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.

i know the map screen is far removed from what the game looks like that it's hard to tell, but hopefully you can get a good enough idea. as you can see from the map (aside from my poorly written numbers), level 3 looks pretty inconspicuous, layout-wise. the setting is also pretty apparent from playing the level: it's some kind of fancy dining hall for the soldiers. most of the level is surrounded by a red brick texture (that looks orange-ish brown here for some reason), except for a grey stone maze at the bottom, starting at point 8. 

the actual path required to beat the level is pretty short and not very difficult. the only tricky situation is probably the brightly-lit exit area, entered through the door at point 7b (entered at 6:21 of the video below), that requires some maneuvering to get the guards out of hiding. 

you can easily retreat back into the hall leading up to part with the guards alcoves and pick them off. though if you die and have to restart with the pistol, there are few opportunities to get back the machine gun, making for a potentially more difficult situation.

the real heart of the level lies in areas you're not required to go to. and depending on where you start and what areas you go to first, your impression of the level might be completely different.

you start with the above view (point 1 on the map) in a square-shaped room decorated by plants, with a wood-paneled island partly obstructing a few moving guards in the distance and two exits (points 2 and 3). whichever door you take will eventually connect up to the same place, but let's say you take the door the player chooses here, at point 3 (0:09 of the video):

inside is a large room with bunch of ammo and health. that the beginning of the room is so generous with health and the end of the room isn't in sight, it's likely that there's something pretty formidable ahead. the layout, with the armored suits and steel paneled announcements, are a very effective foreshadowing - or at least they would be if you even had to go into this area to beat the level! instead, there is a door tucked away to the right of the entrance, near point 4, that the player in the video opts to take at 32 seconds. once through the door, instead of entering the corridor at point 4, he somewhat miraculously moves down the long path to the left and stumbles upon the area with the key.

the gold key is tucked away in a pretty non-descript windy path that forms a circle around an island with two entrances. this room contains the gold key (point 5). it's somewhat well guarded, but because there are two entrances, half the guards will be facing the opposite direction you're facing, leading to an awkwardly easy encounter.

the structure of the room really has to be intentional: if there was only one entrance, or the guards weren't standing at off-angles from the door, or you couldn't see the guard just standing there when you enter (all of which are done many times in the game), then the area would be more difficult.

with the key in hand, many players might read the signs and try to go back to the large room, thinking that it might lead to a locked door or another key. instead, at 2:11 the player enters the room at point 4, screenshotted below to capture the absurdity:

the room is a one-unit square surrounded on all sides by doors. because it's only one-unit big, no other wall textures can be seen. this room doesn't reappear anywhere else in the game. it makes the room an anomaly, like some kind of disorienting light blue hall-of-mirrors. it's also threatening (which the player in the video comments on) because the lack of landmarks means it's difficult to tell where you entered from. in actuality it's a very easy room to make in the wolfenstein engine, but must have been avoided intentionally for how both how confusing it is and perplexing it looks. the absurdity continues if you enter the rooms either to the left or straight ahead, which both appear to be random storage rooms that contain equal or greater amounts of guards much less awkwardly placed than in the key area.

for the sake of convenience, here's another look at the map. the player in the video either remembers this level, or makes yet another lucky choice when he picks the door to the right. from where he enters on the side of room 4, two of the doors are just more storage rooms, with ammo, health, and a guard or two. one is the door at point 2, which in a confusing circle leads back to the beginning room. the last, immediately to his left, leads to a T-shaped hall that ends on either side of the T with rooms 7 and 7b. 7b, on the left, is the gold key door that i mentioned previously, and leads straight to the exit. he has the right key, and doesn't need to enter room 7 at all.

he opts to go through 7 anyway (at 2:55), i guess looking for secrets. instead, he finds the silver key! this room, pictured at the very beginning of this article, is covered by a grid of lights, a dreamlike pattern that also never reappears in the game. despite not actually emitting any light, they seem to burn down on the player, suggesting something troubling. that is indeed the case, as several officers are tucked away in alcoves at the side the player enters and come running the moment the key is picked up.

this would be an interesting area in itself, but the most peculiar thing about it is that you're given a dummy key. the game is not just mocking you for thinking that a key that you just picked up directly across the way would be the correct one to open the locked door. other levels at least give you a key to a door buried in some secret. yet this is the one and only level where you're given an item that is entirely fucking useless. adding to the strangeness is the fact that the first demo of in the original registered version of Wolf 3D had an attempt of this level where the player immediately ran towards this particular room to pick up the silver key.

the mystery of this room is hard to put into words. the strange grid of bright lights almost makes it seem completely detached from the rest of the level, like it only existed in BJ's (your character's) dream. but the room surrounded by four doors has a similar feeling of odd disconnection too. the grey stone area the game graciously gives you the choice to enter immediately across from the exit at point 8 also (which i will not go into) seems similarly disconnected from the rest of the level.

(sorry for the crappy quality of this screenshot) 
and then there's the matter of the room leading up to point 6, which i've ignored until now. this area really feels like it should be the centerpiece of the level. at the end of a huge, conspicuously quiet high-class area that's building you up for something big, there is indeed a confrontation of huge group of guards at the end that the game prepares you for. you bust in, an unwelcome guest to their dinner plans - yet they seem distracted by their own pleasure, and not aware of the things that are going on in the rest of the level. but sadly, there's nothing much at the end. maybe some treasure, and a somewhat obscure secret tucked away from the main area, but no key. here the game very intentionally ratchets up the anticipation and then pulls the rug out from under you by hiding the key relatively unannounced, tucked away from the action. this area seems like it was supposed to be waiting for you to come, but in reality it was just some dinner party that you came in and crashed awkwardly. maybe they weren't all waiting for you. maybe the game doesn't revolve around you.

this peculiar scene typifies the experience of the whole level, one which might seem kind of unremarkable on the surface in the larger context of the game. in the past i'd always have flashes of memory of this level coming in at the most random times in my life - and i would, without fail, remember events happening far differently from how they actually happened in the game. all of the memorable scenes here i'd assign to more far-out parts later in the game, thinking that there was no possible way that they could all fit together in one map. the stranger thing is that, looking at it now, the dining hall/storage area setting seems to make a lot sense thematically, in fact way more than most of the other levels in the game. from looking at the map, the layout also seems to fit together quite logically. but the parts still feel very disconnected from each other, like some kind of dream-logic reconstruction of previous maps in the game. 

so here we have a map that seems to be both perfectly logical and perfectly illogical at the same time. what it could be communicating is a complete mystery to me. it may not be worth trying to analyze its "story" seriously. but at the very least, i hope this kind of analysis can reveal some of what's hidden under the surface - the unspoken, inexpressible "ghost in the machine" of these levels, and show how level design can suggest much more nuanced feelings than just a set of instructions on how to beat the game to the player.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is by far the most lyrical and creative thing i've ever heard someone say about a plain old FPS level. I bet You could come up with a poem about the inner mechanics of Wolfenstein. I also remember a lot of things and level parts from the game, so maybe there is something to it after all. Thanks for this awesome post!


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