level design lesson: below the castle

knytt stories has one of the most accessible level editors i’ve encountered (though not necessarily one of the best designed[1]); because of that, the levels that come from it provide a lot of insight into the state of amateur level design. there are the occasional flashes of insight, of personality and charm, experimental ideas, but there are also a lot of very similiar mistakes. the most heart-breaking is the flat room: this is a screen in which the player simply runs left to right (or right to left) along a flat, unbroken floor. juni, the protagonist of knytt stories, can jump, climb walls, and float through the air. the flat room enables her to do none of these things.

the shape doesn’t fit the play. knytt stories is about climbing, and so there’s a lot of vertical motion in nifflas’s (the author of knytt stories) levels. take his “underwater adventure” as an example: it begins with the player travelling deeper and deeper under the ocean, then climbing all the way back up to the surface. not only does this fit the “vocabulary” of the game’s protagonist, it also gives the level a shape that suits its story. from the water’s surface, down into the darkest depths, then back to the surface. there’s a symmetry there that provides a sense of closure. an empty hallway does nothing to characterize a level or its protagonist.

castlevania on the nintendo begins with a flat hallway. (see the full level, courtesy rick n. burns of nesmaps.com.) but halfway through the level that horizontalness is broken forcefully: the designers drop a vertical brick wall in the middle of a room. with a staircase visible on either side. the player must make a detour to the basement of the castle to circumnavigate the wall. what i find interesting is how the path to the basement staircase is broken up with both a change in platform height and an intermediary staircase. the player also has to walk right to meet the wall before travelling left to the staircase: the player is forced to acknowledge the obstacle.

(there’s also a piece of life-restoring meat hidden in the wall, for the player who investigates it. like in monuments of mars, this functions both as a way to compensate the player for taking the time to explore a dead-end path, and as a signal that the larger goal is in a different direction.)

up to this point in the game, the player hasn’t had to rely on one of protagonist simon belmont’s primary verbs: jump. the jump’s been available, but the game hasn’t forced the player to use it yet: the first segment of the game focuses on the reach and uses of simon’s whip, and while it includes some vertical navigation the jump isn’t important yet. when the player is finally forced to jump, it happens in a place that emphasizes the importance of jumping. see: to reach the first two deadly pits in the game, the player must actually travel downwards to a screen below the plane she started at. and the basement, as an environment, provides a clear visual context for the danger of those first jumps: an underwater lake is visible at the bottom of the screen.

also note all the things the background columns accomplish: they’re providing visual cohesion with the area above, they’re breaking up the area horizontally, drawing attention to the pits, and they’re showing clear boundaries of where all the platforms end. there are far more difficult jumps later in the game; the designers have clearly tried to emphasize the importance of the player’s first pit jump.

when the player completes the jumps and ascends from the basement she gets to stand on top of the wall that was previously an obstacle: as with nifflas’s underwater adventure, there’s closure there. this is a complete story. more importantly, it gives this level a story and a shape. that’s (one of the reasons) why this section of this level recurs in so many other castlevania games[2] (bloodlines and chi no rondo, for example): it’s memorable because of its shape.

what’s more, it tells us something about the larger story of castlevania. this is architecture. it tells us that this isn’t just a series of hallways, it’s a castle, with floors stacked above and below one another, with staircases leading us through structures that are more complicated than the left-to-right of an outdoor setting. a straight left-right might make sense in an open field, but this is a castle, and its ancient corridors wind in every direction. it also makes sense to the character of simon belmont, whose strong horizontal attack means his greatest challenge comes from navigating vertical terrain.

[1] i think that the palette of seven unlabelled layers makes the editor more confusing than it needs to be.

[2] the other big reason is lack of creativity.

13 thoughts on “level design lesson: below the castle”

  1. interesting coincidence. i was just now (as in just _now_) talking to a coworker about ecclesia, and he was saying he was kind of disoriented by its linear levels, and i said i kind of dig them: they’re in-between levels that you must complete to go from one temple/cave/mansion to another, they’re open-air, and there’s no save point—you’re journeying, and it feels as uncomfortable as if. my friend noted that even in the nes castlevania stages weren’t just stretched lines, and the example that came to mind was precisely this basement of level 1.

    we didn’t, of course, achieved the depth of insight you show in this truly excellent post. thanks for the lesson.

  2. the fishmen fire projectiles which encourage the player to jump, and they make sense in the watery environment of the castle’s lowest floors. they’re a good fit in more than one way.

  3. It’s implied that fishmen stalk the player by candlelight (candles not shown in the image unfortunately). This isn’t a coded behavior, though: the fishman spawn points just happen to align with the candles, and destroying the candles won’t stop them from appearing.

  4. As usual, a very nice article about level design. You should do these more often for all of the uncultured amateurs on the net (such as myself). They’re also a very interesting read.

    And I never thought I’d get to read about 2 repeating level design gimmicks in a single week: first Megaman’s drop-walk-and-turn room, and today’s castlevania’s jumping over water.

  5. Very interesting indeed. It’s cool to think how concise it all is. I think another layer you could add would be that it was a display of technological superiority: Mario, a year earlier, had touted the scrolling level. Now we have horizontal AND vertical movement.

  6. Actually, it’s exactly on par with Mario. Since moving downward doesn’t scroll the scenery with you but instead has you exit the bottom, have the scene change to another, and then emerge from the top, it’s little different from dropping into one of Mario’s pipe underground screens and having it pop you back up further in the level. The only real difference is that the pipes gave you one screen’s worth of underground. (However, taking a vine into the clouds did give you a scrolling area.)

  7. “This isn’t a coded behavior, though: the fishman spawn points just happen to align with the candles, and destroying the candles won’t stop them from appearing.”

    It seems like it’s intended for the player to whip a fishman (who forcefully launches itself out of the water) and by doing so accidentally hit a candle. Considering the candles are a key source of Belmont’s power, it’s useful to point out that the candles are destructible. I’m not really that familiar with Castlevania and whether this theory jives with the rest of the design, though.

  8. Very interesting analysis of the building blocks of game design. It’s easy to forget the simplicity of design when you are working with hundreds of thousands of polygons and such. (As I do for Guild Wars 2.) The simplicity is always there in the beginning layout phase, but can get easily lost if not kept in the forefront.

  9. That is a very exciting take on the 1st level of castlevania, it’s been tireleslly reharshed but I dont think the game designers ever understood it like this. Have you ever played the MSX version called Vampire Killer? You must if you havent, it’s regretabbly punishing but it turned my understanding of the series on it’s head. Were you to try to run past this game like you would in NES you end up back at the beggining of the segment you’re at, because you’re supposed to look trough every destroyable block (you learn to identify them trough the level layout) and chest for a key to lead you out…gaining a bunch of stuff in the meantime. not to mention each segment (atleast 3 screens long) corresponds roughly to one screen in the NES version!. it’s very excitiing because it tackles some of the same themes the series would later adopt in metroidvania era but in a very different (IMO more exciting) way….I would LOVE to see what you’ve got to say about that.

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