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CapnClever

Megawad theming

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To provide a little context before the topic itself, I've been playing through Final Doom in what is probably an atypical manner: continuous play without saves (basically pistol-start on any map where I die). This forces me to appreciate each and every level in ways I haven't before, trying my best not to die in both a single-map sense and throughout the megawad. Haven't finished yet but two maps so far have really stuck out when playing in this manner:

1. TNT map21, Administration Center was a massive test of my patience. In general, TNT appears to have a gameplay theme revolving around starvation, whether it be health or ammo, which was present greatly throughout the first episode and lessened up in the second. But as the opener for episode three: the starting combination of large hallways littered with hitscan and the central area of 10% damage floor; a very unfortunate teleporter situation leading from the central point that can get you killed quite easily on each return; a very low threshold for damage until the megasphere, which itself feels like a hasty revision (blue or even green armor would have been far more appropriate given the rest of the set); and, having overcome the whole of the map, placed in a wide expanse, vulnerable to whatever horrors might await you (and then quickly hearing a cyberdemon). While I will argue it doesn't feel remotely tested at pistol start, the more relevant verdict is that it completely throws off the pacing of the set, Death Valley itself in the middle of a dry but hospitable desert.

2. Plutonia map12, Speed is deceptively challenging, but in a manner that is unexpected so as to be frustrating. A lot of Plutonia is built on the idea of "high stakes", powerful enemies against a powerful player (map32 practically parodies that idea). Leading up to it, you're constantly asked to improvise against sometimes ridiculous matchups, and much of that applies past it too. But somehow, map12 caught me entirely off-guard with its nonlinearity and intertwining passages. For all the playground that the player is given with respect to structure, the form gives you no room to practically explore it: at every turn you're beset by enemy after enemy until you're completely exhausted. In short, it really feels like a map that you're supposed to take fast, but is in fact very much the opposite. The climax is a massive slap in your face if you weren't careful enough to keep your supplies high and dry, and either the archvile/revenant pairing will get you or the walls of chaingunners do. I've heard the complaints about these enemies being the problem with Plutonia, but this is the only map where they stand out so glaringly (map08 gets a consolation prize).

And, since I played a megawad mostly like this earlier, I'll add a third example to better illustrate the point:

3. Back to Saturn X Episode 1 map15, Tricyclic Looper is ambitious, well-designed, but ultimately disappointing. If I had to describe the gameplay theme of BTSXE1 it's that of an aggressive wanderlust: you really want to explore everything each map has to offer but are blown back by engaging encounters, ultimately compromising as necessary which either adds difficulty or anxiety, both of which bring about satisfaction by the end. Not every map is hard, but just about every one of them consists of a trend: take it fast or take it slow, knowing there are consequences for both. Map15, in short, failed to deliver on this, believing in one pace that the player must follow. For all of the branching paths and interesting combinations of architecture and monster placements, the gameplay came across as uniformly manufactured rather than emergent and organic. The climb up to the first key, the meandering progression of enemies and upgrades, the multi-tiered secrets, the cacodemon swarm: all of these played well but managed to evoke the equivalent of a circus, a collection of attractions full of excitement but none of it under the player's control. With other maps, I felt like I had experienced something unique, but here, it just felt like the same map everyone else would see. This is not a mark against the map by itself (indeed it's not even a worthy criterion from that perspective) but only in its placement among other maps.

(Now you may not agree with my criticism of these maps, or even of their placement in their corresponding wads. The purpose of these examples is to present a supposed theme and why each map breaks that theme. Indeed, I'd be interested in knowing your thoughts as to how these maps manage to fit other themes that you deem more important.)

tl;dr, sometimes a map doesn't fit in a set of maps. This is a value independent of the map's own quality: bad maps in good wads, good maps in bad wads, and everything in between. Granted, sometimes themes change: Doom2 changes its setting multiple times (from demon-infested starport to battle-ravaged town to a merging of Earth and Hell). As long as the themes stand out within each subset, it fits (though whether you agree that these themes can stand next to each other in the same wad is also up for debate).

This post is just a barrage of questions based on experience with megawads you've loved or hated, as well as questions for those who are involved in the creation of megawads.

To players:
- Do you prefer megawads with themes or without them (i.e., "just a bunch of maps packed together")?
- As far as themes go, do you care more about gameplay themes (e.g., progression of difficulty, encounter novelty, powerup quantities) or narrative themes (e.g., visuals, music, setting)? Which type of theme do you tend to remember the most from megawads you've played?
- Does a map that break the apparent theming of a megawad negatively affect the rest of the experience? Conversely, is there worth in maps that purposefully break a theme?

To mappers:
- How important is it to you that your wad (whether independent or with a group) contains a theme? How apparent should theming, if any is intended, be to the player?
- For projects looking to have a theme, how much effort would you put into consistent theming? Is it worth significantly altering or scrapping maps that don't fit this theme?
- Have you changed themes in the middle of a project?

And yeah, I realize this is an incredibly vague topic of discussion. If you want some talking points, I'll throw out a few:

- I like combat difficulty across a wad to be a smooth curve: I don't care so much about easy/hard as I do the expectation that a mapset stays that way, with possibly the exception of an introductory map or two. If it chooses the full range, then there is a clear progression that doesn't smash the player halfway through only to disappointingly sputter afterwards. (Note that this doesn't mean a given map's difficulty curve need be smooth.)
- Puzzle difficulty is similar, though in this case it's more like "don't make your puzzle too hard if most maps have none". Getting flummoxed by non-combat isn't an expectation when playing Doom (missing that one switch aside), though if the set as a whole tends to require them you'll at least be ready for a stumper. And hey, if you don't like puzzles at all, it'll be obvious that the wad's full of them from the get-go.
- Maps that break from the rest of the wad are best left as secret maps. That doesn't mean secret maps should be utterly ridiculous with respect to the other maps, though (Doom II being an historic exception).
- A sense of narrative progression, when handled subtly, is a great addition to megawads. For instance, map01-map04 might be four corners of a grand structure, and in each of those maps is an eye-catching piece of what will be map05, the center of that structure, when looking into the distance.
- If you're going to break themes for some reason, having some kind of buildup in previous maps (or an implied justification for doing so) keeps the set together a lot better. Icarus is all over the place at times, but it always comes back to the player visiting a myriad of destinations and simulations via their shuttlecraft.
- Hypothetically, if I were to be a project lead of something with themes I really cared about, I would probably ask that maps be changed or replaced if they didn't fit "the vision of the project". 'Course, if that vision ends up popularly untenable, it may be worth a compromise (which may end up better anyway).

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I've always believed that good games need positive and negative sections. Positivity in Doom II looks like the first six levels of any boring megawad:

- intuitive action levels with easily-found keys, each key route not guiding you too far out of the centre of the level
- a well-fed weapon & medkits everywhere
- secrets you can uncover by either wall-humping or running around the level and hitting lift triggers
- no platforming unless it's between crates (?)
- breezy micro-encounters with lots of space to move
- conveniences like consistent door coding, radsuits as necessary, buttons doing something visually acknowledgeable by the player
- an exit room with an imp in it

You can't make a masterwork in this discipline because it's only half the game, the first preparatory coat of paint. A wad full of positive mapping would be dull as ditchwater.

From there you add levels which challenge the player in lateral ways; by length, by making encounter intuition useless (study your own typical linedef trigger usage and vary it), by sheer monster ferocity, through insane, inconsistent visual feedback, through opaque, puzzle-based progression, through starvation/making the player juggle the weapons instead of always having surplus ammo for the weapons like the SSG and plasma rifle which have a way of making it safe to wander into traps. A Doom II map can be an action romp, a survival nightmare, a story or curiosity, an act of an adventure game, a Streets of Rage level, a tightrope walk and several other specialized things besides.

i'm not at all saying that every experiment succeeds & I agree that the map 20&21 section of TNT is hellish but as a player I want to see mappers try to add variety to their sets in all sorts of expansive ways. Part of the fun of beating any arcane old game is getting through the hellish bits, ask any RPG fan! I place very little stock in opinions that are used only as sticks to beat perfectly creative elements of this game - "puzzles/platforming/slaughter/teleport mazes/snipers/death-traps don't belong in Doom" types are ruining MY enjoyment of the game by dissuading creative mappers from properly finishing their projects!

other preferences: texture theming is lovely when done well (BTSX E2, Sunlust, Epic 2) and equally lovely when totally discarded (ALT); I'll only really notice the game-play if I can tell there's been work done on the wad's atmosphere, and I realize that "atmosphere" can be a nebulous term but lol I know it when I see it; stylistic breaks are encouraged; difficulty can be haywire or placid as the creator insists - if I'm interested in enough in seeing further into their maps I'll either persevere or lovingly cheat! all in all I want to see psychedelic variety out of everyone.

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I feel like most megawads don't have a well-thought-out theme in and of themselves. Instead, the theme is being constructed by the player himself as he is going through the levels. Personally, I don't believe that the authors of Evilution or Icarus wrote lengthy messages like the opening post of this thread to each other, discussing the progression and thinking how to rearrange the map slots. No, at the basis these are quite messy and semi-random collections of levels in very different styles. And yet somehow they feel quite coherent, and people are able to talk about the "TNT style", whatever it is. This is because the human mind LOVES creating logical connections, even between things that are actually totally unrelated. Like, you can probably take almost any megawad with a "progression that makes sense", totally rearrange the levels, show it to a bunch of unknowing players... And it will still make sense in their heads. In my opinion, at least when it comes to megawads made by several mappers, most of the time it's not the authors that are responsible for the theme. It's the player, his unpredictable mind and the power of his imagination.

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CapnClever said:

To players:
- Do you prefer megawads with themes or without them (i.e., "just a bunch of maps packed together")?

Mostly don't care, as long as the maps are fun and it's not something like difficulty going "backwards" from hard to easy. I remember a lot of reviews dissed Requiem for "having no progression" because it had as many hellish-atmosphere maps in the beginning as in the end; that always seemed like a complete non-issue to me.

CapnClever said:

- As far as themes go, do you care more about gameplay themes (e.g., progression of difficulty, encounter novelty, powerup quantities) or narrative themes (e.g., visuals, music, setting)? Which type of theme do you tend to remember the most from megawads you've played?

The only wad I specifically remember for "gameplay themes" was Cyberdreams, since the concept was so out of the ordinary. Otherwise it's just kind of a vague "easy maps"/"hard maps"/"weird maps". I generally remember more if there's an unusual/interesting visual style/location.

CapnClever said:

- Does a map that break the apparent theming of a megawad negatively affect the rest of the experience? Conversely, is there worth in maps that purposefully break a theme?

It depends on if the break is obnoxious in some way, which I admit is rather vague. I remember that forced speedrunning map in Scythe frustrated me a lot, since I don't usually try to do speedruns, and it was totally unexpected given the prior maps. I did eventually beat it, though. On the other hand, I feel that secret maps should usually break the mold in some way, otherwise they're slightly disappointing as secrets. Warrens from the original Doom, Ziggurat Vertigo from Quake, and Tier Drops and Lunatic Fringe from Duke Nukem 3D are great examples. The Graveyard from Heretic is a decent example too, since it has a particular gimmick used nowhere else in the game (all ghosts, except for the monsters that lack ghost versions).

CapnClever said:

To mappers:
- How important is it to you that your wad (whether independent or with a group) contains a theme? How apparent should theming, if any is intended, be to the player?

I try to write a short background story to each level. This isn't often anything elaborate, just something like "a fortified castle that was abandoned and is now partially sunken into the surrounding lake", "a cathedral where the monsters pray for the resurrection of their demon lord", "the tomb of an ice mage, full of ice-based tricks and traps to deter looters", that sort of thing. In the case of my Hexen project, I try to put some thought as to what maps will go well together as a hub with an overarching theme of some sort, though that tends to be a bit loose; one of my rules with it is to try to avoid making a hub seem too similar to one of the original Hexen/Deathkings ones (I broke up one hub because I realized it was too much a thematic repeat of Shadow Wood/Blight).

As for how much players should notice it, I'm satisfied with "does not look like you just threw a bunch of maps together willy-nilly".

CapnClever said:

- For projects looking to have a theme, how much effort would you put into consistent theming? Is it worth significantly altering or scrapping maps that don't fit this theme?

I think the "I broke up one hub..." comment above is relevant here, too. I think for completely misfit maps it might make sense to, not necessarily "scrap" them but at least save them for a different project that might fit them better.

CapnClever said:

- Have you changed themes in the middle of a project?

Yes. Mountain King's Domain started out as "Vulcan's Temple" and would have been an underground fire/lava shrine, but evolved in a different direction as I experimented with different textures and rooms. That change happened fairly early in the development of the map, though. I've also switched ports, or in some cases even switched games, in the middle of making a map.

yakfak said:

i'm not at all saying that every experiment succeeds & I agree that the map 20&21 section of TNT is hellish but as a player I want to see mappers try to add variety to their sets in all sorts of expansive ways. Part of the fun of beating any arcane old game is getting through the hellish bits, ask any RPG fan! I place very little stock in opinions that are used only as sticks to beat perfectly creative elements of this game - "puzzles/platforming/slaughter/teleport mazes/snipers/death-traps don't belong in Doom" types are ruining MY enjoyment of the game by dissuading creative mappers from properly finishing their projects!

I could turn this into a huge tangent, but yes: one of the joys I've found in going through shovelware CDs full of the much-disparaged "1994 WADs" is, in addition to finding that a lot of them are in general better than the talk today would indicate, quite often I find myself saying "oh, that's CLEVER" at something that probably wouldn't be considered "kosher" by modern standards. There were pretty much no "rules" back then, people went wild, and often times it didn't work, but sometimes it did.

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CapnClever said:

To players:
- Do you prefer megawads with themes or without them (i.e., "just a bunch of maps packed together")?

I definitely prefer themed megawads and have a hard time getting into "community projects" when it's a big collection of maps with each author doing their own thing. That's why 1-2 man megawads are my favourite since there's usually a clear vision and style for the mapset.

- As far as themes go, do you care more about gameplay themes (e.g., progression of difficulty, encounter novelty, powerup quantities) or narrative themes (e.g., visuals, music, setting)? Which type of theme do you tend to remember the most from megawads you've played?

Narrative themes tend to stick out the most thinking back to megawads played a while ago. Especially true for megawads made up of visually distinct episodes such as Scythe 2 or Valiant.

- Does a map that break the apparent theming of a megawad negatively affect the rest of the experience? Conversely, is there worth in maps that purposefully break a theme?

Throwing in the occasional map that's very distinct from the previous and following ones can be very interesting and good for the experience. For instance, Valiant E1 is full of short and violent mountain-techbases and then you get hit with Engineering Disaster which is a massive sandbox-style city map that leaves a huge impression and remains the highlight of the first episode. Likewise, that demonic city map from BTSX E1 remains a highlight due to the open layout and stylistic departure from the predominantly techbase style.

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I like when a wad has a big picture behind the progression of the levels and if that relates well with the plot, but I like more to see more variety in what the maps do with their gameplay, and I'm not talking about gimmicks/concepts. Unlike yakfak I don't think it's about "positive and negative" but it's more to alternate more intense moments with more relaxing ones, in gameplay but even in the visuals. Going through highs and lows makes everything less plain and can give to you (if you are making a project) the opportunity to give the right emphasis to certain sections.

Memfis said:

and people are able to talk about the "TNT style", whatever it is.


It's a rather nebulous thing like "how do I a make a good atmosphere?" but I was thinking about this for some time, while playing some wads it happened that I though that "this feels like TNT...". Somekind of common traits is that these works use extensively the stock textures and use the usual themes of Doom 1/2 or combines them or try to expand them in weird ways, same applies for the gameplay. In Evilution the people started to experiment more (and better) with their stuff but they were still tied mostly to the id iwads as reference. In 94/95 there wasn't over a decade of released wads and I guess that the people had a sort of a "common mindset" in mapping. Modern community projects like CC 3/4, Nova 1/2, JPC are way more inconsistent than wads like TNT/Memento Mori.

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