. Not so much when I was a walking, occasionally talking demigod, but still. Any hike in the woods can go south when a dragon attacks.

And dat scenery, yo. This statement doesn’t apply so much to Fallout, as everything looks mostly the samish, but in Skyrim, you could find some beautiful vistas, which paired wondrously with the ambiance kicking in.

On the surface, Rimoutfallsky and Fragile Whatever Gets You Thru the Night: Farewell Vacation Fund When I Had A Heart Attack In The United States play similarly in terms of level traversal, but if you slide the mechanics of the two Bethesda titles beneath a microscope, you’ll see that what they’re doing isn’t changing how the player moves through the game but how they think about moving through the game. Fragile Because the Night: Farewell High School Friends After They All Stopped Texting Me says to the player, “Walk to that door on the either side of the room,” while Outfallrimsky says, “You can walk to that door, but somewhere in this room is a delicious double-chocolate cake. I won’t say where exactly, though.” They easily could tack a marker on the map or have you push a button that would draw a straight line to the nearest shack in the woods, but what that would do is wrest the player’s need to think, effectively taking them out of the game. Instead, by tossing in these little hints and leaving the player to make the discoveries themselves, they frame how the player approaches the game. The mechanics are on the screen, but the experience lies in the player’s head. If you can get them in a certain mindset, you’ve got a successful game.

For a brief spell, I dabbled in the world of copywriting, which means I wrote the words which convinced people to throw their money at a company in exchange for their coffee-making computer speaker, and one of the secret words I used to manipulate persuade potential buyers was new. People like new things, and this applies just as much to video games. We dive in to an unexplored cavern to see what’s new around that bend and buy the latest Mario game to see what new levels and power-ups there are. If you as a designer want a quick, easy method of revitalizing the player’s motivation, give them a new weapon to play around with or the promise of a new bonus mission to unlock. A Pokémon trainer who enters a new route gets a little dopamine rush when they encounter the new Aloha Vulpix form or their Lurantis learns the new move Solar Blade. Human beings love new things the way moths love fluttering into open flames.

This is mostly why the latter half of Fragile No More Lonely Nights: Farewell My Mortal Enemy After He Fell Into A Vat Of Boiling Cranberry Juice is such a bore and a chore to endure. You’re trapped in this endless repetition of hallways, and the only break you get is when you’re trapped in an endless repetition of stairs. There’s nothing new to see, nothing new to do aside from kill the same ghoulie you’ve killed fifty-seven times over already, and the most it can be bothered to do to jazz up your walks is to lay down a rusty catwalk.

Something I meant to mention earlier regarding catwalks but didn’t because a hypothetical reader distracted me is that when it comes to catwalks, the game cheats.

Think about how any decent game, when introducing a new mechanic, will lay it out in a controlled environment so that the player can get the hang of it without goring themselves on a Spiny, and once the player grasps how that new mechanic works, it will use that mechanic consistently as the player has learned it. For example, if the player finds out that they can shoot giant blue balls to turn them into disco balls for funky skirmishes, they won’t come across a giant blue ball three hours later and shoot it only to end up arming it for nuclear detonation. That’s known as haxx, and the game can’t fairly do that without minimally an aesthetic change. If they come across a giant blue ball later on but see a giant timer on it, they’ll pause and wonder what’s up with this particular blue ball.

Fragile Saturday Night at the Movies: Farewell Reason To Go On Living Because My Favorite T.v. Show Got Canceled swaps out the rules for the catwalks all the time. It first establishes that you have to duckwalk across them, but then it later decides that you have to play red-light-green-light while duckwalking, and then it later makes it so that you can walk across the catwalk, but you have to start-and-stop-start-and-stop-start-and-stop at such an extreme that a banana slug will reach the end before you’re even an eighth of the way across.

I do apologize that everything about this post can be boiled down to “the hallways in this game are too damn long,” but that’s what the level design of Fragile Wasted Days and Wasted Nights: Farewell Fear Of Heights When I Learned That Skydiving Is Much More Frightening adds up to: hallways, staircases, and rooms snapped together for no reason other than to pad out their length and make the areas feel as though there’s more to them than there really is.

If you’re designing a puzzle game (or any sort of game, for that matter) and all you can think up are ten good rooms, don’t patchwork forty more rooms just so you can slap that on as a selling point for your Steam page. Better to have a short, great game than a moderate, mediocre one, and that’s what Fragile I Love a Rainy Night: Farewell Grandma After She Got Run Over By A Reindeer is in the end. It’s a product that exhausted all its creativity juice only three areas in but kept stringing things along to deliver what it thought was a more complete package.

Long corridors are the bane of my existence thanks to Fragile Even the Nights Are Better: Farewell Grandpa After He Ran Off For Vegas After The Insurance Payout, but there is one situation where they’re incredibly effective, and that’s for creating tense moments, particularly right before the final boss. This video explains it in wonderful detail, but the gist is that the highs and the buildup up to the game’s final moments are put on pause to give the player a moment of solace, which weaves suspense and gives the them space to think to themselves, “This is it…” An experiment with this might have a moment somewhere in the second act after an intense storybeat, like an important character’s death or a huge setback for the cast, but the go-to use for this has been right before the final boss.

Of course, simple as it is to not botch this part of the game up (you literally don’t need to do anything but copy + paste the floor tiles), Fragile Ain’t Even Done With the Night: Farewell Childhood Idol After Learning What A Bigot He Is manages to botch the final flight of steps up to the final boss by dumping robots on the landings you can’t get past unless you kill them and cutscenes of Seto hallucinating the dead cast members telling him to do his best. This would’ve been the one part of the game where I would’ve excused Fragile Late Last Night: Farewell Heart Disease After I Stopped Eating So Many Greasy Burgers’s laziness, but I guess there’s a plot twist in that there was a third mask all along: the Thickheaded Mask.

I don’t like Fragile Dreams. Actually, it’s more accurate to say I loathe it. It’s something I should be able to write off easily, but I can’t erase it out of my thoughts. My first brush with Fragile All Day and All of the Night: Farewell Hours of My Life Spent Playing This Game was when it popped up on my Amazon recommendations. Glancing at its presentation, I thought I was destined for a gorgeous, atmospheric, story-rich experience, but instead what I got was a game with bland combat, a demand for pinpoint precision, excessive padding, and repetitive level layout. From the moment I got impatient with ethereal hide-and-seek, it was nothing but frustration after frustration, and this game soured my taste buds so much that I walked away with a raw mouth. It was like thinking you found the perfect lover only to find out they’re an incompetent ninny who can’t be bothered to help with the dishes after moving in together.

For all the heat I’ve given Fragile Sunglasses at Night: Farewell Moments of My Life Spent Trying to Come Up With Stupid Alternate Titles for this Game, it’s not all bad. While it falls short with its momentos and waaay short with its secret message-revealing flashlight, the one thing it nails without compromise is atmosphere. As Seto tep-tep-teps his way down the empty hallways and overgrown plots of land to only the sound of his own footsteps, it really does feel like he’s the last person on Earth. There’s this prevailing sense of loneliness as you find messages of hopelessness scrawled on the walls and dreams cut short due to a cataclysmic event. It’s a world which once would have welcomed him with open arms but has since turned hostile, lashing out at him and reminding him what things were, and never will be again.

In spite of everything which contributes to the game’s poor quality and how frustrated it made me, there’s also a spirit to it: an aspiration of the gorgeous, atmospheric, story-rich experience it wanted to be, and it’s plenty evident when it’s wearing its Happy Mask. Unfortunately, the wrong hands got to it, and what we got was the product which hit store shelves. It wanted to soar through the heavens, but all it got were two cardboard flaps duct-taped to its arms.

Given the opportunity, I would take this game and turn it into what it wants to be. It’s not much more than a passing itch, but if the original creator came up to me and said, “All right, smartass, think you can make a better game? Fine! Here’s a team of experienced programmers, artists, and whatnot, so remake the game, since you seem to think you’re so much better at game development than the actual people who develop games!” I would hop on that chance faster than a man fleeing a rampaging yeti. Of course, given the fact that I’ve made exactly one game in my entire life, the end result would in all likelihood be a carbon copy of the original game. But, hey, it’s a nice dream, fragile as it may be.

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