Inside The Belly of the Beast

I’m almost done with Myst III: Exile, and I’ll post my thoughts about its puzzles and overall design after I finish it tonight. I want to talk for a minute about level design today.

Edanna is an age in Myst III. It’s a rocky island in the middle of a vast bright blue sea. The pale stone spire twists and turns, ranging from sheer rock at the peak to a shaded, lush jungle below. You wind your way from top to bottom before you return to Myst III’s home age, J’nanin.

I bet this age was the toughest to build, especially considering 3D technology at the time. Organic modeling is always challenging, and at many points in the level, you feel like you’re actually walking around inside one vast organism. Parts of the level are flat-out beautiful.

It’s also impossible to navigate. You can’t tell what’s a branch, a log, a stone ledge or a path. You walk right by essential turn-offs and never realize you could have gone that way. You move in circles, you hit dead ends, and even walkthroughs can’t help you. There are too many mushrooms for “There’s a left turn right by the mushrooms” to be much help.

This sort of overly organic, “inside the creature” level design is all too common. Some of my favorite games of all time have the organic stunt level, and in my opinion, they were always the weakest, most frustrating levels in the game. Just a few examples:

System Shock 2 had the level where you go inside the body of The Many.

Halo 3 sent you inside an infected ship to defeat the Gravemind.

You know the level design is confusing when walkthroughs have to diagram where you can walk.

Even the otherwise fantastic Dr. Ned DLC for Borderlands sent you into the guts of Dr. Ned’s fleshy laboratory. I was playing online with a friend, and both of us said, “Oh no!” as soon as we dropped down into that part of the level. Thankfully, it was short and completely linear, but we still felt lost at first.

I understand why these sorts of levels sound cool, but they go against how the human mind works. We seek order in our environment, and we look for distinctive landmarks when we’re navigating. When you put us in an environment without clearly distinguished areas and with no easily discernible pattern, we flounder. It’s the worst sort of maze.

It also goes against everything we’ve learned in playing other levels in the game. These levels are usually toward the end of the game, I would bet in an attempt to “give some variety.” You toss everything we’ve learned about how the world works in your game world right out the window, which feels like a rip-off.

It always comes at a point in the game where you feel like you’ve mastered the mechanics of the world and now you want to focus on strong execution against those mechanics. Then the designers essentially flip you off and send you somewhere that doesn’t obey any of the rules.

Good level design is instruction: you’re teaching players how your world works in the early levels, then testing them on their retention toward the end of the game. Tossing in the obligatory “inside the belly of the beast” level is just as absurd as giving the students of your English class a Calculus mid-term. You know… just for variety.

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