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

    - Daniele Mascagna

  • ACT I "The Sewers" - Tutorial Level

    Since the Prologue was a stand-alone game meant to be released for free (potentially reaching different kinds of players), we needed a level to introduce the mechanics of the game in a safe environment. I made a full list of these mechanics and ordered them by difficulty (some mechanics, like "jumping", were repeated multiple times on the list, in order for the player to practice them in an increasing level of challenge).

    The idea of setting the tutorial inside a sewer system was convenient for two main reasons: 1) I could design each room for a specific purpose, and then order and easily connect them through tunnels, 2) we already had a modular kit for sewers.

    The downside was that there was a high risk for the level to feel too linear and dull (a common problem in tutorials, anyway). To mitigate the infamous "string of pearls" structure, I gave myself some additional "rules":

    • Give each room a unique look.
    • Do not make it longer than strictly needed.
    • Add small emotional twists along the way.

    To fulfill the first one, I tried to characterize the spaces with different shapes and architectures (e.g. high-ceiling rooms vs. claustrophobic spaces), players' movements (twists and turns, ups and downs), perspectives (top-down vs. bottom-up), lighting (dark vs. light, warm vs. cold) and set dressing (draining rooms, personnel rooms, storage rooms, etc.).

    As for the small emotional twists, I used a few tricks and (again) "gaps" to keep the player vigilant despite the linearity of the tutorial. Some examples:

    • The room design and lighting lure you to a gate, but it is closed; turning back, you notice a drainage tunnel to crawl into (the so-called "bait-and-switch").
    • In the silence of the sewers, you hear a man crying; he is trapped in a small, inaccessible room at the end of a long tunnel. You cannot help him (this is actually a setup for a payoff in the main game; the inaccessible room can be visited in Die Young).
    • There is a message for Nehir (the player) left by her partner: a map picturing an exit route from the sewers, and a lighthouse. You are on the right track, after all!
    • You find the exit door marked on the map, but it is blocked. Something must have happened to your partner. You must take a detour to an unmapped section of the sewer and find a new exit route.
    • Walking down a slope, you enter a long, narrow tunnel; at the end of it, a silent human-shaped silhouette is blocking the way (you can face or avoid him using a small tunnel on the side).

    With the addition of these little twists, the level should feel less linear and predictable. I tried to space these beats evenly throughout the level, alternating tension and relief, pacing them along the increasing difficulty curve of the new mechanics. It was also important to insert in-between spaces where no action or events take place. These "silent beats" serve to:

    • Provide time for the player to process an emotional beat (e.g. after leaving the crying man behind).
    • Give the player resting time after a difficult task (e.g. after the advanced climbing section).
    • Create a relaxed and confident feeling before an unexpected twist (e.g. before seeing the dark silhouette blocking your way).

    Finally, I arranged a couple of rooms to allow the player to take a peek at future sections of the same level, in hopes of conveying the feeling of a structurally consistent gamespace.

    (Click to enlarge)

    The level ends with you reaching the exit tunnel, showing a vista of a lighthouse (the same as drawn on the map). You now enter the "Harbor" level.

    ACT II "The Harbor" - Main Level

    Just like I did for the entire Prologue, for this level too I decided to adopt a three-part structure (to not confuse the two, here I will use the "Setup / Confrontation / Resolution" definitions). It is worth noting that the three-part structure can work as a fractal: from story to acts, all the way down to single beats (however, using this structure recursively might lead to predictability, so I would advise to use it prudently).

    SETUP. This part is set in a natural environment between the exit of the sewers and the harbor entrance. It has three purposes:
    1) Setting up the main objective.
    2) Offering a vantage point over the next section.
    3) Introducing stealth mechanics.

    The first one is immediately addressed as the player reaches the end of the sewers: the last tunnel frames a lighthouse standing on a cliff with a distinctive natural hole in the rock. I thought it would be the perfect landmark: the lighthouse would be visible virtually from any point of the harbor, while the hole in the cliff grabs the eye and invites the player to go through it.

    The vantage point was trickier. I wanted the player to have the best strategic view over the next area, so I raised the landscape on the left, modeling a slope. The problem now was to push the player to get there first, before proceeding to the harbor. I tried different approaches to catch the player's attention: a lone tree, "breadcrumbs" (pickups), a swarm of fireflies... nothing seemed to be working in playtesting. Only much later, while I was working on the harbor area, I got the (macabre) idea of a pile of burning bodies; which not only did the trick (a fire has all you need to grab the eye: lightmovement, and contrast) but also fit and enriched the story background. Oftentimes, design problems are great opportunities to improve your work!

    (Click to enlarge)

    The landmark is inspired by the "pierced cliff" (Sa Foradada) in Majorca, Spain.

    Once the player reaches the burning pile, surveying the harbor from the vantage point is almost inevitable. I put a lot of effort into that vista. I wanted it to be as readable as possible, offering the player the chance to plan a strategy from the start, evaluate different objectives, routes, possibilities, obstacles. While blocking out the harbor area, a camera view from the vantage point helped me to keep an eye on the composition.

    (Click to enlarge)

    The vantage point offers a nice view of the harbor, suggesting short and long-term objectives. While most of the area and main structures are readable and not overlapping, I purposely hid one of them (the Fuel Tanks area) to save it for a future emotional beat.

    Finally, I used the wide space preceding the guarded gate of the port to introduce stealth mechanics. Tall grass and a few low props were arranged to get the player to crouch and hide among the bushes, reach the enemy from one side, and distract him with a rock.


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