DUSK, perhaps you’ve heard of it? Maybe you’ve read Parts I & II of this interview series. If that’s the case then welcome friend, we saved the best for dessert.
So get cozy, hydrate, and put on some tea or coffee because David of @DUSKDev fame has a lot to say about legacy shooter design.
REBIND: So, gush about your favorite level design in a game.
David: Oof that’s a hard one to keep under novel length! It goes without saying that I’m big into retro FPS level design. That was the golden age of interconnecting contained meaningful spaces. Or put another way, it’s when there was an emphasis put on the 3d space itself more than the visual appearance.
I don’t mean that in a “yeah man that was when they valued GAMEPLAY over graphics, sips Monster Zero Ultra” way. I mean that today the distinction between level design and visual design is very muddy, and there’s disproportionate emphasis put on the look of levels over how they function and feel as 3d spaces In the 90s, levels were used more as 3d spaces. They interconnected in interesting ways. They let you backtrack without the illusion of constant space being cut off by points of no return. You would see the same areas from different angles and heights. Things were allowed to get abstract and diverge from reality in often fascinating ways. There was a focus on the layout and actual structure of levels being interesting to move in, fight in, and navigate in, and that’s something that kind of disappeared from general design wisdom for years after the rise of Half-life. Pretty much until Dark Souls re-introduced the concept
Doom’s Ep1 is sort of a crash course in that style of level design, and they remain some of my favorite levels both for the rules they introduced and the rules they break. Usually they loop and interconnect, but sometimes they don’t. Critical paths usually meander their way throughout levels, but sometimes there are optional chunks or diversions from forward progression.
The abstract geometry (well, sectors) makes good use of 3d negative space but isn’t afraid to leave big expanses of empty space or unadorned walls. While both Doom’s legacy and incredible modding community have led to literally thousands of examples of its particular style of level design done flashier, larger, and technically better, Doom Ep1 remains fun and fascinating because in laying down many of those principles it also wasn’t beholden to them.
Then there’s Blood’s expansion pack, Cryptic Passages, which is a master class in moody pseudo-realistic retro level design. It excels at giving spaces a tangible setting and atmosphere while still allowing for abstract designs, and at giving your progression through that space a sense of narrative direction: something the Id brand of level design admittedly struggled with. For example, you begin the first level on a dock nestled amid towering canyon walls, and by way of a series of cave tunnels find your way into an abandoned basement, then upward still to the top of the cliffs, then eventually to the top of a lighthouse. There’s a journey to it, which the technical limitations and their resulting abstractness make all the more interesting. The whole episode excels at this: using a tangible sense of place to contextualize the atmosphere and the journey it takes you on.
Painkiller could be very good at this also. Although it deliberately eschewed the concepts of backtracking and interconnection and is difficult to defend as having traditionally good level design, it did effectively take the player on an interesting path through and around its locales, in addition to those locales being just plain old beautiful and dripping in atmosphere. My favorite by far is its penultimate level, Old Monastery. It just feels like a bittersweet dream come to life. Beautiful, bleak, ethereal, and majestic. It would be contemplative if not for the hordes of robe-clad monks chucking bombs at you. Every so often I’ll just load it up, kill everyone that’s immediately attacking me, and spend some time walking around the graveyard and gazing out at the ocean and the dark grey clouds.
But enough of that, let’s talk about Resident Evil! I consider 2002’s Resident Evil Remaster to be one of the most perfect games ever made. Yes, including the tank controls, and yes including the fixed camera. And the Spencer Mansion is, in turn, one of gaming’s most masterful uses of an interconnected enclosed space. It’s based on the concept of loops, as most good levels are. But more than that, every route through the mansion is a risk/reward compromise. Usually there are two different ways to get somewhere, but problems along each that have to be considered. This path is more direct but has a dangerous choke point. This path is safer but involves going through a door that will break after only a few uses. This path will get you there with no trouble but will spawn dangerous enemies if you try to return the same way. It’s a perfect sandbox of navigational decisions to layer on top of the game’s resource management and puzzle solving (maybe I should go this way to try using the emblem on the door? Or maybe this way so I don’t have to spend shotgun rounds on the crimson head I forgot to burn?).
And we can’t talk about stellar level design without mentioning Thief, and we can’t mention Thief without talking about its magnum opus of insanity, The Sword aka Constantine’s mansion. Like Cryptic Passages, Thief: The Dark Project excels at framing things with a sense of place, and at taking the player on a spatial and thematic journey. But The Sword is takes the former and shatters it to bits in service of the latter. It begins as a fairly routine infiltration mission: enter rich dude’s mansion, steal rich dude’s stuff. Only a single skewed window pane suggests anything might be wrong. The first floor plays out normally. There’s a bit more marble than you’re used to, but otherwise it’s business as usual. Then, without warning, you enter the second floor and reality drops out from under you. Ceilings become floors, floors become walls, perspective distorts in nightmarish ways, forests carve their ways through stone walls, etc.
It’s a level built on subversion after subversion, making the player more and more disoriented and more and more uncomfortable, made all the stranger by the human guards who continue to patrol each new impossible room, grumbling about mundane things. Thief took many risks with its level design, some of which paid off and some of which can make it difficult for players to enjoy today. But in my opinion The Sword is a complete success at what it sets out to do, and stands as one of gaming’s best examples of surreal reality-bending level design.
As with retro FPS there, are many other examples of great level design I could pull from immersive sims (System Shock 2’s engineering deck being one), but for some reason I always come back to Hell’s Kitchen in Deus Ex. It’s just the perfect mix. An open hub that’s still small enough to retain a sense of purpose, with a wonderful atmosphere of cold barren decay, and with many roles to play throughout the campaign as the player revisits it under different circumstances and learns all its ins and outs.
Like I said I could probably go on and on, but I’ll end with Agroprom Underground from STALKER Shadow of Chernobyl. It’s the first proper underground segment in a game filled with memorable underground segments. After an initial firefight with some bandits you find yourself alone amid the dead bodies, bubbling anomalies, and hellish industrial sounds, which after a climb down a narrow spiral staircase are broken by the inhuman roar of your first Bloodsucker. A squad of military grunts waits after that, in tall uncomfortably curving tunnels that obscure your line of sight but provide little in the way of safe cover, then an encounter with a mind-warping Controller in a long claustrophobic hallway. Only a makeshift hideout in a maintenance room provides any respite from the feeling of potential danger lurking on all sides. Later areas lean harder into STALKER’s themes of industrial horror and science gone awry. But Agroprom Underground it’s a great succinct taste of the nightmares that lurk below The Zone, and its relatively grounded design makes it hit even closer to home as a hellish vision of urban exploration.
REBIND: Were there any challenges in making your own FPS that you really didn’t expect or that you found particularly view-changing?
David: Hmm nothing major springs to mind. Not that there weren’t challenges throughout development but I don’t think there was anything that really blindsided us. The first thing that actually comes to mind when you mention “things that were view-changing” doesn’t have to do with FPS specifically but with game design in general.
I started Dusk at the end of a series of narrative-driven horror games that were all fairly “artsy:” they were very focused on my own vision. I actually finished the last one, A Wolf in Autumn, in a sort of stumbling exhaustion, completely fed up with players and player feedback. I wasn’t even going to show it to anyone pre-release, until my brother pestered me to send him a build, and my response to his feedback was essentially “nobody will ever be happy so I don’t care, it’s not worth changing anything.” My whole attitude was that I was bringing a vision to players, and it was their responsibility to understand it, and when they failed to understand it my response was anger and despondent fatalism.
It was eye-opening to work on Dusk in an environment where it couldn’t just devolve into something nobody else would understand. I got to see how my initial ideas were shaped by having other people involved, and having community feedback in early access, and most of the time the results of that iteration were much better than what I originally planned.
I don’t think having a personal vision and focusing on that vision is a bad thing. Far from it. That’s the essence of creating. But I’ve come to realize that communicating that vision in a way other people can understand and enjoy is just as important. The trope of the enlightened artist with a design too grand to be appreciated in their time is great for Hollywood, but is a worthless and destructive attitude to flirt with if you actually want to sell copies to happy customers. It makes you bitter, it divides you and your fan base, and frankly nine times out of ten it results in a worse game.
Does this mean everything has to be sanded and polished and made safe for mainstream consumption? Absolutely not. Weird quirky personal visions are the lifeblood of indie games. That’s the biggest advantage we have over bigger developers. We can make the stuff that not everyone likes, or that not everyone understands. At the same time, it’s worth remembering that a bunch of people who are not you will be paying money and devoting time to the game you’re making, and rightly expecting it to be worth that time and money.
REBIND: Thank you so much for your time!
David: No Problem!
David was a real treat to interview, and we’re real delighted he took the time to sit down with us at length. We hope you’ve enjoyed this deeper look at the systems and inspirations that brought DUSK to term.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice