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The Importance of Level Design: Breaking the Mood

Level design, that one part of a video game that you can’t get around no matter how much you dislike it. The amount of work and effort that goes into designing levels or stages in certain games is immense, and less so in others. The design of the level dictates the ebb and flow of gameplay, it can help to convey the mood of the story, and when properly used, it can decide the pace of the game too, for better or for worse. It’s for this reason the importance of level design cannot be overstated enough.

The grim decay of Dunwall. 

An example of a game that I consider to have near flawless level design would be 2012’s Arcane Studios developed stealth action game, Dishonored, one of my favourite modern games. Conversely, an example of a game that I consider to have somewhat poor level design would be 2016’s Arcane Studios developed stealth action game, Dishonored 2, one of my least favourite modern games. I use Dishonored 1 & 2 as an example of good level design vs bad level design in conversation fairly often, because a lot of people seem to conflate bigger levels with being better levels.

The rangy bouldervards of Serkonos.

Dishonored was well received when it first landed in 2012; it felt fresh and refined. Like Corvo’s finely honed skills, it delivered an excellently executed adventure through the dying, plague ridden city of Dunwall with a tight narrative and rich world, all with a brace of weapons and paranormal powers at your disposal to help see you on your way. The same can be said of Dishonored 2, except the narrative was wandering, and the rich world felt somehow lessened by the increase in scale. Ultimately, this is because of poor level design.

Dishonored made use of verticality in a way that felt natural. Tall buildings were scalable; interiors stretched over multiple floors, and the ruined parts of the city, tough and treacherous, offered points of ingress that felt natural and real. The tightly packed buildings of Dunwall always lead you towards your objective; there’s no wasted space, but multiple routes of ingress are always made available to suit your playstyle. This large and directional level design comes with the added bonus of feeding the narrative to you by way of passive world building. Messages left for loved ones, graffiti daubed across walls, and snatches of conversation can be overheard from guards and city dwellers alike.

Dishonored 2 had verticality to such an extent that your path and objective became lost to you, with multiple routes leading to dead ends. Some areas of the game served literally no purpose, often populated with nothing more than a corpse or something equally useless. The clear and current goal isn’t at the end of your path, it’s in one of the many buildings that are scattered throughout the map, each one leading you further and further astray as you seek out collectable items and other useless gubbins. The sight of a sealed door and bloodflies eventually just results in a roll of the eyes as you start to search around for the one hidden entrance to an area that will likely lead nowhere.

In Dishonored 1, you’ll find yourselves rubbing shoulders with the elite of society at Lady Boyle’s estate, blending in with the socialites as you try to locate your mark and resolve the mission in whichever way you choose, but all the while your goal is clear. Even if you step outside to duel with pistols or slip into the kitchens to set up your plans, the end goal is always clear. You know what you’re doing and how you’re going to do it.

In Dishonored 2, you’ll find yourself in the Clockwork Mansion, pulling lever after lever as you try to navigate your way through the worst laid out level I’ve encountered in recent memory. The floors and walls shift with reckless abandon, leading you to parts of the mansion that have no bearing on the game whatsoever, drawing you further and further away from your objective while offering no path towards where you’re supposed to be going. The lack of linearity could be applauded were it not so poorly handled.

Dishonored is, in my opinion, a perfect example of how the original intent for a series can come around to haunt it in later years. Dishonored 1 wasn’t intended to have a sequel; it was supposed to come to an end with its fantastic DLC packs that brought a lot to the table, including a campaign from the perspective of the antagonist, Daud.

The new “bigger and better” Dishonored got away from the fundamental roots of the series in a hurry, and the level design suffered for it, which in turn harmed the game as a whole. Bigger doesn’t always mean better, and in this case the large levels packed with buildings, alleyways and corridors without purpose left an indelible mark on the series.

Other examples of games that I think were harmed by poor level design would be The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, modern Far Cry games, Skyrim, chunks of Skyward Sword, Deus Ex Mankind Divided, and more. All of these games have large areas dedicated to nothing and only serve to drag down the reputation of the series they represent. Level design is crucially important, and when it’s done wrong, it shatters the mood like glass.