I had the good fortune of attending an amazing talk at GDC this past March, featuring Fullbright’s Steve Gaynor & Kate Craig. They talked about their meticulous and methodical approach to level design in Gone Home (a game that is one of the many reasons I was inspired to pursue my project in the first place). Kate Craig talked about how important it is to do your research and focus on what looks both good *and* believable, I immediately connected to her approach as a game artist and designer. Even better, Kate personally sat down with me after the talk and provided some valuable feedback for Tombeaux, much of which has shaped the game’s current state (thanks Kate!).
As I mentioned earlier, I am working on two levels that the player spends time in while playing Tombeaux. One (larger) level takes place on a small section of something inspired by the St. Croix River, while the other (smaller) level takes place inside a small cabin atop a cliff, overlooking the river. I’d like to talk a bit about the cabin itself, and how I’ve seen the design transformation of such a key level in my game. Although I’ve grown fond of the below screenshot, there was something that just didn’t seem right about it. Having learned a lot about level design over this past year, I knew I had to (almost) start over with this scene.
So with that said, I’m going to break my realization down into three distinct nuggets. They might seem like no brainer’s, but I can honestly say I didn’t think about them nearly as seriously a year ago, and now I’m paying for it with having to do a major amount of cabin remodeling (literally!).
Real Estate Tip #1: Who lives in my cabin?
My game is filled with characters, dialogue, and embedded narrative. While you don’t necessarily see the characters, you hear their thoughts and read their writings. What this means is that these virtual people need to live somewhere in my game. Not just in a few lines of code or an audio file, but instead I want the player to feel like the characters were present just moments ago – the campfires are still smoldering and equipment is waiting for its owner’s imminent return. Regarding the cabin, it has a unique owner. While you as the player never meet this person, his presence is felt through the decor in the space and the words he’s left. In fact, the cabin’s occupant is the main narrator of the game, speaking as if he is standing right next to you.
I’ve been working on bios for all of my characters, but due to his prominence in the game, he’s received a bit more attention than the others at this point. As a character, he is timeless and nameless, acting more as a representative of a collection of ideas rather than a specific person or opinion. Yet his dialogue hints at some elements of formal education and a high society lifestyle, with a longing for something more primitive and simple. I’m using Thoreau’s Walden, William H. H. Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness, and elements of Teddy Roosevelt as some inspirational jumping-off points for his design.
When I designed the cabin last summer, I wasn’t thinking about characters enough. I was more focused on creating a 3D space than giving it “character”. Sure, the grey-boxing doesn’t need “character” (or characters), but it still provides a large amount of drive to why objects rest in the space that they do (and why those objects are even there in the first place!). So, while my “2014 Cabin” served its purpose well through providing the player a place to navigate and also helped me to envision the style of the game, it was only surface level about its reason for existence.
For instance, my earlier cabin design didn’t even have a bed, sink, or toilet. Instead, I decided to make a closed-door in the room, that would hint that those things were behind that door. But what do you think everyone wanted to do when they saw that door (and how frustrated they got when they couldn’t do that thing)? Remember, although you think you’re making this game/level/cabin for yourself (or a fictional character, like above), that is only part of it – the true judge of its merit will be the player.
Real Estate Tip #2: Who is going to visit my cabin?
While designing your virtual space for a virtual character to inhabit is important, it is also crucial to consider how guests visiting your space will react to the world you’ve created. I boil this down to two questions to ask: Will the player be able to navigate my world efficiently? Will the player believe in the world I’ve created?
Regarding efficiency, I feel that the design of my cabin was fairly straightforward – in both cases I used simple geometric footprints for my layout (long rectangle in 2014 and large square in 2015). While I would have loved to create a more unique blueprint, I thought about the location and timeless period that this cabin is found in and realized that I needed to forego luxury and spatial design for minimalism and efficiency (I have decided to add some outbuildings to the cabin that the player would see when outside, to add some more complexity to the design in a different way).
While my 2014 cabin was visually interesting due to the objects, textures, and lighting, it didn’t make any sense as a living space. It was long and narrow, lacking half the things you’d normally find in a cabin, and confused the player with an extra door that never opened. In my 2015 redesign, I’ve attempted to create something that is more open, yet feels extremely compact (borderline claustrophobic), to give the sense to the player that someone had lived here for a long time. There is now a single point of entry/exit to the cabin, and I’ve tried to lay out the objects in a way that feels like someone has been accruing memories across multiple time periods. While half of the objects have yet to be modeled, I already feel better about this space, for both the player and my narrator (half of the objects are already modeled, but I haven’t applied the textures yet, as I need to update all of them for Unity 5’s materials).
Real Estate Tip #3: How much inspiration does my cabin need?
A trend that I’ve been (happily) noticing in-game design lately is the amount of research – or pre-production – people are doing for their games. While this has always happened to a certain extent, devs and companies are starting to realize that the more seriously we can take our medium from the beginning, the more likely others will take it seriously as well. Whether it be the AAA studio who flies their devs to Florence to research Renaissance Italy, the mid-sized game dev company who uses on-site photogrammetry to create the majority of models for their game, or the artist who uses a Sear’s catalog as her style and image reference guide, people are doing solid research these days, and it is paying off ten-fold in the final product.
As an academic, I take research very seriously. When you add my obsession with details and rule-following to the pot, things can get out of hand really quick. This actually happened last summer with the cabin, as I decided to recreate the exact cabin I was living in, down to many of the objects in the room. While this was a good exercise in observational modeling (and I had access to great texture references), I simply got too caught up being inspired by my surroundings. The environment I was creating wasn’t making sense for the player and fictional character, and much of that was being driven by the exact place in which I was eating, sleeping, and working. While the residency at Pine Needles was a monumental and crucial element to envisioning and starting Tombeaux, it took a lot of of user (play)testing, self reflection, and research to realize that it wasn’t the right fit for my game.
Now a year later, I’ve realized that – in addition to the lack of connection to the subject I was attempting to recreate – I simply don’t have time to be so exact and anal-retentive about everything. I’ve got A LOT to model and texture, and while that cabin is very important, I can’t lose sleep over how many inches wide the windows each were (yep, I was approaching it like an engineer instead of a level designer!). So now, I’ve reconfigured the cabin’s exterior shape to be loosely based on a simple pioneer cabin. The interior seeks out another source of inspiration: I’ve discovered the work of Eastman Johnson, who spent most of 1856 living and making artwork on Lake Superior, among the Ojibwe people and the fur traders. He sketched a few cabin interiors that I’ve found particularly pertinent to the look, feel, and time period that I’m hoping to achieve in Tombeaux’s cabin (and river) environment. His sketches, combined with a late 19th century cabin exterior is shaping up to be a better fit for the game.
So, just as the mantra has been for the past few posts, a lot can happen in a year. Although it sometimes feels like I’m taking two steps forward and one step back, I think it will be worth it in the end. It is my hope that the player will walk into the cabin and immediately feel my intentions for the designing the space, through their observation of a strong narrative, thoughtful visual layout, and solid research foundation.