Real Life Level Design

Written 7/16/08

I’m writing this under the shade of several myrica rubra trees on a wooden bench near downtown Hamamatsu. The name of the trees really doesn’t mean much to me, but it’s worth noting, as it’s posted on a sign tied to one of the trunks.

Walking is my main form of exercise, and I do it a lot. Most of the time, there’s a reason behind the activity–the need to get to work, the desire for a sandwich, the instinctual urge to avoid getting smashed by a car–but I try to walk as often as I can for the sake of walking alone. You can’t sit at your computer all day. Someone said that once. Most likely an older relative.

Today, while exploring a part of the town I hadn’t seen yet, I came across a wide road, much wider than most others in the area, with a center lane bordered by trees, benches every few meters and a small, landscaped stream on one side. The path itself was even a different color from the rest of the road, comprised of square brown tiles in contrast to the street’s black rectangles. As I walked past the entrance to this path, all these elements that set it apart from its surroundings drew me in, and I abruptly took a left to see where it would lead me.

Walking down this path, with cars driving along both sides, all feelings of uneasiness one would typically feel while walking between cars were eliminated by the design of the street. Strolling down the middle of the around, I felt perfectly safe.

As I walked, I thought back to a presentation given by a level designer, who had discussed a few tactics for designing open-ended areas in which users feel free to explore, but don’t get lost or confused to the point of frustration. He spoke very highly of archways–apparently, if a player spots a circular passage off in the distance, that becomes the player’s goal, and no matter how unreachable it may seem, it will be assumed that the player must pass through it to continue.

The street I’m on doesn’t have an archway at its entrance, but a couple well-placed stones, carved and polished to look less threatening than those found in nature, with Kanji engravings on the sides facing the street. Now, in the year I’ve lived here, I haven’t bothered to learn much in the way of Kanji, but I can probably assume they say something to the effect of “No cars,” or perhaps the name of the street or neighborhood. Nevertheless, they serve as the first promise that pedestrians will be safe on this path. Add to that the benches, the trees, the varying floor pattern and the stream running the entire length of the path, and you’ve got an unspoken guarantee that not only is this a safe place to walk, it’s the best place to walk. You’d be crazy to make any other choice.

Now for the trees providing relief from the unbearable July sun: myrica rubra. I don’t really care to know the name of the plants around me, and I doubt many people do. But the fact that someone put the effort into placing signs on these trees adds another element of assurance to the experience of this path. Aside from those issuing warnings in dangerous situations, signs prove that people are meant to be in the area. After all, someone must have been there to post the sign in the first place.

Signs play an important role in the direction many adventure and role-playing games take. The mere presence of a sign, regardless of its message, tells a player they’re not completely lost, as the level designer must have anticipated that someone would end up there.

As I wrote this, a couple families played in the stream running along the side of the path for about half an hour, safe from the traffic around them. As it’s been said countless times, good design should be as transparent as it is effective, and I’m sure the kids felt just as safe amidst the surrounding cars as they would have felt in a field somewhere, if not safer.

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