Wednesday, 20 April 2016

On Doom and linearity again

I really like this iconic image all around the internet, manipulated in various forms, making a point that modern gaming sucks, wondering what happened to the genre, lamenting the old times. Guess what, we have all been lied! The original author of this image wasn't intending to represent that idea with this image, he thinks it's misleading to use it all over the internet to argue how games suck these days. Link to the talk where it first appeared. He is actually a person who used to make Doom maps in some of the best megawad collaborations ( Requiem or Memento Mori 2 ) and is working as a level designer in major titles ( Dead Space 2 and others). Here is another talk with an interesting analysis on what Doom does well. It's just funny that a person who used to make Doom maps and likes some elements in Doom, popularized this picture, wanted to say something entirely different than what is spread out there (maybe the fact that his design in Dead Space 2 while linear, is still fun to play). That's just to inform you on something we didn't know about the origin and the meaning of this picture. Although I am still firm on my opinion that I want games more like the map on the left and less on the right.

I have some more thought about it. I am binge-playing Doom WADs these days (using the Brutal Doom MOD, shame on me) waiting for the release of Doom 4 (or simply Doom, I hate when they do this with titles of famous franchises,. like it's the Definite Doom) which I am sure it will disappoint me (I'd rather see new franchises that try something different, the Overwatch and Battleborn games seem interesting, even though I've never played something like this before (inspired by TF2 which I also never played)).

Anyway,. during plays I keep wondering what elements of level design from different mappers I like or dislike. (Right now I am playing the Community Chest series in succession, each mapper has a different idea on linearity, secrets, difficulty, monster and item placing, architecture, texture usage, open spaces, etc so it's interesting to observe which maps I enjoyed most and why). Some of the good elements of Doom concerning monsters/gameplay were already discussed in Mattias Worch second talk (I really like that idea that resonates to me and people who have been played Doom for years so that brain cells are dedicated to specific audio/visual cues and reactions when you open the next door and observe a specific monster configuration and reach instantly, taking decision on which monster to kill first or if you should retreat behind a column while strafe shooting). But what I am curious about is those elements of how the map is designed and I want something more than the linear exaggeration in that mock up image. Because one element that I loved in original Doom was exploration. That one is missing from most games, no matter how violent or frantic action they have. The new Doom or the mock ups of old retro FPS might have crazy violence, frantic action, non regen health, no weapon reloads (those are easy choices) but not even a single one goes for the more interesting oldschool FPS levels.

But I noticed something while playing a specific set of maps (they weren't on CC, not very known, I don't even remember it's a recent download and one episode even used Doom Alpha textures!). The guy had made a totally extremely non-linear set of maps that would make you being lost for half an hour. A very frequent theme would be rooms would be seen from windows through windows through windows, kinda like John Romero's E1M7 but way more confusing and exaggerated. This also made it so hard to reach to the next keycard door while looking at the map, because a window sector will still look like a passage. It was a fun set of maps because they where huge levels filled with shotgun guys and other small monsters, perfect for sniping through windows, but then you had this flaw where it confuses the player to death, even experienced players.

And then it hit me! You can't say that Doom is the epitome of non-linearity. Some of the original levels can be quite linear if you think about it and people will disagree with what that means. While you have rooms connected to other rooms, even entire sections just for additional exploration or finding health/ammo, in many levels the main path from start to end would technically look like the fps map design image in the right. Maybe with some hoops and loops sometimes. Or backtracking. Think about, most levels are small sections of donut shaped rooms, side corridors, but a colored key door. You have to find the key to progress. You can't necessary do A without B. Can't finish the level without getting the red, then blue and finally yellow keycard (unless you do some crazy speedruning feets or happen to make the Archvile open the door for you :P).

I also noticed that some of the levels I loved playing in CC series had the specific characteristics (not always all). Big spaces and outside areas so that you can move freely and observe nice architectures and pinpoint kill enemies from afar. Some very good realistic buildings and places, so that the level is atmospheric and interesting, kinda like telling a story about the place but without cutscenes or dialogues. And third and most important, the level progression was so fluid and without much interruptions, so in a sense it was more linear going from A to B but masked in such a way that there is still the feeling that you are exploring and not pushed through a direction. Meanwhile there were side rooms and secrets, you could backtrack if you wanted, some rooms were still connected so that there are different passage ways, but somehow the progression was planned such a way that if there is a red door on A and you need to go to B, then after getting the red key another passage might open that leads you back to A from a new path where you can directly use the red key to go to C.

I know, it's a strategy I have seen some modern games use frequently that it becomes predictable (the inside levels of Borderlands among others, maybe Half Life 2 popularized these game design techniques I have to check this). But the difference is that new games do this in a way that this is just your path and there are no side rooms and feeling of something different to be discovered, while the good Doom levels are a mix between linear paths and non linear side rooms and connecting passages. Maybe player psychology is taken in account, because if I get the red key and maybe not notice that a new passage has opened, I will do tedious backtracking from the old path, or maybe the old path has closed now so I really have to observe the new alternative path (but that would seem more linear, less choices, more forcing you only through one path). Sometimes because of player psychology I happen to get stuck at a point because a side wall opened with a button that opens the path and wandering around the wrong places for 10 minutes (and sometimes, the splatters of Brutal Doom will make a switch so red that you can't see the button, yes this happened a lot leading in confusion :).

So, there is a balance between linearity and multiple paths, specific look in the psychology of where the player could go next or if they will notice that something has opened (in a recent let's play with John Romero, he describes how in E1M2 he let people playtest his map and most preferred one of the two side doors that go to the red key and how you can never be sure why this would happen and can't predict it will happen with all players) so that the experience is streamlined in a way that doesn't feel as restricted. And of course there are different opinions on this. Some levels that I would consider non-linear, some players could think it's linear as hell. I remember one of my maps, where I wanted to make it feel like an explosion sounds (hidden crushers smashing barrels) and the door behind closes, later to find a smashed wall, and in progression paths where closed and then opened, leading indeed into a very linear directed gameplay but that's just for the 20% of the game, much later it opens and you can visit everything. I got some reviews calling it too linear. I didn't thought it was or maybe people quit on the beginning. I just wanted to tell a story with the level events at that point. At least it was mostly non-linear when a trigger later opened all the restricted doors, the difference with many todays games is that a door always closes behind, being like 90%-100% linear.

Sometimes level designers get very enthusiastic with a specific element, my thing is doing crazy stuff that seem clever or impossible with the engine. I adored the levels that either have a very life like architecture or funny crude stuff done with sectors (like making acid spills, broken pipes, real life objects, designs telling a story that this was a real place not an abstract bunch of lines) or did tricks like bridge above bridge. In the passion to create such things we forget other aspects. Sometimes we designed very cramped small passageways (while I realized, the levels with more relaxed open spaces and outside areas became my most favorites) just because it fits a narration of the hero crawling through scary passageways, with specific functions. I remember such levels, and while they have very realistic designs with sectors resembling real life breakage and machinery and such, it's obvious the author obsessed over detail and forgot gameplay. There was a level in CC3 which had such kind of design, some passageways where you have to find switches to raise the level of water, sectors where representing turbines, etc. I fuckin spent like 20 minutes trying to progress, just wondering, sticking in walls, going around, not shooting anything. And I did kinda liked this level for these life-like design ideas, but imagine someone who doesn't care about architecture and tricks, rather than pure shooting. It wouldn't appeal to anyone even if as a designer I kinda like it. Sometimes I have some hard times in specific levels and I am experienced with Doom and finding my way out, and then I am wondering if I struggled for 5-10 minutes, then how about a newbie who hasn't played Doom before?

Then come to think, maybe some non-linear designs is of your preference, but would they work for the majority of modern gamers? You would beg game designers to map levels more like Doom (at least they can mix the linearity) but maybe there is a director in a big AAA game company that says to the team "No! Remove that corridor, it would be too confusing to inexperienced players". And maybe as a director he is right, because that would not drive away the less hardcore players. Maybe few game fans will be disappointed but the game will sell in the majority and so the director has done his job well. You'd have to base upon the few game companies that have passionate game designers who want to make the game they want to make or play, not what appeals in the majority.

But yeah, that's the issue. I think we obsessed a lot with linearity vs non-linearity, always targeting for the far end. Linearity or non-linearity are not inherently evil. I've seen how a very non-linear Doom map confused the hell out of me even if I found it interesting as a level design, while some less linear but mixed levels with some great atmospheric environments but a hidden linear path that tells a story were my most enjoyable levels. While most AAA games do 90-100% linear designs where they even close the path back or have invisible walls as to play it safe and not confuse the players. In my view I see most modern games like this. Others might have a different view. I am not saying that the solution lies in the middle, because of tastes. What do you like? What maps did you enjoy the most? Would the majority like them? Do you want to keep your job? Do you want to make the games that you would love to design or play yourself? Would you rather fixate on a very linear path just to tell a story?

So, in the game community we have the tendency to say "Modern FPS suck, I want to be lost in the most complex Doom labyrinths". Or "Doom labyrinths are horrible game design, show me the way point and close all alternative paths so that I don't have to search".

p.s. Now I have to find the maps I really loved, keep some notes, and design some new Doom maps myself (so long since I last did this). It seems to me that what makes Doom great or what makes some levels better is something not so well defined and might be different from person to person. But it's good to observe more closely and take some notes and find interesting patterns.