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This is an article I wrote for IcarusWeb. I'd thought I would post it here since IW is temporarily down.

Making a Have-To-Play Level

I have been studying creative writing quite a bit lately and I have found that you can use the elements of a good story or book, to create a good Doom level. Whether a level has a story associated with it or not, doesn't really matter. A good level or story have setting, pace and plot.

In a story, the setting sets the mood and framework of the story. If it is a gothic romance, there is usually an old mansion and some old legend. In a science fiction story, the setting may be an alien planet, a spaceship or the future earth. In a mystery, the setting may be a train, the mean streets of New York or a snowed-in ski lodge. The setting helps define the story and gives the reader a backdrop and a point of reference for the story.

In level design, setting is equally important. Out of all the episodes that id produced, it seems that Knee Deep in the Dead is the favorite. One reason, I believe, is the consistent theme that runs throughout all the levels. Even though each level looks different, each level is consistent in its texture use and design. A level that looks good is more than just eye candy. In a level the layout and architecture define the flow, or pace of the level.

In a story, pace is what keeps the reader reading. I am sure you have read stories or books that seem to be moving along and you eagerly turn the page to see what is going to happen next when suddenly the story just stops. So does your interest at that point. Whatever the author has done, threw in a long descriptive passage, inserted some exposition badly, made an inappropriate flashback, or lost the plot thread-they have killed the pace of the story. When you lose the pace, you also lose the reader.

In level design, the layout largely dictates the pace and flow of the level and the player must never be bogged down while playing the game. If they are bogged down, they will just reload another level. This is why most successful levels do not use a linear approach (of which I am forever guilty). A non-linear approach gives the player something to do if they happen to be bogged down in one area of the level. This keeps the level moving, keeps the pace going, and the player interested.

How do you achieve good story pace? Story pace is usually a function of plot. Plot seems to be a great mystery to writers and level designers alike, but it is quite simple. Plot is simply a series of scenes and sequels that lead to a final climax and resolution.

A scene is an encounter, a problem to be solved. The hero must struggle to solve the problem and when the resolution comes, and here is the key, the solution must put the hero in worse shape than the hero was before the scene. The basic structure is this: Problem, struggle, and resolution that leads to another problem.

A sequel is the aftermath of a scene. After the scene has ended and the hero now has a new problem to face and the sequel is the setup for the next scene. It is a short breather after the conflict of the scene. The hero tries to think of a way to get around this new problem. When the hero has made a decision on how to handle the new problem, another scene is launched.

The plot is simply this formula repeated until the hero encounters the ultimate problem, the climax of the story. Once the hero overcomes the climax has the final resolution, the story is over. Get out as quick as possible. Watch any James Bond movie and you will this structure clearly defined. Bond has a problem, solves it and now has a bigger problem. This happens repeatedly until it builds to a final climax where Bond saves the world, gets the girl and the credits role. This is why the Bond movies, despite the fact that so many different actors have played Bond, have been so successful.

Why does this work? Because it creates tension in the reader and gives the reader an incentive to see if the hero will win out in the end. If the hero won every encounter and had no problems to solve, it would be a boring story indeed. Superman is a good example. If there weren't kryptonite, how interesting would any Superman story be? He could never fail and the story would have no tension.

These same concepts can be applied to level design. In creating a level, the designer must present the player with a problem(s) to be solved. The player must struggle a bit so it can't be too easy. It has to be reasonable though; there has to be a chance of success. Once the player does solve the problem, there has to be another problem. Each obstacle leads to another obstacle until the player reaches the climax of the level and the exit switch.

What about sequels? In Doom, there are two types of sequels. One type is the interlude between levels for a multi-level wad. Inside the individual level, the sequel is the main branching area or room. It can also be the small entryway that leads from one obstacle to another. It is where the player can catch his breath and get ready for the next fight and/or puzzle. The level Tricks and Traps in Doom2 is a good example of the in-level sequel. Every time the player solves a puzzle, they are taken back to the main room to tackle the next obstacle.

As each obstacle is overcome, the player is pushed toward the climax. The climax is the last major obstacle to be overcome. The climax is where the whole level has been leading the player. It is the final clash. Once the player solves this final problem, the level is over. Don't drag it on. Show the exit and let the player get out.

In a multi-level wad, a whole level may be a climax. Map 7 in Doom2 is a good example of this. The individual levels need to have their own mini-climax, but each level should lead to this major climax. In Knee Deep in the Dead, all the levels drive you to the last level where you face the ultimate challenge. In a multi-level wad, the same scene/sequel structure can be used, but it is used not only in individual levels, but across multiple levels as well. You can see this structure used quite well in Doom2.

It appears at first blush that level design and writing are so different that there cannot be any correlation between the two. However, both are trying to achieve the same goal: keep the reader/player interested enough to finish the book/game. If the goals are the same, the techniques have to be applicable as well. The medium is different of course, but how you get to the end is the same and by using these techniques, the level designer will create fun, often-played levels.

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*Takes notes*


Oh, Lüt, you better not pee on these ones :P

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Down at the bottom :)

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