Friday, April 27, 2012

adventures in level design - Wolfenstein 3D, episode 4, level 3

episode 4, "A Dark Secret", is the first episode of the "Nocturnal Missions" (d'ya get the pun? eh? eh?). unlike all of the other episodes, it has no easily distinguishable features. a couple of new walls are introduced, but only one of them (a weird light brown stone/cave wall with lots of blood splatters) is used more than once. it may seem mundane to mention the variation in wall textures. they're such a huge part of what defines the feel of the game, though, that their impact can't really be understated. the brown wall, especially, contributes strongly to the feel of an episode. still, i couldn't easily sum up what this episode is about, or how exactly all the levels are tied together.

i intially ignored episode 4 because of the relatively uninviting first level. after a pretty entrance room, it wastes no time in plunging you into a series of bland winding passages to get the gold key and exit. the mazes are short, but they seem to already put you in a couple agonizingly claustrophobic situations. looking at the level now, the way both of those passages are introduced with bright lights seems almost too perfectly surreal. at the time i didn't like that feeling, so i guessed that it must be representative of what was to come. in a way, i was right, but the episode also makes many so left turns and breaks design taboos the game went to a lot of effort to previously establish that it's impossible to categorize. this is where you can see Tom Hall, the designer of all of episode 4 (and a majority of the Wolfenstein's maps in general), starting to shift away from trying to make realistic-feeling environments, and move towards a kind of a surreal farce on his previous realistic levels. many odd chances are taken, design-wise, and some work much more effectively than others. the effect this has on you as a player is definitely disorienting. though looking back, i think having the rug constantly pulled out from under you makes this episode a lot more representative a depiction of the fevered, all-encompassing cruelty of the Nazi regime than previous ones. Brenda Brathwaite, when she absurdly quipped off-the cuff that Wolfenstein was about the Holocaust in a talk in her "One Falls For Each Of Us" series, might actually have been onto something.

here i think it would be easy to dismiss some of the design decisions made in the later part of this game as poorly thought-out relics of an older style of game design. that seems to be a dominant philosophy in a lot of game design theory, and one that i'm trying my best to stay as far away from as humanly possible. certainly fairness is very important if you want the player to feel in control of a situation. Wolf 3D even does this to an extent by letting you save at any point in any level and giving you the choice opt out of a particular episode you don't like and choose to play another one. those may not seem like much now, but at the time being able to save anywhere was a luxury. more importantly, though, suggesting that all design must follow an established set of rules of "fairness" to the player would completely ignore its power to communicate more abstract, complex feelings than just how to reach the exit. what may look like a design troll on the surface often has a much more complicated effect on the player. this level contributes to that idea in just a few bits of surreal imagery.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

adventures in level design: Wolfenstein 3D, episode 5, level 5

one of the things i've always enjoyed about first person games is that you're stuck with tunnel vision. it's pretty damn cruel, being forced to move forward without ever really knowing what might be coming to hurt you. most 2d games there's a great deal of information on the screen at one time that you can use make a decision. in first person the world beyond what is immediately in your view might as well not exist. playing is a process of exploring and reacting to each situation as it comes, never knowing what lies beyond until often it's too late to get out of a bad situation. the suspense created by the threat of near-instant death at any turn is a lot of what makes a Wolfenstein 3D a good game. unless you know the levels by heart, you need to play very cautiously and take few chances.

Wolfenstein 3D, design-wise, is very puzzling. there is very little consistency across episodes, even level-to-level. the only accurate statement i could make about the design is that the odd-numbered episodes (1, 3, 5) generally are pretty internally consistent, while the even-numbered episodes (2, 4, 6) are all over the place. i have no idea why this is the case. you could say that id was strapped for time to come up with 60 levels, which is probably true. but i prefer to think of it as Tom Hall and John Romero (Hall in particular) being so excited about the amount of possibilities afforded by a completely new style of game that they couldn't possibly limit themselves to a small set of ideas. and that's a big reason why i still love Wolfenstein - the design completely eludes categorization. playing through the game, there's an unspoken mystery to it that, even 20+ years later, has never worn away.

i want to look at more levels from the game in the future, but the one i want to examine right now lies right in the middle of episode 5 ("Trail of the Madman"), the only episode in the game entirely by John Romero. Romero is probably most known as a designer for his "tech base" levels on the first (and shareware) episode of DOOM, "Knee Deep In The Dead". those had their own sort of beautifully consistent aesthetic, with a lingering feeling of otherworldliness. episode 5 is Wolf3D's closest analog to that sort of design, even if the settings are completely different. the levels are short-to-average length, often hard but still fair, and have generally less labrynthine layouts than the other episodes in the "Nocturnal Missions" (episodes 4 thru 6). they tend to focus on pretty simple, but oftentimes hairy, scenarios.