I write until I feel the writing is complete, but that doesn’t always mean the thought is finished. So, here’s a preface which you can skip to let you catch up if you want; if you don’t want, then skip it and get to the real reason I’m here, which is to praise Resident Evil 4, among other things.
Doc’s History of Writing About Doom Eternal, Which You Can Skip Unless You Want To Read My Other Two Essays About It, Which I Think Would Be Useful To Establishing Context But This Point Stands Alone So You Don’t Have To But Like You Totally Can
So, last year, after Doom Eternal, my most anticipated game, released, I found myself disappointed. What I valued most about Doom 2016, its predecessor, was its ability to get me into a consistent flow state. I also liked the vibes and the way the game didn’t care about including lore; it just did its thing and was wonderfully aggressive about the whole thing.
Doom Eternal was…….. not that. It leaned twice as hard into the lore, included gameplay elements that seemed to be gamey for the sake of being gamey, and doubled down hard on the memes. It was the opposite of the experience I had treasured so much when playing Doom. A big part of this was caused by an enemy called The Marauder, who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the enemies; rather than complementing them, he’s an attention hog, and unlike a good nemesis enemy in a shooter, rather than looking at him and being like “you! me! let’s fight!” in a really thrilling way, he just kinda says “in a game about fighting how you want, i want to stop you and make you play by my rules.” He’s fundamentally boring. His mechanics aren’t even that exciting.
You can read my piece about why the Marauder sucks here. But some guy who wanted clicks made a video claiming “journalists are bad at games” so a bunch of people commented on his behalf saying ‘git gud’ scrub, even though I wasn’t writing about difficulty at all, but flow states.
So I figured, hey, I’ll try another helpful piece that doesn’t focus on the Marauder, maybe people will get what I’m going for then. So, what was the result?
My most-read piece every single week on this blog for some reason. I legit don’t know why it’s so popular, but it is.
If you think it would be useful to read, then here it is, have fun.
My goal here is to write useful shit for people. I want people to read what I’m saying and go “oh, this applies to me” or “oh, I think you’re wrong.” If it applies, they make better games. If they think I’m wrong, then we can talk it out and hopefully come up with some design thoughts that lead to better games. Either way, my pieces work if they’re productive. That’s the goal here, and that’s why it’s often useless to talk about “game hard.”
So, once more, I’m going to talk about Doom Eternal.
I am, for the third time in a row, not interested in talking about how the game was easy for me while listening to gamers who didn’t read the piece regurgitating some guy who gets his talking points from /r/kotakuinaction jerk off their egos by telling them they’re good at games and journos aren’t. Ego masturbation is not worth my time.
We’re here to talk to people who are interested in how games work, why games work, and how they can make their own games better. And we’re gonna do it by talking about encounter design.
In Which I Either Show My Whole Ass Or Don’t
A lot of what I read about level design seems to come from one of two places:
First, there’s the ‘weenie’ model of thinking, which is basically the argument that Disney Land/World was designed with all the visually leading lines pushing you to look at the Castle so it’s really good to make all games do that; it’s literally just going “you should have a visual focal point.”
This is bunk. Go play The Last of Us 2 and notice how many of the objectives in that game are “see that thing in the distance? you’re gonna go there.” Look at how it… actually kind of sucks. It feels like after Naughty Dog burned out a bunch of their senior staff, who quit to work at other studios, everyone who was left was a relative newbie and watched some videos on “good level design” and went “ah, I see, let’s make literally every single major objective in the game about getting from point A to point B.”
There’s a reason that The Last of Us 2 disappeared from discussion quickly and most people I spoke with who played it said it wasn’t just worse than the previous game, it also wasn’t worth replaying, and I think a big chunk of that is… well, what’s really that compelling about going “there’s a building in the distance, I’m going to go there,” go inside a building, do a thing or two, come out, and now you’re closer?
If you repeat that nine or twelve more times, you have the entire narrative structure of The Last of Us 2. It is a game where the primary emotional beats of the spatial navigation are “oh, now I am closer to a thing.”
It’s a good trick, but you have to use it sparingly, and if it’s the only tool in your arsenal, the game will suffer from it. One reason Doom 2016 is a better game, for instance, is because it does that for the first half of one of its strongest levels and that’s it.
Now, there is another kind of level design process that’s very similar, and it’s what John Romero does in a lot of his level design. He’ll give you a window or a precipice or something and go “you can go there… but how?” and this stimulates your brain to try to figure out how to go somewhere. This works really well in Romero’s style of level design.
Take a look at this image. On the left, we’ve got John Romero’s E1M6. On the right, we’ve got a parody of modern levels that honestly pretty accurately mirrors level structure in The Last of Us, Max Payne 3, Vanquish, and a bunch of other games. The Last of Us 2 does some wide linear level design, but a lot of that seems more of a way of lengthening the game’s already unnecessarily long run time rather than doing anything super interesting with it.
But, hey, that’s a digression.
My point is, what Romero does when he shows you something you can’t get to yet is to try to engage your brain, like one of those cat toys where the cat essentially has to solve a puzzle to get a treat. It’s stimulating; it gets your lizard brain going. Rather than something that happens to you passively (“oh, now I am closer to the weenie” — yes, that’s the technical term, blame Disney’s Theme Park Guys) that makes you feel like you have traveled between two points, it’s engaging your brain’s hunter instincts.
But then there’s the Team Ico style of level design, where you’re often given a chance to look back at a place you’ve been; these games don’t necessarily call attention to where you will be going, or give you much of a way to reflect on it, but after you go there, you can often look back and go “wow… that was a long time ago, I’ve come so far since then.”
An example of this is the windmill in Ico. I think the first time you see it, you’re right on the level where it is; later, when you see it again, you’re way, way, way out at the very edge of the map, the furthest away you will ever get from the rest of the game, and there’s the windmill, so tiny and distant. “Oh wow, I’ve come a long way,” you think to yourself.
A big part of the reason this works is that it’s not immediate — the Naughty Dog approach to this has generally been that you’re doing this within one specific level. You see the location you have to get to in the distance (hospital, village, ferris wheel, aquarium, hotel, a different hotel, etc in The Last of Us 2), you go into a location where it is obscured from your vision, then you exit that location and now you are closer. This may happen one or two times.
Like, there’s a level in The Last Of Us 2 where you’re like “I have to get my squad there.” You enter a building with a boathouse. You fight some zombies. You get through a door so you can get up onto a boat, you cross the boat, then you climb out onto the ceiling. Now you are closer to the location you were trying to get to than you were previously.
It does that a lot.
What Team Ico does, particularly with Ico and The Last Guardian, is make you forget about those locations for several hours. The windmill isn’t something you leave directly from to get to the location where you can see the windmill again, it’s something you see after so many puzzles and encounters and, heck, unless you’re looking for it, you might not even realize it’s behind you until you are making your way back from that distant location.
FROM Software copies Ueda’s technique almost exactly in its design. It’s a lot of “oh yeah, I was there hours and hours and hours ago.” That’s what makes it so strong; it spurs reflection. It is not a goal. This is one of the reasons I think FROM is better at game development than all its clones, and why none of the Dark Souls-like sidescrollers have ever successfully captured what makes FROM’s games so compelling.
Sure, you can see where you’re going, but the game rarely calls attention to it; it’s there, it’s part of the world, but it’s not used as a carrot on a stick. You’re not thinking “I have to go to that specific location at some point.” It capitalizes on hindsight.
Whenever someone is like “ah but disney world,” in their level design videos, my brain immediately just invokes the most popular meme from the year 2008:
Maybe “a focal point that you get to over time” isn’t the best way to tell a story — er, uh, I mean, do level design. Yeah. That’s uh, that’s definitely what I meant.
The second style of level design writing is about a Japanese style of narrative design called kishōtenketsu, which is basically just four-act story structure. Introduction, development, twist, resolution. It’s how Azumanga Daioh works:
It’s not bad storytelling structure, but with level design, it has a tendency to come rote. Oh sure, you’ll get some dude online being like “this is how Mario does it” and yes, yes, I know, Mario works for many people, but, I mean… ever seen this picture?
This is an illustration of the idea of survivorship bias, which is that basically, a bunch of planes came back from the war with holes in these places. The military was like “oh man, we should armor those parts up because all the planes we see have damage here.” Then some genuinely smart genius tier guy was like “hold up… all these planes got back fine with these holes in them, right?”
Military bro was like “yeah…?”
And he was like “so that… means that the places where they’re getting hit aren’t bad enough for them to crash, right? If they can get home, I mean.”
Military bro was like “okay, and?”
And this brain genius Albert Einstein tier motherfucker spins around in his chair and goes “Listen up, Jack, if every plane that comes back has its fuel tank intact, then maybe, just maybe, planes that get shot in the fuel tank don’t make it back! So let’s armor up the places that didn’t get hit on the planes that made it back, because clearly when someone gets shot there, they don’t survive.
And wouldn’t you know, he was right? The point I’m trying to make here is, just because something survives doesn’t mean the most tangible elements of its success are the reason it’s successful, right? I guarantee you no one was rushing home to scream “holy shit the weenies in the last of us are why its a genius game! I loved going into a thing and then coming out and being closer to another thing that I had previously seen!!” and I can pretty much guarantee that’s not why people like the game at all.
Same thing is true for kishōtenketsu.
Just because Mario famously uses kishōtenketsu doesn’t mean that’s a one-size-fits-all reason as to why Mario works, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s even a factor in Mario’s success. Consider kaizo maps for Mario Maker, a huge part of what makes those so appealing; they’re rarely described as kishōtenketsu. Can you really say that 64, Sunshine, Odyssey, or the Galaxy games follow that formula so rigidly as 3D World?
I’m invoking survivorship bias here to say that sometimes, tangible things aren’t actually the reason things are successful, and in both cases, these primary schools of “level design thought” lead to a very formulaic, predictable approach to level design. A game sells well and people assume that every noticeable element about it is why it succeeded, and that’s not always true. Just because a successful game does something doesn’t mean that thing was the source of its success.
I was reading how someone said that kishōtenketsu is used to make Destiny strikes, but when I read about Destiny raids, the designers referenced some of the challenges from Takeshi’s Castle, and their entire theoretical framework wasn’t about rigidly adhering to the formula, it was more about taking inspiration from unlikely places to create fun activities.
Not gonna lie, the best strikes are the ones that aren’t readily identifiable as kishōtenketsu, because they’re stimulating through variety, and the best raids are the ones that seem as invested in making the challenges as varied and entertaining as possible, much like Takeshi’s Castle.
Is Destiny a successful game because strikes apparently use a kishōtenketsu structure in their design? Probably not; the game’s gorgeous, marketed well, has insanely good gunfeel so it’s pleasurable to engage with, and is really the only first person service-based looter shooter of its kind. If you want a daily FPS to log in to that’s cooperative, congratulations, you’ve basically just got Destiny.
Are people really sticking with Destiny because its strikes adhere to a specific structure? Is that where the bulk of the playtime is actually spent?
“Okay, Doc, why are you telling me this?”
Well, I’m prepping you.
What I mean is, I’m going to say “here is how I think level and encounter design oughtta be.” I want to do as good of a job of convincing you that there’s a more flexible way to think of level design, and so it benefits my argument to explain how I think a lot of current methodologies are actually very rigid.
My goal here is this: I think I have a framework for interesting level design, and the framework I’m going to offer you is intended to offer a lot more flexibility than a formula about weenies or four-act structures. The goal of this is to empower you to make more varied and interesting experiences.
Because, hey, think of your favorite levels in all the single-player games you’ve played. What resonated with you when you played them? What stood out? For me, when I’m racing across the sand in Half-Life’s Surface Tension, being chased by the helicopter, not knowing whether I’m going to live or die, or when I crawl out of that pod in Halo for the first time, or when lambent blast through the air and come careening down onto the deck in Gears of War 3, I’m feeling invigorated, I’m feeling alive.
But I’ve played a lot of bad games, and I’m not just talking about games that are wildly popular that I don’t personally like because they’re unsurprising retreads of previous games, like The Last of Us or Super Mario 3D Land; I’m talking about games that just about everyone seems to agree are bad, like, say, Dragon Age 2, a game with levels that were routinely highlighted as being bad because of the whole “another wave approaches!” style of design being… well… kinda boring.
Heck, even great games that I love have this problem, like Doom 2016.
So I might be showing my whole ass here; maybe there is some great level design writing I’ve just never managed to find that’s about my way of thinking about level design, despite there being a few great examples of it in games. If there is, hey, disregard, I’m a dummy. But if there isn’t, well… let’s see if we can’t develop a framework that empowers us to think completely differently about level design, okay?
IT IS DRAMA
Wait, hold up.
I should have written a preface first
Look, the most common criticism I get for my writing is like “doc u think everything you write is objective truth” and that’s always such a strange response to me because I spend a lot of time going “I think, I believe, I feel,” because I want to come across as personable and nonthreatening as possible. And the crazy thing is, so many of my teachers in college would fuckin murder me for writing like this, because these are called “weasel words.”
Like, you’re literally supposed to go “hey this is like this and here’s the evidence” because going “I think this but I’m not sure” weakens your argument and makes it less compelling. It means you suck at the thing you’re supposed to be doing. I do not want to suck at writing persuasive essays, I want to be entertaining and helpful.
So, hey, let me give it to you straight: I love reading essays by people who are confident in their beliefs and show their work. I strive to be like that. I am not upset or hurt if you disagree with me, I am simply trying to convince you of what I believe to be correct. If you remain unconvinced, that is absolutely fine, because I am not the be-all, end-all of the universe. When people tell me that my essays helped them, I’m over the moon, but I feel the same way when people say “I don’t always agree with you but I appreciate your thoughtfulness.”
I have so much to learn, and writing these essays is a kind of learning process. To me, this is an exciting journey of discovery, and I’m doing my absolute best to give you something worth your attention and time. If you read my writing and come away from it going “doc gets mad if I dont agree with everything he says” I am genuinely mystified as to how you got there. Do what fulfils you! This is just me telling you what I think.
Thing is, I’m confident as hell in what I’m about to say next, because all the pieces I’m not confident in are either unwritten or sitting in my drafts. This one’s getting published because I believe in it, like everything else I hit publish on.
I think it’s absolutely on the money. So let’s fuckin go!
After playing a popular zombie game, I jokingly tweeted “artists, you’re banned from making zombie games with cannibals, cults that blame technology for zombies, which they call ‘demons,’ and biker gangs,” or something to that effect. A lot of people got the joke — these tropes that once seemed so fresh because they were surprising have become crutches.
When you see a guy being suspiciously friendly, you’re like “oh yeah, that dude’s gonna be a cannibal,” and you roll your eyes when of course he is. It takes you out of the work, right? Because your brain starts going “oh, I saw this before in…” then you’re immediately yanked away from the immersion that made the thing so compelling, and that cuts off your ability to be receptive to it.
But this one guy? He got super mad, and in getting mad, he asked something that really stuck with me.
“If you take away those things, how could anyone ever tell a zombie story?”
This is why I’m so opposed to the idea of storytelling formulas; if you ask any seasoned writer about the “hero’s journey,” you’ll get a groan, because nobody likes basically being told “yeah just plug in some proper nouns and call it a day.” Every artist worth their salt knows that these formulas kill the story for the audience.
Shit, wait, I’m talking about story again aren’t I. Huh… that’s weird. Wonder why it keeps coming up. Anyways, moving on…
Formula is appealing for two reasons: it helps people who aren’t confident develop confidence, and it helps people who aren’t artists at all feel like they can exert control over something that’s fundamentally difficult to appreciate.
A bean counter is not really interested in learning art theory and how to enrich people’s lives, but if a Silicon Valley entrepreneur is like “we trained a neural net to analyze a million movies and this is the perfect formula for a movie,” then the bean counter will go “hey, Martin Scorsese, I want you to make movies exactly like this because we know it will sell” and then they have mitigated risk and done their job. Someone who does not spend years honing their craft loves to hear there’s a super simple formula because then they can go “ah this doesn’t follow the hero’s journey so it’s bad and we’re canceling your product.”
Younger artists love formula because that theoretical framework is super useful in building confidence. If you know the steps to follow, you can make a surefire banger and that’s very, very relieving.
But… well, like I said, formula doesn’t guarantee success. In fact, it often guarantees the opposite, because people crave authenticity, and formula can become so predictable that the audience learns to resent it.
What I want to do here is give you a framework rather than a formula. Instead of “if you introduce an idea, and then you do the scene where you develop the idea, and then you twist it, and then you resolve it,” and then seeing everything structured exactly like that, I wanna go “okay so based on all this education and research and experience I have, humans work like this so if you wanna push their buttons, here’s how you do it.”
For me, a formula is like, “follow this set of instructions, make sure to have this story beat on this page, and so on and so forth,” but the people who write these formulas are dudes who wrote shit like “stop! or my mom will shoot!”
The guy who wrote this ‘4.3 on imdb’ movie is unironically considered one of the three most influential screenwriting gurus in Hollywood, not because he had the credentials, but because he wrote a book that sounded authoritative and guaranteed an easy way to succeed, and bean counters love thinking this shit is easy.
A framework on the other hand is different. It’s more like a method of thinking. The cool thing about frameworks is that they give you a wonderfully flexible structure to work with.
If a formula is “make every house exactly like this,” you end up with, well, this:
But if you operate with a framework instead, you play with looser rules, and you make gorgeous structures like Fallingwater instead.
It requires expertise, it requires trust in yourself, and it requires a bit more work, but if you do it — if you really, truly commit to a philosophical framework, your possibilities open up so much that you gain the power to do so many amazing things.
Familiarity breeds contempt; if you develop a formula and never deviate from you, your audience’s contempt for you will grow. They will eventually seek out new things because predictability is not simulating. It’s seen as safe because people claim it will bring success, but do you really wanna trust Blake Snyder to know what he’s doing when his most famous work is a movie so bad that Sylvester Stallone (who wrote the wonderful Rocky) said was so bad a flatworm could’ve written a better script? Snyder never proved he was a great writer, so why would we believe his claims that his scripts bring success; what makes him more than a simple huckster?
If one thing holds true in art, it’s this: people get bored of the same thing over and over again. They always do.
But there’s a very simple philosophy that, if you adhere to it, you’ll always be able to tell good stories.
“Doc, I thought this was about level design — ”
It is. It is. We’re getting there.
Right. So. Drama.
I fuckin love drama. It’s so simple! It’s literally just, as David Mamet — you know, the guy who wrote the “coffee is for closers” scene — says, going “who wants what, what happens if they don’t get it, and why now?”
Okay, he says a bit more, and I quote it a lot, but it’s so foundational to everything I understand about game design. Check this out:
QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, *ACUTE* GOAL.
EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE.
THIS NEED IS WHY THEY *CAME*. IT IS WHAT THE SCENE IS ABOUT. THEIR ATTEMPT TO GET THIS NEED MET *WILL* LEAD, AT THE END OF THE SCENE,TO *FAILURE* — THIS IS HOW THE SCENE IS *OVER*. IT, THIS FAILURE, WILL, THEN, OF NECESSITY, PROPEL US INTO THE *NEXT* SCENE.
ALL THESE ATTEMPTS, TAKEN TOGETHER, WILL, OVER THE COURSE OF THE EPISODE, CONSTITUTE THE *PLOT*.
ANY SCENE, THUS, WHICH DOES NOT BOTH ADVANCE THE PLOT, AND STANDALONE (THAT IS, DRAMATICALLY, BY ITSELF, ON ITS OWN MERITS) IS EITHER SUPERFLUOUS, OR INCORRECTLY WRITTEN.
A lot of people are wrong about video games.
There’s this theory that’s been going around for years now that says something like this: “video games are too long. that’s why game completion achievements aren’t super common. The longer the game, the fewer the completions.”
But that’s hogwash, because you’ll ask those same people how much they love Diablo 2 and they’ll sing its praises to high heaven and claim they’re going back for a fiftieth playthrough. They’ve got ten thousand hours in Dota 2, they’re doing their third character for the week in Destiny, on and on and on and on I could go. People will give games thousands of hours and then complain that narrative games are “too long.”
The truth is, a lot of narrative games are just… well, boring.
Anything feels too long when it’s boring, so if it’s adhering to a formula that’s boring, if it’s so predictable that it stops being mentally stimulating, it’s gonna feel too long. That doesn’t actually mean that it is. When someone says “this was the perfect length,” they are actually saying that they were never bored.
It’s the survivorship bias dot jpg thing; if you look at a game achievement thing and you go “well, I notice a lot of long games don’t have high completion percentages,” you might assume that the noticeable thing — the length — is the issue. But what if the reason the game is long is because it’s stuffed to the gills with quests where you walk from point a to point b, and then you kill five beewolfs to get five honeyfurs and then you walk from point b to point a.
How many games have you played where your character is like “I need to find the man who killed my father, because he is planning to kill every other father in a week” and some character is like “ah… i will tell you where he is, because i know that man, however, i need you to do me a favor first, and that favor is to find my wayward daughter, thomasina,” and you’re like “oh no” and then you go to one location to find her, but she isn’t there, so you go to another, and she’s not there either, but the third time — and it’s always the third time — she’s somewhere, but she needs you to kill another three beewolves before she will return home… you end up just doing a lot of quid pro quo that’s just padding out the game.
Contrast that with something like The Witcher 3’s Bloody Baron quest, a pretty popular quest because it features tremendous character work and has you performing rituals to kill a monster and solve a mystery. It’s so much more compelling; it’s a quest lots of people seem to love.
People will tell you a five hour game is too long if it bores them, and they will tell you a two thousand hour game is too short if they fuckin love it.
Drama seems to be at the root of all of this.
WE ARE NOT GETTING PAID TO *REALIZE* THAT THE AUDIENCE NEEDS THIS INFORMATION TO UNDERSTAND THE NEXT SCENE, BUT TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO WRITE THE SCENE BEFORE US SUCH THAT THE AUDIENCE WILL BE INTERESTED IN WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
Anyways this is actually the secret to good encounter design.
Look, a lot of people think stories are words (if so, then what is silent film?), and words are information, so they think of storytelling as someone telling you — expositing at you — about what is happening. This is not true. A story can be silent. Did you know that when interviewed about how he made Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller cited a book called “The Parade’s Gone By” as his bible?
I saw it in a tweet thread back when he was doing a press tour and someone was breathlessly repeating his answers to various interview questions real time from somewhere in Australia one night.
That struck me, because Brownlow’s books are these really rich, deep tomes about moviemaking, and The Parade’s Gone By is specifically about silent films, but the thing is… if you watch it, you can see that Fury Road is a silent movie; you can understand the entire thing on mute.
Heck, great filmmakers like Stephen Soderbergh have fucked around with this very thing!
So I want you to watch this movie and think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are. See if you can reproduce the thought process that resulted in these choices by asking yourself: why was each shot — whether short or long — held for that exact length of time and placed in that order? Sounds like fun, right? It actually is. To me. Oh, and I’ve removed all sound and color from the film, apart from a score designed to aid you in your quest to just study the visual staging aspect.
Get where we’re going with this?
Formula can lead to predictability, and predictability can lead to contempt. We don’t want our audience to feel contempt for us, so maybe we should come up with a philosophy for how to structure our stories. Right now, a lot of our game stories are boring the players, and we don’t have to bore them; it’s possible that the two most common “how to structure levels in story based games” are giving us that same kind of contemptable predictability and maybe, just maybe, these formulas are not the reasons people like the games that they’re featured in.
Drama, however, solves this problem, because it strips away potentially harmful minutae, like “hit this beat on this page, create a sense of progress by doing just this one thing,” and gets us back to our absolute fundamental need:
Make the audience want to know what comes next, and do it by making moments necessary.
But there’s a problem.
The Kitchen Sink
Making games is hard because you have to tell physics how to work. You have to invent light. With a movie, a person can simply put her hand into a bag and pull out a gun. In a game, well, uh,
(that can be super hard)
because you literally have to create the bag, you have to make the bag adhere to the laws of physics, and also you have to make a person, have the person behave according to the laws of physics, you’ve gotta think about light and bugs and all sorts of stuff. What if it doesn’t run? Who knows?
Creating something from nothing is gosh darn hard.
One thing computer programs do extremely well is repeatable tasks. Computers will do exactly what you tell them to do, so if you create a set of instructions for the computer to follow, it can do that same task repeatedly. As a result, it becomes very easy to make a particular structure in a video game (comparatively speaking) with a specific, repeatable set of rules.
A classic example of this is the fetch quest: the game knows when you kill something, it knows that it can drop an item, and it can track how many of the items are in your inventory. So it’s very, very easy for a designer (again, compared to something super bespoke) to be like “yeah uh fetch me 30 of this one item and then i give you some xp” and call it a day, and it’s not so easy to have an entire set of custom animations and dialogue for an entire questline about getting super drunk one night and getting matching facial tats with your best friend. In fact, you can even have the computer dream up a lot of these quests by itself, which is how you get things like Skyrim’s “radiant quest” system, which randomly spawns an item in a dungeon and tells you to go get it for XP and money.
I am making this sound simpler than it is, but you get the idea, right? Games like Monster Hunter thrive on this; it’s pretty easy to spawn 5 giant cat hornets in a zone and have you hunt them down. It’s way harder to design a quest about planning a wedding and having to work on like, specific pathing for when the bride’s father stumbles down the stairs in front of everyone after he is tripped by the evil moustache-twirling sinister fiancé who really just wanted the money.
But… let’s face it, the second idea is more memorable than the first.
And the thing is… in literally every other storytelling medium, this is how things work. We even have a term for doing it wrong; it’s called a “double beat.”
If you’ve seen the movie Saw, you probably know the big twist, that the “dead man” on the floor is actually Jigsaw, and that he’s been pretending to be dead the entire time. As he rises from the floor, much to the horror of one of his victims, we, the audience, are hit with shock and surprise.
A double beat would be if, as Jigsaw walked down the corridor, he passed his other victim, Gordon, who was still crawling away, looking for help, and Gordon had the same emotional reaction to Jigsaw. We, the audience, already know now that Jigsaw was faking his death the entire time. Revealing that information a second time by showing us Gordon’s reaction would do nothing meaningful for us, the audience. If anything, it might sabotage the shock we’re already feeling, because it’s repetitive. Remember Mamet here — you wouldn’t tune in for information, would you? We don’t really need to see Gordon’s reaction, we don’t need that information. We already have the other guy’s.
Games tend to shoot themselves in the foot a lot through bad encounter design. As designers, our job is to get the player in The Zone, that headspace where the player is wholly engrossed in the experience. When we do things that take the player out, whether it’s the bland repetition of a double beat, or predictable mission structure that takes us from point A to point B to point C, and always in that order, whenever players are reminded of the artifice of the experience in a way that bores them, they stop feeling like they’re in The Zone.
Which Brings Us To The Shooters
I think a good shooter is one that has good mechanical drama and a bad shooter is one that has bad mechanical drama.
Now, that’s no real way to make a statement, but hey, if you need to ask “what is this piece about,” point them at the above statement and say “the entire rest of the ten thousand words of this piece or whatever it ends up being are about proving that one single thesis.
Okay but what does it mean? How can we synthesize what we know above and translate it into video game design language?
Let’s start with this: if we take Mamet’s criteria — the character has an acute, pressing need — and we apply it to a level, then that level’s probably more interesting than one where there’s nothing to do, right?
Like, let’s say I put your character in a game of cards. Right, we have a need right there! The player presumably wants to win the game of cards! But if our game is just a character sitting at a table saying nothing, maybe the audience loses attention. So, ok, let’s spice it up a little, maybe toss in a little shit talk.
Maybe the player character says “oh, I got something,” and another character goes “you got nothing,” and the player character goes “nah, nah, I got something,” and at this point, we, the writers, can do something to the scene to really spice it up — and remember, we’re playing all of this, the characters are just talking while this is happening. We can either have the character who challenged the player reveal his hand, which is pretty good, and then have the player reveal theirs, which is better, or we can have another character playing cards reveal they’ve got a pretty good hand.
I personally would go with a third character doing it; the audience has seen this kind of scene before, so they’re expecting our challenger to get the comeuppance. If the threat comes from someone else at the table, that’s a nice little wrinkle that makes the scene just a bit more stimulating. So maybe a character puts out a four of a kind. Boom, the other guy, who had a straight flush is a bit bummed out.
But you? You’ve got a full house.
Now, if you’re in control, you know you’re winning. Where’s the stakes? What makes this scene dynamic.
A plink sound.
Look up at the guy across from the table. He starts bleeding. Then another plink. You realize someone’s shooting the glass behind him, and they just shot your friend.
They ain’t done yet.
Now the game gets you out of your chair — this is not what you were expecting, and as the gunfire builds into a hurricane-force level of destruction, with you and your friends taking cover, maybe even arming themselves.
So we can create needs here — cover and getting a weapon — that the player begins planning for. And this plan is the key, because it’s what keeps us stimulated. Thomas Grip actually wrote a lot about planning in a blog post, which I always found strange, because I felt like his games don’t really have planning, but I think his core thesis is right, even if I feel these theories don’t show up in his actual games.
Suffice it to say, planning is mentally engaging, and adding wrinkles to your plans by changing up the scenario dynamically fills it with a potent energy that makes it more compelling than it would be if you just stood in a white, cube-shaped room with a single gun and like four dudes who stood still doing nothing.
Now, what I’m describing is a heavily narrative experience, because I think that kind of example is more likely to stick in your head and make the point land, but just to show you it’s not all about storytelling and custom assets, think about it like this…
We can complicate an encounter in a shooter by adding cover, creating enemy variety (maybe one enemy drops armor pods that give other enemies increased defensive powers, and one of those enemies loves charging the player, so you have to dodge the charger while taking out the armor pod dropper to make the charger easier to deal with — and yes, go play some levels of Halo Reach, where Bungie uses an Engineer and Brutes to achieve this. Which Brute is the most dangerous? Probably the Brute with the dangerous gravity hammer compared to the Brute with the less-scary needler, yeah?), and even changing up the dynamics of the encounter as we move on.
Take Resident Evil 4, right? You’ve got Leon entering the village, and he sees a few people, a dude who got burned alive, a chicken, and various buildings.
And that’s it.
Until it isn’t.
(don’t worry about the low health and ammo in this image, I was rushing and don’t remember any of the controls, I just didn’t have this screenshot and I needed it for the article. i uninstalled the game immediately after this fight and didnt die, which makes me good at video games. take that, angry youtube men!)
The way this fight works is beautiful — it’s just a bunch of buildings, like 30 of the exact same enemy (albeit visually differentiated), and you, with a knife, one gun, some weaponry you can find (including different grenade types, ooh). This means that it can play out differently every single time, based on where you choose to scavenge, whether you hit or miss your shots, what you want to reserve for later fights in the game and so on.
(it also does something really cool — there’s no difficulty select, the game actually adjusts its difficulty on the fly because the goal is to make the experience always feel tense, no matter what your skill level is. the goal is that everyone has the same intensity of experience!)
But you know what else is cool? Some of the enemies don’t show up immediately — some are just out of sight, hiding behind a wall where you can’t spot them, drawn to the initial commotion, or they spawn later, part way into the fight — which means that while you can be thinking “okay, the fight is like this,” the game adds a wrinkle — there’s that word again — and then “oh no, the fight is like this.”
And the thing is, Resident Evil 4 changes up these rules so often over time. Sometimes, it’s about level placement — maybe you have to get from point A to point B, but instead of being a village, you’re exposed somewhere and snipers are shooting you, or, in a reversal of this scenario, you’re fine, but you’re protecting Ashley, who isn’t, and so you have to snipe the enemies trying to kidnap her. There are a tons of ways that Resident Evil 4 sets up its situations — one of my favorites is a bit where you find a group of stationary enemies that are just perfect for a grenade.
Resident Evil 4 does all of this with just three components:
- specific and considered enemy mixes
- dynamically changing the scenario
- variety through specific, beneficial tools
Now, I said I’d be talking about Doom Eternal, and I haven’t yet, but I figured, why not at least establish my value system so you know what’s up when I talk about Eternal so you know I ain’t just blowin smoke?
I figure some of you, in good faith, may point out that the mechanics of the two games are different — the way you get resources in Resident Evil 4 and Doom Eternal are different — and some of you may also, in good faith, point out that some of the scenarios are the same; after all, Doom Eternal does spawn enemies in at different times, so what’s the difference?
Doom Eternal And The Kitchen Sink
So, the problem I have with Doom Eternal could be summarized like this: many of its encounters feel like they’re kitchen sink design. That means that it feels like you have to use every mechanic in every encounter. When playing Eternal, it feels as though most players are expected to use grenades, the flamethrower, practically every weapon, and all movement options available to them in every fight. Occasionally, the game adds more mechanics, but they just keep coming.
There’s a fight later on in the game — and I’m sorry, they do all run together — that takes place in some sort of living space or restaurant, and you’re basically just locked in a room, fighting tons of dudes, until there aren’t any dudes left. The encounter’s duration is extended by spawning in new waves of enemies, but this doesn’t meaningfully change up the experience the way Resident Evil 4 does, because you’re expected to use all weapons at all times. No matter how different every level is
The one major exception to this for me is Gore Nest, which I think is the best level in the game. I’m not a fan of the game’s use of gore overall — I think it contributes to the dumb Saturday Morning Cartoon vibe the game insists on (it’s really weird how a game that is so lean and brilliant would get a sequel that’s so bloated and dull; more isn’t better!) — but I think Gore Nest is the strongest level in the game because there are so many points where it’s just you in a specific place dealing with specific pairings of enemies that feel more considered in interesting ways.
Like, there’s a bit with some enemy Pinkies that feels really nice because it’s not just unexpected, but the level space you’re in is very much a place that’s good for pinkies and not so good for you to evade them in.
But overall? Every fight feels like “okay we’re just gonna spawn a bunch of these, and these, and these, okay, we kinda got ’em all I guess, now what.” And that’s just so draining. If I have to use every tool in every fight, then the fights stop being interesting because there isn’t much to actually make interesting plans in. Sure, I love the frenetic intensity of the more challenging slayer gates (they get interesting once the “Tyrant” enemy type shows up imo — not sure why they’re not called Cyberdemons in this one, but whatever), but slayer gates are breaks from the main campaign; that’s what makes them fun.
When all the fights kind of merge together in my memories because they’re a uniform blob of level design, that’s a problem. Doom 2016 had the same problem, but it alleviated some of this by having fewer hard counters to specific enemies (this is partly why the marauder sucks! he requires a hard counter but for some inexplicable reason, it’s not the shield, which is the only red energy shield in the game that doesn’t explode when exposed to plasma fire!! it’s inconsistent!!! aaargh!) and more distinction in its level design.
Rather than trying to throw everything in all at once, Doom 2016 was more likely to space things out, and it really only starts falling apart in the back half exactly when it starts kitchen sinking. Give me a level like Argent Tower, which has a ton of fun platforming that becomes increasingly difficult with just one or two enemies spawned in strategic points to cause problems. Contrast that with the final level in the game
Doom Eternal is a game built on the final level of Doom 2016, its worst level, rather than its best levels, like Argent Tower. Everything all the time forever just doesn’t have the same kind of potency because in our brains, it gets reduced to mush.
I can still remember, pitch perfectly, so many different encounters in games like Halo or Half-Life because they simply use both the visual variety of the level design and the specific tools available at my disposal to do interesting things with it. Like, when I wrote about Halo’s best level, the thing that stuck out to me then the most, and does to this day, is the actual variety in the encounters. One level, you’re charging up a beach towards covenant, the next, you’re using a car, then you’re trying to descend into the facility only to find that you can’t, so you fight your way through a forest to a fight that culminates in taking on two of Halo’s toughest enemies, hunters.
I just got carried away describing it, but… the thing that makes it feel so good are the subtleties, like the way the enemies retreat away from a wrecked warthog, so you can’t just use its gun turret to mulch them, and draw you into a narrow corridor, drawing you to the hunters and chucking grenades at you all the while, is just, mmf. It’s a chef’s kiss. It’s perfect.
And that’s what I’m getting at here; it doesn’t just throw all the enemy types forever at every step of the game, even though it doesn’t have a lot of enemy types (as I recall, for the first half of the game, it only has 5 types of enemies, not counting color variants, who have different weapon types). It spaces them out, brings some in with dropships (one thing Halo does really well that many games don’t — it shouts “HEY! I’M GOING TO BRING IN MORE ENEMIES NOW!” in a way that lets you mentally prepare, rather than just a warp particle effect; destiny has the particle for the Vex, but it takes a LONG TIME, about as long as enemy ships appearing do, and is often accompanied by the Vex theme music swelling to let you know shit’s about to go down).
It also doesn’t require you to do something as arbitrary as stand close enough but not too far from the bad guy, use explosives to stun him, break a ton of obvious rules like “the bfg kills anything” or “plasma cannons should break shields.”
I think a better-designed game would have had weaknesses players can take advantage of (and to its credit, Eternal does have some of this when it comes to shooting parts off enemies, for instance), but it also would have had levels where some mechanics don’t even come into play.
Like, here’s a hypothetical:
Let’s say we have an FPS where enemies have energy shields, armor, and flesh. Let’s say we have weapon types that can deal with that; maybe grenades are really good at handling armor, for instance, fire’s great at flesh, plasma’s great for shields. Cool. Then we give the player, say, a room where the enemies are largely armored, heavily encouraging grenade use. But then a big plasma-shielded enemy drops down from the ceiling, supported by waves of smaller, armored enemies. We don’t even get to fleshy enemies in the encounter at all.
Then, once we’ve beaten that encounter, we move onto the next one, and now all of are enemies are across a chasm we can’t cross ourselves; maybe we’re riding on a barge or something, and there’s an object in our possession that gives us more rewards the more health it has by the end. Okay, cool; because there are mounted gun turrets at either end of the barge we’re on, we can use those to attack enemies, but occasionally, enemies will try to jump onto the barge and attack us. This means we’re gonna use a lot of our more ranged weapons and the turrets for dealing with enemies off the cliff, and we’re gonna use our closer range weapons for the few guys who make it on board.
These are examples I came up as quickly as I could type them, so it’s like… 30 seconds of thought. Don’t expect genius out of it. But you get the idea, right? We have certain encounters where certain weapon types are best but you can still use whatever you want, which means you can spice things up, or you can use the ideal weapons. A shotgun probably isn’t ideal for shooting at guys you can’t reach across the chasm, but it’ll do wonders on the guys who make it onto your ship. You’re probably gonna clear a wave of guys who get close, then swap to the ranged weapon to plink some guys at a distance before swapping back, right?
This isn’t the most scintillating observation — plenty of game designers already know to do this, instinctively or otherwise, and you can see that in pretty much any of the greatest shooters in history. Encouraging you through the actual level and encounter design to vary your tactics is so much better than simple hard counters.
But once you’ve done that, you can really make the game special by adding emotional context to it. This is why we spent so much time talking about storytelling; it’s not just that double narrative beats are unmemorable and non-compelling in the same way that kitchen sink design is, it’s that if you really want to make a moment stick with the audience, you treat it like a story. “I wanted to do this, but then this happened, so I did this, but that was complicated by…”
It’s not just about making sure every encounter is different, it’s also about making sure people care. It’s about making the player want something besides “to kill” or “to survive.” At the root, everything in this essay I’ve taken issue with is something that prevents the player from caring, and everything in a game — because games are about taking action, which is only something people do if they feel motivated to, and it’s only something people remember if they want to — should be emotionally motivated.
“You are locked in a room. So kill” isn’t exciting or memorable. It’s just… kinda boring, really.
What encounters do you love? Because I’d be willing to bet every single one of them had some sort of emotional reasoning driving it all. Maybe it’s because Leon was dying of a parasite injected into his veins and the only way out was to save himself or Ashley, or maybe it’s because you want to know just what the Covenant are trying to find with the Silent Cartographer. Whatever it is, the things you remember are the things you care about.
Kitchen sink design can’t accomplish this.