Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Opus of Loquacity (Part 1)

If I'm remembering correctly, Super Mario Bros. was the video game that introduced me to the concept of a level. You see, I'd grown up with nothing but the standard 1970s-to-early-1980s iterative games, the kind where you play on a single screen and, when you kill the last enemy on that screen or eat the last pellet or whatever, you're taken to another screen that's almost identical, even if the challenge is higher or the colors have changed.

My understanding at the time—please understand that I was three or four years old—was that the one screen was essentially the whole game; since the gameplay was almost identical the next time around, if you'd played one screen, you'd played them all. You could justly claim to have “beaten” the game, so I thought. This must have done quite a bit for my self esteem as a child. I can actually remember a childhood trip to a Pizza Hut where I finished exactly one screen of Centipede. When that last centipede bit exploded, I gladly turned away from the machine and beamed at my mom. “We can leave now,” I said, proudly. “I beat that game.”

Obviously, Ninja Gaiden was still ahead of me.

Anyway, since I didn't play Donkey Kong until after I'd gotten my NES, I had no idea that a game could be broken up into small segments of play that constituted only a portion of the whole. DK would certainly have gotten the message across; in its absence, though, SMB did the trick, and after I got to the end of World 1-1, slid down that flagpole, and went in the tiny castle, I was genuinely surprised to see Mario exit the castle immediately afterward and go down a pipe into another level. I mean, World 1-1 could have been the whole thing. I had no expectations for game length; as far as I was concerned, World 1-1 was quite long enough. It was certainly hard enough; my six-year-old hands had never had to work with such precision in a game. Sure, that whole “World 1-1” label in the corner of the screen should have clued me in that there might be a world 1-2 and perhaps even a world 2-1, but I guess I'll chalk that one up to the fact that it was a Christmas morning, and I was ridiculously overstimulated; not to mention, I still had this new Zelda game to play! I was in no condition to use my reason.

But as it turned out, Mario's adventure had just begun, and so had mine, and yes, that is the way I'm opening this thing.

So I learned about levels with Mario, but it really wasn't until a few years later—1990, in fact—that I learned that game levels could actually communicate ideas. If you think about Super Mario Bros., this isn't surprising; what does the level design in SMB communicate? SMB's level design doesn't communicate a whole lot. There's a clear sense of progress, paradoxically reinforced by the game's repeated use of four-level cycles, and there's a fairly vague sense of movement, as if Mario were traveling from province to province within the Mushroom Kingdom, but that really is about it.

I know I'm oversimplifying, but I'm going to try to boil level design for 2D platformers down to just two things, which I am lazily going to refer to as challenge and aesthetics. By “challenge,” obviously I mean the kinds of things that are purely related to gameplay: platforming challenges, enemy placement, that sort of thing. “Aesthetics” covers a broad range of considerations, but the ones I'm mostly interested in are those that involve the kind of real-world sense the level makes to the player experiencing it. Could this level exist in the real world, and if so, how would it work? Both of these elements are necessary, but the degree to which either one is necessary depends entirely on the kind of game a designer wants to create. Something like SMB needs just scads of challenge, because frankly that's what SMB is all about. The need for that real-world sense is way less important, since SMB is essentially a virtual playground with environments that don't need to (and don't!) make much sense at all. If the player can tell what's solid from what's not, and what's harmful from what's safe, that should just about do it. Anything else—end-of-level castles, occasional weather effects, all the other little things SMB happens to do—is just icing.

When you think about a game like Castlevania, the importance of the two elements is almost reversed. Thinking back on the level design for the first Castlevania, I don't remember anything like the sort of sophistication on the level of that “challenge” element, though CV is, duh, hella harder than SMB. It just isn't nearly as involved as a platformer. Thank god for that, too, because Simon Belmont is very nearly immobile; he might, in fact, be gaming's first asthmatic (or perhaps pneumonic) protagonist. On the other hand—and as so often I owe this basic observation to Jeremy Parish—the environments in Castlevania make perfect real-world sense. Think about it: there are so many games from the 8-bit era that are basic platformers. How many actually made those platforms make sense? Castlevania did just that; as Parish points out, “whoever crafted the levels actually took the time to make the platforms logical -- something of a first. Whenever there was a hole to leap over, it was clear by looking at the background that the gap was caused by crumbling masonry as the castle rotted with age.”

Castlevania's great achievement is that it marries these elements of challenge and aesthetics. Challenge, yes, is at a minimum, if only because the Belmonts suck at walking, to say nothing of jumping, but almost all of the challenging aspects of the game are justified by the game's strong aesthetic sense.

It's a brilliantly designed game, but it isn't the focus of this series of posts. I enjoyed the design of Castlevania when I was a child, but I also took it for granted; I could never have told you how well the game was designed, because it never occurred to me how much thought must have gone into crafting a game like that. However, there was a game that shook me from my slumber, not because it made me take notice of the way platforms were thought out, but because it got me thinking about the way levels were strung together to create a world.

This could have happened several times by 1990, but it didn't. In fact, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse was the first game that really made sense to me as a cohesive collection of levels.

This isn't really too surprising; CVIII takes the already brilliant inclusion of the inter-level castle map from the original game and pumps it up a bit by adding the element of choice. Now, the player could take one of two routes to get to the innermost reaches of Dracula's castle. Further, Dracula's castle was much more varied now, with the environments covered in the first game comprising only the last quarter or so of the game. Dracula's castle was now more of a ranch, really, complete with swamps, dismal underground caverns, and even a pirate ship (!). The way that Trevor and his spirit buddies started out in a creepy ghost town in Transylvania—perhaps the same town haunted by the crazy old man right on the outskirts of the castle in Simon's Quest—and slowly made their way towards the castle, working their way in through miles of hostile territory, just made perfect sense to me. It also set Dracula's castle inside a world that felt real and varied. It wasn't just a castle that sat at the end of a tree-lined path, as in the first game, and its surrounding environs weren't the repetitive towns and wilderness areas of the second game. It was a fortress built on an island surrounded by inhospitable countryside, and suddenly, it made perfect sense to me why a game character would go through that opening town and attempt to make the straightforward crossing at the bridge only to double back to the swamp when the bridge collapsed.

In other words, the series of levels in CVIII told a story. It wasn't an involved story, but it was one that made a certain amount of sense. In games that were roughly contemporary, like Ninja Gaiden, characters bounced from place to place, and even the cutscenes that ran between levels did little to make these levels feel connected. CVIII, on the other hand, did next to nothing by way of explaining the transitions from level to level, but the game's world felt organic and real nonetheless. In fact, CVIII feels like the perfect run-up to the current “Metroidvania” school of CV design; replace the map screens (and the level breaks) with transitional areas and make it possible for Trevor and friends to backtrack, and all of a sudden there's little separating CVIII from a modern installment in the series. It isn't surprising at all that after the refinements on the CVIII formula in Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, the next CV game happened to be Symphony of the Night.

I have much more to say, some of which might actually be of interest, and I have some observations on genre I'd like to explore, but excuse me, because A) it's getting dark and bad things are out at night and B) my laptop's battery is about to go dead.

The above image comes from retrojunk.com