Reply To: Level design

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I think the design of Doom maps owes itself to three things:

i) Doom is divided into relatively short levels, rather than providing a long continuous experience;
ii) The levels are non-linear;
iii) The levels are abstract.

Addressing each of these in turn:

Levels were a pretty standard “trope” in games throughout the 1980s and 1990s, so it’s no surprise that Doom utilised them. Maybe this was due in part to technical limits on 1993 hardware, but I also believe from a design point-of-view it was part of Doom’s recipe for success.

I think they are still worthwhile to have today, even if modern tech is capable of creating a seamless experience. To me, levels are like chapters in a book, breaking up a game into small challenges with well defined goals: Something which players can start and finish in a 30 minute session, or play through in isolation at any time. (Due to juggling real-life demands, players may only be able to allocate 30 minutes at a time, so they fit neatly with that).

Levels allow designers to cleanly break away from what happened before, allowing them to experiment with new and unrelated ideas, keeping the game feeling fresh. Similarly, levels allow players to draw a line under their work, either to put bad experiences behind them, or to frame their most proud moments. Consequently, each level can have it’s own unique identity: An iconic room or construction within it, which prints itself into our memory for life.

And speaking of iconic rooms… A lot of levels in Doom involve one or two central areas (hubs), that you end up crossing through several times as you complete little side errands collecting keycards or raising bridges and barriers. Part of the interest in non-linearity is that you can investigate these little side areas, to see what you can/can’t access, and what obstacles are blocking you. You build up a mental model of what you might need to do. So when you get a red keycard or raise a bridge, you can think back, and connect the dots… It’s mentally stimulating that way.

There doesn’t have to be a strict order-of-operations with non-linear maps either. Players may have choice eg, to do area A or B first. Completing A first may mean that you can approach B from a different/better angle. B might even be completely optional, yielding only some powerup bonus, for example. Little choices like that are important, as they allow us to act on our whims, and provide something for both speedrunners and completionists. And for the more serious gamer, allow experimentation, so we can find the most effective strategies.

A non-linear layout means that a level can be spatially compact too, with lots of branches and loops. This makes it quick to revisit areas once they’re unlocked, either to search for health packs, hunt down a monster you can still hear grunting somewhere, or to locate a door you fear you’ve missed. In comparison, this kind of backtracking can be rather tedious through more linear map design.

Spatial orientation is fun too in non-linear levels: When you have all these areas connected together, you get to visualise how they all join up. Related to that – but maybe this is a personal thing? – I liked the experience of opening a door, and unexpectedly finding myself back in an earlier area. Times when my mental model was back-to-front because that locked door I saw at the start was not the next unlockable area, but was merely returning me back from the area just done! Things like that, which suprise us, disorient us, keep us alert and interesed.

Meanwhile, abstract maps allow designers to work with a superset of possibilities, where levels don’t have to resemble real-world spaces, nor conform to conventional rules about architecture. Doom doesn’t try to convince us that what we’re seeing is something other than what it is, so what we’re most aware of when we play is literally the abstract geometry.

This shared perception between designer and player meant that geometry could be used to it’s fullest effect, creating spaces which are fun to visualise and understand, and uniquely challenging to navigate through.

Furthermore, when you consider these abstract spaces juxtaposed with various combinations of monster behaviours, you can see how a diverse and endless array of traps and confrontations become possible.