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.

the beginning of level 5 drops you right in the middle of a difficult situation. the starting elevator (point 1, in pink near the green arrow in the map below) is on a little panneled island that sits in the middle of a cross-shaped room. from your view (shown in the screenshot above), all that can be seen is a guard moving to the right of the screen and then two doors - one to the left, marked by a plant, and one to the right that is set back to create a little alcove. most players, like one in the video here, will immediately shoot the guard. his surprising result is the yelps from several other guards who are right behind him. not knowing how to manage the situation, some players (again like the one in the video) will panic and stay put in the same place and hope the guards come towards them.

as seen there, it's not safe because guards can come from either side to shoot at you without you seeing them. other players might try to whip around and run straight into the fray, shooting all of the guards, but it's very difficult to pull off without getting hit several times.

the best solution is to run into the alcove for the door on the right and then turn around. the alcove gives you a long enough buffer to where guards can't hit you from the sides, so you can safely pick them off once they enter your field of view. you can see this done on the second attempt in the video at 1:51.

before i talk about one other section of the level: the silver key area, i'd like to mention how quickly the player in the video picked up what he was supposed to do. he knew that he had only 8 bullets and the slow-firing pistol, so he knew he had to find a way to manage the situation. this guy shows that's he's probably a person who plays games, because he understood very quickly how to manage the situation based on the memory of his failed first attempt. i don't need to point this out all of the time, but this a great example of games as a language - of acting based on the systems of the game and the information you're provided with. here is an example of a complex situation, in a genre that is often seen as stupid. there's a degree of intelligence that goes into understanding and making it through a games like this, one that most people probably ignore because it happens so instantaneously.

this map has many other areas worth mentioning, but the silver key area is its heart. the first part of this area is inside the door on the left of the player's view at the start of the level. the room's shape is essentially a rectangle with two wooden islands in the middle, which are patrolled by dogs, and several tentacle-like passages that all lead to alcoves with doors at the end. you enter from on the top left corner of the room (point 2), and most of the tentacle-like passages are on the opposite side, bottom-right-ish, though there is one on the top right (point 3). once you enter that door (which you can see the player doing at 4:15 in the video) you see a couple dogs running in the distance. dogs in wolfenstein are fast but easily dealt with from a distance, so you can wait for all of them to run towards you and take them out one by one, as he does in the video. once you move further, you'll encounter a single hidden guard, tucked away in alcove close to where you entered. it's a surprise, but pretty easily dealt with. 

further exploration of this room lets you know exactly what you're up against, which you can see in the player comment on at 4:30 in the video. though the layout looks fairly simple from the map, the fact that the two islands look the same as the outer walls means that there's no way to tell where they end without exploring every bit of the room. the tentacle-passages just add to this unease, because there's no way to know what they might lead to. this is confirmed when, upon further exploration, you find no other guards tucked away like the one you dealt with before, only doors at the end of every single passage. given how big the room is, and how empty it was of enemies (at least on all but the hardest difficulty, which stupidly puts two officers in that room), if you're observant, you might correctly guess that this is foreshadowing a very difficult situation. but there is one seemingly safer option, an alcove on the top right corner of the room, that looks like it might lead somewhere else (3 on the map, the player takes it at 4:35 in the video). 

in reality, in a very confusing layout not often utilized in the game, all doors lead to the same place. that place is a room with 6 entrances that contains the silver key (bottom right of the map), but is stuffed with too many guards to try to take on at once. the many alcoves and doors mean that the guards, once alerted, have several different ways to walk around and shoot you from behind or to your side. in the second video below, you can see the player forget how to deal with a situation he's been through a couple of times before. instead of going down the upper right alcove he did at 4:35 in the first video, he tries to take it head on by going through the last of one of the three tentacle-passages leading to doors.

this is a more direct route, and he has plenty of ammo and health to handle the situation. he's able to take out a lot of guards but he doesn't count on any pursuing him to his side, which is exactly what happens. he manages to get out of the situation with very little health and ammo only by some luck and retreating back to point 2.

meanwhile, in the first video, the upper right door he enters leads to the same situation. but because the area he entered creates a larger buffer between him and the guards, it's a little more manageable. though it's still possible, he at least has more time to wait for guards to filter down the path in his view at 4:49 and pick them off one by one before being pursued from behind. 

of course, the confusing layout means that not all guards will filter down - some will enter whichever one of the many entrance doors is closest to him in an effort to pursue him. but at least if they come from behind, he has an easier path to the key - and the health, that lies in the center of the room. he veers from that and takes kind of a dumb risk at 5:09, which allows and officer to move in on his right side, but he's at least able to take the guard out and make a successful run for the health and key.

this scenario provides no easy method for dealing with it, but there are at least more manageable ways. here we can see how the same player puts himself into a bind by not remembering his previous path and running headfirst into a situation he's been through before, whereas the first time through he reads the visual cues better and approaches it more cautiously. this is definitely a level that demands you treat it with respect, and the situation you're put in is pretty far from the kind of easy, gun-blazing empowerment fantasy that fps games can be seen as.

here we can also see a player who says at :30 of the first video, probably having played many RPGs before, that he wishes he could interact with people who tell him where to go. that comment alone brings to attention how different Wolf 3D is from most other games. in many ways i think the game has gained back some of the mystery it had when first released. Wolfenstein 3D's story is only the experience you have with the game, not an interactive narrative. there are no hints or tutorials: everything that's been placed in the level is just there, and you have to learn, as a player, how to deal with it with the tools you have. never does it feel like the game is just pushing you through a scene to further story. not that i'm against interactive narratives. but the mystery makes the experience more powerful, and memorable, at least to me. i mean, why else would i still be thinking about a level i first played probably 18 years ago?


  1. I also noticed that Wolf3D has a very different feel from follow-up FPS games. It plays faster, with a higher average enemy count, and aiming and movement ability aren't given strong emphasis like in Doom and Quake, perhaps in part because the controls are less mature.

    Instead, a lot of the depth centers around subtle tactical decisions like the ones the player has to apply in this level. Attracting the attention of guards is of huge importance - with this level, most of the puzzles can be solved by opening the "correct" door (one without direct visibility), firing a shot and then backpedaling until a safe funnelling spot is reached. When the player is set up properly, there's little skill to shooting in Wolf3D.

    In comparison, it rarely meant much to get the attention of monsters in Doom, except in very specific situations. You usually had to confront them directly. The occasions where something more interesting happened(e.g. monsters fighting each other) were pretty exceptional.

    Even the modern military shooters tend to feel more like Doom than like Wolf3D; targets appear, you take cover, and then step out and pick them off at your leisure. The high pressure of having enemies "lurk" is often completely missing, and the pace is typically a lot slower with more "follow-through" needed to dispatch each enemy.

  2. good thoughts, Triplefox! i agree that wolf3d is a much slower game. the guards can patrol, and they move way more actively around the level than the comparatively dumb grunts in DOOM. it almost makes it feel like a stealth game, which was the original intent (because the original Wolfenstein games were stealth). also the lack of any or height variation of the engine means that the player has to be more active in remembering the correct routes in the levels. it also makes the player never completely feel in a position of power, because guards come towards you less predictably.

    in actuality i think a lot of this unpredictability comes from a pretty serious a AI bug/feature in the game - once alerted, guards will follow the shortest path from them to you on a map, even if there's a wall in between. so they can either get stuck clumped up in groups, or they open whatever door is closest to them, even if it's a locked door. the silver key area of episode 5 level 5 definitely is designed to play to the behavior of the guards. you can also use this knowledge to maneuver guards into opening locked doors for you. i generally don't intentionally do that unless i'm speedrunning, though, because it ruins the feel of the game. but oftentimes it happens anyway, which adds somewhat to the flavor of mystery surrounding the guards.

  3. Came here via the Radiator Blog; fantastic analysis and really makes me wish there was more writing like this out there. Feeling pretty inspired right now.

  4. glad i could inspire you, Malefact!

    1. Hey! So, finally about a year after the initial impulse, I wrote an piece inspired by your style on Metroid Prime. I noticed that Bill tweeted you the article already, but I wanted to say directly: thank you. I wouldn't have been able to write it without the work you put in & your model of criticism to draw on.


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