Prince of Persia
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After praising the map design in my earlier post, it’s only fair that I give some criticism of it too for balance, so expect this post to be more negative.
So far I’ve played through e1 and e2. I have to say I preferred e1. e2 levels feel a bit different to e1 levels. I don’t mean the texture differences are bad (they are just as great!), but the map layouts themselves feel poorer somehow.
It is clear that focus has been shifted away from the hub-like areas used in e1. But with fewer such landmarks to guide us, it is harder to build mental maps of these levels, which in turn makes them harder to navigate comfortably.
The designs of e2 feel more like a chaotic clustering of many small areas, which make it hard to identify where you are at a glance. Abundant use of alcoves and corridors don’t help, as turning in areas with low visible range will disorient us, so we can easily lose our sense of direction.
In a more realistic game, this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, as even small areas are regularly given unique and interesting detail with scenery and use of the third dimension. But Doom cannot escape it’s own limitations, and to me this is an example of where it’s abstract geometry becomes a handicap.
3D spaces need landmarks, but Doom is limited in how it can achieve this.
So what are the consequences of this? If the player loses their sense of direction, they have no guide as to where they should go next. They’ll run around aimlessly hoping to stumble upon something new. If that means backtracking, then it quickly becomes boring. But even if we manage to progress, encounters will feel less engaging – it’s just one room after another of monsters – as each encounter becomes less meaningful in the bigger picture.
With doom/quake etc, I’ve always set up my controls so that delete + page down (the keys above left/right arrows) would strafe left/right.
I got quite good at using key combos to run forwards, whilst both turning and strafing.
Friends at school (where I first played Doom) didn’t understand why I used separate strafe keys, when I could just press Alt instead like they all did. I guess they hadn’t imagined needing to turn and strafe together, like when circling an opponent. 😀
But by that time, the mouse was taking over as the choice controller for fps games, so my control scheme never seemed to catch on.
rnlf, those chapter markers were used in quake II as well if I remember rightly. I don’t really like them, even though they are technically more advanced, as I prefer to see distinct levels.
A lot of FPS games break the world into chunks which get dynamically loaded as you walk around (you get those little glitches in the framerate when it happens). Chapter markers feel no different than that to me, and programmatically, they probably are very similar.
Moving between one chapter and the next doesn’t feel like a proper start/end point. So when I cross a chapter marker I don’t feel like I’ve finished.
I grew up with 80s and 90s games which were predominantly level-based, so maybe that’s just what I’m most confortable with. But as I argued above, there benefits to distinct levels, and I’ve come to value their use over these more modern solutions.
Maybe that’s too subjective to make a proper discussion, but it’s just what I like 😀
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.
It was one of the first DOS games I’d seen, as someone had installed it on the computers at my school. I was quite amazed by it at the time:
– it was a very smooth 3d game with fancy textures and realistic looking monsters.
– controls felt very responsive, and it was enjoyable “dancing” with the monsters, trying to hit them while avoiding being hit.
– the game was simple to understand, so you could pick it up very easily.
– dividing the game into levels was good idea, as it made each level a small challenge in it’s own right, with a well defined goal.
The reason why none of the backstory was in the game itself?
Maybe the game design came first (let’s imagine the designers knew they wanted to use their 3d tech to make something demonic and visceral).
While that was under construction, they may have realised they needed a manual with an introduction. They many have anticipated there would be confused players asking a lot of who/what/why about the game. And maybe for PR reasons, they might have felt they needed a backstory so that the game didn’t seem as shamelessly vulgar as it might have.