Level Design in a Day: The Level Design of Gone Home

Johnny shared this talk with us from GDC: Level Design in a Day: The Level Design of Gone Home

I admit that I haven’t put much thought before into designing for environments which are interactive and explorable. This is a new challenge for me and it was interesting to see how the layout of an environment needs to be considered in order to control the flow of user experience. I’m looking forward to seeing how our team of story, level, art, code and sound designers will be dealing with this extra layer of consideration.

Using the level and environment design of Gone Home as an example:

  • The space is designed so that it feels non-linear and real, even though a birds-eye view reveals that the layout could not exist in real life.
  • In a real house layout, the progression of the player is more difficult to control. Many doors would have to be locked. Gaynor shows his own example of a central hub where the player can branch out from. Also consider what is visible to the player from the central point alone.
  • Look for house plans with interesting and surprising layouts e.g. sprawling Victorian houses that fill the landscape that they inhabit.
  • What is the player experience/flow that we will have to build for?
  • Fill the grey box layouts with furniture, textiles and other paraphernalia that creates a lived-in feeling.
  • The taste and furniture needs to represent the taste and financial position of the owners, all the way from the creation of the house to modern day.
  • Make large spaces more intimate. Pull the spaces in. (Craig says this in relation to the bedroom example).
  • The bedrooms show the characters distilled.
  • What kind of doors fit with the architectural style?
  • Symbolism and allegory.
  • Research technology of the house’s era e.g old victorian heating system. Educate yourself and know specific search terminology. Take a field trip for research.
  • Library – go there for more unique references that everyone else won’t find through google.
  • Think of how the floor plans and angle of hallways can add interest to your rooms.
  • Do even more research than you think is needed. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
  • What can you get away with on the macro versus micro levels? Create a layout which makes sense functionally e.g. the foyer leads to the stairs which leads to a hallway which leads to a bedroom. If the kitchen leads to the bedroom the player will start to question the layout and reality of the house.
  • Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. A teenager’s bedroom is ordinarily very cluttered but you need to consider the rendering constraints when trying to replicate this impression. Abstract the feeling from the space and strip the scene down to what is needed to create this feeling. The more simple an image is the more you can project your own vision onto a space. Think of the simplified language or symbols needed to get the idea of a character space across.
  • Buy old magazines from ebay for research. Do I remember seeing these things growing up?
  • Do you want to use very obvious symbols or more subtle ones? For example, Victorians attached different meanings to flowers which Craig took into account when she was designing some of the motifs for the environments. Not all players are expected to pick up on such subtle symbology.
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