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FEATURE • August 11, 2001

Where's the Design in Level Design?, Part One (Continued)

by Tito Pagán

Figures 1A-1H. Eight different wall forms that can express weight and direction in a game level.

Learning from Others

Our friends in architecture have been addressing these same design-related questions for generations. They have many of the answers to our common problems if we would only take the time to explore their proven methods of design. You can find applied methods in much of the architecture around us today if you know what to look for. These are design-oriented tools and principles that can assist us in our process as level creators.

I'm not suggesting that you take the same step-by-step approach utilized in designing real-world structures, which are bounded by gravity, physics, construction methods, and materials that are subjected to natural weather conditions. A virtual existence within a computer game is only limited by imagination and, of course, the CPU, GPU, the capabilities of the level-editing tools, the game engine, and the production budget. Nor am I suggesting that one necessarily fall back on and copy motifs directly from the past. I am advocating, however, that we learn from proven methods on how to control the masses and evoke emotion with solid design principles.

Forms That Express and Serve

There are many similar architectural structures in existence today that are patterned or modeled from the same original idea or form. Architects do this deliberately for practical reasons when constructing or designing such structures. They do it because they understand that specific forms can establish certain moods.

These basic forms are like the grammar of architecture and have been used from antiquity up to the present day as a means of addressing important goals in architectural design. Level designers can borrow much from the expressive potential of form in the theory of architecture. When designing levels, they can use this as a way to establish a common language of form, which audiences can immediately understand regardless of the individual or their culture. These are well-established principles that have immediate application in the design of our virtual worlds. They are not recipes for right and wrong; however, they do have a design-oriented goal. I will present a few of them and explain their purpose in hopes that they provoke your interest.


When laying out a level, the first inclination a level designer tends to have is to go in and plop down a bunch of walls in an attempt to define and separate spaces before ever laying out a floor plan or a concept drawing on paper. This is often done in a 3D program using primitive shapes resembling slabs of generic walls and floors. The resulting interior spaces and exterior spaces created by close placement of separate buildings are then commonly arranged based on functionality, importance, line-of-sight, and progression through the game. At this point, it would be a good time to go back and revisit the walls themselves. In game levels such as first-person 3D shooters, little thought is often given to the importance of the wall's form, scale, and angle. The wall motif is an expressive form.

A wall area, in principle, may be formed within eight different motifs (see Figures 1a-1h). The first two (1a and 1b) are concerned with the relationship between width and height, in that the wall's main form is either horizontal or vertical. The next three motifs (1c, 1d, and 1e) deal with the relation to depth, which are the flat, the convex, and the concave main forms. The final three motifs (1f, 1g, and 1h) deal with the slant of the wall. The wall may be upright, leaning toward us, or leaning away from us.

All eight motifs are actual representations of fundamental motion situations, which we may characterize by using words specifying directions. Figures 1a and 1b describe a "follow along" and "upward" motion, respectively. Figures 1c, 1d, and 1e convey a "halting," "advancing," and "retreating" motion. Figures 1f, 1g, and 1h depict a "neutral" motion, a "leaning towards" and "downward" motion, and a "tilting away" and "over" motion. Assuming one stands in approximately the same relative position in front of each wall, that wall will arouse certain motion impulses that create different impressions of the inside-outside relation in depth for that wall.

Comparing Figure 1a and 1b further, we find that the horizontal wall expresses a weight against the ground. Its horizontal nature gives a compressed and compact first impression. It stirs a force that starts the body into motion to follow along beside it in either direction to either side or end, as if seeking an entrance "around the corner" where something interesting or dangerous awaits the player. The vertical wall, on the other hand, is communicative for several reasons. One reason is that the weight expression of the vertical wall will always seem lighter because it is rising toward the sky. Think of churches and their columns and crosses, and look again at the image of the interior of the Japanese Azuchi Castle at the beginning of the article. Another reason is the motion expressed. Whereas the horizontal wall spreads movements, the vertical rising wall collects them. The final reason for this wall's communicative content is that, like a tower or obelisk, such a wall is the image of the erect standing figure that naturally attracts our attention. Throughout architectural history we find many examples of the characteristic differences in vertically and horizontally oriented walls.

Continue to page 3. >>

(Originally published in Game Developer July 2001.)