I think that the height of game design lies in the designers ability to give the player the freedom to choose how he approaches the game, and nevertheless the player still gets a specific and intended experience.
There’s a moment of perfect game design in Diablo (by Blizzard North), and it is has to do with the Butcher.
When you first start playing Diablo, you’re almost guaranteed to get the Butcher Quest. It’s your first quest and it’s your first boss battle.
The Butcher’s room is unique. And when the players first encounter it they can immediately tell that there’s something special and foreboding about this room. The room is on the second floor (very early in the game) and its isolation, design, and bloody, gory props are completely different than anything the players encountered so far.
They’re almost guaranteed to make the connection between this room and the Butcher Quest. They know what they will encounter behind the door to this gut strewn place.
Already this is pretty good game design. But this is where the design of this boss battle becomes ingenious:
At this point, there is no possible way that players can beat the Butcher.
“By Committee” is one of my favorite levels in Marathon, I love prison escape levels, but the Volunteers entry on this level misses a lot of what’s going on here.
The analysis of “By Committee” fails to answer several questions we should be asking while playing this level. One glaringly obvious question: Where are the Enforcers? We’re in Pen 13 Garrison which contains a prison and a dungeon both of which fall within the domain of the enforcers. There should be Enforcers everywhere in this level, up in the guard towers, looking down from balconies, standing guard outside the prisons, etc. So, where are they? There is no sign of them except for one alien gun lying on the ground. Let’s figure this out.
Hey, what happened to prison escape levels? You know, those levels where in the middle of a game you go to prison and all your gear is confiscated and then you have to escape and get your equipment back. I liked those levels, but you don’t see them around much these days I don’t think. Maybe you do. I don’t know. Point is I want to see more of them. More good ones anyway. I guess some people say that games shouldn’t have prison levels because they are offensive to real prisoners. Good point, good point. Also, other people complain that prison levels are a frustrating intrusion into the normal flow of the game. Whatever. They don’t know what they’re talking about unless they’re talking about badly made prison levels, and then they do. Skillfully designed prison levels can strip the game down to its pure roots and present the player with a simplified microcosm of the game as a whole. But wait, you don’t want me to blandly go into prose about this. I know what you want. You want me to explain it through a list, don’t you. Everyone on the internet loves lists, right? Well, so did the Nazis. Enjoy your list, Hitler!
Table of Contents:
Page 1: List and analysis
Table of Contents
7 Things a well made prison level does
- Strips the game to its simplest and purist form.
- As last level, can create unique endgame level.
- Reestablishes usefulness of gear/weapons/etc.
- By returning gear over time, it acts as a microcosm for entire game.
- Focuses and condenses the game (down to a prison cell).
- Creates new gameplay or storytelling possibilities.
5 things bad prison escape levels do
- Removing gear, then returning it all at once.
- Force narrative down player’s throat.
- Create an obstacle for an obstacle’s sake.
- Change the game mechanics for one level only.
- Duplicate a real prison’s boring architecture.
Page 2: Endnotes (recommend you open this in separate tab as you read along)
- Vague definitions of “prison level” and “prison cell”
- Portal; the whole game is a prison level
- Marathon: Infinity; one of the best made prison levels
- Halo: CE (last level)
- Another World
- Marathon 2
- Elder Scrolls
- Return to Castle Wolfenstein
- Deus Ex
- Escape From Butcher Bay