Architecture and Level Design

Before coming to RMCAD for Game Art, I spent 2 years at University of Nebraska-Lincoln studying Architecture. Ever since I first started seriously thinking about game design, I had the idea that level design is basically the same as architecture, but I’ve just now finally really understood what I meant by that, and how to actually apply it.

For the past two semesters, I’ve worked on some level design in class, but have never been very happy with what I’ve come up with. I think my main problem was that I always started off too big: I’d try to map out a whole area, then work my way down. Which just didn’t work for me. In my game texture and lighting class this semester we just started working on interiors. The pipeline for the class is basically: build model and apply basic textures in Maya, then bring it into Unity (the game engine that we’re using) for final textures/shaders and lighting. But the point is, for a while now I’ve been wanting to design a cathedral dedicated to the Golden Lady of the Obians, which is a folkloric statue said to be kept by the Obians. In my game, I’m connecting the statue as Numi-Torem’s banished wife.

My first two designs for this cathedral thing were huge outdoor structures. The first was basically a box with seven rooms surrounding a domed inner chamber containing the statue. You can’t have a legendary statue that isn’t in a more-or-less concealed inner chamber. It just isn’t done. My second design was based around a heptagram (seven is significant because there are seven layers of heaven, with Numi-Torem residing in a golden house in the seventh layer). This one was much more influenced by Russian Orthodox architecture, especially the Church of the Transfiguration on Kizhi island. Basically it was a simplified combination of that accidentally combined with a simplified Hagia Sophia.

Kizhi Church of the Transfiguration

But then I realized that huge man-made structures don’t really fit in a game thats supposed to be a lot about sublimity and the wilderness. So then I had the idea to make an underground cathedral carved out of a cave. Which is pretty perfect for my game: it retains that sense of sublimity, and I think a dark and creepy underground complex will lend a lot to the overall atmosphere of the game, and it’ll probably be nice to break up the environment. And it’ll be a lot of fun to light. I’m also tempted to make another creature to shuffle around in the dark down there.

But anyways, back to architecture. For one of my early architecture studio projects, we had to make a space with a somewhat abstract purpose: it was just a space in a place where people walk. The intent was to get us to think about how people will move through and interact with a space. And of course to work on aesthetic style. The major critique of my early iterations was that I wasn’t thinking about how people would actually move through the space.

My final model for the architecture project. A big part of it was also about creating a heart space for people move into and around.

You don’t, my teacher said, want to just have a best path to take through a space that some people may or may not take. You want to design that best path (or paths, depending on the space), and subtly force people to take that path. Good architecture, in most cases, at it’s core is about designing spaces that are interesting to move through. Frank Lloyd Wright would often design entrances to buildings to force the “audience” to go out of their way to get there: for example, in his home/studio in Oak Park, IL, you come up to the front door, but to actually get there you have to go around a wall and up some stairs and through a columned entrance area. You can’t just walk straight in. Some Japanese tea houses are designed with rather small entrances, forcing the “audience” to sort of “wiggle through” to get inside. There’s a term for that, but I forgot what it is. The point is, a major aspect of good architecture is about actually getting in the “audience’s” way, i.e., the disruption of a space. You don’t want people to just walk in a straight line to get to a destination. You want to take them down a more indirect route; you want them to have an experience, even if the audience member doesn’t want to have an experience. And, of course, part of that is in making the space interesting enough that even those audience members that are in a rush will want to stop and explore the space.

This is exactly what level design is. A lot of people say that level design is about preventing the player from being able to just sprint through the game to the end. I don’t think that’s a good way to think about it. Thinking about it that way makes it more about providing arbitrary obstacles merely to slow down the player, rather than about creating an interesting space for the player to move through and explore. You want the player to have an experience in moving through the space itself, not just an experience of overcoming obstacles placed there by the level designer. And, like in architecture, you want the player to want to explore the space. So what if it’s possible for a player to just run through a level? Good level design should be about making it so that if the player does that, it’s their loss. If you manage to influence a player rather than outright forcing to do something, I think they’ll inherently have a much better experience. Ultimately that’s what video games and architecture are all about: the experience the audience has.

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