This session contains information about my work in terms of Level Design. It encompasses an overview of the map’s final version, a breakdown of my design goals and how they evolved throughout development, as well as, a specific discussion about puzzle design.
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As the quest has many areas, there is no overview map covering the whole play through. Each image of the gallery above represents a different scenario and its respective gameplay moments. Players start out the level at “The Farm”, where they experience the tutorials and learn the basic mechanics. The next area, “On the Mountains”, is a transition area, where players begin to face the level’s true purpose – the main character’s dad dies and they have to face the upcoming events alone with Reus. Then, players get trapped in the “Forgotten Ruins (1)”, followed by the last area, “Forgotten Ruins (2)”. These areas are ice caves, in which cold nature took over old Dwemer ruins. They present progressively challenging puzzles that require the cooperation between Ixion and Reus in order to be solved.
DESIGN DISCUSSION & CHALLENGES
Use Emotion-centric design to craft innovative gameplay scenarios
Deliver a unique emotional journey, evoking guilt and sadness through gameplay mechanics
Establish a strong attachment between players and the main characters
Create a non-traditional gameplay style in the context of Skyrim, based on the cooperation between Ixion, the boy, and Reus, the dog
USING EMOTION-CETRIC DESIGN
Using Emotion-centric design to create innovative game mechanics was not only one of the core design goals of the level, but also one of the driving aspects the thesis project itself. As such, for more information about that approach and how it guided my initial design decisions, check “Emotional Design”. The following topics discuss how the development evolved from such decisions, based on arisen challenges and playtest feedback
EVOKING GUILT AND SADNESS
Evoking guilt and sadness through gameplay actions was very challenging, as these emotions require further degree of players’ engagement – they need to feel attached to the game world and its core components in order to care about in-game consequences. The next sections present each of those challenges, breaking them down and discussing approaches that I used to solve them.
Building player attachment:
I designed “Ixion & Reus” using the idea of companionship and sacrifice: players control a child giving orders to his dog, helping both to overcome environmental threats. The level intended to evoke guilt by creating situations where players put the dog in danger, and eventually, kill it. Through the traditional story of a boy and his dog, I used a common place to establish an immediate emotional bond between players and the characters.
Although choosing a dog partner narrowed the target audience, it also increased the likelihood for that audience to engage the quest emotionally. This was very important, especially considering that there was not much gameplay time to develop the characters. While the child represents innocence and defenselessness, the dog represents his guardian and emotional support. Moreover, the dog’s abilities increase its value to players, adding to their emotional bond.
Ixion's house - breakfast at the table - players can see that Reus' plate, where the companion can eat by the main character's side
Even within that scenario, building a strong attachment between players and the dog was also tough. Playtest sessions showed that testers liked the companion in general, but it lacked personality, a sense of soul and self-preservation – some of them did not care about it due to its apparent invincibility. Thus, another important addition was the ability to interact with the dog, asking how it felt and being able to pat its head to make it feel better. Such interactions gave it more personality and allowed players to appease their consciousness when putting the companion in danger.
Being able to pat the dog on its head, check its emotional state, as well as the ability to send it over an area and call it back, felt genuine, as if interacting with a real dog, strengthening players’ emotional engagement.
Sound and immersion:
The use of sound effects and background music dramatically increased players’ immersion, contributing to their suspension of disbelief and setting the tone of the quest, on top of helping gameplay itself. For more information about such topic, go to Audio Work page, where I discuss not only the influence, but also the implementation of the audio elements.
Another issue was the fact that building emotional attachment usually takes quite a long time, a resource that the project did not have. That ended up being a trap for me: my original design had too many mechanics and it was too long for a single play through experience (players could not finish it in one shot). While Whitebox playtests foreshadowed that, Gameplay milestone proved it to be out of scope both in terms of gameplay and development time (I would not be able to build the level completely within the time constraints). This way, I cut one set of mechanics and parts of the quest related to them, readjusting areas based on mechanics no longer used. Trimming the quest proved to be the right choice later, as players were able to test it in a feasible time, focusing in one simple set of mechanics.
Half of the farm's original area was cut to decrease the scope
Blood splatters help indicating dangerous areas
In addition, as previously said, the sound effects also contributed to make players expect something terrible to happen. On the other hand, unfortunately these additions also allowed testers to anticipate the dog’s death, which diminished its emotional impact. Although I recognized that fact, it was a necessary design decision for players to accept the companion’s death as a natural consequence of their actions.
The same happened to the mountain's original design
Playtesters also felt cheated with the dog’s death, saying there was no clear indication that was going to happen. Using blood decals and specific scene setups, I established a language that conveyed to players which areas were more dangerous, so they could expect the main character or his companion to get hurt. I also swaped spear traps for flamethrowers, due to their bigger impact as a threat.
Flamethrowers represent a bigger menace than spears - the golden heads are also a sign that something bad could happen
INNOVATIVE, COOP PLAY STYLE
Another critical challenge of this level was to implement the cooperative-based play-style. With the concept of evoking guilt and sadness through gameplay, I designed the quest mechanics around the idea of sending the dog to different spots and calling it back, defining the overall gameplay based on puzzles solved by the collaboration between the boy and his dog. However, such mechanics and AI behaviors, as well as, some of the puzzle elements, were not native in Skyrim, so I had to implement them utilizing the game resources.
Choosing Skyrim as the base game for my level was a crucial development decision. After deciding on the type of gameplay, I had to define which engine/editor to use. Although building something from scratch could have given me more freedom to implement the mechanics, it would take too much time to get everything working properly, on top of finding appropriate assets, what would have prevented me from focusing on the emotional journey.
CreationKit's dog asset with animations and AI pathing (NavMesh), very important resources for this project
Thus, I decided to use the level editor of a game which I was already familiar with and that had the required resources. Even though the CreationKit (Skyrim’s editor) limited my control over the AI and its animations, it had a powerful scripting tool, dog assets, and the follower system, which served as a solid foundation to create the level.
Interacting with elements was based on the camera position, so the cursos icon helped a lot
Some players got confused about how to use the dog: they thought the sniffing worked around the cursor position and they mentioned that the dog would not behave properly sometimes. One of the major causes of those issues was the game’s legacy – the fact players had certain expectations based on how Skyrim plays affected their mindset towards the mechanics. As the mechanics worked as spells, some testers thought they could either target the sniffing area with the cursor or hold the mouse button to keep Reus searching. I had to keep the cursor icon on screen though, as it helped players orient themselves in the world, specially to interact with the environment.
Part of the challenge in building this level was the use of a non-usual playable character (a child) and the dog in non-typical ways. Early testers had issues with the map collision, getting either stuck in some areas, or reaching others, which they were not supposed to. That was the result of asset limitations, made for adult-sized characters. Feedback also consisted of confusion to distinguish between situations to use the dog and the main character. In terms of the collision issues, blocking (collision) volumes helped building reliable paths, preventing players from being stuck and using weird edges to beat the quest. Moreover, a later visual pass aligned with the boy’s dialogue lines (i.e., “I believe you can go under these, boy!”) contributed to clarify areas where only the dog could reach.
Collision (or blocking) volumes were a good work around, when the collision was funky/not reliable
Collision volumes made sure players had stable platforms to step on
Guiding through feedback:
Solving player's confusion regarding the main mechanics also included providing more feedback to them, with audio cues and subtitles that corresponded to the dog's behavior. More details and examples on Audio Work.
Sense of progression:
During development, players mentioned not understanding why they were going through the second half of the quest, as there was no other human NPC (Non-Playable Character) to whom they could talk. They felt an absence of context and progression. Hence, I added dialogue lines for the main character throughout the level – these did not have voice over, given the lack of time resources for such. These lines gave players a better sense of context and purpose, as well as contributing to their relationship with the dog.
Dialogue between Ixion and Reus gave players a sense of context and progression
On top creating interesting gameplay situations, the puzzles had to contribute to the relationship between Ixion and Reus. Moreover, part of the level’s purpose is to communicate gameplay elements to players in an indirect, but clear manner, shying away from the typical “gamey” tutorials. The next topics discuss challenges related to puzzle design that I faced during development.
The second half of the level presents new puzzle pieces, with which players have to interact in order to progress. As the new areas have the Dwemer architecture, I used its golden color in contrast with the white of the ice caves for highlighting interesting pieces. Along those lines, every interactive artifact (activators such as levers, buttons, pressure plates) also belongs to the Dwemer style, drawing from previous Skyrim’s knowledge that players could possibly have.
Golden Dwemer architecture provides a good contrast with the ice caves, guiding players.
Early tests showed that players got confused regarding which character should interact a specific element. For example, as the dog is the one who interacts with a button for the first time, players thought Reus should be the one always using it, even in different scenarios. A similar situation also happened with the second tutorial in the beginning of the level: during “finding traps”, players discover the first one nearby a specific bush type, which most of them end up associating as a visual sign, something that marked the areas where they needed to look. That lead them to wrong places and a lot of frustration.
I fixed both issues with the same approach, listening to playtesters and using their intuition as a guidance to improve the puzzle language.
Examples of Ixion's-only interactive elements: lever (left) and valve (right), in areas where the dog cannot immediately access
In terms of the interactive elements, although the boy could use all of them if within reach, I redesigned the puzzle layouts for clarifying who should use the element. In accordance, the puzzle language also became more specific: buttons should be activated by the dog, levers and valves by the boy, and pressure plates by both.
Example of Reus'-only interactive element: button (left). Right, a pressure plate that only Reus can access because of its height
Regarding the second tutorial, I added that specific type of bush to all areas that had traps, while removing the asset from the ones that did not have it. This way, players did not feel wrong about their perception.
A very important aspect for this quest, not only in terms of gameplay, but also for the emotional experience, as if players get frustrated they do not notice, nor feel, any other emotion. The level introduces every single gameplay element, even jumping, carefully and progressively, with the purpose of making sure players understand them completely. While the whole initial sequence at the farm introduces the main mechanic, the beginning of the second half, in the ice caves, reinforces it. Basically, the entire first part of the caves is a gradual introduction to the puzzle pieces, with the actual puzzles starting at the end of it. Playtest sessions proved that the learning curve is very smooth and friendly. For more details on the maps and puzzles, check MAP.
Along the level flow, the first half of the quest works as a long tutorial, helping players understand mechanics and puzzles pieces
SEEING IS UNDERSTANDING
A major problem of my initial puzzle design was that, for many situations, it was not possible to see the consequence of certain actions, which caused confusion among players. I noticed that uncertainty got players lost, without really knowing how/where to approach for the next step. In order to fix that, I rearranged the pieces of the most problematic puzzles, so players could see what they were doing:
Hover to see final state
Opening the Valve:
Most players missed the valve’s purpose in this puzzle, along with the pipe blocking the dog’s path. Because of that, I moved the valve to a location after the pipe, so players need to jump over the pipe to reach the valve. This guaranteed that they notice the duct blocking Reus’ path, doing what is necessary to take it out of the way
Click to see puzzle from other perspective!