How do you talk about level design?

Playing through Mario 64 for the first time has gotten me thinking a lot about level design. Not just how it works and what appeals to me, but how to frame those thoughts to discuss it with other people.

Mario 64's level design is tied very closely to its star objectives, and more broadly about coming to really know a 3D space very well. Knowing the layouts of platforms, understanding how your movement options interact with those layouts, and remembering the locations of different entities. Star 1 is usually "Walk around most of the level", the red coin challenge asks you to know the different spots of a level very intimately, and the 100 coin challenge to know the level very broadly. The last star is usually the most interesting in this way, since it expects you to have the most thorough understanding of the space and can use that understanding in interesting ways.

The first place that made me really slam my fist on the table and yell _Level Design!_ was Big Boo's Haunt. From my experience, the core of what makes this level feel the way it does is surprise. Boos, books, and fire emerge from unexpected locations. Falling down a pit leads not to death, but to a strange new area. The piano comes alive, Then, after going through most of the objectives in the level, you reach _Big Boo's Balcony_. If you explore the areas you've seen so far, you find nothing. If you look up at where a balcony might be from outside, you see a big boo way up somewhere you've never seen. It gives you the juicy design moment as a player of thinking "You can get up there? _How?_". Suddenly the ceilings and walls of every room become worthy of close inspection. Actually finding the door leading to the attic provides you with _the same juicy moment_! Up to this point, it's entirely possible that you haven't had to wall jump _or_ get partway through a triple jump to get anywhere (especially if, like me, you'd accidentally skipped Tall, Tall Mountain). Now you have a constrained space to really get to know your movement mechanics with the level design promise that "Yes, you _can_ get up there!".

Here's the thing, though. Most of what I've described is level geometry or entity positioning, and those are _far_ from all level design is. Texture placement is level design. Music transitions are level design. Where you put readable text is level design. Enemy behavior is level design. And there are many, many more ways to frame the discussion. The above has largely been about describing 3D exploratory platforming levels. You could use much of the same vocabulary to talk about Halo, but would you?

When you're talking to someone about level design, what is it that you talk about? Do you start at level geometry? Theming? What moments stand out to you enough to remember and want to talk about them, and how do you describe those moments?

I think at the current moment it's a catch-all term for … game design within a finite space? Or how the game design is applied in a particular scenario/setpiece.

I feel like the term makes the most intuitive sense when it's applied to the geometry of sidescrolling games. Thinking of how the Mario 3 level designers drew the levels out on graph paper (surely this was done with other games too), hung them on the wall, and then the programmers put them into the game. Since the basic game design is "move to the right and avoid obstacles," and the enemies damage the player in the same way obstacles like fire do, the enemies are part of the level design.

To contrast this with another 2D game, the enemies in Zelda II aren't usually part of the level design because the challenge they present is fundamentally different than that presented by the "levels," which I think of as being the dungeons. There the level design tasks the player with exploring a complex of rooms and hallways until they find the item and then the boss. The enemy encounters are, of course, different than this: Typically they are about avoiding an enemy (an obstacle) that moves in a psychotic zigzag or back-and-forth pattern, probably throwing things at the player, inching Link close enough to hit with the sword, then retreating.

In 3D action/adventure games I think the term should usually be applied to level geometry and enemy placement, but almost never enemy encounters, since enemy encounters in these types of games almost always present a fundamentally different challenge than that of the level geometry. In enemy encounters the movement space usually shifts from being infinite to closed as the player focuses on the enemy, the nature of movement changes, shifting to a strafing or circling motion, player shifts to thinking about how to damage and avoid specific enemy's attacks, etc. etc. etc.

In 3D platforming games the enemy encounters often present the same challenges as the platforming segments. In Mario 64, the skill required to defeat the eye enemy that shoots bubbles at you and the skill required to run in a circle (on a circular platform) to avoid the rotating flamethrower obstacle are the same. The skill required to jump on a slowly moving Goomba and the skill required to jump on a slowly moving platform are the same. So I think for that genre enemies are part of the level design.

So to grossly oversimplify, I think defining the term should start at level geometry and the placement of items, obstacles and enemies, and then we can expand that definition to include enemy encounters, depending on their nature.

Mods plz don't ban me Mario is all I know

Would the atmospherics and audio visual be part of “level design” or is that different. I mean things as specific as the backgrounds or skyboxes that contribute to the mood/tone/narrative. Are the chains the rattle when you slam an enemy in the first stage of Streets of Rage 3 for example part of the level design?

A Skybox is for sure level design. “Level design” is a pretty darn broad term, but you could probably define it as something like the arrangement of assets and entities. Picking what your skybox is (or other object textures, to communicate gameplay elements, narrative, or both) would totally quality under that admittedly broad definition.

Music, especially music transitions, can also be used to convey something to the player. Think about how finding Kass in Breath if the Wild is signaled by an audio cue, which is itself influenced by the audio of the surrounding area. It's hard to say that tweaking how loud the wind is when you want the player to find Kass isn't level design, especially given the spatial nature of these sounds.

The chain rattle is an interesting question, though. The placement of the chains is level design, but are the sounds it makes? I'm inclined to say no since I'm conceptualizing the sounds associated with the chains as being fundamentally grouped with them. Mind you I haven't played Streets of Rage in a while, so there could be some nuance I'm forgetting here.

A lot of how I think about level design comes from talking to hirokazu yasuhara, known map maker extraordinaire. Game Platforms recent news | Game Developer

In the latter half of this video he gets somewhat into his philosophy of movement which really gets my mind going. I wish his tutorials were available in god darned english.

one of my ongoing with gripes with games discourse/criticism is so few people want to talk about level design. I get why noone does…it's really hard!

I had this challenge myself a few weeks back when I wrote about why I'm not a huge Mario Galaxy fan and there rather than fixate on specific examples (although I did that too) I tried to explain the philosophy behind how the game presents its challenges to the player and how the player is asked to respond...then spiral into how that bleeds into everything else and contradicts other parts of the game's presentation and themes. Long story short I argued that Galaxy presents a vast universe and celebrates the scale of its concept, but the level design is obsessed with locking the players focus onto these puzzly micro challenges that make the game feel claustrophobic. I don't think I did that good of a job tho, again it's hard!

@exodus#7770 These are so cool

@Lesmocon#7897 It is hard! That's one of the things that fascinates me so much about this question. It's such a fundamental thing to the medium, but I have no idea what the language should be to describe it! Seems like something we'll have to figure out how to talk about eventually, you know?

FWIW, the most productive design conversations i've had are typically oriented around “what are you trying to do with [level/character/UX/whatever], and how can you use your tools to do it?”

being able to work backwards from a goal can enable a lot of really evocative creativity.