Narrative Level Design and Underwater Castles

Published: August 10, 2020

Narrative Level Design and Underwater Castles

Published: August 10, 2020

In a previous post, we talked about how we approached enemy choice in the early levels of Operencia as part of our effort to quickly immerse players in the game world while also communicating key ideas about the game experience. Building on the power of enemy types and encounter design, we also made several deliberate choices around level design and environment design.

While we wanted gameplay mechanics and early enemy encounters to feel familiar to players, we wanted to show players early-on that the world of Operencia was not typical medieval fantasy and that we were putting our own twist on the grid-based RPG model.

That led to the following design choices:

Not underground. Underwater.

The first full level of Operencia is not in a cave or an underground dungeon like many dungeon crawlers, but rather it takes place in an underwater castle at the bottom of Lake Anna. Inspiration from this level came from a Hungarian folktale, so our team was already passionate about showing off the setting, and we quickly realized we could bring this environment to live in compelling ways. For example, the player almost immediately sees water suspended on the ceiling and encounters passageways that are flooded, with water held up in front of the player by what is likely some form of magic or enchantment. That makes for quite a visual for a dungeon crawler.

Using light to bring a space to life.

Dungeon lighting, for the vast majority of dungeon experiences, comes from torches. That means a great deal of darkness and flickering shadows as a player descends deeper underground. Since our level is underwater, we could change how we used light. The windows in the underwater castle let in light from the surface, and that light is refracted from the water, casting rippling reflections on the dungeon walls and floors. The castle also uses torches for light, so throughout the level we could mix different kinds of light and also play with variations in the color, moving the players through oranges and blues as we light passageways with interior and exterior light.

Layered puzzles and environment variety.

For us, a dungeon experience should not just be hacking and slashing through endless corridors of enemies. We wanted exploration to feel meaningful and use that part of the gameplay to introduce more variety to the gameplay and also find different ways to manage tension. The player can explore underwater passages but must be mindful of their oxygen. Unlocking new areas of the castle requires the classic collection of keys, but between the player and the keys are trapdoors and pits that can drop the player to lower floors. With these design choices, we aimed to make a dungeon crawl less linear by challenging the player to think about where they had been and how the environment connects in various ways.

Character-driven dungeon-crawling.

One of the temptations of a dungeon design is to make it a bridge between two story elements rather than a part of the story itself. The fetch quest model of a dungeon—where the player is tasked by an NPC to retrieve an item or to defeat a villain—treats the dungeon as a break in the story. The player does not learn more about or experience more of the game’s story until they have returned from the dungeon to talk with the NPC, at which point the player unlocks the next part of the adventure. Though it’s subtle, we felt that players should learn more about the characters in their party and more about their place in the world of Operencia as the dungeon crawl progressed. To do this, we inject character banter into various points of the level (and the voice acting helps a great deal), and we also remind the player periodically that a dragon is nearby through level effects and character dialogue, tying a small part of the dungeon to a greater story thread.

Level design is a strange art for a game designer, and we continue to push our own boundaries as developers while drawing inspiration from the great minds in our industry. What are some of your favorite game levels? I’d love to hear about them and what made them memorable if you’d like to leave a comment below.

Operencia: The Stolen Sun is coming to VR soon!