Posts Tagged ‘level design’


Level design : Cover systems

Is this cover organic or architectural? Am I exposed from the left flank? Can I cross the courtyard without losing half my life? Is the destructible cover piece going to last through the rest of the fight?

Cover combat establishes a language between a designer and a player. Do it right and players feel rewarded by making smooth transitions between crumbled columns and overturned tables. Fail, and watch controllers bounce off plasma TV screens as spittle flies out of angry mouths, gamers loudly cursing your name in a friends living room or a parents basement. Every now and then the process is intuitive and almost effortless, with the space directing the designer’s hand. Other times, we are locked in mortal combat with an environment that refuses to bend to our wills. It is those times that are going to test our design chops, where the weakest of the herd are going to succumb to something that is often referred to as “cover vomit”.


Cover vomit is exactly what it sounds like; Designers barfing out cover in every direction in a hap hazard attempt to ensure a line of defense from both the player’s and enemy’s perspective. Cover vomit usually breaks the pacing of an area, unnecessarily blocking valuable real estate and adds more work for the artist(s) responsible for translating cover proxy to final assets.

Similar to the thought process that goes into laying out a level, it is imperative to think of the overall experience. What kind of combat is this area going to contain? Are players fighting melee or ranged enemies? How much verticality is going to be in each section? How do players manage transition from cover to cover? How many flanking routes are present in each section of a level?

Cover placement is primarily driven by the environment. Environments are driven by core gameplay systems that dictate both player and AI behaviors. Systems depend on a strong engineering foundation and so on…

While it is hard to isolate one facet of level design, there is a combination of primary elements that form a strong cover layout.

  • Both players and AI need easily accessible cover
  • Cover variety offers tactical choices
  • Well placed destructible cover creates an intuitive guide though a combat space
  • When in doubt, cover should favor the player
  • Lateral movement allows for interesting cover transitions
  • Verticality changes the pacing of a fight and exposes additional cover opportunities
  • Create “dead zones” that ask players to make tactical decisions when traversing a combat play-space
  • Offer strategic cover choices and reward players for taking risks
  • Create flanking opportunities
  • Create cover layouts that build a forward momentum
  • Avoid repetitive cover layouts
  • Architectural and organic cover translation

Cover choice, variety and verticality

Provide players and AI with easily accessible cover. Both sides need cover to create a tactical combat experience. Add cover variety to further emphasize these choices and change the pacing of a fight. Full-height cover offers a more defensible position, partially breaking visibility based on the player’s position while crouching cover provides clear lines of site at the expense of revealing additional player mass to danger. Mixing both types of cover creates dynamic transitions, rewarding the player by providing tactical cover choices.


Verticality adds another layer of gameplay, drastically changing the playing field. Players experience a sense of vulnerability fighting towards an elevated position. Capturing a section of high ground rewards players with a superior vantage point creating a push-pull mechanic and changing the pacing of a combat sequence.

Destructible cover, dead zones, pacing and forward momentum

Destructible cover plays a key role in combat pacing, demanding a level of commitment during forward progression. When used correctly designers can guide players through an environment offering additional strategic choices. Cover combat is about advancing battle lines and creating forward momentum.

Aggressive players move forward when cover is destroyed; Cautious players retreat to a more defensible/solid position. Most importantly, destructible cover creates tension, changing the beats of a combat encounter.

Combined with dead zones, destructible cover creates beacons of safety that draws the players’ attention while dynamically changing the battle field. Dead zones on their own merit, create an additional rollercoaster effect that designers strive to achieve during level layout. In conjunction with well designed combat spaces, dead zones build on the architectural foundation of a level, acting as high tension combat areas.

Whether using destructible or solid cover, it is crucial to avoid layouts that encourage players to pick off enemies from a safe distance. Placing cover away from doorframes or chokepoints asks players to advance into a given playspace.

A large portion of player forward momentum directly relates to encounter placement and enemy reinforcements.

It is entirely acceptable to allow players to walk into a combat space, assess the layout and the potential dangers and let them have the first move. Reinforcements are easy to come by and ultimately this is a small price to pay for players committing to a given cover layout. Another popular solution is to allow players to enter the room, tripping an encounter in an area that provides multiple cover opportunities while playing up to the strengths of a given cover layout.

Lateral movement and flanking

Lateral movement is synonymous with flanking, rewarding players for making smart choices and creating gameplay variety. Lateral movement allows players to change their strategy during a fight and turn a losing battle into a tactical victory. Similar to level layout, cover creates flanking opportunities, offering non linear transitions through a combat space.


Flanking is an excellent tool to empower players and provide gameplay rewards for taking risks (A slow moving character has difficulty turning in sync with player movement, exposing an armor weakness on the back of the character model).


Ultimately, all of the proxy cover is going to be transformed into final art assets. While gameplay remains king, it is important to think of how our cover layouts translate into a final product. I like to think of cover as architectural (i.e. pillars, walls, facades, etc.) and organic (broken pillars, rubble, cars, etc.) Using this approach helps me come up with new cover layouts, creating distinct gameplay spaces. Most importantly, organic cover breaks repetition that is easy to fall into when building linear combat spaces.

The above mentioned principles should serve as a foundation for building successful cover layouts. These cover layouts should be further refined by complimenting enemy types, smart encounter placement, strategic enemy entry points, line of site adjustments and lighting readability. Hope you enjoyed the tips.



About Level Design and Remember Me : framing, light and color as gamespace modification tools

This is a sum-up of (a tiny extract of) a piece of work done along with other SIG2 comrades. Don’t hesitate to tell me if you have more detailed interogations about Remember Me’s use of space, particularly in terms of gameplay or narrative, I’ll try to answer as best  I can. Enjoy :)

When it comes to developing AAA games, very few actors of the French video game industry can compete. However, some companies like DONTNOD still have the power to stand out and release work (and money) on heavy projects.
With their first project called Remember Me, the DONTNOD team (formerly a group of 5 friends ) grew to over a hundred developers, which was enough to draw the attention of both the press and, most importantly, gamers!

When the game was released, critics went mad over the original atmosphere the game put the player into, offering a superb visit inside the futuristic French capital, (Neo) Paris in the role of Nilin, a woman with the power to control other people’s memories though technology. However, some issues made the experience somehow less… fun: fighting was boring, most gameplay sequences were hollow and the key-feature of the game, called “Memory Remixes”, was way under-used. In a nutshell, Remember Me missed its opportunity to enter video games’ history.


The fact that Remember Me was, for numerous reasons, a failure, doesn’t mean everything it tries to make up is pure trash. For instance, the mastery of the game space for both entertainment and narrative purposes works rather well, which is why I’m gonna tell you a bit about it.


Controlling the frame

As Remember Me was originally based on a very detailed universe (a 3000 pages bible written by Alain Damasio, one of the game’s scenarist and author of the famous book “La Horde du Contrevent”) and on a very strong imput from the project’s graphic team, level designers had to adapt to these constraints by showcasing the world’s appearance everytime they could.

The first element of this permanent highlighting is the use of sporadic panoramic views thorough the whole experience. These panoramas act as

-rewards: aimed at the player for completing a sequence, showing her / him a unique and breathtaking environment, –teasers: showing an important building to drive the player forward in order to anticipate the following sequence) or simply –landmarks for non-French players to immerge in the world by observing the landmarks of the capital, ie Sacré Coeur…


Panoramas in Remember Me were also cleverly placed , having their top part slightly above the on-screen avatar’s height (in order to ensure an impression of vastness) and always following a tighter gamespace. Indeed, most of the panoramas are presented after long corridors, strenghtening the impression of being overwhelmed by the cityscape when the gigantic scenery is revealed :

Here’s a video

Another interesting choice by DONTNOD was to restrict or modify the camera frame from time to time so as to reinforce the visual and narrative aspect of specific sequences (which is allowed by the use of the third person camera). For instance, the specific camera view at the beginning of Chapter 1 highlights the main theme addressed by the narrative at this precise moment : Nilin’s loss of identity due to the manipulation of her memory.

The presence of masks subtly reminds the player that Nilin has lost her own mémory. Even though the meaning may not appear to everyone, the original composition makes the  very easy platform sequence more visually appealing.

In other sequences, the camera also tends to step back from the avatar to induce a feeling of smallness in the face the urban environment, which is quite common in sci-fi games. One of the most interesting uses of this feature is situated in Chapter 3, where Nilin is hanging above a vast and dark emptiness emphasized by convergent lines running deep into it. This scenery provides a great sensation of vertigo by upseting the player’s perception of space.

Chapter's 3 platform sequence makes a great deal of making the player uncomfortable with space thanks to converging straight lines.

Finally, the frame also provides great visuals and sensations when used freely as a composition tool to highlight an entire game scene.  This contrasts with the forced camera method seen earlier, which is much more directive and only applies to very small level chunks. In chapter 5 for instance, Nilin is placed above a flooded city street where common citizens are struggling to arise from the waters. The player can also hear cries and senses, by the use of flashing lights, an atmosphere of anarchy. Here, the reader may have noticed that, in the game’s narrative, this flood was directly provoked by Nilin in a previous chapter, making this passage an observation of the consequences of the caracter’s actions. However, by chosing to put “normal people” down in the streets below the avatar, DONTNOD makes the player understand that he’s litterally above these people’s problems and has to focus on his own important mission.


Even though this design choice might be seen as vaguely immoral if seen in the game’s context, it works perfectly fine in showing the player that he is, indeed, a step ahead of the rest of the game’s characters.

The frame control used in Remember Me shows the attention paid by DONTNOD to the composition of the game’s space, both from a macro and a micro point of view. This process allows the designers to center the player’s attention around the graphic assets provided by the team and adds a substantial amount of new feels and meanings into the space of Neo-Paris.


Colors and Lights : influencing feelings through repetition

Since DONTNOD’s level design on Remember Me was first thought in a graphic fashion, its quality may seem to depend a lot on the use of lights and colors to tell the player something meaningful :

Image22 Image9

As we can see, lights and colors are very important to set the global mood of Remember Me’s levels, primarily to step away form other cyberpunk-ish universes which often portay the future as dark and dull. However, these elements also have specific meanings that are taught to the player through repetitive patterns in every level. For instance, a glowing blue aspect will usually refer to a peaceful and calm environment, which can potentially hold a secret reward, whereas red will alert the player to dangerous threats.


Image13 Image14

These patterns allow the player to automatically recognize the use and potential of every game space so that the experience in itself doesn’t feel odd by being too surprising. A fighting sequence will, for instance, never be displayed in a blue-illuminated environment.

The environment’s color tones and scenery are also heavily influenced by the heroine’s state of mind during specific game sequences. Consequently, a same gameplace can look totally different by changing both color moods and visual elements. For example, in Chapter 6, Nilin is showed (through a dialogue with her boss, named Edge) as being very disappointed by the turn of events, questioning the legitimity of the “errorist” cause (the main opponents to the hegemony of a few over everyone’s memories). Consequently, the environment of the “Bastille” was made very dark, with agressive silhouettes and a great use of warm colors diplayed by fire, reflecting Nilin’s story.


This staging choice makes total sense with the flow of the narrative : when Nilin first came to the Bastille earlier in the game, with a brighter and clearer mindset, the environment was also displayed as a lot brighter and clearer.


These light and color associations make a great impression on the most inattentive player by subconsciously making her / him feel the stakes of the narrative.

Simultaneously, a great effort was made to symbolize danger by using both light and space in gameplay situations. Indeed, light and dark hold special meanings  in Remember Me, characterizing the heavy use of the player’s primal instincts. For instance, many fighting sequences display a special interaction with the environment : turning on lights to make invisible enemies fightable (as Nilin is only a prey to these enemies when the light is turned off). In these sequences, darkness becomes a threat in itself by reflecting the enemies it could hold.


In another level, Nilin will struggle to escape the lightspot of an helicopter (being revealed by the spot would result in a certain death).


The numerous (there’s more than 2 !) uses of lighting through gameplay sequences make the player rely on a certain scheme to undestand the gamespaces :

-When she/he is in a predator condition, heavy-lighted spaces become places to take advantage of bad guys. -However, when  in a prey condition, darkness becomes the only way to escape the most dangerous enemies (like the helicopter).

In short, this constant play between light and dark but also between warm and cold colors remains a good way to influence the player’s own feelings and behavior through her / his own given instincts.

In a nutshell, Remember Me’s use of framing, color and light didn’t just showcase simple visual elements but embrassed the globality of the experience, reflecting Nilin’s own trip through her neo-parisian adventures. Using level design to induce feelings and meanings is not an easy thing to do in the entierty of a game development pipeline and it is to be noted that DONTNOD achieved a great sense of balance between all the elements in their obsession to deliver the best possible experience. This process involves techniques and tricks to be noted by any aspriring level designer, may she / he be working on a AAA title or another type or project, even in an architectural fashion. As Le Corbusier used to say…

“Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.”

 Thank you for reading 😉

Recent comments

  • DigZon technology

    18 août 2015 |

    Keep up the great work ethic.


    10 août 2015 |

    This article has inspired me. It’s profound, interesting and worthy of a positive comment. I try to give good content its due and this deserves a top rating. Thank you.

  • Mathieu

    22 mai 2015 |

    Very interesting article. Could be usefull to me in 2nd year, that is if LePivain makes us study this one.

  • Mitzi

    15 mai 2015 |

    This article and many other on your page are very interesting.
    There is a big chance to go viral.

  • admin

    10 avril 2015 |

    Beautifully written