An exercise in level design

This week, we're going way more experimental, and it brings to mind an interesting concept - video game literacy. While playing this week's game I couldn't help but think that if I was not an experienced gamer, I would have been much more lost in what to do and where to go. In a game with barely any text or direction, how did I so easily make it from one place to the next? The answer I'll be discussing most is level design, but it's worth pointing out up front that this game expected a very literate audience, often relying on common conventions and assumptions to get the player moving in the right direction. As I go on working on my own projects, I will keep in mind how literate I expect my audience to be, and what that means I need in terms of direction for them.

Box Life

Overview

Box Life by tequibo (also on steam) is a tiny first person puzzle platformer that claims to be a Metroidvania. The claim isn't unfounded, as you start with only the most basic abilities and then slowly find more, backtracking to access the new areas they open up. The entire game takes place in a single, medium-sized level.

What Works

Level design. This game is a wonderful example of a well laid out level, as with no instruction besides the controls, it gets you through the entire half-dozen powerups without any hiccups. When you start the game you appear at the top of a sort of tower, with only one way down (and no way back up). The area you end up in is relatively small, and after poking around you find only a single way to go, as well as some interesting pillars (that become important later). While there is only one path to follow, you happen upon it, and the area surrounding looks to be maybe-transversable until you try it, which I didn't the first time around, giving the impression that I had chosen a path instead of being funneled down it. That illusion of choice comes back many times throughout the ~45 minutes the game lasts, and it is the difference between a linear experience and a feeling of overcoming nebulous obstacles.

Once on the only path, you are presented with an obstacle you can't pass and a drop. Dropping down gets you stuck (you can't jump yet), and presents you another obstacle and the first powerup - jumping. This is the game telling you to return here once you've found more powerups, and it's very effective. With your new jump power you can explore another route up above, and quickly come upon the first key. With nowhere else to go, you return to the initial area and pass the pillars, where the key rests when you approach. Without any direction given, the player finds that there are obstacles they cannot pass, that there are powerups that let them pass obstacles, a location to return to after finding another powerup, and the objective of the game as well as how to complete it. It is brilliant in its subtlety. This theme continues throughout.

The variety of the half-dozen or so powerups you find also helps make the game interesting - everything from a shot that breaks certain walls to flight to the ability to shrink and fit in tiny passages. These especially serve to enable exploration, and it is satisfying to find something and consider what you can get past with it now.

What Doesn't

In addition to the main objective or finding four keys, the game has "secrets," and when you find the first it is eager to tell you that it was one of nine. While that's fine, it doesn't really "work" - I looked for a few, but they are hidden so obscurely that hunting for them turned into rubbing every powerup onto every surface until a new passage opened up, and it was disappointing for a game with such solid level design to miss this extra opportunity to shine. There was also one section that required you to clear out dozens and dozens of blocks to continue down a corridor, and it just ended up feeling like work.

What Inspired Me

By far the biggest takeaway from this game is its focus, as Box Life wanted to be exactly one thing, and boy is it. The minimalistic, abstract graphics, lack of compelling sound, and general simplicity of the game are all overshadowed by the core focus of getting you from A to B without telling you how to get there. The mechanics it explores all contribute to this focus, giving you subtle, or not-so-subtle, ways of reaching things that you previously saw but just couldn't get. In my current project, I have implemented some combat mechanics that may end up being against the grain of what my game wants to do, and this game has strengthened the idea in my mind that any amount of work implementing a mechanic is an acceptable loss if it detracts from the focus of my project. Throwing away work like this takes courage, and it stings, but it's worth the loss to make the best product possible.


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