‘Dark Souls’, Bicycles, and Level Design

How well could you draw a map of your favorite video game level?

Sit down, grab a pen, and draw me a bicycle. Go ahead, I’ll wait — this is a written article after all. Done? How’d it turn out? Alright, you probably didn’t actually draw a bicycle, but if you did, it probably looks something like this:

That drawing is part of a collection from artist Gianluca Gimini, who started collecting bicycle drawings from friends and strangers back in 2009. Gimini takes these rough sketches based purely on memory and renders them in 3D, recreating these drawings as though they were real. The outcome of the above drawing looks like this.

Something is terribly wrong with this bike. Namely it doesn’t have any pedals. Or gears. Or chains. In fact, the whole thing would probably collapse if you tried to sit on it. There are also smaller irregularities. The cruiser handlebars sit uncomfortably low, so you may have trouble seeing the road while riding it. It also doesn’t have breaks, so if you did get this thing rolling down a hill, you wouldn’t be able to stop. And you might have a hard time parking this thing without a kickstand. It’s a bit of a mess.

There is a frequent impossibility found in Gimini’s bicycles. Despite our familiarity with the bicycle, most people would have a hard time drawing one that actually works. We’re just not professional designers. But I actually find all of these doodles kind of insightful. See, even if none of these diverse objects would actually work as designed objects, we recognize each and every one. They are all clearly bicycles.

After seeing Gimini’s work, I started thinking about how we remember video games as designed objects, especially level design. Think back on your favorite gaming worlds, the ones that you remember the best. If I gave you a pen and paper, could you draw me a map? How accurate do you think it would be? Never one to issue a challenge without undertaking it myself, I drew this, uh, stunning work of art:

If you’re a Dark Souls III fan, you might recognize that as the High Wall of Lothric, one of the first areas in the game. Here’s part 1 of an actual map of the High Wall of Lothric.

Alright, mine is noticeably deficient. However, like the bicycle drawings, the important pieces are there. I’ve got the dragon who torched me a dozen times. I also have the huge axe guy in the courtyard near the fountain, that guy was a real pain. I also have the Dancer and Vordt, the two bosses situated almost exactly opposite each other. My drawing is missing the second bonfire and that first terrace near the dragon is way off base, but you get the idea.

The actual High Wall of Lothric works as a designed space in Dark Souls III, but that’s not how I remember it, which is just like how bicycles work with gears, seat tubes, adjusting barrels, and all their other contraptions. The way that we remember designed objects is through the relationship between their visually distinct components.

The Dark Souls franchise is praised for the way that locations sit alongside each other. Sometimes a vantage point in one level will give me a glimpse of another. Levels may feature tight corridors that suddenly open up into a courtyard, like the one my “axe guy” inhabits. These moments provide other design functions, yes, but they also cement levels into memory. This is how you make level design iconic.

In that way, good level design can cheat (and often does). It’s more important to create relationships between key parts than it is to make all the bits and pieces shine in equal measure. Shadow of the Colossus is mostly comprised of the same large and empty fields of dying grass, but I can probably give you directions to Quadratus, the colossus that hides in a canyon along a river. Conversely, I couldn’t draw you a map of Halo’s notorious Library level let alone point you towards the reference librarian.

The best video game levels give us moments and locations that relate to each other, where we can orientate ourselves to the rest of the world. All the other stuff, the intricate (and important) designed pathways, we fill with our own stories. These are the necessary, but forgettable bike games. They also become our own. Within our memories, level design is a collaborative experience. Gimini, the bicycle artist, shares some of my appreciation of design in that way: “There is an incredible diversity of new typologies emerging from these crowd-sourced and technically error-driven drawings. A single designer could not invent so many new bike designs in 100 lifetimes and this is why I look at this collection in such awe.”