good level design serves a bunch of functions: it teaches the player the rules of the game, it explores the implications of those rules, and it develops motifs as the player’s understanding of those rules and their implications grows (usually for the purpose of making the game more difficult). but level design isn’t just functional: it has form too.
todd replogle’s monuments of mars is a dos game from 1991 that clearly wanted to bring the dynamics of nintendo jumping games to the home computer. a lone astronaut explores the crags and mysterious structures of the red planet, searching for missing comrades. it’s freeware now, so feel free to do your own research. though the physics of the red planet are expectedly a little chaotic, what monuments is consistantly good at is using the shape of its levels to remind the player she’s on a journey across mars.
pictured above is the fourth screen of episode one: “first contact.” click here to see the full first four screens of the game (black lines marking transitions from one screen to the next). the player spends those first three screens crossing the rocky crags of the martian surface, climbing hills, leaping pits, and avoiding martian robots. naturally, in screen two we meet the robots, in screen three we see part of the first monument, and in screen four we behold the martian-made structure in its full glory.
what actually distinguishes screen four from the last three? well, those green walls of electricity are animated and, like the robots, will kill the player, making the landscape seem suddenly alive where before it was static. (and that green is the most sparingly-used color of the game’s palette, which makes for a striking contrast with its red and brown surroundings.) and the screen is mostly composed of different wall tiles: solid brown with symmetrical patterns – suggesting steel or metal girders – in contrast to the gravelly red and brown hash of the martian surface.
those tiles, despite their appearance, are really the same kind of game element as the martian ground: solid blocks, functioning as walls and floors. even those diagonal walls are functionally equivalent to the slopes of the martian hills; they just look different. the tiles are part of the reason this screen is visibly distinct from the previous screens, but they aren’t the whole reason: there’s something larger. what is it?
it’s symmetry. in contrast to the irregular surface that the first three screens have sold us as the craggy, natural surface of mars, a symmetrical shape strikes us as the opposite: an artificial structure, not a natural formation. see those octogonal holes, one on either side, each containing a robot? the player can’t ever enter those areas: they’re completely walled in. they exist just to create symmetry: two identical rooms, two identical metal columns.
the “steel” tiles, which are self-symmetrical, reinforce the symmetry of the structure they comprise. notice that martian rock tiles have been drawn into the very bottom of the screen for contrast, marking a clear boundary between dead dirt and waking metal.
there’s something else about this screen that’s greatly different from the first three, and that’s how the player leaves it. for a trek across the surface of the planet, the journey to the monument, travelling from the left to the right side of the screen makes sense. but, now that we’ve arrived at the monument, we have no more martian crags to cross: our journey now is into the structure, deep into the metal belly of mars. it makes sense to leave this screen not to the right, but down.
the player, of course, has already learned to leave screens off the right side: she’s done it three times to get to this point. but see how the shape of the room makes it immediately clear that the exit to this screen is DOWN. the steel columns and electric walls create a strong vertical impression, and they frame the screen exit like a door. the symmetry of the whole screen is akin to the vestibule of some grand structure – which it is, of course – with that entrance shaft dead in the center, like a crack in an open double-door. the way the metal tiles cut downward through the craggy bedrock also helps emphasize the direction of the screen.
but how to diffuse the rightward energy that has nevertheless been built up over three screens? you can see that there actually is an object all the way at the right of the screen: it’s a battery, which will give the player a few more shots of her laser. collecting it is optional, since the exit is halfway between where the player enters the screen and where she collects the battery, and it’s challenging, because it means dodging more robots. going out of the way to collect it will give the player a bonus.
its provides a lesser goal for reaching the right side of the screen, which suggests that the greater goal (the way to the next screen) is elsewhere. (at the bottom!) and if the player has either missed the cue that the exit is downwards or insisted on going right anyway, collecting the battery serves to both ensure the player has something to show for the trip and signal the player that she’s done all she can over here and should turn around.
this is great design.
so, you’ve seen how episode one begins: here’s how it ends. this is a good example of storytelling through level design: the level has been shaped in such a way that the actions required from the player to complete it are the logical events to occur in the story.
there’s a lot going on in this screen, but we’re just going to talk about the right side, and the little characters in the bottom center: those are the missing astronauts, held captive by electric rings. after the player frees them (using the computer console above their cell), she’ll need to exit the alien monument and return to the surface (where the game started) via the elevator at the right.
using the computer removes the girder blocking the elevator shaft, flipping the lever starts the elevator (a simple platform that moves up and down). the player has seen these game elements before, and is familiar with them: she’s turned on elevators and ridden them already. but here riding the elevator has a narrative purpose. i’m riding the elevator to reach the end of the level, but i’m also fulfilling the role i’m playing: it makes sense that, the mission completed, the astronaut should escape the underground city, by elevator, to the martian surface.
something else the player has seen by this point and understands: those letters: S, R, A, M. collecting them in the order that spells “MARS” earns a fanfare and bonus points. on this screen, in this situation, waiting for the elevator to deliver her to the surface, the player has no choice but to encounter and collect the letters in the correct order, sounding a fanfare and a big score bonus to accompany the end of her successful mission. and of course, it’s to MARS she’s returning, to the larger world which has three more monuments yet for her to visit.
as i’ve said, monuments of mars is free now (run it in dosbox!), and is a treasure trove of this kind of design. in particular, episode two (“the pyramid”) has an excellent set of opening screens, and the final episode (“the face”) moves inside, outside, around and over the monuments and the martian landscape in interesting ways.
thanks to vgmaps for images of the martian landscape.
 the setting is actually a clever solution to the limitations of CGA’s palette zero. the only colors we have are red, brown, green and black: set the game on the red and brown planet, mars, with machines fueled by green electricity, and the black of space in the background.
 one room is actually wider than the other, because the screen contains an even number of tiles and it was important to the designer that the entrance be just one tile wide, to feel closer to a door than to a hole in the ground. the symmetry comes through nevertheless.
 there’s a screen where the player does nothing but fall from top to bottom, while electricity crackles and martian monsters shuffle out of reach. it exists simply to set the tone, to give a quick impression of tumbling from the desolate martian surface down into the living bowels of the pyramid.