A while back I was lucky enough to be asked to talk about what had caught my interest in the 2009 crop of video games for a Brainy Gamer podcast. The thing that caught my eye at that point was the curious rejection of a particular brand of FPS that was prevalent on the Wii and DS. Due to the technical limitations of these platforms, a game like The Conduit mostly takes place in hallways and arena structures. You’re always in a never-ending bunker, sewer, or science lab in the game. Another example would be the FPS titles like C.O.R.E. or Dementium: The Ward, which are also mostly indoor experiences. What was curious was that all of these games are receiving average scores on metacritic. In my review of The Conduit I pointed out that it mostly played like a game from 2000 or so. The same could be said about the DS titles, their level design and gameplay immediately bring to mind the old FPS days of Quake or even Doom. The player runs about a maze-like space, fighting monsters as they go, and unlock doors and flip switches to progress. What’s odd is that in an industry whose love of nostalgia can drive sales and scores of games like Shadow Complex and Mega Man 9, why is that one particular game design of fighting through indoor mazes mostly rejected? In what way has the design of the FPS moved on in the past ten years?
The initial answer would just be a common sense one: spatially comprehending and navigating a maze is easier to do in 2-D (or 2.5?) than from the FPS perspective. A wide open space is much easier to process mentally and navigate than a series of hallways that you are meant to sequentially enter. An interesting example of a modern game that still relies on the old formula is the F.E.A.R. series. Relying on a complex AI to create a game that’s chiefly about strategic squad encounters, the game’s levels are almost Kafka-esque for how much time you spend wandering around endless government buildings. In a write-up on the level design in F.E.A.R. 2, Steve Gaynor comments that the game is too linear in the options it gives players. You just walk into a room full of enemies and they start shooting at you. He writes, “Conversely, the best space is arena-like and varied, with an emphasis on flanking opportunities. The closer any given encounter space drifts towards the hallway model, the less interesting the gameplay there is going to be.” He applies all of this to a map that orients itself around a central point which is the conflict. Instead of being a line that you plod through, it’s a circle with varying degrees of cover and methods of engagement. He writes, “The most useful cover should be placed in the arena’s mid-orbital, the dense ring between the outer edge and the central point of the encounter space. This encourages the player to move into the thick of the action instead of hanging on the periphery, and leaves the central dead zone as a no-man’s land that remains risky to advance through, encouraging circular navigation.”
What Gaynor is describing is essentially an emergent form of level design, a principle best explained by Jesper Juul in his book half-real. You create a series of rules that link together in terms of strengths of weaknesses (think rock, paper, scissors) and then continue to compound and expand those rules into an elaborate web. Not all game elements have a direct strength/weakness relationship, but they are interlinked by mutual ludic aspects. Once you start making the focus of your game be about choices instead of linear engagement after linear engagement, you have to adopt new techniques for communicating information. Look at a design doc from a 2003 retrospective on Star Wars: Bounty Hunter, the level is essentially a long corridor that twists back and forth. An emergent level instead operates by creating a large and easily navigable series of clusters. In these levels the player never goes from room to room, you instead create a central space and then outlying rooms to explore. Citing another post by Gaynor on Bioshock, he explains the new principle behind this kind of level, “Minor spaces are always closer to major spaces than they are to other minor spaces—the player always passes through the hub to get to another spoke. The player never proceeds directly from spoke to spoke, getting lost without an identifiable anchor space to reorient themselves by.” Like the conflict nexus and circular structure of a well-designed combat situation, an entire level mirrors this same principle.
From Star Wars: Bounty Hero via Gamasutra
This is not to say that the linear structure has been abandoned, just that it has evolved far beyond its hallway roots. A game like Call of Duty 4 uses what might be described as a theme park ride approach to level design. The player will usually move down a wide corridor with multiple setpieces that travel between more emergent encounters like the one Gaynor describes. A careful visual language, pioneered by Valve and earlier games, helps orient the player to what they should be looking at. In that post, Matthew Gallant explains how Valve will have a flock of birds take off from a key passage or item to catch the player’s eye. Ammo and health items are often also placed where they can seen to attract the player’s interest. The player is still inside a big artificial hallway, but it feels real because they can explore the stage while being guided by a trail of visual and ludic bread crumbs. Call of Duty games also accomplish this feat by imposing objectives (like put a sticky bomb on this tank) or just having endless enemies shoot at you until you hit cover. Although not quite a wheel & spoke level, these games are incorporating tiny moments of emergent gameplay.
What defines the modern FPS, as opposed to similar games from even a mere decade ago, is the ability to break outside a linear path. One of the best analogies I’ve read on this modern take is from Michael Licht’s Star Wars: Bounty Hunter retrospective. He compares brief bursts of player choice to soloing in jazz music. Licht explains, “When a Jazz musician plays, he has to follow the song as it is written for the most part. This is called “staying in the groove” and it’s what gives identity to the piece. But during the song there are certain opportunities for that artist to express himself through solos. This allows for variation in the piece without a complete departure from the overall song and keeps things from getting too repetitive or predictable.” It’s the moments you cut the player loose that make the game meaningful in the long run.