Friday, February 22, 2013

adventures in level design: Wolfenstein 3D Episode 3: "Die, Fuhrer, Die" PART ONE

episode 3 of Wolfenstein 3D, otherwise known as "Die, Fuhrer, Die" or The One Where You Kill Hitler, is probably the most-played episode of the registered version of Wolf3D, no doubt because of the fact that You Get To Kill Hitler. if a new generation of WW2 based FPS games have proven anything, it's that people in the have an endless fixation with killing Nazis. undoubtedly these people would have played this episode. and they'd get what exactly what they wanted, in some ways, but not before getting something a bit stranger and more disturbing.

"Die, Fuhrer, Die" is an interesting example of how pacing and context greatly affect how players will respond. everyone playing it had a vested interest in reaching the end and to see Hitler as the end boss in a videogame. its nine (not counting the secret level) maps do follow a pretty typical linear get-more-crazy-as-you-go-on progression, and much of the levels feel pretty internally consistent to each other. but it also undergoes an abrupt shift a little bit more than halfway through the episode, from by far the easiest set of maps in the the game with cohesive, short levels to a little bit weird and amorphous. this is partly because it's the most true collaboration of the two map designers for the game: John Romero and Tom Hall. floors one through five were designed by Romero, and are among the shortest and easiest maps in the game, though not without a few tricks. floors six through eight were designed by Hall (who did a majority of Wolf3D's maps), and take the episode into a bit of an alternate-universe netherworld version of the first five maps, if they can even be compared to those maps at all, before sending you plummeting towards the final showdown with Hitler (which is designed, again, by Romero). 

i'm gonna start by talking about three of the first five maps (two, three, and five) and then the turning point, when things start to get stranger and more complicated, at map six. i'm skipping floors one and four because they're two of the most conventional-feeling and, quite frankly, boring maps in the game for me. part two of this article, coming soon, will focus on maps seven through nine. 

please note that from now on, i'm going to use the terms "map" or "floor" instead of "level" to describe each map, because "floor" is how the game refers to each of the level on the player's status bar, and "map" refers to what it is, design-wise. 

also note you can put the mouse cursor over the ingame shots (and also click on them) to see them without my lovingly mouse-drawn labels.

without further ado, here's floor two:

floor two is a very short map, though it throws a couple of tricks at the you that might not be expected up to this point. the path from the required key to the exit only involves entering 4 or 5 medium-sized rooms. Romero's aims in his design usually tend to be pretty practical and easy to articulate, so i'd speculate that Romero wanted to consciously put the player in a more dangerous and confusing situation but didn't want to subject him/her to much beyond that in only the second level. 

the starting position puts you facing a door in the middle of a small island surrounded by a few patrolling guards (depending on the difficulty you choose). not knowing on what side of the island the guards might be coming from creates a potentially difficult and disorienting situation, spacially. this is a feature of Romero's maps that crops up again, most notably episode 5 floor 5. it's also compounded by the extension of the hall immediately surrounding your island into a long hallway to the north, which will bring the guards patrolling in that area to you.

here's how you start the map, at point 1. one potential method a cautious player might use is to open the door and fire to alert the guards (or just fire from where you stand there, which in this case will also alert them), and then take cover in either small alcoves you see to the left or right and wait for the guards to pursue you where they're most easily picked off. you can also just stay in your position and shoot the guards as they open the door, though in bigger hallways guards tend to get in clusters and shoot through the other guards at you without you being able to shoot back at them (one of the bugs in the way the game is coded). these little alcoves to the left and right of you are kind of an analogue to long alcove safe zone in front of the player's starting view in episode 5 floor 5 i talked about in a previous adventures in level design article. 

the situation might leave the player slightly stunned and with low health, but it is usually over with pretty quickly. the long hall to the north (left from your starting position) puts you into a larger section of the hallway with three doors to open. once you've taken care of the guards in the hallway, it seems like this is the area that leads to the rest of the level, but only contains a couple storage-type rooms and one dining room with some health, guards and one secret.

where you need to go is actually to your right and behind of where you began the level, the only other door you can enter without a key (which leads to point 2). here there is an this is a series of rooms that leads, very quickly, to the key you need to exit the level. you can take either of two paths, but they ultimately put you int he same place, the room where the key is. this room is (i would guess, deliberately) marked with a lot of brown potted plants.

part of the room is pictured here. you can see the door that leads you immediately back to the hallway at the start of the level in front of you, and the paths you need to take to the key (at point 3) are behind and to the left of you.

at the entrance (again, depending on the difficulty) there are a couple of the regular brown guards. killing them will cause many guards to yelp. those guards sit in each of the identical connecting rooms - but the blue SS guards (of of which is shown above) are marked as "deaf" and will only be alerted if you move further down either path. if you decide to take one of the paths without waiting for the alerted guards on the path you didn't take, you'll probably run into them in when the path converges at the gold key room eventually, or in your trek back after getting the key.

after clearing either of the connecting rooms after point 2, which are essentially small hallways, you'll open the door to the face of a guard. killing him will alert another guard the identical location on the other side of you (though players will not be aware of this, of course). a small alcove later, and then you're in this heavily-guarded room:

this room closes the loop started by the room at 2 and lands you at the key. the door towards to the right is one of the two entrances. any guards who were alerted on the other side of the map will usually come and meet you here, along with the guards in this room (in this case, a couple officers and a few brown guards).

the required areas in this level are a really good portrait of Romero's design aesthetic, a set of ideas which he consistently cames back to across the different games he worked on - concentrated, unpredictable open areas of intense conflict. there's a large an element of tension because you never know exactly where enemies will be coming from. yet, in a Romero level, you're never really trapped in a situation that's impossible to get out of, and there are almost always multiple routes out of where you are. the layouts themselves tend to be pretty straightforward and focused more on the interactions with the enemies than with creating a mood with the architecture. it's almost as if Romero was designing within the mindset of a making a multiplayer maps, except before multiplayer in FPS existed.

one other thing to note is that there no health in this entire loop area (the health is represented on the map by small blue circles and red  + symbols). Romero's maps tend to be pretty stingy on health and only give it to the player in certain situations, as we'll see especially later in map five.

areas of brief but intense, sometimes disorienting conflict. multiple routes. uncomplicated layouts. smaller "island" areas, which are surrounded on all sides by enemies. often no more health or secrets than is needed. Romero's design decisions are purposeful and deliberate, and, for the most part, follow a pretty consistent logic. we'll see how Hall's designs contrast with that in a bit.

the exit is behind the locked door right around the corner from where you entered the loop at point 2. it's a small square room with contains a few guards (depending on difficulty) and some much-needed health. you can see the spatial relationship of 4 and 2 (with the exit door in the distance) here:

the island at point 1 where you started the level is directly behind the player, entrance on the opposite side. the door to the exit is the black door on the far right.


three doors. choose one. 

i like this map entrance because it's both very straightforward and a bit dramatically imposing. one might call this kind of no-bullshit presentation of choices between three options very "game-like" at its core, which is funny in a game like Wolf3D which is filled with all kinds of bullshit of the very best and worst kind. 

your experience obviously will depend wildly on which door you take first. all will lead to places you need to go, as it turns out, though the one straight ahead of is a much more direct path to the same location the door on the left leads to. 

the path to the right is the one not related to the other two, and it eventually leads you into some sort of weird torture room:

it seems much more in character with the prison environments of the first episode than the officer-roaming castle-like environments of this episode. the gold key is moderately-guarded by SS and brown guards here, with some curiously placed turkey dinners among the blood and bones and suits of armor trucked in alcoves offscreen. there's also a fairly large and easy-to-find secret here in the first alcove you pass upon entering the room, where a guard is hiding.

once you've found the gold key, the two remaining doors will both eventually lead you here:

again we see Romero's use of multiple routes at work. taking the middle door from the start more or less dumps you right by the two key doors which lead to the exit, and the path to the blue key. shooting will alert all of the guards patrolling the area, causing another potentially tense confrontation with unpredictable guards. this is kind of reminiscent of the situation at the beginning of floor two. if you take the left door from the start, there are more guards to deal with, and the path to 2&3 is longer. it does, however, result in some health and a safer route to the place pictured here, because there aren't guards who can't accounted for potentially sneaking up from behind you without any warning.

in the wood paneled area in the distance of that shot we see another one of Romero's tropes of making important locations sit within islands areas completely enclosed on the outside by patrolling guards. level five will expand on this idea.

you enter the island from the opposite end of the part seen in the shot above, leading to a small connecting room that puts you at some SS guards and the key:

though the SS guards are in plain sight, this room can be tricky, because there aren't great areas for cover - and if you didn't clear out the big blue stone hallway of guards, there might still be some who will roam towards you and surprise you. there's even a chance that the SS will be alerted before you reach them if an alerted guard's (basically nonexistent) pathfinding leads them to opens the door to the key. 

once cleared, the room contains a couple first aid kits. even if you really mess up this part, you'll be in pretty good shape by the time you leave the room. in general, this level is much more generous with health than the last one.

returning to the locked door leads you here.

once again, a very small, square exit room. the curious thing about this exit is that you can shoot once you open the first locked door to alert the officer to open the second one. this means you can bypass the island of SS at point 2, but you still have to go to the weird torture area at point 1b.

all in all, the floor is a bit more straightforward than floor two, despite being slightly longer and requiring two keys instead of one. but the use of contrasting moods between different parts of the map, particularly between the torture room that holds the gold key, and then the blue stone and wood officer area that holds the blue key and the exit, that makes this one feel much more memorable (despite not being altogether that different design-wise). it's a good example of how much the framing of the environment can greatly impact the experience of the level for a player. for that reason, this is definitely my favorite map of Romero's first five.

while still very much in character with the rest of Romero's first four maps, things start to pick up a little bit here. you start by facing a flag with a swastika, with the same grey damn gray stone walls that you're very used to seeing by this point:

going right from the entrance only results in a long path that dead ends at an SS and a first aid kit. going left puts you here:

around the columns there are a circle of dogs patrolling (dead dog corpses offscreen), as well as an officer in an alcove directly behind where you're standing here who'll jump out and surprise you. a little bit of a "gotcha" move, where situations turn out to be more than they initially appear, and something that would heavily inform a lot of Doom maps.

like map two, only the gold key is used, and the path to the gold key and the locked door are curiously right next to each other. the door to the left just contains more guards, then dead ends at some health and ammo, which might actually be important later on because (also like map two!) there's little health to go around.

if you enter the door to 2&3 and turn slightly to the left, you'll see something like this:

again, we have a situation similar to the blue key area in level 3: a small island that you need to penetrate to get to the key you need, but is surrounded on all sides by patrolling guards (you can see one on the left of the screen). this time the island is much, much larger. and, this time, there is basically no health in the entire area. and this time, there is an SS patrolling. and this time, there's debris littered everywhere for some reason. still, this area is more enclosed than in level three, and the guards should still be fairly easily taken care of.

the only entrance into the island is the location marked by two gold seals above. upon entering, you'll see a guard or two (depending on difficulty) who are easily taken care of. however, shooting will also alert an officer in the room immediately to the right of where you enter. this is, again, a similar little technique to the "gotcha" officer in the first area with the dogs and columns - a technique of Romero's to make a simple situation where the player feels in complete control a bit more uncomfortable and unsettling.

once you've cleared the area of guards, you have many options:

this small room with several paths to choose is more reminiscent of some of Hall's designs, particularly in episode one. three of them are part of a loop which leads to the same place, and one of them is the central room.Romero, however, being a slightly more programmer-y type who values clear, direct communication over being a mazemaster, marked the path to the key with a gold seal and two plants. though the large hall from where you entered, more confusingly, is wedged in the center of two other doors, making getting back out a bit harder.

i won't waste time talking about the other rooms - they're relatively small/medium sized and contain some guards and only a bit of ammo and treasure, but nothing else notable. taking the gold seal-marked door to point 3 puts you in fairly empty, small hallway with several vases, then leads you to where the key is hidden here:

i'm playing on the normal ("Bring Em On") mode in this screenshot. the officers and SS might give you trouble, particularly if you're low on health by this point, but the key is right there among some treasure. the pretty no-frills key area with a treasure reward is reminiscent of the two key areas in map four (which are partly why i find that map so unremarkable). i think Romero felt the cumulative effect of being on stingy on health in the entire area, and also having to navigate out of the little maze would be the biggest tension-builder here.

and, indeed, if you're low on health, you'll have to return to the side area on the left of the dog-and-columns room and fight through some more guards to get your much deserved turkey dinners. unless you've already eaten them, in which case you'll have to find a secret with several first aid kits immediately to the right once you open the locked door to point 4. there's no guarantee that players will manage to find it, but an aware and/or desperate player will probably resort to humping the wall with the spacebar once they reach the exit areas and stumble across it.

like floor three, a series of small, square rooms separated by locked doors with some guards leads you right to the exit. unlike floor three, all of them only require the gold key - my best guess for Romero having several locked doors there is either for dramatic effect, or because he didn't want players to get the "gotcha" officer to accidentally open the locked door with his poor path-finding and then allow players to sneak through to the exit.

despite a more confusing layout in the maze area and the stinginess of health, floor five is still very much in the mold of Romero's first four maps. you can see him consistently relies on a simple set of methods of communicating with the player, and is never willfully that confusing. he does subverts that a bit with the "gotcha" officers and the slightly mazier layout which hint at what might be to come, and his designs become much more interesting in episode five, but it still essentially falls in line with what he's established before.

this changes in a heartbeat.

the first thing you'll notice here is no gray stone! the ceiling is a deep red color, and you're surrounded by red brick. behind you, on either side, is one locked and one unlocked door (with a few guards and some ammo/health). "oh boy!" you say, "now i know where i'll need to come back to!". it feels like maybe a continuation of the gold key area in floor five, until you open the door:

..oh! there's a blue stone area hidden behind columns.

...oh! there are officers hiding behind these columns! and there is no real place to take cover! picking off the guards one-by-one is difficult and time-consuming, so most people will opt to just run to a door on either side. it feels like they officers are in some part of the level that you'll come back to later, anyway. 

but no! the blue stone realm they occupy has nothing to do with the rest of the level! you can get to that room from a secret door, but there's nothing else there aside from some treasure and health.

the area has a bit of cinematic, dreamlike quality, which would be even more noticeable to perceptive players because of everything in Romero's carefully paced and constructed design that came before. within two rooms, everything you've previously seen in the first five maps starts to get called into question. the rest of the episode has been taken over by Tom Hall.

this is compounded greatly if you choose to go right from the beginning:

it's that weird bluish steel texture! the only place this is previously used is in the boss fight of Dr. Schabbs in episode two, so introducing this texture now seems to say that it must be something significant contained within.

entering the door at point 2 will lead you into a very windy hellhole of a maze. cross treasures mark each area of intersection in the maze, letting you know where you haven't been before, but once they're picked up you can't use them to navigate back anymore. there'd better be something big at the end!

here's what you see after braving all of the guards wandering around the maze and finally reaching a door:

hey, not bad at all! what a very videogamey sight indeed!

the eerie calm is broken as soon as you move forward from here, which sends two very jumpy officers at you like attack dogs ready to tear you from limb to limb (though on the hardest difficulty there are two guards in front of you as well). firing does not bring these attack dog officers out, either. you might say, "goddammit!! and i have to re-navigate that stupid maze too!! oh well, at least there's an extra life here!! and at least i know where to take this key now!!"

so after more agonized trudging back through the maze, you eventually end up back at where you started the map and try the locked door. it opens!

...and this is what you find inside:

oh boy, a reward!! wait, where's the key?? huh??

there's a big stash of treasure, ammo, and an extra life, but nowhere to go from here. you may have been rewarded with a couple of extra lives, but going through the maze and getting the key was a big fat waste of time otherwise.

why?? why would a person put this in the map and not have it bear any significance, design-wise, or setting-wise, to the rest of the level? who knows! you could say that it is marked with a different texture, which indicates it's meant to be separated from the rest. and you could say that at least you're rewarded quite well for it, in terms of items. but it is a very bittersweet reward. this is the kind of universe you find yourself in now. you're definitely not in Romero-land anymore.

running past the dreamy officers behind the columns and going through the door to the right of the start will land you here:

now you're in the Actual Part of the level. notice how the pattern of lights is very similar to the key area at the end of the steel maze. Tom Hall often pays an unusual amount of attention to the light patterns, for reasons i do not know (though they are very suggestive).

going right (the door is offscreen) gives you some health and ammo and a secret which leads you the blue stone area where the officers are hiding (and more health and treasure). going left gives you more health and ammo, though guarded this time. this map sure isn't light on the secrets, at least! i guess Hall felt the need to make more concessions to the player because of what came before. pushing the gold seal to the right of where you enter here will eventually lead you to a shortcut path to the blue key:

after that pushwall you'll end up in a gray stone area with some crowns. curious people might search for pushwalls in here just for the hell of it, and then find that pushing a wall approximately where 4 is will, shockingly, land you the blue key.

opening the door in front of the key gives you a view of the backside of several officers' backsides. 

haha, they think they're guarding the key you just picked up! but you managed to sneak around back of them, somehow. slaughtering them from behind is incredibly satisfying, though that satisfaction is quickly muted by dealing, one-by-one, with the guards that are hidden in alcoves to your right.

let's say you didn't find that super secret shortcut. you'd end up going straight from the three-way room with the cross light pattern. you'd end up on some small path with a couple guards, alerting a group of officers who are circling this wood Hitler island further down the path:

once you take care of them, you'll encounter some SS and a few more small, fairly unremarkable red brick rooms. one of them contains health and ammo. another leads you to some guards and some suits of armor sitting in an alcove, which turns into this:

going left is the direct route the blue key, which will be much less fun because the officers are directly facing you this time around. going right is, conveniently, the door required by the blue key. it'll put you down a few wood halls with SS guards, before dumping you off at the exit room here:

notice the cross pattern of lights, once again. and notice how this room is way bigger and feels much more imposing than any of the small little exit rooms you saw in Romero's maps. already this episode is starting to feel much different. it now, all of a sudden, seems like anything could happen before you reach the final battle with Hitler.

mazes. unconventional architecture, sometimes seemingly governed by a sort of dream logic. environments which feel like they have a larger story to them beyond what's being seen. areas that seem significant but are dead ends. (over)complicated secrets. an abundance of health and treasure. though his aesthetic is hard to pin down, these are things which often distinguish Tom Hall's designs.

hitting the exit switch might cause the player to reflect on what she or he has just seen. why that huge steel panel maze when the actual map is very straightforward and linear, and of a completely different theme?? why the officers behind those blue stone walls you never actually revisit?? why did the setting change so abruptly?? i couldn't answer those questions, but they lend to a deeply unsettling feeling that there is Something Very Strange Going On Here.



  1. This reminds me of the ridiculously long sewer maze in Glider PRO's built-in map Slumberland: (Slumberland was designed by four people, each roughly constrained to a building.)

  2. I can't help but wonder if some HTML5 magic could present these essays a lot better; like, for each floor, the map overview will stay fixed on the left as you scroll down; and as you scroll down, you see a little player icon move around in the overview, replacing the numbering system... and you can also press "play" to actually walk around the level (or even play it?!) yourself... I'd help you with that if I knew how to do that kind of JS magic. :\

  3. Robert: i was thinking of possibly doing video commentaries, so that might be the direction i go from here on.


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