Mechanical Irony and the Suspension of Disbelief

This kills me. This is right by the Shrine of Winter in Dark Souls 2 (which I love, by the way. Perhaps an article on that some other day). This tiny bit of rubble — one that would take two big steps to clear — is responsible for half of your epic journey. You spend hours tracking down powerful souls and risking your life, rather than just finding a stool.

I call this mechanical irony. Mechanical irony is when the limitations in control we have over our character become all too real. “If only I could climb over that” or “if only I could jump off this ladder” or “if only I could step over this gap”. or whatever. When the sensible, real life to a video game problem becomes obvious, it becomes difficult to sustain immersion and the suspension of disbelief. To an extent this is unavoidable. We’re making games and not simulations. We don’t want to give the players the ability to do all these things, we want to convince them to think in the verbs we’ve given them. We want the player to trust us and give we get that, they will give us a lot of leeway.

Bionic Commando for the NES is very good at this. The game requires a large conceit (.. can you even use that word like that?when talking about mechanics?) from the player. You can’t jump. You have to move around with your bionic arm. You’d think the game would be litered with moments of “if only I could jump, I wouldn’t have to go through all this hassle”, but it’s surprisingly not. Every situation where you wish you could jump is quickly solvable with the mechanics the game provide. The game doesn’t want to remind you that you can’t jump, it wants you to focus on swinging around. To a degree, new players still get frustrated with the inability to jump, but when you consider what a huge concession that is, the game does an amazing job of making the player think about it’s core mechanics.

The Shrine of Winter in Dark Souls 2 does not do that. It’s downright taunting. It could possibly be ignored as a dead end, except for the item on the other end. While many areas of souls games could be destroyed with climbing skills, you generally don’t think about it (though probably also in Belfry Sol!). Here, it’s preposterous. Here it looks like, without invisible walls, you could possibly even jump over it with the mechanics given to you in the game. It could even get you to think about other things. Like, what is that shrine even for if it would be so easy to walk around in real life? Little stuff exists like this every where (welp, fell down, time to walk all the way back to the stair case instead of pulling my self up from the edge) but usually those are so minor, people don’t notice. Here? It’s HALF THE GAME and totally avoidable. No one looks at the Lordvessel door and goes Well you know, if I had some TNT or a hammer…”. People just go with it. If the Shrine of Winter blocked a bridge, most people wouldn’t think about “simply getting rope”. That’s because they’re not having their face rubbed in it. They’re not being taunted. The players want to be immersed. Not everyone is going to fall down little thought-holes like this, but they’re best to avoid when possible, especially when trying to construct games with structurally sound worlds.

Now, taunting isn’t always bad. Dark Souls taunts all the time (though usually not in ways that damage the integrity of the world). A good example of this is Vini Vidi Vici in VVVVVV, where the character, who can’t “jump” is forced to reverse gravity and fall through several screens of spikes to get around an ankle high block. VVVVVV has little “immersion” to speak of and it serves as an excellent gag for an excellent challenge. You could even argue for this in more serious games. Again, the Belfry Sol is an annoying taunt, but it’s repercussions are mild. Is it a good gag? I personally wouldn’t do it, but I could fancy an argument for it. In most cases though, if you’re making a game with any kind of “world” you want to avoid bringing attention to aspects like this.

Dark Souls: In Depth

Before I begin, let me thank long time listener of TMT, Trynant, for sending me this and Demon’s Souls. I had no idea the joy I was depriving my self of by passing them up.

My Other M: In Depth post was a tear down of a significantly flawed game. This time is different. Now it’s time for me to heap praise on a superficially flawed game as well as an analysis on how future games of it’s ilk can improve. It’s time for me to expound the virtues of perhaps my favorite single player experience in the last five years and time to get into the nitty gritty of why this game works. So if you’re looking for a spoiler free review because you don’t know what to do with the GameStop gift card you got for Christmas, all I can say is “If you like hard, skillful games, buy it”. So just like last time, be wary of spoilers (not that the game has many). So anyways, lets do this thing!

The Premise and Mechanics

The Sunk Ruins of New Londo

Dark Souls is a dark fantasy themed, metroidvania-esque, combat driven action RPG, with a heavy focus on combat mastery and accumulating knowledge. Despite putting an emphasis on learning, the game also has many ways to instill a fear of death in the player. Death often involves replaying long sections of an area again — forgiving checkpoints are a rare. The player can also risk losing all of their unspent currency/experience in the game by dying. A bloodstain is left where the player died, but if the player dies again, it’s gone forever. This is problematic because the game is also trying to do everything in it’s power to kill you. Unlike most action RPGs, levels and stats play second fiddle to skill. The game, played by an expert, is beatable at level one (though using powerful equipment). You are never expected to be able to tank near-unavoidable damage and running up to a boss and mashing at them blindly is often a fatal strategy.

The player character is a classless entity (the classes at character creation are merely starting kits) comprised of numerous stats, most of which only have to do with equipment pre-requisites and damage scaling(Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Faith, though dex does decrease spell casting time), and a few others. Attunement gives you more spell slots, Vitality gives you more health, Endurance gives you more equippable item capacity and Resistance does what it says and should never be leveled up (the stat probably shouldn’t have been in the game). Every level up also increases your defense a little bit. How generous! You got 4 weapon slots to define your offensive capability with and two actions for each hand (mapped to the appropriate shoulder buttons). Left is defensive (generally block and parry, but for wielding two weapons, one is often a block and the other is an attack. Or an attack and a parry), right is offensive (two attacks. You’ll attack even with a shield if you put one there). There are tons of melee weapons, shields, bows and three classes of magical implements (talismans for miracles, cataylists for sorceries and pyromancy flames for.. pyromancy!), so what you equip your self with really defines the capabilities of your character. Sure, you can change equipment in the menu, but considering that the game plays even when you’re in the menu, that’s not always practical. Thus, your loadout is an important decision making process.

Kindling a Bonfire

The key ability in the Souls games is the roll. Much like Bayonetta and newer games, avoiding damage is one of the biggest challenges. Unlike new games, Dark Soul’s roll does not have staggeringly large windows of invulnerability (well, unless you get a certain ring…), doesn’t give you any bonuses for dodging successfully and doesn’t always give you a brisk recovery. Yet somehow this move is of critical importance. The reason is, unlike games like Bayonetta, attacking is very dangerous too. You need to use your ‘mediocre roll’ to survive until you get into position to attack. You also need it to cancel a portion of your attack’s recovery when you whiff. Contextually, this weak roll is amazing and given both your flawed offensive and defensive abilities. As such, even simple foes can do significant damage if you’re not careful! Despite these flaws, your attacks still feel powerful. The slow windups just add to the impact of individual hits. Which swing is a build up and release of tension and a key point of excitement and fear. Instead of feeling like a loose and clunky game, it feels like a tight game where every decision matters — because every decision DOES matter.

Attacking, blocking and rolling all use the stamina bar. The stamina bar recharges very quickly (in a few seconds while not holding any buttons), but in the heat of combat, it never fills up fast enough. It’s a resource to manage and it makes even blocking relatively weak. Damage done while blocking is turned into stamina damage (With some portion hitting your actual health, depending on the stats of the shield) so if you attacked too much, you cannot roll to escape and any hit to your shield will stagger you and do normal damage. When you run out swinging and mashing attack, you have to either expect your enemy to die or prey you will have just enough energy to roll away when you’re done. This adds a rich tension to combat. Even relatively easy enemies require a methodical approach to kill safely!

The player has two states — human and hollow. By using a semi-rare humanity item (or doing some other stuff that’s not worth talking about) the player can resurrect themselves. This has only a small handful of advantages (unlike Demon’s Souls where you lost most of your life!) — the ability to summon other players and get invaded, as well as the ability to kindle bonfires. The exact mechancis of humanity are arcane and silly, so we’ll just ignore them and move on to the kindling and the bonfires.

The bonfires shattered about the world act as both a source of healing and your checkpoints. Going to one fills your health bar but resurrects all (non boss/unique) enemies in the stage. You have no ready access to stores of healing items like Demon’s Souls. Large stockpiles of grass have been replaced with the Estus flask. Every time you go to the bonfire you get 5 swigs of the flask, which provide significant healing that must be rationed carefully. You can kindle your bonfire with humanity to give you larger amounts of Estus (Normally you can only kindle once to get 10 flasks, but later you can kindle more for up to 20 flasks) and you can upgrade your flask to have it heal more per swig. This controlled healing gives the developers a better way to balance levels and bosses as well as giving the player a new resource to manage. It also removes the desire to ‘horde’ healing items, while also punishing their overuse. In short, it gives the player the perfect amount of healing! With about two bonfires per boss, you get a pretty traditional level structure, despite the game’s free roaming nature.

The rest of what you do is simple. You proceed through parts of the game to achieve relatively simple tasks. Less ‘fetch quests’ and more ‘just kill all these fuckers’. So you roam the land finding new areas to clear and more fuckers to kill, with any progress in any direction bringing you closer to the end of the game.

I suppose I also should not ignore the difficulty of this game. It’s hard. Very hard and very unforgiving. But it is also fair. Luck in Dark Souls can always be replaced with skill and planning. It is when one relies on luck that one dies the most. Sometimes you die because the game is teaching you a lesson. If you roll with the punches, next time can always be different and you will get a little farther. This game questions the entitlement gamers have to not die. Despite the punishing aspects of death, as soon as one stops worrying about losing souls, the game gets a lot easier. The pressure is relieved and you can just continue to play through this fierce meritocracy. Many reviewers paint the game as horrible, oppressive, soul crushing experience, but I find that to be downright hyperbolic. If you’re the type of person to like a real challenge and self improvement, you will find the majority of this game to be deeply enjoyable because you will have earned but of success you receive. If you’re soul is getting crushed, it’s because you’re probably not respecting the game. You are hoping to luck your way through a boss battle that you have to learn and it’s just not going to happen.

Enemies in this game are dealt with through careful observation. Often a new area may seem overwhelming, by analysis of their attack patterns. Getting to a new room might lead to quick, brutal death, but each subsequent attempt will increase your ability to cope with your situation. Your handling of a situation will get progressively more refined until once difficult sections become relatively easy. Each Boss often starts out feeling like an effort in futility, but knowledge is power. Often when you finally win, you don’t feel lucky, you feel mastery. You might often feel like if you fought the boss again, it’d be easy! It’s that deeply satisfying feeling that drives a player through Dark Souls.

Wonderful Level and World Design

Outside the combat, one of my favorite thing about the game is how the world is constructed. Not so much the lore — we’ll get to that later — but the structure. Firstly, the world is amazingly and complexly interconnected and incredibly easy to navigate. If you can see something in the distance, you’re probably going to go there at some point. The world is so interconnected that often it’s surprising how to areas link, but once you find the link, it makes sense. The world is also ecologically sound. Areas reasonably blend into each other and, in fact, the deeper you go, the more you can infer about the world. The dark and shadowy places of the world are deep in the lower ravines of the world. Looking up from the dark sewers of Blighttown, you can see the sun, sky, and the walls of the castle above you. It doesn’t cease to exist because they demanded a dark atmosphere for a segments of the game. It’s right there where you can see it, confirming the validity and persistence of the world. It’s a place you could draw a map, if not for the staggering 3d aspect of it. It’s also darn easy to navigate and this is accomplished with a few simple, but invisible tricks.

First, main path branches never lie to you. Forward is virtually always forward. Rare do you come to a crossroad, not sure which direction to go in and even rarer does the ‘wrong’ path have any significant length to it. Going down these harder to reach, short paths usually reward the player with treasure and other items before quickly setting them back in the right direction. This might seem minimalistic and rather shallow, but this conceit allows them to construct a staggeringly 3d world. Another tool is showing you what is ahead. In say… the Prime series, you are restricted by doors. While mostly a concession of the times, these doors created sealed environments that that often prevented you from telling what was ahead of you (that said, I wanna play a 3d Metroid that goes “Metal Gear Solid 3” and embraces a super open map, but thats another story). The only hints you get are the door frames. In Dark souls you can SEE the tower where you fought the Demon and the Dragon and you can just run in it’s direction and mostly find your way pretty easily. Remember a few key sights and paths and you can get virtually anywhere you want with minimal effort. While being open ended, the world is, for the most part, a series of linear paths with a hand full of relatively large areas that have very obvious goal points.

Dark Soul’s dense cylinder of a World perhaps navigates better than any large 3d game I have ever played and does so without a map screen.

Individual areas are designed for distinctness and well crafted combat encounters. They are not afraid to put enemies in the most annoying spots possible and as such, they squeeze all the mileage they can out of their enemies. This is a design trick used famously in older Castlevania games but has been forgotten in modern times. But as long as a situation can be learned, it can be dealt with. The decaying nature of the world also makes it easy to create a world that plays like a level while not breaking suspension of disbelief. Collapsed walls, makeshift bridges and destroyed structures are a staple. The areas that do not abide by the decaying aesthetic are designed to resemble places. The pristine Anor Londo has bedrooms, filled with paintings and furniture. It has a church, a tomb and other important sites. Not-pristine-but-not-decaying Sen’s Fortress gets a pass, having been DESIGNED to be a complex, trap ridden structure. The aged nature of the world also makes it great for creating dangerous and precarious combat encounters where falling to your death is a real possibility.

Dark Souls also hits it’s aesthetic elements spot in. it embraces the classical medieval look and feel in ways that their competitors cannot not. Some games go crazy and anime-esque with their armor (which is fine), while others tole and rot in almost a medieval uncanny valley, much like Oblivion and Skyrim. Dark Souls owns it’s look. It’s equipment feels real and functioning. Function surpasses the rule of cool and when the rule of cool is applied, it’s because some weapon or set of armor came from an unlikely source, such as a demon or long dead entity. It embraces the awkward helmets and odd armors that rarely make an appearance in fantasy and use them to add a sense of reality to the world. It’s simple, yet amazingly distinct.

Story and Lore

A criticism commonly levied on Dark Souls is it’s poor, primitive story. I want to set the people who say this on fire. The story and lore of Dark Souls is “shown”, not told, and it is shown so subtly that one can blink and miss a lot of it. Details of the world, bits of dialog and small excerpts from item descriptions allow the player to piece together many details. The world is not centered around you — the world of Dark Souls feels no responsibility toward you and doesn’t require that you understand it. You stand as ignorant as the numerous NPCs that inhabit Firelink Shrine. In a world like Dark Souls, why should you be any different? This might even add to the joy of victory one feels while playing. Your success is not preordained in a significant way and even when the weight of the plot is finally put on your shoulders, it’s hard to tell if you have the whole truth. You are just an entity in a dying world and while you can piece together quite a bit you will never have all the answers.

Let me give an example of a deduction that can be made in Dark Souls.

In the Duke’s Archive (a mad laboratory for a crazy magi-science dragon), there is a section filled with Cells. There are a bunch of squid-headed-snake like enemies — Picasas — crawling about and being driven to attack by a sound. When you turn this sound off they hang around in a cell and if you fight through them, you’ll notice two at the back that avoid you and won’t attack you and seem to be crying. If you kill them, they scream out like women and drop two spells. One of the spell descriptions reads…

Bountiful Sunlight

“Special miracle granted to the maidens of Gwynevere, Princess of the Sun.
Gradual HP restoration for self and vicinity.

The miracles of Gwynevere, the princess cherished by all, grant their blessing to a great many warriors.”

Well this isn’t going anywhere nice. Lets read more item descriptions! How about some of the jail cell keys!

Archive Tower Giant Cell Key

“Key to the giant cell below the Duke’s Archives Tower.
The giant cell once imprisoned countless maidens, but is now empty, save for a few key persons. They struggle to uphold their sanity, as the horde of “mistakes” writhe at a fearfully close proximity.”

Archive Tower Cell Key

“Key to the cell of the Duke’s Archive Tower.
The Archive Tower, once a trove of precious tomes and letters, became a prison after the onset of Seath’s madness. The serpent men who guard the prison know not the value of what they hide. In the basement of the tower are the writhing “mistakes” of the terrifying experiments which were conducted there.

Okay so these things are probably Maidens of Gwynevere who have been horridly experimented on…. Oh wait there are these enemies called Channelers in the level! Let’s read what their weapon description is!

Channeler’s Trident

“Trident of the Six-eyed Channelers, sorcerers who serve Seath the Scaleless in collecting human specimens. Thrusted in circular motions in a unique martial arts dance that stirs nearby allies into a bloodthirsty frenzy.”

Well isn’t that wonderful. It makes it all the worse when the hollowed body of a female NPC end up there later in the game. An NPC who you saved. From murder. By someone who claimed to be her friend. Several characters in the game game warn you about Petrus the Cleric and most of them are unsavory folk. Somehow this guy is looked at pretty lowly by some of the biggest creepers in the game. if you do enough talking you can find out at one point that she abandoned him and hints at wanting her to die. If you save her and leave the two of them unattended for too long, he’ll murder her. And you’ll know he murdered her, because after you find her body, you can kill her and find her casting talisman on him. Oh such sweet little details.

A lot of this might feel like “telling” and one could make the argument that it is, but I think the big difference is this sort of plot discovery leads to active thought among the player. They feel like they are putting together a puzzle if they choose to look. It’s active participation. This also clears the game up of a lot of the cruft, such as cut scenes and other non-interactive elements. Not that cut scenes are necessarily bad, but they certainly do something to the tone of the game and that change of tone is not befitting of Dark Souls melancholy world. None of the Bosses give you a pre-bossfight speech. Only two optional bosses talk to you at all and the final boss doesn’t even have an intro cutscene. This does not necessarily mean the bosses are aimless and shallow. For example, we can learn that Queelag was using the second Bell of Awakening as a place to hunt adventurers to collect humanity for her dying, blight ridden sister. You can find the bottom of the world — a giant sea of ash with giant arch trees that support the world above it. In there you can find a large fledgling Dragon, pulling into question the accuracy of things said in the introduction as if it was a story told to you and not necessarily the truth. The world does not feel like it’s there for you — it seems like the answers are there, but you are simply not privy to them. Not out of spite, but because the player can only gather information that would naturally come to him. This helps paint a world that is beautiful, sullen and lonely.

Only one character, Kaathe, ever goes out of his way to illuminate the truth of the world to the player. His “Truth” though can be hard to swallow and possibly not even honest, but serves to call into question which of the games two endings are the good and bad ones. This game, which is derided for it’s shallow story and world have spawned numerous threads and conversations involving individuals nit picking every carefully chosen detail in the game to squeeze every ounce of knowledge they can out of this fantastical, dying world. Dark Souls tells it’s story in a way that is hard to emulate, yet so perfect for the medium of Video Games.

Online Elements

While the game stands without it’s online elements, they do add significantly to the game experience. Unlike Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls does not use a central server, but still has all of the features of it’s predecessor (just with more connection issues). Without ever even being alive, the transparent phantoms of other players can occasionally be see, fading into existence and either running off or getting killed before fading away again. You can look at blood stains to see how other players in an area died. When sitting at bonfires, you can the transparent aura of other characters who are playing at the same time. The two bells you have to ring in the game toll when other players close to your network(the ad-hoc network the game forms to make up for the lack of central server). You can also leave messages from from a pre-existing list of terms to try and give hints to others, telling them about ambushes, secret passages and suggested tactics for dealing for enemies. Even when not directly interacting with other players, the world feels like an occupied, haunted place.

The interactive elements are pretty good too. One gets a stone early on that allows the player to be summoned for co-op in exchange for humanity. Only human characters can summon (and can only summon two phantoms at a time), but if someone succeeds in helping someone else, the idea is that he can unhollow and then summon help of his own. Human players can be invaded by other players though (assuming they haven’t beaten the area boss yet), who will attempt to kill them for various rewards. Thus being able to summon help comes with the risk of PVP combats. Phantoms that summon and invade are likely around your level but cannot access their estus flask (though when the Host uses his flask he will heal any phantoms he summoned to help him). so the invader has to be skilled and have strong gear for his level to stand a chance. Fighting another player can be one of the biggest rushes in the game and, for an unprepared human player, one of the scariest.

There are covenants that the player can join that can help with both co-op and invading. Three of the Covenants are Co-Op based (Way of the White, Princess Guard and The Warriors of Sunlight). Not only do they tend to make you favor networks with other people of the same covenant (thus reducing invasions and facilitating PVP), successful PVPing can grant you access to new spells and equipment. For the PVP side of things, you have the Covenant of the Eternal Dragon, which allows players to partake in mutual PVP in exchange for dragon scales (used to level up the covenant and upgrade dragon weapons). By doing this, members of the covenant can earn items that allow them to convert their head and torso into that of a humanoid dragon. The Darkwraiths are a hard to join covenant that allows members to freely invade other players without using a normally limited item. By defeating their enemies, they gain humanity that they can turn over to their covenant in exchange for gear. The Blades of the Dark Moon allow players to invade the worlds of Sinners — players whom have invaded other games, betrayed covenants or murdered innocent NPCs. This allows players who don’t want to be jerks the ability to invade other games and feel like they’re delivering justice. They also receive a ring that, when warned, basically will randomly let them invade the world of players in ‘Dark Anor Londo’, an area that can only be accessed by killing one of the world’s Gods. The Forest Hunters have a similar mechanic. By wearing the appropriate ring, players may be summoned to defend a second of forest and can also bypass the usual “single invader” limit. The Gravelords (which unfortunately don’t work too well) can lay down a sign that will corrupt 3 game worlds, populating them with stronger enemies. If they kill the player of those worlds, the Gravelord collects a portion of their souls. If the player finds their soul sign, they can invade the Gravelord and attempt to murder him, thus ending the corruption of your world.

As such the game has countless ways for players to interact, but in this strange, impersonal way that is befitting of Dark Souls.

Criticisms and how the Souls games can Improve

First I’m going to talk about PvP and what is both great and bad about it. At this point, it is perhaps my favorite aspect of the game while also being heavily flawed. First off, despite all the stats the game has to offer, characters play mostly the same. Currently, levels could be discarded and the game could be built around equipment/spells. Unfortunately, while this method would be simplier, it is perhaps better to induce more character variation into the game. Many weapons are viable currently, but they all fit into a handful of classifications. Off the top of my head, Fast weapons, slow weapons, weapons that can attack while blocking and weapons with reach. Sometimes these things are combined (Spears for example can attack while blocking and have reach) but in short you deal with most of these problems the same way. Sure, you might have a trick or too for getting in against a spear user, but ultimately you get in and smack the shit out of your opponent. The game has another problematic element. Attacking is also not a very strong option! This game can be very turtlish, especially among competitive, level 120 1v1 pvpers. It’s much easier to wait for a mistake than to attack and ‘chip’ damage is usually insignificant (until you run their stamina down, break their guard and hopefully murder them). Boring games are created when inaction is the best strategy.

Most spells are not particularly useful either and also have the worst kind of balance (Does insane damage but shouldn’t reasonably ever hit) with a few exceptions. Most useful buffs in the game only increase damage output. No spells increase stamina regeneration, teleports, stun or allow you to move faster or to lay traps, or have any decent area denial (all the clouds are far too weak for that purpose) or basically any kind of spell that would be common in a competitive game. I could think of a million spells that would be super cool in the game and the only one that exists is Wrath of God — a fast cast, area of burst damage that does a lotta hurt. It’s rather ‘lame’ but has that ‘it’s so good it’s fun’ feel that a lot of spells need. I could go on forever describing spells that would have rocked in Dark Souls for PvP and PvE but they’re just not there, leading to a lot of saminess. Equipment is also pretty boring. A few novelty weapons are cool, but there are few interesting effects granted by equipment. You basically pick the weapons you want and pick armor to get as much poise as possible while keeping to the weight class you want. As such I never found much fun in the mutual PvP stuff. I think From Software was actively trying to discourage it, but that’s a fools game. Still, invasions are where it’s at for me. The host has a purpose — to get to the end. You have a purpose — to kill the host. He can heal and is probably well supported. You can’t heal, but probably have much better equipment and can create ambushes with the enemies. It’s the massive situation asymmetry that makes things shine.

That said, there is still too much variance in who you get matched up with. You cannot re-spec your stats and builds are easy to mess up. Since PVP players are going to know this better than new players, PVPers will have better stats for their level. An unaware player can be, strength wise, 10-20 level lower than what is appropriate for the invader. Also the level cap is absurdly high (level 711, compared to the level 1-200 most people get to). Invaders have no upperlimit on who they invade, just a lower limit, so invading a world with 3 max level characters and getting ganked is somewhat common. Now, in the multiplayer ecosystem of the game, you take your lumps with the gankers and get lucky with unprepared newbies and then a get a few fair fights, but that’s not OPTIMAL. The upgrade system isn’t optimal either. Weapons that scale with stats are outclassed by elemental weapons that are the same strength at any level. Why do any weapons not scale? Perhaps SOMETHING could not scale, but that should not be a common thing. All this allows is for invaders to have overpowered weapons well before their victims can. Now, this is necessary with how the game is now, but you could balance it in much better ways. Why can’t invaders heal? Why isn’t say, their health tied to how many phantoms their are? Or maybe them being able to heal is enough? Then you can remove the elemental weapons that dominate the sub-100 level range. The numbers could be crunched in so many other ways that aren’t as abusable and scale better with levels. When levels are the determining factor of who fights who, why does equipment matter so much more? It’s far from optimal and just barely works. When it works, it’s brilliant — a brilliance that eclipses any flaws the multiplayer has. This shows how much room this “Genre” has to grow. You can adapt to the players who want to do 1v1 while also enhaving PvE and invasion gameplay. You can improve the matchmaking and help players not ruin their characters and help equipment scale better off of your level. You can cap levels at a reasonable point that doesn’t lead to insane shenanigans and focus on a limit that forces interesting choices. By doing so you improve all aspects of the game — the guys who want to 1v1, the guys who want to invade, the co-op guys who can run interesting support spells or even the guys who are playing Solo. Limiting the levels also helps put players within reach of each other, maximizing the amount of players available to play with at any given time. The games that follow in Dark Souls footsteps have a lot of room to improve from the multiplayer component that that’s amazing.

The game also seems to have over-reached it’s budget and schedule. The Covenant system is somewhat broken and unfinished Rewards are limited and often too come quickly or far too late. Some covenants don’t even have rewards, or rewards after the first level. Gravelord BARELY works. Actually seeing powered up enemies due to a curse is super-rare. Some of the later areas, while architecturally interesting, are lacking in interesting enemy encounters Lost Izalith was clearly rushed, both in enemy placement AND the bed of chaos boss battle, which is perhaps the worst in the game. I also imagine that the Valley of Drakes was originally hoped to be a bigger area (possibly with a hellkite wielding a spear, like was pictured in many early screen shots). Demon’s Souls clearly had a lot of cut content. The Land of Giants (I wonder if it became the Tomb of Giants? Most probably, but I’m not sure). Every archstone was also probably intended to have an additional area. The game reduced it’s self a way Dark Souls couldn’t — with grace. Perhaps it was for the better to have those weak areas instead of no areas at all? I’m not entirely sure, though the 1.05 patch did smooth out the worst bits, making those sections at least somewhat worthwhile.

As wonderful as I find the story, I do sort of wish there was more direction and a little bit more “showing”. Not in the ‘hunting for clues’ way, but literal showing. Just the tiniest, most careful bit more, to just give a little be of cohesion to the game and allow for a few areas of closure. It is definitely that they were conservative with story elements, but they haven’t quite struck the perfect balance yet. Having to really examine the world to understand it is amazing, but the fact people think it doesn’t exist is a real tragedy. Just enough needs to be shown to help encourage players to look harder. They just need to know that something is there, waiting to be unearthed.

Most of Dark Soul’s flaws are very easy to get over. If the game play the game provides jives with you, you will probably enjoy even the worst segments. It’s faults instead point to a greatness that is yet to exist. Perhaps from From Software, perhaps from future clones like Dragon Dogma that might truly establish these conventions as a genre. If they do, it will be a victory for gaming in general.

Edit: E-W-G-F, a prominent Dark Souls youtuber wrote a nice rebuttel to some of my points on reddit. While some weren’t entirely applicable to what I meant, it’s all interesting. So please, give it a read.

Quick bit on game immersion in relatively non-immersive games

God I hate this screen

Since the whole screen looks like a chapel this ends up feeling okay

Doom guy, prancing around.... E1M1? A.. Science place?

Duke, in a bar, with a bitch and some beer, watching the OJ Simpson chase

So immersion in 2d games isn’t a particularly important, is it? Nope, not really. You can do stuff with it, or ignore it. That said, it’s easy to do it wrong.

An Over the Top Exampe

Imagine you’re playing Super Mario World. You’re running around a place called donut bridge. Everything is abstract — this is not a structure meant for people to use, it is an obstacle course that exists in a nonsensical reality. There are clouds and some wood tiles. It’s somewhat bridgy, but only enough to add a cute atmosphere and some context. You readily accept this, as you should. Now you wak a little farther and there is a billboard for 1Up Cola.

Wait what?

Now that feels out of place. But what, does the Mushroom Kingdom not have BEVERAGES? Surely they have their drinks of choice and it is only obvious that they would be ADVERTISED. Adding this could only make the game more immersive! Now, obviously this is an absurd example, but I find absurd examples help us see whats wrong so we notice it on smaller examples. So what is wrong? The sign makes me ask a lot of questions.

*Hey, now that you mention it, where are all the people who live here?

*I don’t see an infrastructure! How odd! Where do they make these things? The only buildings are castles and haunted houses!

*In fact, who would put a sign in such a deadly place? No one would possibly see it!

The sign destroys the abstraction of the environment. It makes us consider what we’re seeing in a more realistic light, which immediately gets in the way of suspension of disbelief. Now, it might not seem like theres suspension of disbelief in a Mario game, but it exists! It exists in the sense that we ignore all the nonsense because the game never makes us look at it in an serious way. So obviously Mario didn’t really do anything that stupid, but there is one example that keeps bugging me.

I Hate Metroid Fusion(‘s Vending Machine)

Now I don’t want to hate on Fusion much more than I have, but this is what made me think about all this. SO one of the things I DO like about Fusion is the tileset for the space station main deck. It’s very vibrant, detailed and has a lot of depth for a GBA game. But one thing always bothered me. GOD DAMNED VENDING MACHINES AND POTTED PLANTS (As displayed on your right). Now people always respond “Well, it’s a space station! People gotta get snacks”! The problem here is that the vending machine causes us to question the overall structure of the space station. What makes this worse is that it’s not even framed correctly. SOTN’s chapel (second picture) did it right. The whole room looks like a chapel and has a sensible layout. In fact the whole area kinda does, because it’s so simple. Some staircases up, a chapel, then a bunch of bell towers that never bang “THIS IS A REALISTIC CHAPEL” over your head ever again. You get a cute little touch in a scenario where it does not stand out. In Fusion, it stands out as a misfit element. SOTN frames out expectations a bit more. We see a lot of areas that reflect reality in a subtle, but cartoonish way. We also see it poke fun at these elements (Random dresser in the caverns, for example). It plays a balance. A vending machine and potted plants in the middle of no where does not play a balance. If the area was drawn up as a cafeteria or something or more living quarters were inserted, the element would feel less like a misfit. You do not want elements in the background to stand out unless they’re set pieces. In fact, this is the second difference between the chapel and the vending machine. One is supposed to be a small little background touch that stands out like a sore thumb, and another is an impressive set piece in a reasonable context.

Man, imagine if Doom had bathrooms? You can look at Duke Nukem 3d and see the difference in level philosophy at the time. Duke 3d made levels that looked like places. It had to make sacrifices in level design to make things flow well and be believable, while Doom could do whatever it wanted. Places in Doom had a theme, but no other logic. Both have their merits — a lot of people in the time thought Duke 3d was THE SHIZZLE because it looked like there were real cities. What Duke rarely did was let this illusion slip. If it needed to have unusual locations, it did it in caverns or alien places. It put a lot of effort into that illusion.

The idea to keep in mind for ones own work is to avoid these misfit elements and decide how far you want to work for hints of realism in your game. Some games are even more abstract than Mario, while others make everything look vaguely like something. It’s all good, as long as you can make the gameplay fun within that space. But avoid misfit elements. Keep a tone and try and stick with it. Tone can dictate a lot of this too. In SMW, you do see Yoshi’s “house”, for example. It’s kinda stupid, but it, in a sense, is kinda cute. In a more realistic feeling game, it becomes a “Wait, what?” — such as a bathroom in Doom. Again, not a ton of analysis here, but just some thoughts to keep in mind if you ever find your self working on a game environment. Modern games generally have to always keep some degree of plausibility, but when doing indy work you have a LOT of leeway to make stylistic decisions.

On Level Design: A Macro Map design and some Ecology!

Before I go on, lemme just say this is a VERY VERY fine point. If you’re making a game, this is a finer point you can pretty much ignore and be fine. But of you’re looking for polish and your game is suited for this (unlike say, Mario), then you’re good. Lemme also say that this is brought upon by Other M (Haven’t played it yet) and this thing with putting cold levels in Metroid games. Apparently people confuse metroid with ‘being about all sorts of climates’ nowadays or something. So this is a half rant/half lecture on eco systems in map design. Lets start with the history.



Alright, I won’t lie. Metroid kinda sucks dick. At the very least, it aged very bad. But still, I will say this. Within the same year, Spelunker, Super Pitfall and Metroid came out and tried out the open ended exploration thing. One of these games succeeded. Metroid is an interesting novelty as it basically drops you in a world with no aim or direction.You get the hint that you need to kill two monsters to proceed in the game early on and thats it. From there you wander around, bomb every brick and collect everything until you succeed. Then you encounter Metroids and have no idea what to do about them. Only experimentation allows you to kill them and the experimentation does not come easy due to the nature of different guns replacing each other. The game does give you two different shots at the ice beam, but anyways. What of the map?

Well Metroid is not an advanced enough game to convey an ecosystem in a significant way outside “fire sea horse is in a sea of fire”. The map layout it’s self is huge by NES standards (and interesting enough, is compressed in such a way that it generates a ‘secret’ glitch area that is like many many times greater in size than the actual game, but thats another story), but its use of rows and columns in it’s design create a map that is…. digestable. We can also see that brinstar, the ‘main’ area is the higher most area, with both Norfair, Ridley’s Hideout and Kraid’s hideout being toward the bottom of the planet. Nothing significant, but some design elements are considered. The big problem here is that Metroid is made out of ‘megablocks’ that form screen templates. Ever notice how a lot of metroid screens look exactly the same? WELL, thats how it got to be so big. Thats also why those hidden areas accidently exist (I won’t write about that anymore here, but if you’re curious, look up ‘metroid hidden areas’. The topic has been explored extensively by more knowledgeable people). After awhile everything blends together until you are truly, horribly lost.

Two notes

First one is on topic: If the screen transitions, the horizontal/vertical scrolling HAS To switch. Remember how you had those two columns in the beginning with the one screen ‘tunnel’ room between them? Well now we know why that exists.

Second one for fun: You know the good Ol’ Justin Bailey code. Well, that is not a special password. That is a RANDOMLY GENERATED PASSWORD that passes Metroid’s password checksum and is interpreted as expected. It exists sheerly through random chance. There is a special password though. NARPAS SWORD (followed by a bunch of 0s), which makes samus invincible. The name probably has nothing to do for a sword, but probably means either North American Release Password or Not A Real Password. Just a fun bit of trivia.

So what can we learn from Metroid? Not much, the game sucked. If anything we learned that people will tolerate ‘suck’ for exploration.

Metroid II: The Return of Samus

Holy Christ on a stick, this game sucks too. How did we even GET to Super Metroid? Well, probably because this was a gameboy game and for a gameboy game, this shit is pretty baller. Also we didn’t get Super Metroid yet so we didn’t know what a good Metroid was yet. So lemme start off with one fact. THE MAP DOES NOT FIT TOGETHER.



God dammit. SO you wanna talk about getting lost? The screens are so big compared to what you can see, they all look like the same fucking grayscale shit and shit doesn’t even lead up to places it should lead. It is horrible. But anyways, some neat stuff does exist in this game. I actually beat it the other day to see how well it aged. Not well, but like Metroid, it’s an interesting relic. So as Samus you explore SR388, the home planet of the metroids (Well, if you wanna be a fag, Zebes is their homeplanet as the Chozo made the Metroid to kill the X parasite on SR388! :D) to well… commit genocide. The levels are all very natural. Winding caves — it’s literally like spelunking as you drive deeper and deeper. Unlike the eventual Super Metroid idea, you don’t advance with new abilites, you advance by killing off all the metroids in a given area (to be fair, the items help you find metroids), and the ACID LAKE in the center vein structure of the map lowers. So whats cool about any of this? Well unlike Metroid, the place feels like a natural cave of sorts. Metroid either looked built and industrial or abstract (why is the ground made of bubbles? D:). Even when it did seem rocky, the straight forward nature of everything made things seem man made. Metroid II does not feel man made, in an interesting and BAD way. It damaged gameplay but it is interesting. In no other metroid do you spend as much time walking and platforming without seeing an enemy. Prime seemed to borrow a bit from this, but did it in a much more tasteful capacity. Anyways since theres no proper ‘areas’, the whole ecosystem thing is also kinda weak here. The enviroment gets more hostile as you go deeper, but you also see more and more chozo made constructions outside the statues. By the time you get to the end (which features the most idle walking), you reach what is called Phase 9 (the lava dropped 9 times), which is also called ‘The Royal Palace’, a constructed breeding ground for metroids. The tunnels feel authentic in their desire to be as inconvenient as possible. It’s rather an interesting development, even though the sacrifices made to do it are almost unforgivable. The difficulty in backtracking is a problem, but there are actually more missiles and energy tanks in the game then you can actually hold, so that softens the blow. You can see what they were going for. Also they had a huge boner for the morph ball. The spiderball sounds fun on paper, but it’s the most tedious, slow, buggy piece of shit in the world. I also have a strange suspicion that the emptiness near the end of the game is unintentional and that they literally ran out of time for the game. I can see it going either way, but the thought that the decisions were intentional interests me more.

Metroid II also features a lot of Flora and Fauna that appears in Super Metroid… which is obviously sort of weird, but hey, those Chozo are wacky bird people. Anyways clearly this is a game meant to capitalize on the feeling of exploration Metroid game, while trying to deal with the sense of being lost. The Acid lake was arbitrary but if you look how each area’s unlocks allowed access to new metroids, you can see where they got the idea for an interactive, ability driven map. Because why rely on the metroids? At the moment it was necessary, but moving on their goal became clear. Between Metroid and Metroid II you can construct the prototypical design for Super Metroid in an atmospheric and Exploratory sense. Metroid II is ultimately a failure and has probably aged worse than Metroid (which as I said, is fairly digestible). Also they decided that their map should fucking fit together.

Super Metroid

Japan isn’t a fan of Metroid. Looking at the above games though, it makes sense. But Super Metroid is one of the best designed games out there and it’s aged amazingly. It also leads into what I want to talk about. Now, I’m forgoing my favorite image of the cocktail napkin sketch of Super Metroid, for a more practical map…. but lemme link to an even LESS practical map . Yeah, thats the whole god damned game in an image. It’ll help.

So what does Super Metroid do wrong? Besides the pit with the god damned green monkey motherfuckers (etecoons — also the spinespark birds are Drachoras) where you have to walljump, not much. That part is trivial to me now, but when I was a kid it filled me with rage. The map has tons of interesting things going on. It has the organic nature of Metroid II, with a digestible structure like in Metroid 1. The map is pseudo non-linear and the lock and key mechanics are made up of acquirable moves. It uses the pillar ‘super structures’ from Metroid as a way to divide areas up neatly. Only once you get to Maridia do things get kinda confusing. Anyways, I wanna talk a bit about the Zebes ecology.

You start in Crateria, which is rocky, damp and stormy. There is very little life — some grass and moss, but very little life. The tile set is cold and it is storming outside. It implied in sources that this is actually acid rain. Upper Crateria is filled with with Acid pools, either from the first detonation of Tourian or just because thats how Zebes rolls. You re-explore the ruined Tourian and the original metroid starting location — which for the record is 2 screens short of being in perfect alignment with their positions in the original Metroid (for the record, you can practically fit the original metroid in the dead space created by the elevators and Brinstar and Norfair maintain their geographical locations from one another). As you head down you see more life — stone like mushrooms and hardened hives of small animals. You take an elevator down and BAM, life. It’s warmer down here and the acid rain doesn’t reach. Life is booming. Upper Brinstar (green and Pink Brinstar) is rolling with life and the boring ass Spore Spawn. But then you head deeper and suddenly Brinstar begins to dry out. The soil is read and there is less life. Clearly we’re closer to norfair… But hey wait, water. You pass through Maridia and things are damp again. You drop by Norfair, get highjump, and then go viisit Kraid. Kraid’s layer is kept wet from Maridia, so life is abundant again. The dried green and red glowing background imply this is a dubious balance, but is balanced enough for life.

Stuff like this exists elsewhere. Above Maridia, Crateria and the wrecked ship are wet and damp. The missile lake and entrance to the ship are clearly results of Maradia’s underground ocean. Lower Norfair, the hottest part of the planet, is at the lowest point, perhaps the core. Things aren’t perfect (the first red wall in Brinstar is next to Mardia, but a player wouldn’t ever realize it. Lower Norfair lines up with the grappling hook segment which isn’t portrayed as insanely hot (and theres water!), but generally when you look for it there are a LOT of attentions paid to the little detail. Super Metroid crafts a believable world. It makes concessions when necessary, but it knows it doesn’t have to be unyielding. The little details it puts in crafts an excellent atmosphere. You can make all sorts of assumptions too. Was the guy who died infront of Kraid’s liar a survivor of the wrecked ship? Well, maybe that was the intention, until Zero Mission explained that, but it’s still a cool touch. Probably just a some Federation Marine chump who got killed by the door.

The map in general is almost perfect. At the very least, it is the best, most interconnected map in it’s genre. Even where it has chokepoints (only one way into Norfair), the nature of things funnel you there from multiple starting points. No teleportation require and no need to break the interconnected nature of the maps.

Metroid Prime I & II

It’s been awhile so my memory is rusty, but first, lemme say this is the cause of all my grief here. WHY THE FUCK IS PHENDRANA DRIFTS NEXT TO MAGMOOR CAVERN? ARE YOU GUYS EVEN TRYING? Prime actually has a great atmosphere and wonderful ecology on the micro scale, but their maps have always been sorta bad. Sadly Prime is their best attempt. The game is great overall, and it’s slower, more pondering pace makes its map issues (you will check your map a lot. Forever) less of a concern, it does discard a lot of metroid lessons. The game, made by Retro Studios seemed to mistake Metroid for being about crazy enviroments or something. Then in II they went for the hub design which sucked dick (also light and dark world, where the dark world HURTS YOU so you can’t explore), and III is a shooter so whatever. A note about Prime from a level design standpoint thats positive — and probably the cause of this issue. Prime was made by level designers making levels out of squares — than the art team came in and made the room look great. There seemed to be a bit too much of a disconnect — or at least a lack of planning that lead to these quick, goofy location transitions. Their methodolgy was good though!

Also again, fuck Hub designs, because next we’re talking about

Metroid Fusion

Fuck you person who surely disagrees, this game sucks. Thank god Prime was good (Even if its map was weak), or else we’d be 1:4. Fusion I think got a lot of paces because handheld Metroidvania’s still sucked. The game controlled well, which is a big plus, but it has an awful map. We’re back to MII territory. THE MAPS DO NOT CONNECT. Fuck you, map designer, that shit is NOT COOL. Also the map sucked, the bosses sucked, the exposition sucked, Adam locking shit off sucked, having to go to nav rooms before trying to proceed sucked and well the whole game fucking sucks, short of the controls and the tileset used for the main space ship (it’s seriously kinda swank).

The map is divided into 5 zones. ICE ZONE, FIRE ZONE, JUNGLE ZONE, WATER ZONE AND….. Dark… Zone? Man, fuckin’ A guys. Now like with Other M’s bottle ship, I think the concept is stupid, but at least you can’t fuck up the ecology bit. The problem here is the zones are almost entirely separated from each other and you can gain and lose access to them based on the will of the plot. Can’t use your new toys to get new items, Adam doesn’t approve. The game is disjointed and the nav stations only serve to slow the game down. There is a single line of interconnectivity among the sectors, but seriously the shit is so lame. Lemme sum up my feelings on Fusion in a forum post.

“So I just did something terrible. I played through Fusion. Now, I haven’t played Fusion since it came out and with only one playthrough in 8 years, I was practically going into the game fresh. I remembered a few things. The stupid computer plot, the themed sections of the ship and a few trace ‘oh yeahs’ were about all I had going for me.

The game still sucked balls. One thing on the plus side though: Certain areas had reaaaaally nice tile sets and use of color, notably the first area. Saying that though, I could have lived without ever seeing a potted plant or vending machine in Metroid. Otherwise most of the enemies look like ridiculous cartoon characters, save for a few rebuilt enemies from SM and maybe a handful of originals. The linearity was beyond my memory, it was INSULTING. At one point the game tells me to get an item in a ROOM I’VE ALREADY BEEN IN, and then, on route to the room, traps me in a navigation room AGAIN to say “ARE YOU SURE YOU KNOW WHERE IT IS? Y/N”. The whole plot reminds me of the sort of thing I yell at Indy developers for making. It was so contrived and I didn’t feel like anything was gained by listening to Samus get wet over Adam while she rode the elevator.

Granted I think Samus introspective are potentially cool, but this game did not show how to do it. Every bit of injected plot, besides a few reveals, are just painful.

Also GOD THE BOSS FIGHTS. I mean, I admit too that SM’s bossfights leave something to be desired, but these were AWFUL, especially toward the end. My strategy in all these fights were to just pound the bosses with my insanely good missiles and take whatever damage and say ‘whatever’, only dodging the occasional high damage attack. The whole game seems to be made up of patternless bosses who’s gameplay involves ‘try and jump over the big obnoxious enemy’. This isn’t even to go on to say how hilariously ugly and nonsensical Nightmare looks .l Also Ridley suddenly bursting into ANIMU RIDLEY OOOH YEAH. zzzzzzzz

This game is amatuer hour at R&D1. They definitely didn’t have a feel for making a Metroid game. Not being a metroid game isn’t bad, but the problem is in their failed attempt to make a Metroid game they made a game that was bad overall. For example theres a few sections that take some Metroid style intuition, but they come totally out of left field. I’ve been being dragged by the nose so long that NOW, for like, ONE ROOM, I’m supposed to intuit where to go? Screw you, game.

SA-X also seems pretty dumb. Theres like, one tense moment followed by a bunch of ‘die until you learn course/trick: Repeat until success’. It’d be better if she just didn’t totally wipe the floor with you. You survive by cheesing her. You either die or you survive almost unharmed. As you hide behind an obvious wall. zzzzz

Also I thought the plot would be cooler if that was the real samus. I kept looking at her saying “Man, why don’t I look like that? I’m just a Mottled Samus, like some sort of EVO body type or something.”

Anyways to be fair the game isn’t entirely awful. It’s some okay-but-flawed action adventure game on it’s own, but it is well under the radar of quality for games I would normally play.”

Also here is something someone else describes that happened to me.

“So, Sector 5. You get the Power Bombs there! As someone who’s played Super Metroid previously, I recognize this as a Good Thing, and figure I might want to play with my new toy.

Oh, wait, this is Fusion, I have to go back to my ship now, because the computer told me to. Hm… on the way, there’s this area I can now open up with my power bombs! Screw you, Adam, I’m gonna investigate that place.

Oh wait, I can’t, there’s a grub blocking the corridor right after it, and it’s covered in adamantium plating that my weapons can’t touch. Sigh. To the ship it is, then. I save here. Adam now tells me to… go exactly where I was going to go so I can try to start up a generator. But there was a grub in the way before, I can’t get through!

Except the grub was woken up by Adam’s yammering, or something, so it’s not in the way anymore. Really, Fusion? Really?”

Metroid Zero Mission


To be fair, Zero Mission is pretty damned great. Not Super Metroid great, but great. The map interconnects nicely. It uses the memorable parts from the first Metroid well and discards the rest. It has a well internconnected map with a sensible arrangement. It doesn’t go the subtle ecological route. The map is solid, but not outstanding. We also get to find out that the wrecked ship is Ridley’s ship. Fun stuff. I dig on Zero Mission but I can’t figure much to say. It’s like a less good version of Super Metroid mixed with some unique charm from the original Metroid. It does have some goofy arbitrary bits though. Also the stealth segment is hit or miss (I liked it).

So anyways, what can we learn from all this? Well, make your maps LINE UP like a pro. But we also learned that subtle details can craft an interesting world that feels internally consistent. For example, most Castlevanias feature the clock tower to the right of the Castle Keep. Why? Because during the Final Approach, the clock tower is traditionally off to the right in the background. HoD ignores this. That doesn’t make the game. HoD and Aria get this wrong. HoD has the clock tower fundamentally in the wrong place and Aria for some reason puts the Clock Tower on the LEFT side, which is kinda goofy. Does this make or ruin a game? No, but it helps make a game feel consistent. In IWBTG the map didn’t line up (granted my task was harder and I was inexperienced. Adding filler screens to connect things would be terrible and IWBTG isn’t a real exploratory metroidvania either. Still, I think you could sketch a picture of the IWBTG world featured in the game. There is some oddities (why is thhe start of the minecart on top of a tower? D:), but generally you have the above ground (which you drop off of on either side to lower areas), the underground and a tower, all geographically located next to each other. This could be more ideal (and anything else I make will be more ideal), but this sense of structure is something I think is missing from a lot of fan games. I digress mostly because IWBTG is more about pacing, cleverness and humor than it’s poorly considered map that happened to work out.

Details push things another step forward and if you’re trying to construct a world or structure, even though gameplay comes first, things should be sensible. Towers where towers should be, catacombs UNDER the map, high places on the TOP of the map (or on the ‘outside’ of the map, like in SoTN). That sound obvious, but if you’re making a map, be absolutely sure to actually DO IT. If you wanna be awesome though, you go the extra mile like in Super Metroid and make all the area not only blend into each other, but exist in a sensible manner that reveals hints at the nature of the world it’s self.

Edit: So heres some added little stuff from people on the Talking Time Forum.

From Kishi

NARPASSWORD refers to Tohru Narihito, the guy who converted the game from the game from the FDS to the NES (which included implementing the password system, since the FDS version had saves).

From Eusis

Minor nitpick there (though is more me being baffled by Sakamoto & crew): the ship at the end of Zero Mission ISN’T the one from Super Metroid. Seems like a lost opportunity to do something like that which should fit nicely, then go “nope, that was some other ship!” Apparently you saw parts of this other ship around the same area but… gah.

Hooooo, really? Thats a pretty interesting bit of information

Forum Post Breakdown: Game Design Edition

Heres a bunch of Game Design related posts I churned out on various forums I visit. Lets start with my ‘level design’ post which was supposed to become a full sized article. I’m lazy though.


iTremble ye who look upon this map, for it is the mightiest of its kind/i

Tremble ye who look upon this map, for it is the mightiest of it

What makes good level design? Such is mysterious! Many men could point and say “Behold! This level is the shizzle, for rizzle”, and fewer but still many could psay “I like things!” and point vigorously at things which are made of good and things that are made of bad and EVEN FEWER may actually design a stage, have it be good and likely still does not know what he’s talking about. He also does not get to point.

Even I designed I Wanna Be The Guy with no idea what I was doing. I merely had intuition and experimentation to go by, which led to good and bad decisions as I went along, but over time I came upon the understanding of a process. But before I go into my methods, I will raise the first question. Why is Super Metroid so good and why does its map beat the pants off of everything else in it’s genre?

A typical Castelvania Area compared to a typical Super Metroid Area

A typical Castelvania Area compared to a typical Super Metroid Area

Super Metroid does a lot of small things very well through attention to detail. It keeps you moving and it keeps you moving in an energetic way. It makes you do platforming that may almost feel like formality when looking at it from a distance and it flows from one area to the next. it is active and varied, pleasing to look at and fluid. So with that in mind I will go on to discuss my building blocks for a level. This can apply to any type of level (not metroidvanias excusively) so I will use broad elements.


Before you do anything, you generally need at least a vague concept, thinking about what you want to happen on this screen, adjacent screens. You want to know what real challanges you want to have, if any and you want to consider the pacing of the game in it’s entirety when you come ot this point. Sometimes even a passing thought in these areas are all you need.

When you begin placing a level down, be it in game or on paper, there are other things you need to take into consideration.


Moving is the key thing you do in most games and in platformers or FPSs or anything, I generally think of two general considerations.


Portable Castlevania’s biggest sin has always been indescript hallways with periodic enemies. No features. No platforms to jump on. No motion but the most basic of motions. Games in the mairo series have traditionally been very good at this. Even tiny touches such as changing the terrain elevation or needless platforms and asymetrical areas makes moving from point A and point B way more enjoyable.


Flow I think of as distinct from motion. A stage has good flow not when you necessarily do a lot of ‘unnecessary’ ‘motion’, but when the path the player takes flows naturally. In games with winding passageways and complicated maze like structures, flow is important to gently guide the player where he has to go. Super Metroid does this beautifully as their are few times where you have to blindly backtrack. You can proceed through the game almost entirely through a cyclical motion. In linaer games like Half-Life, good flow wll help make the player not feel rail roaded. They are going down this road because they WANT to go down it, not because they have no choice. Playing the original Half Life, I always felt like I had mutliple paths to take that never existed during my first time through the game.

pacing often has to be looked at in a macro and micro sense. In the macro scale, you may ask ‘was the last area hard? Does the player deserve a relaxing area? Do I need ot remind the player that this game is hard?”. You may ask if the game is reaching it’s climax and if it’s time to crank on the pressure. On a micro scale, each level is filled with ups and down.Long corridors in Symphony of the Night can get boring with your emotion impeded by ‘walls'(enemies) you have to hack down Even little screens in IWBTG can represent pacing. repeating rooms constantly filled with spikes are painfully stressful and even a few scant free spaces to move around in without fear can be a massive relief to players. On the same point, there are times when you purposely want to give no quarter.

Not Pictured: Quarter

Not Pictured: Quarter


Aesthetic! Many hardcore gamers say they don’t care about graphics. Thats mostly BS. Graphics do not need to be fancy though by any means. Still, every screen, every panel, every section represents a composition. These compositions must look balanced. Stage design without balanced composition often feels random and arbitrary. Remove the moody atmosphere from the Colony section at the beginning of Super Metroid. Replace all the platforms with just simple boxes. Now it feels like a cheap flash jumping game! Take out the aesthetic screen balance and now the game looks like Cheetahmen II. Terrible aesthetic can even directly damage your flow.

You don’t have ot be an artist and don’t have ot make your levels a work of art, but at the very least you need things to be unnoticable Glaringly bad balance and composition can hurt to look at.

the simple lay out of most of the Zelda screens are burned into my brain.

the simple lay out of most of the Zelda screens are burned into my brain.

So… So far I’ve told you a bunch of stuff to look for. If you look you’ll probably find that these things are shown in pretty much all examples of games with good level design. Even Quake 3 maps use these concepts just to make something competitive! But I haven’t told you how to do any of this.

Well as far as I know, the only way to do it is guts and effort. The knowledge of what to look for and what is fun is key to making a good level. You have to test it and feel it. If you know what you’re looking for and keep in mind what makes an area more appealing, you have a better chance to hit the mark.

So what I’m hoping from everyone is that you add our input and insight on good levels. I’ll probably add more based on what I think of and what you say. I want to eventually compile a blog post out of this, so I’ll end here for now. May next time I’ll get into specific cases!

Also recommended reading:
Auntie Pixelante

Now wasn’t that nice, if not a little rough? Then theres a few posts I made on making games in general. A few people asked me for advice for new game developers.

Alright, lemme get some stuff out before I go to bed then.

First off, it’s better to complete something bad then make nothing at all. Your friends might disagree, but you have built up knowledge. This considered, it’s best not to start doomed projects. You’ll learn a little, but will never get the full picture.

So first thing is to not be over ambitious. If you over exert your self, you will never succeed and your effort will be wasted. There is no reason your ‘big’ game has to be your first game. Releasing a decent game of some kind will teach you an infinite amount of valuable things about managing your work and creating the content, as well as the effort required to get things done.

Second thing is to self edit.

Pro Tip: 95% of your ideas are abhorrent garbage

People often wonder how great designers come up with great ideas! The big truth here is generally that their average idea isn’t much better then yours. Well, maybe a little better due to experience, but they started out with ideas as bad as yours! The difference is, they are self critical. They do not hold their ideas sacred. They think about how workable an idea is and, if it is bad, they discard it. They are a better pruner of ideas then you are and the best way to become more like them is to prune more. Many people have idea that sound good, but fail, even theoretically. They are generally afraid to throw out ideas that seem cool, or try and shoe-horn them in just because. Develop the discipline to just say no to your self.

Secondly, great designers find a great idea and they make it shine. They don’t bog it down with excess. What excess is will vary, but they generally will focus on the juicy core. This isn’t to say you need to be minimalist, but the difference between minimalism and maximalism are smaller then you think. I’ll run this down quick…

Minimalism: Cut as many ideas and concepts away as possible without damaging the core idea (Example: Braid, Ikaruga)

Maximalism: Add as much awesome stuff as possible……. WITHOUT DAMAGING THE CORE IDEA (Example: Bunny Must Die, Radiant Silvergun)

So when adding or subtracting ideas to supplement your core concepts, keep this in mind.

Third! Brilliant people steal. A LOT. Originality is the most overrated concept in existence. If you look around hard enough, you should see that there is nothing new under the sun. Nunix said it pretty well earlier in the thread when talking about Idea Theft. REMEMBER THAT. Do not be afraid to steal. That doesn’t mean to just steal and be done with it — then you’re just uninspired and uninteresting to the player. Take the idea, polish it up, show it love and heck, implement it in a new, or heck, just plain well executed way. What games are accused of stealing and being clones the most? Bad games. Don’t be a bad game and you’ll be alright, even if a lot of your ideas are derivative.

The process of idea making, refinement and editing is one of the hardest things to learn. At the same time it is also one of the reasons why releasing garbage is good. It gives you a chance to get real feedback on your work so you can refine your internal processes.

Theres a lot of failure involved in making things, but that shouldn’t scare you. There is a Go adage I like…

Lose Your First 50 Games As Quickly As Possible

There are similar quotes involving painting as well. Failure is a part of learning and the sooner you make mistakes, the sooner you will no longer make the same mistakes again.

I guess thats enough for now, I think I should get to bed! Sorry if this is rambley, writing is not one of my best skills. I could benefit from a little more self editing, in fact. :(

A bit more on originality.

Originality is overrated.

Nothing about originality or innovation intrinsically leads to more fun or anything. I think people confuse themselves. They play a bad game that clearly wanted to cop off of Halo and they’re like “This game sucks! It’s so derivative and does nothing new!”

Well they’re sort of confused. When the game is a tepid mess, blaming the lack of originality is easier then blaming the lack of polish, love and care that didn’t go into the game.

When you play a good game, the slight differences between it and it’s predecessors seems huge, because it’s all dolled up and is well presented in a way that accentuates these differences. It doesn’t make the differences any greater, it just makes you notice them.

And some on game pricing…

I totally agree with Geo. I played VVVVVVV’s demo without looking at the price. Then I was like “Hey this is neat, if it’s priced right, maybe I’ll buy it!”

I saw 15 dollars. I was just like “lol” … I figured 5 might be the higher end, and 10 was possible. But 15? I laughed my ass off. I laughed at the absurdity.

I thought of all the things I could buy. Notably on the indy end of things, Noitu Love 2 is 5 dollars cheaper.

So for 15 dollars you get

for 10 dollars you get


And I haven’t even bothered to buy NL2 yet (one day I will). I just bought Serious Sam HD for 8 bucks. I can get a number of remakes of great games on PSN for less than 15.

VVVVVVV just does not look even close to a 15 dollar game. NL2 looks better than most professional DS games and its’ only 10 dollars. Granted I think it started at 15 or 20 but at least that looks awesome! VVVVVVV also has to compete with a number of FREE games.

15 is just a poorly considered price. He lost my sale and quite a few other sales I’m sure.

The problem I see if an issue of pride. If VVVVVVV was 5$ it almost seems to the average person that it was trying to make less money. Even if a simple game required a ton of effort, charging 15-20$ isn’t going to fly. You’re trying to find the optimal price point, not assess of much your game is abstractly worth on a value of goodness.

Feel that sting? Thats pride, fucking with you. Understanding price as an aspect of marketing and maximizing profits is the important part. This is regardless of quality, effort or production value.