Level Based Games: Curating the Details

We’ve recently published the article “Open World Games: It’s all In The Details” on the site. Where we examined how open world games are made, and how developers have shifted design ideologies to improve the genre. So this article is going to do the opposite. I’m going to take a look at how a video game level can have excellent design, and how these design philosophies have fed off off open world games.

So what is defined as a level? For the purpose of this we’ll define them as something that divides a games play time into distinct areas. These areas give you one main objective, and after you progress through that objective and finish it you move on to the next. These ‘levels’ can be incredibly linear, or essentially small, curated open worlds. This breadth of design landscape leaves the door open for different types of mechanics and progression. Both of which thus differ to their presentation in open worlds.

Level Design Has Changed

As mentioned, not all video game levels have the same core design ideas. To explain this difference I’ll use none other than everyone’s favourite red plumber… Mario. Think about it, he’s only ever moved around in closed off levels. But over the years those levels have come to mean many different things. All of his 2D titles and 3D Land/World sit under the umbrella of linear level design, whilst the 3D titles were split by Nintendo between linear and open world.

image source

This image came alongside the announcement of Super Mario Odyssey, where Nintendo said that Mario’s 3D games were either linear level design, or open level design. Notice how both say “level”. All these Mario games, 2D and 3D, are wildly different. Yet they are all still level based games. 

So I hope this helps to explain how level based games can be wildly different, but have the same core. After all, Princess Peach’s castle in Super Mario 64 acts as an interactive main menu whilst the paintings are just levels on a screen.

Difficulty Scaling

In our open world article, we didn’t really touch on a video games difficulty. As open world design often struggles to give the player more challenging experiences outside of changing a slider. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild managed this by having enemies scale with your general equipment. Whilst others just increase the enemies health and damage as yours does.

However level based games often rely on difficulty to increase the challenge. Mega man and Mega Man X are prime examples of this. They introduce enemies, mechanics, and level design slowly. These take place in completely closed off level screens, only represented by a boss headshot. Egoraptor’s Sequelitis episode on Mega Man illustrates this excellently. As he examines how the games present you with challenges before you interact with them.

Only games with levels can do this. They curate what you can see (especially 2D games) thus presenting the player with what their challenge is. This allows them to then add on extra details throughout the level to increase difficulty. These challenges typically escalate to a boss fight, where all the mechanics you’ve learned up to this point are tested in one final battle.

image source (think about this image in the context of what I’ve been saying, examine what the screen shows)

Level based games at their core allow for this type of gameplay scaling and design narrative. When it’s done well enough – see Shovel Knight – the player doesn’t even realize a game’s level is teaching and challenging them at the same time.

Presenting Unique Mechanics

Think about game mechanics, in an open world. Most if not all of them are present from the beginning. If not they’re slowly drip fed and then available to the player going forward. Games with levels can do that, but they don’t need to. In our open world article we talk about how those games can say so much through silence. Games with levels need to do the exact opposite. A smaller and more concentrated play space can’t really rely heavily on silence, it needs to be more fast paced and explosive.

The only problem with that is some games introduce certain extra mechanics that overstay their welcome. The developers might run out of interesting ideas and instead of leaving said mechanic be. They keep it around until it’s stale. I can think of a few examples of how level based games have presented unique mechanics, then let them go.

image source (Titanfall 2’s best level “Effect and Cause”)

Making Players Appreciate Mechanics

It’s no secret Titanfall 2 has one of the best single player, level based campaigns ever made. Right in the middle of the game you’re stripped of using your Titan and are given a wrist mounted device. It allows you to travel through time on the spot. This means for around 10% of the game, the player has to rely solely on their Titan skills. All whilst traveling between two versions of the same environment. Did I also mention that you’ll be jumping between different fire fights in the same room and using the time travel to help with platforming? If you’ve played this level you’ll know how much it shakes up Titanfall 2’s gameplay.

I think the reason level based games benefit from, and present properly, short term mechanics. Is because they can easily take them away. The main reason people remember levels like Effect and Cause isn’t just quality, but because they’re taken at just the right moment. In removing unique mechanics, the player remembers and appreciates them more than if they stick around. (Image if Breath of the Wild only used each of its Shiekah Slate abilities once for a short time).

Limitations Encourage Creativity

Many subscribe to the idea that being constrained in your ideas helps force creativity. This much can be said for level design in video games. Open world games allow you to present so many more ideas. Which when implemented in the correct fashion, work with a games design. Level based games are the same. Titles like Dishonoured, Hitman, Super Mario 64, and Sniper Elite all have these open-ended yet closed-off design philosophy’s.

image source (Here Dishonored presents you with one objective, but many ways to do it)

This creativity is, in the moment, in the hands of the player more than the developer. Though the developer has the goal of giving the player enough to play with in terms of tools, routes, mechanics, and enemies to foster the players imagination. As mentioned in our open world article, this was birthed out of GTA III. That game gave you a sandbox to explore and play with. However level based games distilled this down into smaller, curated experiences.

Think about how the games mentioned above do it. They give you selective choice. You can do smaller objectives to help with the overall one. You’re participating in smaller events that feed into the overall one which remains unchanged. Essentially most of the decisions you think about making have been taken into consideration by the developer, meaning that when you interact with the level, the level reacts accordingly.

Design of this caliber is incredibly hard to get right. This is why games like Dishonored don’t come by all the time. There’s a very difficult balance to be found in presenting player freedom on a stage, whilst behind the curtain puppeteers work.

Levels Are Like Movies

Video games have a lot in common with films, especially linear ones. They aim to tell a story, entertain, and inform. One developer really takes this to heart it seems. That developer being Naughty Dog. They aren’t the only developer to do this of course, but one of the best. They emulate movies in how they’ll sometimes remove player control, or give them just enough to present a set piece. Movies do this too with action sequences, except the audience has literally no control.

Only level based games can present ‘set pieces’. Games like Shadow of the Colossus and Marvel’s Spiderman get close, but they remove the open world nature of their games to show them off. Which essentially proves how games with levels do it best.

image source (perhaps Uncharted 4’s best moment, as the action continues to shift)

Breaking Down A Curated Level

If you’re familiar with the gameplay surrounding the above image, you’ll know where this is going. The developer of a video game is attempting to deliver an experience, and with most games heightening the action is a brilliant way to do that. The same goes for films. Uncharted 4’s 11th Chapter: ‘Hidden in Plain Sight‘ is no exception.

The level starts slow, you’re making your way through a market. Then it’s puzzle time as you scale the inner workings of a bell tower. In a grievous error on Nathan Drake’s part, the tower collapses on the inside. Immediately after this you make your escape on foot, then by car, finally being found at the above image where you must jump from vehicle to vehicle.

That’s just one level, abbreviated for time. This absolutely insane set piece can only be created in a linear space. The player is presented with little to no choice. But when what the player sees is entertaining and interactive enough to be fun… it doesn’t matter. This is where level based games shine. Open world games need to sacrifice their namesake to present you with these types of jaw dropping moments, but games with levels thrive off them.

More Of A Set Formula

To wrap this article up, level based games come in many different forms. But they all follow similar principles. In closing off the players access and choices to a confined space (even if it is large) developers can use that to their advantage. The player can only see and interact with exactly what the developer wants. These curated types of experiences don’t always have to hold your hand, but players will always want some creative types to show them what they’ve come up with. We thrive off enjoying accessible entertainment, and level based games are just that. Who’s to say we have to be given complete freedom all the time in our games?

Do you agree? What are your favourite linear games? Or favourite levels from any video game? let us know in the comments or on twitter @thecognetwork. Thanks for taking the time to read this article, we appreciate you!

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Will Nelson

I'm a Journalist, Podcaster, Breakfast Radio Host and an all round lover of video games! I might love Pokemon too much for being an adult, but that hasn't stopped me. My favourite game is Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc (that tells you most of what you need to know). Video Games have been a massive part of my life since I was born, and I hope I can spread that passion to all of you reading!

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