Home > General > Level Design Nostalgia – It’s Lying To You

Level Design Nostalgia – It’s Lying To You

It’s been a good long while since my last post, but something stuck in my craw recently, so here we go.  Let’s talk about video game level design and the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia.

There’s an image that’s been floating around the intertubes for a while now:

Look how clever and cutting a criticism this is!

On the left is the map for E1M6 of Doom, “Central Processing”.  On the left is a hyperbolic representation of the linearity and cutscene-abundance of a modern FPS.

For a lot of gamers, particularly those of the Doom generation, this seems like really trenchant criticism.  Look, it says: back in the day levels were these sprawling, free-roaming, multi-path masterpieces of clever design!  Now everything is a linear march from point A to B, stopping only to have a cutscene!  To be fair, if you were a Doom player back in the day, it’s easy to understand why you might have that impression.  But is it true?

I gave it away in the post title, of course.  No, it is not true.  That map looks nice and complicated and multi-path, but it’s a clever deception.  And the line diagram on the right looks terribly linear and boring, but it’s also a clever deception.  The first and most obvious reason is that if you took a top-down screenshot of a modern FPS level from within its own editor (which is, essentially, how the Doom map image is produced), it would look several orders of magnitude more complicated than the Doom map.  The real question is: what is the actual gameplay?  What is the flow?  Because in the end, a level design in an FPS is a path, a flow – it is the creation of a course for the player to follow from a start point to an end.  It may branch to multiple endings, it may branch but merge again later on, but it is fundamentally a decision about player movement through the level.

Let’s look at E1M6 again.

Now Embiggened

Examined in a bit more detail, we can start to notice some things.  It’s really broken into only a few discrete sections which have limited, often single-path connections to each other.  Now, unless you know which doors open in which direction, etc., you can’t really make a definitive statement as to how many paths there are.  But it is nonetheless immediately obvious that, for example, the entire upper-left wing is a discrete unit, the central area is similarly discrete, the lower left, and so on.  Given that that’s true, it means that these are places you at best go into and then backtrack out of – essentially dead ends or U-turns.

Next we have to remember that Doom’s gameplay was, aside from the shooting, simply a matter of finding a colored keycard to open a door of the same color so that you can find another colored keycard to open the next door.  This was mandatory, it was true in every level, and (with damn few exceptions) there was no way around it.  If the developers had designed the level so that you had to get the red card to get the yellow card to get the blue card to get to the exit, that was what you did.  Which means the levels, by dint of this one fact, must be linear.  Appearance of the map notwithstanding, if you had to follow a specific and breadcrumbed path to reach the exit, you’re walking a line.

With the help of a Doom wiki to know where the keys and doors are, we can even plot this:


Yes, I know I didn’t follow the corridors exactly, but that’s sort of my point.  Those places where you could go down one of two staircases and the like don’t represent real path branches – they all go to the same places and it doesn’t really impact the gameplay at all.  That maze on the right?  It’s not really multiple paths – you must end up at a certain location to hit a switch, so the “maze” has no dead ends -just a series of loops that all go to the same place.  So when we map out the actual critical path of player movment, it’s “north, go right, go back left, go back right, loop through the maze, go back to the center, go north, hang left, exit.”  There are no actual branches of gamplay, no alternative routes longer than a staircase.  It’s a straight line that doubles back on itself a few times.

You’ll also see where I marked “Trap”.  This was Doom’s THING, man.  You walked into a room, the door closed behind you, and a closet opened up and a monster popped out.  Every.  Damn.  Time.  It was so ubiquitous that people referred to the technique as “monster closets” and poked fun at iD’s apparent dependence on them to generate scares.  They were predictable as hell after a while: you knew, for example, that when you found a key, picking up the key probably was going to open a monster closet.

So, if E1M6 is actually a linear path, what does it look like if we do like the creators of our original image did with their modern FPS “example” and abstract it down to just the player’s simplified movement flow:

MS Paint FTW

Wait.  Wait a second!  That’s BASICALLY THE SAME DAMN THING.  Only with monster closets instead of cutscenes.

You might say this was a long way to go to “disprove” what amounts to a bit of internet trolling.  I argue, however, that it’s important as a game designer or even as a critic (amateur or otherwise) of games to have a clear perception of what’s really happening when you play a game – when you experience a piece of level design.  And it is equally important to understand that our perceptions of what old-school games were like are often as inaccurate as all our other memories – colored by nostalgia, viewed through the vaseline-coated lens of the emotional experience of the time more than with an accurate perception.  Doom’s actually a terrific example for this, being as it is so deeply ingrained in the PC-gamer nerd psyche.  For example, you probably think of it as an FPS, but in terms of gameplay mechanics it’s probably understood just as well as a Robotron clone played from the first person.  This extends beyond video games into all forms of gaming.  D&D grognards will swear up and down that 4E has basically done away with all the role-playing elements of the game, without ever noticing that there were often never rules for the things they are complaining are missing.  They will moan bitterly that the focus on use of a map and minis has turned the game into a board game of resource management, while simultaneously A) forgetting that D&D was originally a miniatures game, and B) happily insisting on the importance of encumbrance rules and endlessly tweaking combinations of items, skills, and classes to justify some exploit.

The simple truth is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  And when you are looking at the dominant beasts in a field (FPS video games, D&D as an RPG), nostalgia is always convincing you the earlier versions were so much more creative and robust than they actually turn out to have been.


Categories: General Tags: , ,
  1. Web Surfer
    June 26, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    I think your analysis is astute. That being said, although the level on the left may not be fundamentally different from an extremely linear level, and only presents the illusion of branching complexity, what matters is if the illusion works.

    If the illusion works, the player feels like they have control and the designer was able to put together an experience that felt like it had depth while simultaneously minimizing risk and cost. This I think is a sign of quality level design, to cause the player to feel like the path they take matters, even though that may not be the case.

    • Joshua
      June 27, 2011 at 6:51 am

      Absolutely. I would argue that the effectiveness of this illusion, in Doom’s case, may be significantly lessened if viewed with modern eyes – gamers are more savvy to this kind of illusion than they were in the early nineties, thanks to a decade and a half or so of experience.

  2. aaaa
    February 25, 2012 at 11:58 am

    So you basically simplified a Doom level map by looking up exact key locations on Doom wiki. Try not to get help from the wiki and find your keys yourself then let us see what paths you followed.

    You tried to defend modern FPS games, but all you could do is blaming gamers’ subconscious and trying to simplify a doom level.

    Fail article is fail.

    • Joshua
      November 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm

      Hey there.

      I keep forgetting I even have this thing, so I never even saw this comment until now.

      I could be super snarky, but A) you’ll almost certainly never see this, and B) won’t care about this response. But I’m going to address your complaint anyway.

      First, this “do it yourself rather than looking it up on a wiki” criticism is not only misguided, in that it assumes “looking up accurate information” is somehow a flaw in someone’s argument, but neatly avoids actually addressing what this post was discussing. Read it again – I am explicitly *not* discussing the player’s discrete movement through a level, which is invariably a mess of sidesteps, backtracks, and circles, in Doom or in almost any other FPS. What the post addresses is the actual FLOW of the map – that is to say, the critical path through a map that is present implicitly through its design. The fact that the player does not, upon first playing the map, know the location of the keys is irrelevant. The designer knows, because they placed them. And the designer has, by placing the keys and the barriers to reaching them, explicitly created a specific path in the level. This is *always* true in any instance where the player must complete a series of specific steps in a specific order in order to complete the level. Doom works this way, as do many shooters. If one were simply comparing the actual discrete player movement, modern FPS games, with their constant dodging under cover and flanking and such, would tend to appear quite complicated in structure.

      Second, to accuse me of “simplifying” the Doom map as if that is somehow a deathblow to the analysis misses entirely that not only do I explicitly state that I am doing so, but that I am doing so precisely because that is what is done in the original image under discussion – a detailed map from Doom is contrasted with a grossly oversimplified abstraction of a fictional modern FPS map. To be clear: the original image is dishonest criticism, because it contrasts the actual, physical map of the space, with all the impression of complexity and detail that implies, with an abstraction of the critical path through a modern level. Part of the point of my “simplified” map is that that same abstraction can be done for Doom, and indeed any game where a specific critical path exists for a map. Were the original image to contrast a map from Doom with a similarly detailed map from a modern FPS (CoD, MoH, etc.), the latter would look VASTLY more complicated…because it is.

      Third, I am not “blaming” anyone, nor anyone’s subconscious, for anything. The crux of the essay was that nostalgia tends cloud everyone’s judgment, and creates perceptions that are not always in line with reality. There’s no actual fault here – no crime committed, no wrong done. Our memories of the games of our youth paints them as more vivid, more complex, and/or more clever than they actually were. This doesn’t diminish their accomplishments, but if we’re analyzing their design, we have to grapple with the realities, rather than our memories. Doom was a simple game that did some clever things. It had some great level design. But it wasn’t open-ended, or even open-path. Being able to get lost isn’t the same as being non-linear.

      Finally, if you think this was meant to “defend” modern FPS games, you grossly misunderstood everything I wrote. I have no particular love for the genre – they bore me, frankly. This was purely and only a discussion of the original image, the flaws in its argument, its misunderstand of what linearity means in design, and why we need to avoid letting nostalgia color our judgments when assessing design.

      But hey, you disagree.

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