The Layout Revisited

I'm working on level design for the game Static, which is a noise FPS developed by my friend Dennis Carr.  To date I've made about 45 levels for the game, and am trying to get another 15 done before we release late this month/early next month.

We're making the levels in Doombuilder, using a conversion tool to map elements in Doom wad files to Unity prefabs.  Not only does this make prototyping easier (Doombuilder has a CAD like interface for drawing regions), it lets us make forms that we would be prohibitively labor intensive if we were just moving and re-scaling prefabs.

The catch and challenge of these levels is that they are done planimetrically; that is, there is no vertical traversal in the game space, short of falling into the level.  This is tough for me personally, as I'm drawn to game spaces that have a lot of height variation, and I like when large pits are used as environmental hazards.  So it's a good exercise in thinking solely about layout composition.

I decided early on to group levels in episodes of ~10 levels each, each with a different theme.  The first group I worked on were based on cathedrals.  Defiling sacred spaces in a shooting game always feels perversely fun, and cathedrals plans are excellent case studies in proportion and geometry.

The trouble I found in my early levels is that 1-1 transcriptions of these beautiful cathedral plans are often unreadable in the game space, and there's no vertical composition to speak of (which is a big part of cathedral design).  A big challenge of static is just parsing out what's going on, and an over-use of symmetry with dense column layouts makes navigation a chore.

Once I abandoned any sort of floor plan tracing or symmetry, things went a lot quicker and yielded more interesting results.  One level was made by looking at the building structure as negative occupyable space, and building a layout based on the elevation.  Another one used the pointed arch as a formal jumping off point.  I learned how to make curves in doombuilder, which yielded more organic-looking forms and smoother transitions.

Another level set used bodily anatomy as a point of inspiration.  Conceptually I'm interested in embodiment in FPS games, since you're so often a weird floating psychopathic capsule with arms. I like the feeling of turning the space of the body inside-out and abstracted, feels apropos or something.  Again, some levels started as on-the-nose tracings of organs and the like, others have more abstract resemblances.

I'll try to post a few more updates ahead of our release.  We're still working out the level progression, which will hopefully include branching paths and boss enemies.  If you're in New York, we frequently test the game at NYU's Playtest Thursday events in Brooklyn.


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