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  • A Three-Level Short Story: Level Design In Die Young: Prologue

    - Daniele Mascagna

  • RESOLUTION. This area mirrors the one from the setup. It is a natural environment that separates the harbor from your destination: the hole of the cliff under the lighthouse. To reach it, you must cross the guarded area and crawl into a narrow cave where the enemies cannot follow you.

    There are only two entry points for this area:

    • from the Exit Gate
    • from the Tunnels

    If you get there from the Exit Gate, the guards are alarmed and you will have to run for your life towards the cave. If you arrive from the Tunnels, however, you may stealthily avoid the patrolling enemies and reach the cave.

    The access into the cave is at the highest point of the area, with a path leading up to it; to prevent the player from reaching the sea, the strip of coast outside the harbor is blocked by a construction site. If you arrive from the Tunnels, the cave is on the same line of sight as the lighthouse, hard to be missed; if you come rushing from the Exit Gate, the cave is slightly to your left. For sure, I could have handled the latter better: the space in-between the cave and the construction site, hidden by trees, is ambiguous: is that a path or a dead end? Players might be easily fooled: this confusion might translate into panic during the escape. It was not at all intended, but I wonder if this coincidentally improved the climax of this beat.

    (Click to enlarge)

    I placed some fireflies to highlight the entry to the cave, but it is the surrounding spotlights that do most of the work here; the lighting artist and I arranged the lights in such a way as to blind the player whenever they would look in the wrong direction (that is, towards the harbor or the coast).

    Once you have crawled your way out of the cave, the lighthouse is again framed to lead you to few jumps on the side of the cliff: you now stand in the hole in the rock you saw from a distance at the beginning of the level. On the other side of the cliff, you spot a light: a dinghy docked in an abandoned bay. Your rescuer is here!

    (A)                               (B)
    (Click to enlarge)

    (A) The framed view of the lighthouse, crawling out of the cave. (B) Vista of the final area. This vista is honestly poor, and it could use several improvements: for instance, the foreground frame should contrast more with the background, instead of blending in; the pier is barely visible; also, it is lacking balance on the right side (maybe a light cone from the dinghy would do?)

    ACT III "No Escape" - Boss Fight

    After spotting the dinghy from the hole in the cliff, a path takes you to the backside of the abandoned dock. Aside from the light coming from the pier, the area is pretty dark. I wanted the player to instinctively run towards the rescuer, so I also cleared a path among the giant reeds and placed an empty container to funnel them towards the light. The wild canes, blocking the view, delay the gruesome discovery: the rescuer was killed.

    (Click to enlarge)

    As you reach the dead body, a cutscene is played to introduce the enemies entering the arena.
    The boss fight can be summarized like this:


    • Boss "Huge Hammer Guy" (high HP, heavy melee attacks, slow but strong ranged attack)
    • Crossbowman x4 (only ranged attacks)
    • Melee Fighters x3 (melee attacks, slow and weak ranged attack)
    • Trained Dogs x 3 (only melee attacks)

    Main Goal:
    Kill the boss enemy and take his key to escape the area through a tunnel.

    Secondary Goal:
    Kill all the other enemies.

    Available Weapons (on-site, not counting the ones collected by the players earlier in the game):

    • Crossbow & Bolts
    • Molotovs (to be crafted using materials found in the arena)
    • Harpoon (strong melee weapon)

    Starting conditions:
    The enemies do not know the exact position of the player: they search the area randomly. The crossbowmen are on a higher, inaccessible ground: they cannot reach you and you cannot reach them.

    You can use the wild canes to hide from your enemies and stealth kill them using the crossbow, one by one. If they spot you, you have two refuges:

    • The ruined watchtower: enemies cannot follow you to the top, but you are exposed to ranged attacks. The top cabin offers protection from ground-level enemies; from there you can shoot the crossbowmen, but they can also shoot you.
    • A nook in the cliff: only trained dogs follow you there; you cannot shoot the other enemies unless you expose yourself to their ranged attacks.

    You can use these two refuges to face the enemies separately (crossbowmen from the watchtower, dogs from the inside of the nook) and to "take a breath" during the fight (for healing or replanning your strategy).

    Molotovs can be used to kill several enemies at once. You can craft them by collecting the materials scattered across the arena and using the fuel source located in one corner of the dock (it takes time to interact with it, so you have to be fast or stealthy).

    The best strategy is to kill all the other enemies before confronting the boss.
    The boss's melee attacks deal enormous damage. His ranged attack (rock throwing) is slow but powerful, and it can knock you down. The most effective way to kill the boss is using ranged attacks (crossbow and molotovs; headshots deal more damage than body hits). Additional bolts can be looted from the crossbowmen as they fall to the ground when killed.

    Once you got the key from the boss's dead body, you can open the gate that the enemy squad used to get inside the arena. After a short walk in the tunnel, the lights go out and the final cutscene starts playing.

    (Click to enlarge)

    Map of the "No Escape" level. The reddish platforms to the right, where the crossbowmen spawn, are inaccessible to the player. On the left, the player can reach the nook from a narrow passage inside the rocks, or from above by climbing the surrounding structures.

    WHAT WENT WRONG. This last boss fight was designed and produced over a very short period of time, and the end result was surely disappointing for most of the players.

    First of all, I underestimated the time needed to make the AI work in such a small space. Back then, the only boss fight we had was against a custom-made AI in the main game, which could only be killed by luring it to some electrified fences (not exactly exciting, either). This time, however, I planned to use a variation of a bulky enemy type we had; still, this AI was used in wide, open areas as a scary enemy to keep away from during exploration. Making it work in a tight boss fight arena was something else entirely, and I should have foreseen that.

    The first problem, of course, was navigation. Due to the AI's limited navigational parameters, the main issue was that the AI was often seeing its target (the player) out of its NavMesh, therefore switching to range attack (rock throwing); however, in such a small space, it had a hard time finding the right position to perform those attacks, becoming a sitting duck for the player (even worse, sometimes it kept doing range attacks even though it was constantly missing its target). We tried a simple script to force the AI to move to specific locations whenever the player would step into areas that had caused the AI to "act up"; nonetheless, there are still exploits you can use to win the fight.

    Another major design problem was level readability. The dock is lit by lampposts and spotlights, but there are still too many dark spots in the area. On the ground level, the tall vegetation makes it difficult for the player to aim properly at enemies, while on the higher ground crossbowmen are hardly visible against the rocky background.

    For the same reasons, the player would also miss a lot of the materials and items scattered across the arena, especially the ones needed to craft molotovs, and loots from the dead crossbowmen. So, even if the area itself provides a good number of resources and ammunition, players are probably going to either miss or waste them, due to bad readability.

    The result is that most of the players feel like they do not have enough "firepower" to use against the level boss, especially after spending lots of their resources to kill the other enemies in the arena.

    Furthermore, damage balancing was a bit off. Molotovs do not feel powerful enough against the boss, despite the effort required to craft one (gather the materials, reach the fuel source, etc.). The boss's HP amount might also feel a bit overwhelming, especially if you aim your bolts at the body, causing a damage that is only 1/25 of his total HP (headshots are 4 times more effective, but they are easy to miss).

    (Click to enlarge) View of the "No Escape" level.

    Final Thoughts

    My biggest regret about the Prologue is that we did not manage to properly polish the game due to limited time and resources. Even though the game was generally well-received when it was released, there was recurring criticism about some specific design issues:

    1) The boss fight. In such cases, extensive playtesting is the key to identifying these kinds of issues. To the team (ten people), a couple of external testers, and me, the boss fight did not feel too difficult (some even won on their first try), but you cannot really trust those who know the game too well. And you definitely cannot trust yourself when it comes to difficulty balancing! Ask non-expert players to try your level out and never underestimate the time needed for testing and iterations.

    2) No "stealth kill" option. Since the main game focused more on exploration than on confronting enemies, we did not have a "stealth kill" option at the time. There was a plan to implement it for a while, but we prioritized other features and, in the end, we never added it to the final game. However, in a more action/stealth-oriented game such as the Prologue, you can feel that something is missing. I tried to compensate for the lack of this feature by encouraging the use of the crossbow as a stealthy weapon, but why waste bolts when you could sneak up on enemies and - say - cut their throat? The protagonist is a well-trained field agent, after all. It was not simply the lack of a gameplay feature, but its absence felt wrong from a narrative standpoint, too.

    3) "Random" checkpoints. In the main game, you can manually save at campfires (or anytime by crafting one); it fits the setting, since you are on your own to survive on a hostile island. The Prologue is different: the events take place in the last few minutes of a desperate attempt to flee the island. Using a campfire would make no sense. Since implementing a new save system only for the Prologue would have taken too much time, we decided to use checkpoints: the game would automatically save the first time the player enters a trigger volume.

    I placed these volumes in what I thought to be key moments of the level, but they proved to not be enough. Many players complained about the arbitrary location of the checkpoints, lamenting about losing significant parts of their game.

    In retrospect, I probably could have used a slightly modified version of our consumable "campfire" item, mostly using the same logic, but with an "unlimited use"; players could have selected it from the inventory (or the quick slots), triggering a quick save any time during the game. I could have renamed the item "Lucky Charm" and used it as further characterization of the main character (once again, turning a design problem into an opportunity).


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