Wednesday, May 2, 2012

adventures in level design: Wolfenstein 3D, episode 4, level 5

"atmospheric" is a popular staple word of the gamer vocabulary. i have seen it in so many magazines and websites over the years that it seem like it's ceased to have an actual meaning. i only imagine it being sincerely used now as an item on some checklist game companies have, like "necessary features to add before shipping". a buzzword, if you wanna call it that.

i feel like we've come to a point where the popular understanding of what that word means, among game designers, is making an environment evoke emotion by adding a lot of manipulative, gimmicky features into the game. this is very far from the "atmosphere" of a Silent Hill 2, or Ico, which is part of the core of those two games.

so i'll just compromise and say that "atmosphere" is the word that gamers use when they want to describe anything in the feel of a game that fits outside the gameplay mechanics. that's an awfully all-encompassing term, but i think it has stayed that way because explaining all the ways an environment can affect a player is an impossible task. not to mention that there's so little critical vocabulary for games, and so few people who are even interested in looking at these things in any detail.

with that in mind, i couldn't write an entry about level 3 of episode 4 ("A Dark Secret") without doing one about level 5. this is the only level to make me cry out of utter betrayal. after looking through it again, i'm convinced that it's the closest thing the game has to a masterpiece. it's probably one of the best levels i'll ever write about, anyway. i say this despite it being totally manipulative and unfair. this is not unfairness in the sense that Kaizo Mario World, or I Wanna Be The Guy, or "challenge" levels are unfair. it's much more deeply unfair, because it breaks rules that the game previously lets on will never be broken. it gives you ample resources to beat it, like any other level, and just doesn't let you. it's like it's saying, go back to the fucking Kill Hitler episode to feel good about yourself, cause you're obviously not ready to deal with what's going on here.

this is the level that planted the thought in my head, many years ago, that maybe some levels are just meant to be impossible. maybe they're just there, floating in space, not ever meaning to have a solution. that carried over into my experiences with DOOM. i had a friend in school laugh at me because i told him certain DOOM levels were supposed to be impossible. he said "why would the levels exist if you couldn't beat them?" he may have been right, but i still don't believe him.

the idea of an "impossible level", one that exists for mysterious reasons and never lets you beat it is ultimately a reason why i'm interested in game design as a thing. i'm so deeply angered by the idea, and that's why i find it fascinating. i'm going to go out on a limb and say that this is probably the level that inspired the careers of many game designers, at least if we're going by amount of keyboards smashed.

here we go. level five. this level was done by Tom Hall, who did all of episode four. all of the strange things that seem possibly just incidental in the previous four levels actually come to fruition here. like level three, the setting seems to make sense on the surface. it's some cavern used for storage and some pretty gnarly torture that connects up to part of a castle. there's a rare balance between the atmosphere and a logic to the progression, of throwing tricks at the player, but then providing a way out that actually makes some kind of sense.

it still feels very dreamlike. part of the credit for that has to go to the brown cave texture that covers most of the level, which i mentioned in the previous entry. i have never figured out what exactly it is supposed to represent. it has a hazy, indefinite quality to it. while this texture is used on several occasions in the game, it's probably most strongly associated, at least for me, with this level.

i was gonna use one of the maps posted online, but i figured i could make it a little more readable from a screenshot of Mapedit (an old DOS wolfenstein editor). i've disabled floor codes, which tell the game how to alert guards. i'll explain those in more detail in a later entry, but that's why the background for all the rooms are black on this map. you start at the very top left of, at point 1. your initial view looks like this:

there are a lot of things to say here. the bright lines of lights, somewhat similar to the dummy key area in level three, are back (though not in a pattern quite as absurd.) the lights appear to be shining in rows on things tucked away in alcoves that you can't see from the intial view. 

moving further ahead reveals them to be a group of eight hanging skeletons. why are all these lights shining on long-dead people, in a room the looks abandoned? if you were going to torture people, wouldn't you leave them in the dark? maybe these people were being used for scientific experiments, like the mutants in episode two. but then why would they leave the lights on a bunch of skeletons, if there's no one around? 

there are a lot of lights around for a cave-themed level, usually shining in odd places, like directly on doors and walls. most levels have their lights placed pretty logically - in the middle of rooms. you could say that you're supposed to be in a dark cave with more winding, unstable architecture so the lights are directing the soldiers where the doors are. but that doesn't completely make sense, because nearly all areas that you walk through in the game are indoors, and most put their lights in logical places. if they do put them in odd places, it's usually some kind of visual cue to the player, like to direct the player forward, or show a secret. here that's not the case. following where the lights are shining won't help you figure out how to navigate the level, and none of the secrets in this map have lights shining on them either. not to mention there's a place like 1b, where there's a wall with a light shining on it that doesn't do anything.

not completely satisfied that this level was that exceptional light-wise, i found an area off the main path in the previous level that has a similarly lit cave area. and after this point in the game, lights on doors start to appear more and more in the map design, though mostly confined to next two levels and episode six, and never exactly in the same frequency as in this level. Tom Hall, judging by his levels, seems to have a particular fondness for odd light patterns. there's one level, level eight of this episode, where you can see the lights form a giant swastika, for example.

we're veering away from the subject at hand, though. another thing you'll surely notice is the blood splatter on the wall to the left. i've moved in slightly closer to get a better view:

 this whole level might as well be one big blood splatter. in a culture that's dominated by images of over-the-top gore, it might be hard to explain why this seems so worthy of mention. whenever the game uses this cave texture, there's nearly always an absurd amount of blood on the walls. it never really makes sense to me how the blood is used - it's just splattered indiscriminately all over every level that has this wall. not all of these levels have the same feel, either. some surround areas that feel much more settled spaces for the soldiers. whose blood is all of this? are these all from medical experiments? why would they just leave all that blood splattered over the wall? or is it from the Nazi's themselves? the above blood stains looks like the blood is flowing from the top of the wall along the rocks to the bottom. there's also this stain:

it looks like there are some guts, or maybe brains stuck to the wall, and then two splatters in hand shapes. maybe someone got their brains blown out on this wall? are they the brains or guts of a prisoner eaten by nearby dogs? or even another Nazi soldier who didn't follow orders? i find this more disturbing than the over the top violence in DOOM because of how the guards who normally occupy much more pleasant castle areas still just casually stroll by these blood-splattered walls all the time, like it's a typical day for them.

in lieu of other explanations, i tend to think of the blood as the blood flowing out of the elevator in Kubrick's film version of The Shining - it's not meant to be taken literally, but more as an abstract symbol of brutality. the idea that this game is suddenly throwing ultraviolent imagery at you in the middle of an episode is rather strange, though it is hinted at the end of level 1 and a side-area in level 4. this just adds to the dreamlike aura that surrounds this level. is this level, or this episode, some kind of nightmare? is this level the "Dark Secret"?

it may seem completely far-fetched to pursue all this analysis until you realize that Wolfenstein 3D is a game, based around real historical events, that lets one man come into several German castles and obliterate seemigly the entire Nazi army and then, in search of health, come upon what appears to be a prisoner's cell containing a fresh plate of turkey dinner just sitting there on the floor, right next to a hanging skeleton, a pool of blood, a potted plant, and a golden cross. your character can also carry an infinite amount of treasure, and a glowing orb with your face on it also gives you an "extra" life. this is a clearly surreal, "videogamey" game by design, and definitely not in the same vein as the original apple II Wolfenstein games. whether the cartooniness is more a matter of technical restraints, old videogame conventions, or an intentional creative decision could be argued about into eternity. i maintain that despite the limitations, they could have made a more realistic feeling game and they deliberately chose not to.

moving on, this memorable entrance area hooks around into a claustrophobic passage with a bunch of obstructions that is swarming with dogs. the effect is a bit terrifying, because of how jarring a change this is from the previous level.

to add another unnecessary film analogy in: the swarming dogs are like the pile of insects beneath the ground in the intro to Blue Velvet, the horrific and grotesque chaos that lies underneath the seemingly controlled surface. the obstructions in the layout that make a fairly simple area seem much more complicated also add to your panic, because it allows the dogs to be a greater threat to you: you can't easily take care of them from a distance all at once, and they can creep up from several different places, including behind you. although, as usual, you can move back a bit and wait for them to filter in, and then stab them with the knife, like the player does at 10:12

it's a really brilliant use of the dogs as enemies, in addition to being a disturbing situation.

at the end of the arduous first room is a door with a light above it, within an alcove to the left. the player enters it at 1:26

this connects you to the cross-shaped hall at area 1b. there are two choices: directly across from where you entered or to the left. the player chooses directly across, which leads to a small room with some guards and ammo, and then a room shaped like a crooked "O" with only a few dogs in it and a lot of dog food strewn about. this room is a peculiar mirror of the first dog room. why is there so much dog food and so few dogs in this room, when the other room was swarming with dogs and there was no food in sight? even more strangely, there are no dogs anywhere else in the level beyond those two rooms. they seem to share some kind of relationship to each other, like two different versions of one reality.

at 2:26 the player returns to 1b and takes the other door:

within is large cave-like passage shaped in a V. on the right side of the V there are several officers sitting behind a bunch of bright green oil drums, what the player in the video very eloquently refers to as an "Al Quaeda bunker". the left side is narrower, and contains two doors, one leading to 2a, and the other at 3a. i like the shape of this room, particularly the bunker marked by the oil drums. rooms that are this large and yet so formless are pretty rare in the game. you can hear the officers in that part yelp upon entering, then you can just see a few officers once peeking out a little more, but you don't know how big or dangerous the area might be. you can choose to skip it entirely and let the officers run around, panicked, on their own.

here's another look at the map. the oil drum area (right below 3a) seems like it must be significant. usually when that many enemies are hidden in plain sight behind obstructions, it's an indicator of that area's importance. in reality it's just two rooms that lead nowhere, and can be entirely skipped. but there's a life to that area that's very illustrative - it indicates a world beyond the level, where the officers might take refuge. i kept remembering that part when i was young, feeling that it was of some importance to my experience even though it was ostensibly just some kind of storage area. credit its framing to Tom Hall, who used the layout to make what could easily be a mundane area feel much more exciting.

at 12:15 the player takes care of the guards and enters this area. at 12:33 he figures out the obvious secret door, marked by pots and pans. i like this secret because it's kind of lighthearted, and the game is often marred by random, unpredictable secrets. it's nice to have one so obviously telegraphed, for once. it's almost even not a secret, more of an extension of the environment. while the content of the secret isn't really exciting (just ammo), it is exciting to be able to access a previously blocked off area at all.

getting back on track, the areas of importance are the doors to 3a and 2a. 2a leads to the blue key. 3a leads to the rest of the level. the player chooses the long path through 3a, which results in him inevitably backtracking to 2a. let's talk about 2a first.

the player enters 2a above. there are seven seperate alcoves with the doors set back fairly far that each lead to different rooms. setting the doors back makes what could be a mundane hub room much more confusing, because you can't see any of doors until you reach the end of each passage. it makes the player expect the situation to be very difficult. thwarting expectations, most of rooms are just small rooms that contain health, ammo, or maybe a few guards. i guess this is partly for fairness' sake, because of the lack of secrets in the level. one of the passages, at the end of the room to the right, is in the shape of a swastika. one contains racks of spears. another one across from that is a bit larger, with similarly formless architecture to the v-shaped room. it seems potentially significant, but just contains health. not much here, beyond a confusing series of rooms.

at 13:40 the player enters the one significant area - the location of the silver key. there are many things that seem off here. behind a wooden island you'll find one to three officers (depending on the difficulty) tucked into a very small space. they'll only react to you if you move towards one of the two doors, to the right or left. upon encountering them, the player in the video speculates about what those two officers might have been doing with each other. it may sound ridiculous, but their placement is odd enough to make one think.

the player enters 2b at 13:52, a square-shaped room which contains several S.S. guards and a disturbing number of cages. most are empty but a few have skeletons. the key is sitting there, by one of the cages. there's also a...sink sitting in the corner, right next to a pool of blood. the cages bring to mind the first room of the level, with its hanging skeletons. except why were there a whole bunch of S.S. guards hanging out in a room with cages? and the sink just makes everything much more disturbing. is it there to wash off the blood?

directly across, to the left of the entrance to this area, is an even stranger room that's entered at 14:05. i've screenshotted it so you can see. in it there a few S.S. guards standing around a bunch of piles of bones on the floor sitting next to some pools of blood and a...stove in the corner. it's amazing how the simple juxtaposition of the gruesome and the everyday makes an environment far more disturbing. in the first episode bones and blood are scattered everywhere, but they're definitely in this particular room for a reason. even in Wolfenstein's cartoony visual representations, it's not hard to tell that people are getting cooked in this room.

i had a Jewish friend tell me recently that he couldn't play Wolfenstein 3D. he had family members in the Holocaust, and he said it hit really close to home. he also found all the ridiculous bones and blood a really inappropriate treatment of a real historical event that happened only fifty years before this game was made. i empathize with him as much as someone who wasn't directly affected possibly can. seeing media that tries to make entertainment out of horrific events that directly affected your relatives is far, far beyond just upsetting.

but i also think that this game, in many ways, doesn't go to any lengths to sugarcoat the subject matter. the visuals may not be that "gritty", but if you were just in nondescript German castles being an American spy, like all the Wolfenstein "sequels" made years later, would that really be an accurate portrayal of the kind of absolute suffering and cruelty the Nazi's unleashed? it may make it more "realistic", but this is a videogame we're talking about - something very abstracted from the real thing, by nature. in that light, don't really cartoony, in-your-face depictions of suffering get at least a little closer to showing what was really happening behind the facade? aren't the constant bloodstains on the wall at least some kind of reminder of the absolute depravity of this world we're visiting? there's an absolute perversity to it that may seem horribly naive, but i actually find kind of profound. and it's not as if this level is even that fun or entertaining, because it isn't! the same goes for much of episode one - it's a truly miserable experience navigating the endless mazes of Castle Wolfenstein.

of course i'm not saying that this game should win any awards for its representation of Nazis. i know that in many ways that this is just a "you're the hero! now go kill the bad guys" pulp action game. you're set up for that by the constant ammo/health/treasure collection, and the episode summaries in the game's readme. but then there are parts strewn about the game which seem to subvert that idea. there's an absurdity to so many environments and situations you're put in. it's easy to forget that you're supposed to be in some German castle, because it starts to feel like some crazy videogame.

this is a valid criticism you could level at the game - that it's way too absurd to feel real. more and more, though, i find it to be a strength. the more a real event recedes into the past, the more it becomes an abstraction to the world. maybe "realistic" depictions of events that happened in the past aren't so real, anyway. maybe abstractions are as best as we have to deal with the truth of events so beyond our scope of understanding. maybe a very "videogamey" level is a much better expression of an emotional truth than one that is constructed "realistically".

here in the video is 3a, the beginning of a surprisingly well-lit maze that serves as a transition between the cave and the castle in the second half of the level. from the map it doesn't look too complicated, but it's so much more confusing in the game.

a long tunnel starting at 3a leads to the area in 3b. there are four islands, three of them with doors each leading to small rooms with health, ammo, treasure, or guards. a couple of them have small tables: one room, off a little ways from the rest, even has a bed tucked in a corner (right next to a bloodstain). the outer walls of the maze also contain a few more passages. the arrow i drew points to the door that opens to another long tunnel, eventually leading to the castle section. the long, winding tunnels that bookend either end of the maze are very dreamlike. it's as if the things in 3b exist outside time. all the doors and lights are like a miniature city, like different little compartments of one's head. the bed especially adds to this imagery.

it's hell, running through all these weird winding passages with endless nauseating cave walls and blood splatters. it's hard to describe just how grating it is until you play it. you really feel like you have absolutely no idea where you're going and that there's no end in sight. it certainly brought me a lot of headaches and frustration, especially for reasons i'll go into later.

3b leads down another long tunnel to 4, where there's an extremely abrupt change in layout to a rectangular castle room with plants and suits of armor. though you haven't gone through any key doors yet, there are two exits here. you may be a little confused but you'll still probably think, "oh thank God, i've finally made it out of this hellhole"

one of the exits is marked by flags. most players will probably assume that either this is the real one, or that they're both real exits. the player in the video, for some reason, checks the exit on the right side of the room first and then comes back to the flagged one later. i guess you can never really predict what a person is going to do when you give them multiple choices, but his approach to this situation makes for some funny youtube:

that's right, there's a barrel sitting right in front of the switch. there's also a barrel and an officer in the other elevator. both exits are fakes. this game is clearly not above pulling a prank on you in the middle of a "normal" (as in, non-secret) level. like the dummy key in 3, it's yet another anomaly in the game that's never repeated, before or after this. it starts to become less and less of a prank, and more just blantantly cruel, the further level wears on.

if you take the path to the left of where you entered 4, it will lead you to 5a, another impressionistic transition room between two major areas. at the end is a few officers and three doors, with lights in front of them. it's really hard to tell what could be coming.

all three doors lead to room 6. you can see the player enter it briefly in the video above (at 5:24). immediately upon entering, you'll hear yelps of several officers, without having any idea where they're coming from. being shot at and not knowing where it's coming from is undoubtably the worst situation to be in in this game. because of the engine, it's often very hard to know where enemies are coming from or where they might approach you. from the map, you can see that 6 is a huge circular room with red brick islands in the middle that's observed on both sides by officers standing behind columns. the officers see you upon entering, and can pursue you at the bottom of the circle, opposite where you entered, through three small, lit alcoves. unfortunately you have no real indication that those alcoves lead to the area behind the columns.

room 6 is very smartly constructed to create a hairy situation for the player. taking care of the officers from behind the columns is very hard, because they can see you from both sides, and there's no place to hide from one where you won't be exposed to the other. it's also difficult because the officers often disappear from behind the columns to run and go pursue you. what usually happens is you'll just try to avoid fire from the officers and go to the bottom of the circle, which leaves you extremely exposed to the fire of pursuing officers from both sides.

the easiest way to deal with this situation might be to just move back and wait for the officers to pursue you, which the player in the video does on accident. there's not a lot of  reason to predict that that will be the best way of dealing with it, though. and they're unpredictable enough to not always pursue you in the same way, though they generally do come after you in this case.

on either side of the room, behind the columns, there are doors. one of them, to the right of where you enter, contains some ammo and more officers. the two entrances allow the officers to enter from two places, a very effective way of creating more tense confrontations with guards that's done often in the game, especially when officers are involved (because of their speed). you can see the player get pretty fucked up by this at 18:53

the other door leads to yet another winding tunnel that ends at 7. this one is much shorter. tunnels seem to signify important areas in this level. it's as if they're connecting different free-associative threads, like tunnels into different parts of the subconscious. there are two locked doors at the end of 7. they require the gold key. the key you have is the silver key. it's a dead end.

these two doors loom ominously over the player. when i was young i never saw the other side of them. they remained a mystery for years. i just couldn't find the gold key. i gave up and thought the fake elevators at the beginning of the castle were there to tell me that i could never exit this level. i thought the game was laughing at me by giving me the wrong key. i wasn't so wrong. in fact, you can search every single room in the level and not find the gold key. that is because the key is sitting behind a secret door.

i'm still angry typing this. the game never, ever put the key in a secret previously. it's an understanding i thought it had with the player - that the secrets are optional and not necessary for beating the level (well, ok, there are some really obvious places in the past where the entire level is behind a secret). so how could you put the key in a secret?? how could you fucking do that?? i was pissed when i found out years later how to beat this level. i felt that a boundary had been crossed. you just DON'T fucking put keys in secrets. if you do, you might as well just tuck them away anywhere in the level and expect you to sit there with the space bar depressed until you find whatever random secret holds your ability to exit the map. it feels utterly game-destroying.

though yes, at the very least you can use some logic to find the secret without just depressing the space bar at every wall in the whole level (not that you'd want to, because this is one level that is not fun to be running around in). in the room on the other side of 5a, there's a gun and some health hidden behind a barrel. the key is there, though it's tucked away in a corner, invisible to you. you can see the player enter the offending area at 7:40

if you use some logic to locate the approximate location of where the secret would be on 5a, then open a door and push another secret at 5b, you can find the key. but previous secrets that are hidden in plain sight behind objects don't always follow that logic of being in an obvious place - the secret doors to reach them often connect from random places in the level. you also have no real indication that that's a place to look to find the key. it seems like it must be back somewhere in the maze of blood-stained cave walls. there's so many nooks and crannies there, after all!

the only way to find the key is by accident, or an incredibly lucky guess. the secret isn't marked by any obvious signs. many players will just spend an hour running back and forth through hell, trying to find the key in vain. and they might finally decide it's behind a secret door and find it - but maybe they'll just give up and go to a different episode, never seeing the rest of this one (or they'll use the "MLI" cheat). they might get through episode five easily and then wonder why it's so impossible to even get past the midway point of four. even the level with a similar scenario to this in episode six is more understandable, because it's one of the last levels in the game. and the key is actually much much easier to locate there than it is here!

one way you could look at it is that this was a very poor design decision made on short time that was never revisited anywhere else in the game for a reason. i chose to look at it that way for a long time.

still... years later, i really respect Tom Hall's decision to tuck the key behind an obscure secret. why? because the level already completely fits outside the logic of the rest of the game, with its joke exits and impressionistic layouts. it's a giant bloodstain on the wall. it's a horrific fever dream that's seems like some kind of strange, distant memory once its over. i wasn't sure if i had made it all up in my head, after years away from the game, or if it actually happened. it seemed way too out there an idea for this game to have.

in case you're curious about what lies on the other side of the door, here it is. it's just a rectangular room with a few chandeliers, a couple tables and some vases, all symmetrically placed. there are also a few dinners on the floor. no enemies. the dinners aren't really in enough abundance to help you that much, and there's no helpful secrets nearby. just a room, by far the most normal-looking one in the level. 

the contrast between this area and the beginning of the level couldn't be more shoved in your face. it's upsetting, to say the least. how could those two things exist within any spacial proximity to each other?

here's where you might reflect back on the things you've just seen. we have just been taken on a tour of some of the horrific atrocities the Nazi's committed, and then transplanted, almost too easily, to its "perfect" facist facade within the space of one level. it's almost comical how that facade can be seen for what it truly is now - it's one big fake. it's an exit with a barrel sitting right front of it.

this is why i feel i can call this level a masterpiece. it expresses something extremely complicated in the space of one 64x64 map, despite it breaking every design rule the game sets. because it sits outside the rules, it actually seems larger than the game itself. it taunts the player and doesn't hold back or apologize for anything. it doesn't cower away from showing anything, no matter how grisly or perverse or absurd it may be.

i hope, by talking about this level, i've convinced some doubters of one level's ability to communicate very complex ideas and emotions to the player, even with limited tools. you don't need realistic visuals or heavy-handed stories. here you can see something more significant expressed in the middle of a very pulpy game that involves shooting people and collecting keys. as a game designer, your tools may be limited, and you may feel that what you're making is "just a game", and that it doesn't go beyond that. but there's no such thing as "just a game" in this world. everything you make is a reflection of our world. everything you make takes on a life of itself, beyond yourself. so use your tools thoughtfully, and powefully. you have no idea how you might be affecting another person's life.

against my wishes, the level punches you in the face one last time. several officers lie behind the three locked doors leading to room 8. it's a similar scenario to the room filled with ammo just before, though it's still hairy and throws off the player in the video.

the last room, room 8, has three more exits. by this time the joke is really REALLY not funny anymore, but the game wants to rub your face in it once more. one of them - to the right, is the real exit. one of them - to the left, just has a couple barrels in front of it. there's another one, which doesn't look like a real exit because the shading of the door is a little different.

surprise! it's another ton of officers. i bet everyone saw that one coming. in one of the corners of that room you can find a secret to a bunch of extra lives, according to the map (though the player seems to try it and it doesn't open). i have heard, though can't confirm, that some versions of Wolfenstein don't have that secret. that adds too many more dimensions to this than i really want to bother thinking about right now, if that's the case. it doesn't really surprise me that it might have been added later.

the intentions of this level seem laid bare now. the only piece of decoration in either room is a single light (remember how many fucking lights were in that cave maze?). remember that this room is just a vague abstraction from the imagination of one game designer on some hypothetical space that probably never existed! now, here are your three choices!


surprise! this is a videogame. here are some extra lives! now forget about this and go on to the next level and shoot some more bad guys!


  1. This series was fantastic, thanks so much for posting it. The dual focus on detail and theme really works. I'd long written off Wolf3D as Doom's shallower predecessor, but you've given me a new appreciation for it.

  2. I'll second what JP said; I played a couple of levels of Wolfenstien 3D a few years ago and dismissed it as having been entirely obsoleted by it's successors. These articles have made me go back and play through it all, and gain an appreciation for it as it's own entity.

  3. thanks, guys! i still want to get to a few more levels in wolf3d, and branch out into some other games. i'll be posting about it on twitter, etc so stay tuned!


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