Monday, October 7, 2013

SCAD Generate 2013: Designing a Level in 24 Hours

This past weekend, I participated in Generate, which is a campus wide event at SCAD-Atlanta where students from each department work to complete a project within twenty-four hours.  For the game development department, we were tasked with building a level that effectively utilizes space to convey meaning.

I worked with Hank Silman, Angelica Rodriguez-Vazquez and Graham Waldrop to create...a rather strange environment.

My job for this project was to design the environment and implement the technology that would be required to achieve our goal.  Angelica formulated the original concept, which was to create a naturalistic environment that represents the various stages of life.  From there, we decided to chunk the environment into three distinct segments:  death, birth, and nirvana.

The first draft of the level map
Early on, we decided we wanted the level to start off with everything dead and decayed.  As the player progressed through the level, the environment would slowly rejuvenate itself:  textures would be more saturated, flowers would be blooming, and animals would populate the area.  This core idea is representative in the final build, but we quickly decided to deviate from the linear pathway that I initially sketched out.

Because we were building an interactive scene, I decided to instead take advantage of the extensibility of Unity and make the level a seemingly endless loop.  I wanted to procedurally modify certain traits of the environment as the player walked between each section, such as the number of objects in an area, or the direction in which they were facing.

Unfortunately, I over estimated my willingness to write this sort of code at three in the morning.  It ended up taking longer than I expected to place all of the assets and arrange collision volumes.  By the time I was ready to start adding in special effects, I was already running on limited energy.

The second draft of the level map
Even so, production of the level went smoothly.  Thankfully, my careful preparation of the level map made the initial arrangement of the environment incredibly simple.  I first created two rudimentary maps on paper so that I could quickly iterate the core idea.  Upon finalizing the core concept, I took it into Adobe Illustrator and created a polished level map.

The first illustrated map is pretty representative of the final level's layout.  Most of the assets that we planned were put into place, with the only real exception being the frog eggs.  Not setting aside time to add in the frog eggs was one of my biggest regrets for this project, as I wanted them to be one of the few things that the player could directly interact with.  My intention was to attach rigid bodies to the eggs, and allow the player to roll them into the lake.  If an egg entered the lake, it would have become a tadpole, which would then swim away.

To me, this was a crucial aspect of the implied narrative that was planned, and their absence took a lot away from it.  Even so, I still feel like there are more successes than failures in this environment.

Illustrated map made from paper drafts

When designing the layout, my goal was to create an esoteric environment that would provoke the player to develop their own interpretation.  I wanted this to be something akin to ride from a twisted Disney park, where the story is told through a series of sign posts that the player moves past.  Indeed, it's important to stress that I did not intend for each of the three sections to coexist together.  Instead, each of the three areas are supposed to be representations of the same environment at different points in time.

While I did have an implied narrative in mind when building the environment, I deliberately made it so that the player could draw their own conclusions after spending some time in the setting.  There are a few factors that allowed this to happen:

In editor, over head shot of the environment.

  • The non-linear nature of the environment means that there is no "correct" pathway, and thus by extension no "correct" interpretation of the narrative.  While our original plan was to have the player go from Death -> Birth -> Livelihood -> Back to death, the final layout ultimately allowed the player to go wherever they want.  Even though the player starts off in the death area, they are free to go to either of the other two areas.  Where they choose to go first will impact their interpretation of the environment.
Notice the unnatural elements of this shot, such as the upside down bird and the giant bird obscured in the fog.  The player is allowed to develop their own narrative around why these things are here.
  • As I watched people explore the environment, I noticed that they didn't realize they were walking around in a circle.  It's difficult to ascertain why this is the case, but my personal theory is that the environment, upon first experiencing it, gives the player a wide range of imagery at a fairly fast pace.  Upon loading the environment, the player is immediately confronted by dead frogs and menacing birds.  Shortly after stepping away from this environment, they come across a serene, misty area with blossoming flowers and eggs scattered about.  There is a huge contrast between the three areas of the level, which means the player tends to not fully acquaint themselves with an area upon their first run through it.  This means that, upon returning to the area with the birds and dead frogs, the player is likely to absorb information that they did not notice before, thus making their return to the beginning a fresh experience in itself.
The fog effect and ambient lighting gave a much greater definition to the lotus flowers.
  • Finally, I feel that the changing color of the fog and ambient lighting did an amazing job setting the mood, as it convinced the player to continue exploring the environment.  Changing the fog was done through code, and was activated whenever the player entered a trigger volume that enveloped one of the three areas.

I am very impressed that we were able to build a level of this scope in such a relatively short amount of time.  Designing the layout was incredibly fun and rewarding; as the night progressed on, my sleep-addled mind allowed me to make some odd decisions, such as placing a bird upside on a branch for no real reason.  I feel that this contributed to the dream-like, mysterious nature of the environment.  Regardless, Generate was a great experience, as it allowed me to push my level design skills to the test.