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Technique Discussion: Modern games and Mazes

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Bolt-Action Gaming


Recently I was following the progress of this gem:

Dimoxinil is not only a hard to spell username, but also one of the premier Game-Guru creators.

His previous works (though uncompleted) really set the bar rather high for what's capable with this handy little engine we all like to dick around in from time to time.

This newest game is a really well thought out piece of work and we got a little off topic discussing level design principles;  specifically this particular image:


And also it was noted that there should be some differentiation in the shapes being used by Dimoxinil on this image:

It's really hard to believe quality like this can come out of Game-Guru.
So this got me thinking and I had to expand on some of my own thoughts posted there by way of a highly verbose piece written here :)

So I really have no complaints myself about this particular image. It's a little washed out, maybe, but the shapes used are really pretty good at providing a maze-like feel.  If that's what you're going for, that is.  If you are trying to provide a clearly navigable experience, however, you get lost in it.

I personally don't really like the trend of modern games going the route of "This is my linear movie level.  It's highly detailed, but not mentally stimulating in the least."

An oldie, but a goodie!

The above picture really illustrates once again that no matter how you dress up a simple linear FPS game, it's really just that - a Linear FPS game.

When I read "Masters of Doom", which I consider a must-read by any serious FPS game dev, I saw that John Romero had gotten his start in 3d level design making mazes.  Now this is an important differentiation between modern game design and 'old school' game design. 

Because of the lack of horsepower, gamedevs were FORCED to use more inventive methods to stimulate the player's interest.  This included mental stimulation on the level of insidious puzzles and secrets. This wasn't even a new concept.  The further back you went, the more obvious the mazes were (primarily because of the limitations involved with graphics,storage, and processing hardware).

One of the first mazes I recall from my youth showing on my TV screen.
In fact, if you look at video gaming history, it's rife with mazes.  At least, until, hardware improved.

Then we found ourselves in a place where the streets were long and flat but the window dressing was really good.  I noticed a correlation with this in the early 2k's.  Games were getting prettier .. and easier.  Tutorials, controls, everything started slowly getting simplified. 

Maybe our games are making us dumber?  The lack of mazes means lack of higher order thought; people can't process their environments anymore.  It's difficult to really figure your way around a maze with no clear start or end.. with no walls to guide you.  That however can bring it's own enjoyment.  There are, however, certain tricks you can use to make sure your players aren't getting lost (at least, until you intend for them to be!).

Now it's not hard for you to figure out I live in Pennsylvania.  I've lived here my whole life.  I have spent many, MANY hours as a boy meandering around the forests.  It's real easy to get lost because so much of it is just .. so ... SIMILAR.  As I got older my interest in Survivalism and Hiking helped me get a solid sense of navigational techniques.  These same techniques can be used to help guide a player.  Some games virtually beat you over the head with modern methods such as the 'use a light to guide the player' technique:

I absolutely enjoyed Doom 2016 but the hell maps were a case study in 'follow the green light to move on'  
While I respect and appreciate some of the things modern level designers have done (the aforementioned Doom, for instance, had superbly designed secrets), I really feel like we've over-simplified some of the bits that made gaming fun for those of us who cut our teeth on the Atari, Nintendo, and 286/386/486 PCs.

Rule One: Try to provide a significant landmark to guide players.

That big rock gives you a clear sense of where you are.
When you're out navigating the woods, when you find a major landmark you latch onto it.  It is your anchor, your safety net.  Landmark-based navigation is among the oldest and most easily used methods of finding your way through difficult terrain.  In the above picture, you have two great landmarks.  You have the big rock but ALSO a winding river.  Now if they diverge into separate paths, most people will automatically use that to triangulate where they are.  It's sort of a built in function of the human brain.  Giving people a clock tower, obelisk, large river, mountain, or building can easily change a level from a faceless, winding maze to something where you never truly feel lost.  After all, you're always still anchored to that rock in the distance.

Rule Two:  Light is a landmark, but don't overdo it.

Another time-honored tradition in the real world for navigation is using the position of the sun, moon, or stars to determine where you are.  It's natural for humans to seek light as a source of navigation; cave exits, campfires, houses, all are denoted by lights.   When you get to the point of literally cutting almost every single light out to give people a deliberate trail though of 'green lights' then you are at that point going a little too far, in my humble opinion.

The light is a precious resource; something you don't realize until you are lost in the forest, alone.

Consider this; you are walking through a forest, on a path without a compass.  The path is winding with many forks and the trail is faint.  The trees are like walls, blocking out any landmarks.  You have a watch and know it's 8am.  Suddenly, you get a glimmer of light from the sun; you realize it's to your right and because of that you know that the sun rose in the east - making your direction currently north.  That's opposite the way you wanted to go! You return to your previous fork and try a different path, carefully keeping the position of the sun in line with the direction you wish to go.

These are real world usages of this.  I've been lost in the forest myself before.  I was literally standing on a path wondering where the hell I was.  I knew the path had diverged before.  Obviously I was *SOMEWHERE*.  Until I caught a glimpse of the sun though, I really had no idea which direction I was headed. 

Rule Three: Paths are guidelines, not rules.

Sure, you can keep following the path, but what happens when you go off the trail?
The expression "off the beaten path" is an oft-used one but really denotes that most people tend to follow the trails as given.  Which, let's be fair here, trails exist for a reason.  They are the typically navigated path.  The problems arise when you put the player on a trail they cannot deviate from.  That's not a trail; that's a railroad.  Providing a player a rewarding experience is more than simply giving them a huge art budget and professionally written story.  It's about making the game fun too; exploration is an oft-underutilized component of modern gameplay.  Worse still are examples (I'm looking at you, World of Warcraft) that literally turn exploration into a clinical exercise in boredom. 

Rule Four:  If you really want to get a player lost, take away their frames of reference.

Variety is the spice of life. While it's wonderful to give players a thoughtfully done level that is intuitive to navigate, yet challenging in it's complexity, it's often good to sometimes pull the rug out from under them.

Photo by Alex Wise.
When you dump your player into an area with no clear beginning or end and everything looks the same... they're going to feel a type of helplessness that really can't be described in words.  This type of change of pace can often be enough to really help break apart the monotony of longer games.  Putting in a hedge-style maze that's got a ceiling on it, a teleportation maze where every room is almost the same, or just a great big forest with a whole lot of trees can really change the tempo of a game and give you a real hand in the player's fate. 

In conclusion:

I think Wolf really said it best on the original forum post in question:

"I think divisions like this are toxic in a medium that should be about freedom of art and expression. Multiplayer legends like "killbox" or "facing worlds" wouldn't make me an expert?
A lot of very simplistic multiplayer levels are well loved. This also feeds into the culture of bearded, flannel wearing people with a mild depression that tend to overthink and navel gaze game development. This statement is personal, neither objective, nor fair, nor grounded in anything but my own petty dislike for some happenings in the indie scene lately though."

Or if you really want to simplify it, take Bugsy's sage advice:

"remember kids: if your map doesn't have a rotunda, you're not an expert level designer"

Sage advice, indeed.  I'll settle for just telling anyone reading this to maybe think about maybe adding more intellectually stimulating mazes, if only for my own gaming pleasure.

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