Blog-versation: Bad Level Design

“Level” is an increasingly ambiguous term. With the rise of sandbox games, and the increasing power of home PCs and consoles, games are becoming increasingly free-flowing, breaking down by chapter, quest and location more than what we would have once called level. A good level is memorable, compelling, and can really drive a game forward. A bad level design is often memorable in it’s own right.

Bad levels can drive us from otherwise enjoyable games. Invisible walls and insurmountable obstacles, even slow paced or dull levels can make us put down our controllers and walk away.

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That ONE Puzzle!

Ok, who remembers this mess?

Dig579

 

More to the point, who else stopped playing Dig because of this turtle? Yes, that’s supposed to be a  turtle! And the game will not advance until it resembles one.

I’m sure we’ve all played this game – not Dig necessarily – but a point and click problem solver with an irrational or unsolvable puzzle. From The 7th Guest‘s soup cans to Monkey Island‘s “monkey wrench” we have all reached the point where we throw everything at everything until it all stops making sense. Ok, some of them have comedy value, but eventually we’ll all reach for a walkthrough, throw our hands up in the air and scream “REALLY?!”

Invisible Walls

How many of you consider yourself “explorer” type gamers. You like to explore every inch of an area, turn over every stone in search of loot, and when you feel utterly satisfied that everything that can be found has been found you’ll move on. Of course you also want to follow every path you can find, some obscure, some more obvious. Every so often the obscure paths will find some really cool reward. More often though, the obvious path isn’t a path at all.

Skyrim is a beautiful game that could never be accused of shoddy design. It is not infallible however, and it is riddled with invisible, adventure-blocking walls to stop you from getting places that will take you another half hour to reach by “the right path.” And Skyrim is not the only victim:

On it’s own, not enough to make you rage-quit (Rage-quit? eh? eh?), but hit five in an hour and Alt-F4 start to look really friendly.

Flat Palette

You can do incredible things with a limited colour palette. Machinarium‘s drab and oily world elegantly offset the liveliness and vibrance of it’s characters, and Limbo‘s elegant monochrome builds a terrific sense of isolation. But your visuals should be part of the game, not a hindrance to it.

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron. Action packed and full of awesome robots fighting, there’s a lot to love about it, and it has some sound gameplay. But robots fighting robots in an entirely industrialized landscape makes it impossible, not just to tell friend from foe, but sometimes to tell foe from ammo dump or set piece. Throw in smoke and a barrage of light effects, you may find yourself shooting the walls to death and driving into oblivion.

tf-foc-xbox-360-008
Much easier to view through nostalgia goggles I must say

To take another prime example from the Elder Scrolls (I feel as though I may be picking on Bethseda today but I do love the guys), most of the landscape of Oblivion featured lush grassland. Beautiful, but chronically lacking diversity. I rapidly found myself lost, bored, and with no intention of taking the amulet to Joffrey which I was definitely going to get around to at some point.

Repetition

Here’s a fun fact. I just typed in “repetitive level” into google, it’s first suggestion was Halo! How trite.

Fans of the series love it for its’ storyline, but were initially drawn in by the incredible gameplay and visual beauty. And no doubt, Halo was at the time innovative in its’ way, but it spawned a generation of clones that followed the same pattern of not-quite-rail-shooter, waist-high-cover, vehicle-level-having gameplay. What’s worse is the series struggled to break free of its’ own pattern. I have respect for Halos’ blockbuster scope and Hollywood level presentation, but revolutionary it is not.

Or take Just Cause 2. An undoubtedly fun and hilarious sandbox game, praised in no small part for it’s sheer size. Unlike it’s contemporaries however, that size was filled with a very small number of set pieces, not barrels or petrol stations, but large oil pumping facilities, and even towns that looked identical to one another. We all know that a game is a hulking beast to produce and we can’t expect a unique view from every angle, but is a little diversity too much to ask for in a game of that magnitude?


As I draw my rant to a close, I invite you all to tell me what are the worst elements of level design you have encountered? Join the discussion in the comments down below.

Oh, and Tim! Don’t think I missed your little jab at traditional gaming in your Blog-versation. Keep an eye on future DMing 101 pieces for a most thorough rebuttal.

3 thoughts on “Blog-versation: Bad Level Design”

  1. Another “prime” example – was that an unintentional Transformers pun? I love point & click adventures, but I agree some of their puzzles are impossible to suss out without a guide. Thank goodness that some of them have hint systems.

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    1. It was, but I forgot to point it out. I cobbled todays post together on my tablet and a borrowed laptop following some over-heating issues.
      And I actually never played any of the puzzle games I mentioned up top, but I couldn’t site an example from any of my favourites. Except Riven, but that’s a bit of a beast to explain in a short piece.

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