When you’re playing a game whose layout is randomised, you might not immediately think all that much about level design, or even assume the levels were designed in the same sense as, say, a fully linear game or a series of finely tuned multiplayer maps. And yet, in games such as Hades, developers meticulously assemble and reassemble each location to ensure that their pillars are sturdy enough to support players’ good times.
Yesterday on Twitter, Supergiant designer Ed Gorinstein walked fans through Hades’ underlying level design philosophies and techniques. He began by pointing out that each major location — Tartarus, Asphodel, Elysium, and Styx — has its own unifying design principles that both challenge and teach the player.
“Each biome had a set of design principles to guide its design,” Gorinstein wrote. “For Tartarus, we wanted medium-sized chambers that are almost always completely walled in, making it forgiving for players learning about the Cast while providing extra Wall Slam damage. You may have also noticed that smaller chambers tend to appear early on in biomes, and larger chambers appear later so that they are reflective of the escalating encounters.”
Level design also informed enemy design. In Asphodel, for example, most rooms are a series of archipelagos surrounded by lava. While Supergiant tried adding things like real-time strategy-inspired bridges to help enemies traverse the treacherous landscape, the Hades team ultimately settled on giving each enemy their own “dedicated way of getting over magma” like hopping, floating, or dashing. The knock-on effect of this is that enemies in Asphodel are markedly more mobile than those in Tartarus, sometimes even using lava to their advantage. This makes for a very different set of challenges, which force players to vary up their tactics.
Gorinstein and the rest of the team also wanted Asphodel to “feel horizontal,” which in one very particular case — the Barge of Death, loved for its reliability, loathed because it’s a good place to get your arse kicked if your build doesn’t have some solid defensive measures by that point — meant all kinds of smoke and mirrors. Gorinstein shared a video of what the Barge looks like when it’s moving with the camera pulled back, and it’s more akin to the Planet Express ship from Futurama than an actual barge: the universe moves around it.
We wanted Asphodel to feel vast and horizontal, which was the inspiration for the barges as well as the endearingly-named Barge of Death. I could write a whole blog about the smoke-and-mirrors it takes to pull off these illusions but for now here is a video. 8/19 pic.twitter.com/luwVwiYzJW— Ed Gorinstein (@EdGorinstein) October 1, 2020
Gorinstein also talked about what he called a “unique challenge” for Hades’ specific approach to the roguelike genre.
“We struggled for a while on how to capture the feeling of exploration, a cornerstone of many roguelikes,” he said. “We tried many things, from hiding gold in random shiny walls, to making huge rooms with doors scattered around the map. None of these fit with the game’s hand-painted art, or its high-speed room-to-room action pacing. Instead, the design had to adapt and find smaller avenues for discovery such as gold urns, Troves, Wells, fishing points, and Chaos / Erebus gates.”
All of this only scratches the surface of the thought that goes into each and every element of video game level design. One of my favourite things about Hades is the way that its maps ultimately end up training you. The first few times I fought Megaera, for instance, I flailed around like an ice skater with twigs for ankle bones and ran into spike traps repeatedly. Ten or so runs later, the traps and other obstacles scattered around the environment had faded into the background of my duel with the terse Fury. My eyes were locked on her the entire time, but I effortlessly avoided obstacles without even thinking about it. Despite that creeping familiarity, however, Hades’ various rooms — combined and recombined each time you play — rarely wear out their welcome. They don’t become too familiar.
On Twitter, Supergiant writer and designer Greg Kasavin noted that for previous games like Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre, he and studio director Amir Rao would handle level design duties in addition to a pile of other responsibilities. For Hades, two other designers joined them: Gorinstein and technical designer Alice Lai. Kasavin believes that approach paid dividends.
“I can’t overstate how vital their work was to the result,” Kasavin wrote. “Don’t know what we ever did without them (made smaller, less popular, less highly acclaimed games I guess).”
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