Part Two: World Building & Suspense
Welcome to part two of my Level Design Research: Third Person Stealth series. In this part we will be looking at the next section of the level; the build up. Elements will include setting up memorable moments and locations, providing narrative beats between encounters, and concepting sequences that make the level feel a little more reactive.
Not much was said about the narrative for this level as the previous post focused on encounters and player choice. The synopsis is that the city was attacked by a viral weapon and a small portion of the population survived. Most turned into ghoulish beings, or so the character had heard from the rumours. This is the city the character had grown up in, so they have a personal attachment to it.
Last we saw of our hero, they either just fought their way through / sneaked past a group of dangerous enemies. The next step is to climb up from the alley, and onto the street above. Typically a better way to do this would be to add a one-way drop; this is to ensure that players can't turn back. Other reasons include being able to stream the next section of the level, and when they enter, unload the previous.
For this example, we want to make sure the level provides a way to backtrack. At least until a little later.
The next step is to enter the shop. In this example, I have created a small coffee house. The purpose for this is to setup a small story beat. Imagine the character walking through the place they used to meet their friends and socialise.
This supports both a personal and a world narrative. The coffee house provides a personal story beat, having the player experience it through the character's eyes. The shop would also be wrecked and decrepid, showing the player the effects of the destroyed city.
Another use for a section like this is to let the player restock on ammunition and other items, foreshadowing what is next to come.
After we've dived into the character's narrative and the world narrative, we can then do a small payoff in the method of an encounter.
The player exits the back of the coffee house into a small alleyway. The other side of the gate is a large public park, one familiar to the character. Surrounded by large walls, the park is held by a force of enemies loading hazardous materials into a van. The narrative payoff here would be that the character recognises one of them as an old friend (personal) and they are loading the substance that had wiped out the humans (world).
The end of the level (the landmark) is in sight once more, behind a uniquely built setpiece.
After some dialog attempting to convince the character's friend to stop, a canister falls and releases a gas. The character retreats and then the enemies come back to life as savage ghouls.
Now the player and the character know that it isn't just a rumour. And they had to see first hand that one of their old friends succumb to the virus.
I follow some brilliant Level Designers on Twitter and after seeing some of their The Last of Us inspired blockouts, it inspired me to create something similar. So, for the last few days I've been messing around with the same blockout pieces and tools to create a Third-Person Stealth Level, not directly focused on a particular game, but inspired by such as TLOU, Uncharted, and Hitman.
In this 3-Part series I will go through the level and point out the design decisions / concepts and use of Level Design practices as I go along. This level of course won't touch upon every single practice, but the ones I saw necessary during the level.
Ok, let's begin!
Part One: The First Encounter
Starting on a roof-top, the player's gets their first view of the cityscape in the distance containing the level's end. (the orange sky scraper).
Some games may draw the attention to the landmark with methods such as: a button prompt like in TLOU, or perhaps a voice line simply saying "Look at that!"
The landmark helps navigate the player through the level and provides a visual point of reference. Events could happen on or around it which will give anticipation for future level events.
The benefit of beginning a level or encounter from high ground is that it allows the player to carefully plan out their next move. I highlighted the main pathways to accentuate the choices provided in this scenario. The left-hand route is longer and provides access to the upper floor of the building. The right-hand route is more direct, but closer to the enemies.
As this would be designed for a Stealth / Combat game it is always beneficial to give time for the player to decide what they want to do and how to do it. Though it's always key to be wary on providing too much power -- If you have easy access to guns / ranged weaponry, this highground may be too strong.
Of course, a way down without splatting the players body on the hard tarmac is always a plus. After taking a few ladders down, the player will enter a small alleyway on the ground floor. This again gives the players their options, but then occludes the enemies behind the cover pieces. If the player analysed their paths, it may be easier for them to encounter.
At this point, it would be the time to show the enemy nearest the lower floor door to lock the door and take the key with them.
If the player has chosen to avoid combat they will need a little breathing room after getting around the first batch of enemies After entering the building they are offered another choice; to continue their path to the upper floor, knowing it leads to the window they need, or they can peek through the window in the other room.
Retrospective: What this area might need is another enemy if the pacing feels like it breaks too much here, we still want the tension to feel consistent and not drop too much during this encounter.
The lower floor offers the player another option, to engage back into the enemy with the key to the building. Perhaps they patrol back and forth, giving the player ample time to vault over and get a takedown attack.
If the player chooses to take the riskier stealth option, they will access the target building from the upper floor. An enemy stands at the end of the corridor and walks to the left and down the stairs, signifying the direction the player must go. Boxes cover the corridor leaving the door to the left as the only option.
Just when the stealth player though it was an easy ride, we can add another enemy here that patrols this room. As we want the player to have some choice, they can take this enemy down, or ignore the enemy and use the cover to go around.
What if they fail, and the enemy alerts the others?! Well, unknownst to the player are enemies on the lower floor. This means they will naturally follow the cause of the disturbance, which is why these crates can also act as ample cover if the player needs to retreat back, and has a decent headstart if they wish to run.
Always give your player some way to retreat fairly.
When heading down the stairs at the other side of the corridor, the player can easily sneak out of the door using the darkness of the corner of the room. Unless stealth has been broken, then the players have to fight their way out.
Option 2 would be to steal the key from the enemy and go through the front door. This other option provides a more direct approach. Some games may have pickpocket skills or a non-lethal takedown, but for this example the goal is to assassinate the targets. The cover provided works well with any pathing the AI may need. The goal would be to separate the two to take them out quietly.
Upon opening the door, a few enemies stand in the center of a large room all looking at a table.
If the player snuck in, the enemies will continue their un-alerted behaviours allowing the player to either engage by waiting for them to break sightline of each other, or take the riskier way around to avoid conflict.
If the player has failed to keep the element of surprise, they will take to the cover and begin firing at the player.
So that concludes part one of this Level Design analysis of a small project I put together. The next part will cover the next section of the map. I hope you enjoyed this small look into my design process and I welcome any feedback / suggestions.
Until next time!