Players orientate themselves inside of, and contemplate, and analyze the environment around them down to even subconscious levels. Being able to describing this push & pull psychological response in video games isn’t new. It’s been around long before we picked up a joystick or slid a mouse. These ideas have been used in City planning, theme park design, and almost any general landscaping. They use these concepts to provide the inhabitants direction, Areas-of-Interest, and create a sense of wonder to the area.
Here’s one of the most well-known game levels in the world. Millions of people have played through it…
Fig 1: Disneyland’s Main Street USA
Theme park design parallels that of level design. It passively shapes the interactive experience by using architecture and landscape to amplify the narrative content the visitor will be witnessing.
At Disneyworld, you start in Main Street USA – a long, shop-filled entry that eventually leads to Cinderella’s majestic castle in the distance. But it’s a hundred yards of just souvenir shops… no attractions, no rides? How lame is that? This pacing however, secretly sets a psychological tone for adventure!
At the beginning of any story, a baseline is set which describes what’s come before. By declaring what’s normal, we can show growth with future events…
In Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it describes this story pattern that’s existed for centuries. People want and expect this pattern for a satisfying excursion into make-believe land.
Main Street USA establishes normality where the participant is comfortable in a familiar setting and the castle serves as a Call-To-Adventure for the hero inside of us.
Ignites when we cross a threshold – such as passing over the drawbridge – and start a series of adventures.
We return home, back to normality, but now forever changed by the experience.
The design of Main Street USA sets the tone for the entire experience. It puts people into the hero’s mindset. Without the dramatic beats and anticipation, there would be no payoff, no sense of discovery, no adventure!
One of the purposes of this document is to show how you can structure levels to create these types of storytelling moments.
Where Campbell’s book describes the story’s structure, Kevin Lynch’s book The Image of the City describes the location’s structure. In it, he shares the labels used in theme park design, city planning, and landscaping. It establishes the theoretical underpinnings of how people conceptualize cities.
For example, by interviewing residents of Boston, he was able to breakdown each area within the locale:
Fig 7: Aerial view of Boston and its primary roads
By drawing weighted paths and directions to showcase memorable areas, Boston’s landscape was matched with the things people remember about it.
Fig 8: Boston based on people’s impressions
The Image of the City provides us with a critical language for us to discuss our levels in the abstract.
If our games are going to give the player a rollercoaster ride beyond the immediate reaction to combat, use these storytelling and landscape formulas to our advantage.
Steal ideas! Don’t feel awkward or disguising your idea as something new if you believe in it. Why spend time struggling to think of something no one else has done before? There are no original ideas. Anything new is influenced by past ideas; both good and bad. The important thing is your idea needs to be better than any previous idea. So, take something you’re inspired by and make it your own. By the time it evolves through development and comes out to see the light of day, it’ll be a fresh idea that can stand on its own.