“Level with Me” is a series of conversations about level design between modder Robert Yang and a level designer of a first person game. At the end of each interview, they collaborate on a Portal 2 level shared across all the sessions – and at the very end of the series, you’ll get to download and play this “roundtable level.” This is Part 2 of 7.
Upon visiting the game artist forum Polycount, the first thing you’ll see will be Jack “Gauss” Monahan telling someone the rail mount on their M4A1 gun model is misaligned by a few millimeters. He was also lead level designer on the 2009 shooter Darkest of Days, a well-intentioned time-traveling adventure where you annihilate entire Roman legions in the face with a laser rifle. Now, he blogs at Design Reboot and works on his indie UDK shooter, Animal Memory.
Robert Yang: I kind of forgot that Darkest of Days existed, so I played the demo and read reviews of it – and people kept saying the graphics looked bad. If I had to translate for them, they actually meant the high reuse of assets, or they craved busy Gears of War-like environments.
Jack Monahan: Generally when I hear that, I think of it as a color palette issue. The game is generally pretty low gamut, especially if you played it like most people, tragically on an Xbox 360 with a port that was handled by just two dudes in Australia. You lose such tragic amounts of texture memory there.
RY: I was surprised by the engine. It’s amazing that you were putting, like, 100 NPCs on-screen back in 2009. They were complaining the NPCs were too dumb though.
JM: AI is a funny thing, especially when bad behavior comes not from the AI doing something it shouldn’t do, but from the level designer forcing it to do something it’s not best suited for, like a dramatic moment where a guy comes busting through the window or charging ahead when he should’ve stayed in cover.
We could have crazy fights of 50-60 guys, maybe 80 at most, but we spent a lot of time as level designers trying to orchestrate these running battles. It was so difficult to do these things on cue; it has to feel real, but it also must be static and stateless, because if the player takes his time…
RY: Then nothing’s left when they get there. Yeah.
JM: The programmer created an AI super-construct, “the Gang,” that can attach to any officer character to recruit other NPCs along the way. These roving gangs would fight pretty convincingly as a unit, though after heavy losses they’d retreat, then maybe respawn a couple guys out of the player’s view and go charging back. But it just wasn’t something that was compatible with what the designer wanted: a time-traveling Call of Duty. Which was maybe why we got pounded in the reviews. I still think it was a great game for what we had at our disposal, though you can’t really make that game with only, what, $1 or $2 million compared to $100 million.
RY: Well, it says on your CV that you made 14 of the 20 levels. That’s a lot. That’s absurd.
JM: Oh, yeah, some of these levels were turned around in about a month. One of the middle levels is a faux free-roaming thing with objectives scattered around the map. It kind of worked, but I was in charge of the initial level sculpt on that one, and I didn’t calibrate scale. It ended up being a third too big. What would’ve been some well-knit-together fight sequences just gave way to some killer dead time.
RY: The scale is really what I liked about that first mission though. It reminded me of the beginning of the Russian campaign in Call of Duty 1, where you land across the river and see 50 or 100 of these scripted goons just running up the hill and getting killed.
Similarly, in Darkest of Days, there were moments like marching through the corn – you get to that ravine, and suddenly everyone’s lining up and going, “alright then, let’s all form battle lines and start shooting each other,” and you’re thinking, “what? No, I’m vulnerable, why on earth would I do this?” And it’s interesting because that’s how they really fought back then.
JM: Yeah. And obviously it’s a little exaggerated in that demo, but it’s that naked feeling of, “if I die, then I just die and I’ll have my honor I guess.”
RY: Any other history FPS would’ve just used the same exact AI behaviors, run around and dodge for cover, across all time periods, when really that’s not the narrative of war at all.
JM: The designer was a big Civil War buff, so he was really particular about some of the scenes and images from Antietam – but none of them had anything to do with traditional gameplay setups. At Antietam, they lined up at either ends of this corn field, so you just shot down the rows. And of course, bodies piled up.
RY: [chuckles inappropriately at the idea of a massacre]
JM: It was terrible! And I was like, “how am I supposed to make this ‘fun’?” It was this iterative process, of distorting the history just enough so that it made any kind of sense. If you want to be true to the lethality, you can’t just concentrate on the one single guy who gets through everything, but you have to.
So yes, it’s a ravine. I was trying to make it close and personal. How do you script it so the player gets away in an interesting way? To push through that vulnerability, to run towards the bad guys? On easy difficulty, you were practically invincible. It was very hard for the level designer to kill the player. The “lightning bolt from Zeus…”
RY: It didn’t work?
JM: No, not 100% reliably. You can watch on YouTube, players who went back and to the left of the ravine, playing on easy, and the Zeus bolt hits and it’s like, “eh, I’m cool.”
RY: And so you’ll just run back, wondering what’s happening, off the rails. But if you run off to the right, and then the guy’s like, “here’s an assault rifle, go kill all of them now.”
JM: It’s one of the more unique moments the game has to offer.
RY: It’s such a bread and butter thing. Combat rarely has a narrative aspect in these games, but there it totally serves a narrative function.
JM: The first few trailers we put out, we read the comments – and there was a brief clip where you mercilessly mow down Roman centurions in Pompeii with a rifle – and there were more than a couple comments to the effect of, “I’ve been dreaming of a chance to do this.”
It was strangely common, a very specific kind of power fantasy, like “I’m going to use my future weapons against these defenseless Romans.” Though actually they weren’t so defenseless, those motherfuckers didn’t have any footstep sounds, so when you play –
RY: – ah, they sneak up on you! But it doesn’t matter, because you have the bigger penis and such, so you’ll just destroy them. Right?
JM: [laughs] Actually, by that point, you’re given a Microwave Gun…
RY: – a Microwave Penis –
JM: Yeah, actually we called it – no, wait, it was the Sniper Rifle we called the “DNGR.”
RY: It reminds me of Polycount, with its “penis tank” tradition. (NSFW)
JM: Ah yes, game development and dick jokes.
RY: Let me feed you a line of reasoning here: if you had only 7 levels to work on, instead of 14, I think this could’ve been a good game. No filler.
JM: Jonathan Blow has this great talk about finding what’s there, and extrapolating that, instead of imposing. It’s something I’d like to see more in the industry.
Paper has a grain. Every material has a grain. Vellum has a smooth side and a rough side. I think there’s a tendency in video games, to think these corporeal traits don’t apply. It’s not quite true, but numbers have their own sort of grain to them. You might have something on paper, but then those wacky little guys might end up misbehaving, and that might be more fun. You ever play Myth from Bungie?
JM: There were those Dwarven grenades, the satchel charges, that’d cause those chain reactions –
RY: [chuckles nervously] Uhm, I don’t think I played that much…
JM: So if you had a dead dwarf, drop his satchel charges, you can toss a grenade and he becomes this sort of bomb. In Darkest of Days, a couple weeks after grenades were implemented for the World War I missions – we were basically making 2 or 3 different games with all the time periods, it was crazy that we managed to finish it – and the same thing occurred. Germans or Russians would drop grenades, and those would also explode, and cause these chain reactions.
RY: But would the player know what happened?
JM: Yeah, you saw them. There would be an explosion, a delay, then another explosion. They were sloppy interactions, but they were certainly fun. I feel like the process of building a game is largely a process of ironing out all the fun in it from early on. “Ah, I want to explore over there,” well, nope, setup some bounds –
RY: So we just talked about what not to do. What are you doing with Animal Memory? Explain it, if that’s a different process.
JM: I find now my process is largely intuitive. It should also come from somewhere… personal. I want to make a game that couldn’t have been made from what’s considered “best practice” in the industry, especially in art design. You can fool yourself into thinking you’ve done some very good work simply by following the rules, which can give you some consistency – but at the end of the day, you’ve only eaten a bowl of lightly-flavored oatmeal. You hear Tarantino in interviews, how he says he doesn’t think about the meaning of his work as he makes it.
Recently I’ve been crazy about masonry and brickwork. I just want improbably large structures made out of brickwork. I see the image then I start going from there. I think it’s a mistake to go through this cliched line about the “mystical artist.” I have instincts and I go with those instincts.
RY: Well, I’m critical of this role of “instinct.” On Polycount, you’re always the one arguing for the internal logic that went into making a gun, so why would you just stack all this brick masonry without thinking about the logic that went into a building?
JM: Oh no, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s uninformed. Absolutely, instinct should be informed! That’s a whole other thread, we probably shouldn’t even open up that door.
RY: Keep it closed then, keep it closed!…
JM: On Polycount – well, okay, on Darkest of Days again, that was when I bought my first rifle –
RY: Your “first” rifle? [laughing]
JM: [ignores Robert, keeps going] It was a conversation with a programmer, about what seemed like two fairly equal rifles, the Russian rifle and the German rifle from World War I. How do we do this? The programmer threw up his hands. He just fell back on this trope, that one’s going to be the heavy-hitter with a slower reload, and one’s the lighter-hitter with the faster reload. There was a kernel of truth to that, but it turns out we got those rifles exactly wrong in terms of character.
RY: Because the guns have their own stories, their own characters.
JM: Oh yeah, sure, absolutely. Everything has their own history. One of the fun parts about masonry, once I started going down that rabbit hole –
RY: You bought bricks? You bought a bunch of bricks?
JM: [laughs] No! How I ended up with the rifle, was that they were only $80 online…
RY: A World War I rifle?
JM: Yes, for a Russian Mosin-Nagant, it’s about $80, very similar to the one we used in-game. Not long after that, I realized the safety was on, for one of the other rifles in the game.
RY: Oh, and it’s stuck like that, forever.
JM: Luckily, we actually got that re-exported before the game shipped. But that was a personal turning point. As artists working on games, we’re always told, “it doesn’t matter,” or “who cares.”
RY: I’m usually the guy who says that, actually…
JM: [laughs] The problem with that argument is that you don’t make games for the people who don’t notice. You make it for the people who do. On Darkest of Days, you’re another mute psychopath, and your only agency in this world is through guns. Shouldn’t we get a little bit of that right?
With brickwork, it’s such an old trade, there’s a really charming set of terminology for how bricks are laid. A “soldier” is a brick laid standing up, and a “stretcher” is horizontal. You think about the honest and simple folk doing brickwork, thinking of such evocative terms, and you might laugh but those details stick in your mind.
RY: I think I identify with that. I pepper the levels in Radiator with details, like there’s always an exit door. If you’re bored, you should just leave and stop playing. You cede this control, or maybe it’s a false control to players, to notice what they will. Now this is reminding me – I made a mod, based on one of your “Design Reboot” posts.
JM: Oh yeah. How was it?
RY: It was from your “Flatlander Woman” post. It was about Anne Navarre [from Deus Ex 1], who dehumanizes all her victims and sees them as resources and commodities. You kill one person, then you kill the witness, then two more witnesses see you so you kill them too, and so on. So in this Source mod, you were a [bad-ass] lesbian assassin. I always thought Anne Navarre was a lesbian.
JM: I didn’t blink when you suggested it. There must be some kind of common undertone.
RY: Or stereotype? I don’t know. Anyway, I was having trouble showing the player that stuff was escalating. Sound files only work so much. So I thought I’d do this weird HUD indicator with some sprites I hacked to show through walls.
Every time you shot a person, there would be arrows jutting out toward their witnesses. It was a wall hack, but by the end of the level it was also a web of complexity. And it was all so unfocused. It’s hard to translate all this theory into procedural AI networks or whatever. The execution always lacks. What did you imagine for it?
JM: I imagined a more moralistic take. It’s like lying, something that seems like a shortcut but makes things worse as you do it. So Anne was so psycho she didn’t see other people as people. It was hard for me to imagine an environment where the violence would be transgressive enough.
RY: Like a church?
JM: I was thinking maybe a banal office building, except you’re murdering your co-workers and stuffing them into paper bags. And one of the inspirations was that scene in La Femme Nikita where Jean Reno (as the Cleaner) is meant to solve problems, but the mission goes from “kind of manageable” to “the craziest disaster” because he just keeps killing people. There are certain very good Hitman missions where that happens too.
RY: But then doesn’t the player just think, “Oh, I did that wrong, I’ll just reload the game and things won’t get worse.”
JM: Yeah, that’s always the question, huh? Maybe it’s because we haven’t properly set them up with some different gameplay.
RY: Because it’s expensive!
JM: For me, when I was leaving the train station in Half-Life 2, I was scared I’d have to find my way and remain undetected. I kept skirting the Combine checkpoints. It was really exciting… none of it was true, but that impression stayed. You see some people play Call of Duty and they’re trying to open doors. You’re still trying to leave the bounds of the world? Either you’re retarded, or you still have this capacity for hope and wonder.
One of the most consistently cited problems in Darkest of Days was invisible walls, and that’s true. But we thought we were making a Call of Duty game, so people wouldn’t even bother. Turns out, if you do rolling hills and majestic scenes, people always want to see what’s over the horizon. So that’s still hope to me.
RY: Really? I just see that as our failure to properly instill learned helplessness within players.
RY: So now our task is to think about what to add to this Portal 2 level. I’m still trying to implement the features that Dan Pinchbeck proposed… [demonstrates the level; 4 boxes come out of the box dropper instead of just 1; fuck.]
JM: I think I’d be a rubbish puzzle designer.
RY: Well we can add whatever you want. Some text, or another room… or we can delete all of Dan’s suggestions? I should’ve interviewed some normal people before talking to all these weird people. I thought it was going to be more like, “oh, let’s add a laser catcher here.”
JM: [laughs] No, actually, I like Dan’s use of recursion. And I liked [how 4 boxes came down]. One of the consistent elements of Portal is that you’re only given as much as you need. Everything has its purpose. So it’s really kind of funny, that it’s such a simple puzzle, you hit a button, and you only need one box, but 4 boxes come out.
RY: So like, add 4 laser catchers or 20 light bridges?
JM: The same room again, but with some completely extraneous addition to it.
RY: Okay. So you get in this elevator, you come back out, and then spawn a light bridge in the room the first time they’re back, then a funnel the second time they’re back?
JM: Yeah, spawn more boxes. Drop way too many boxes. That’s funny. That’s all I really want to see. Take that, Valve! You and your clarity!
RY: Me and Dan were talking about that. The clarity of the underground sections, with just one portalable surface, wasn’t as good as being surrounded by portalable walls, like being paralyzed with choice.
JM: Now I think we’re just being uncharitable – plus I thought you preferred your players completely cowed.
RY: But they don’t know it, so it’s okay.
JM: Don’t they, though? I want to upload my first Rage playthrough onto YouTube. It’s very short: in the first level, I walk 50 feet past John Goodman’s buggy. Then the level designer shot me. The best part? John Goodman didn’t stop nagging me to get into the buggy.
RY: They didn’t expect anyone not to know, I guess?
JM: My brother doesn’t play many games, and I loaded up Call of Duty: Black Ops to show him “what we play now,” like one of those “close buddy” missions where you have to follow instructions from an NPC. There’s a part where he tells you to shoot the guard on the left, but if you shoot the one on the right? Instant mission failed. That’s something easy to account for from a level designer perspective too, maybe have it trigger a fight you can’t win or whatever – but no. Mission failed. This is the future, I told him.
RY: Well, maybe they’re just bad at hiding it. A lot of games have really fragile structures like that. You just gotta lie better? That’s my cynical perspective on it.
JM: See, I don’t see the point of making games if the conduit for player action is so narrow.
RY: But what game doesn’t have that moment though?
JM: These days? Minecraft. Everything you see is all game, all beholden to the same systems. There’s no “skybox.” Everything you see is real. There’s real parity between what you can see and what you can do.
RY: Don’t you just end up building monuments to your own vanity? I still see a lot of value in the linear, roller-coaster game experiences.
JM: I agree 100%. But the problem is that this might get to be the only way of doing things. Like the X-Com / Syndicate stuff, horizons of player choice removed. Not because it’s a first person shooter (I love the first person!) but it’s that they trivialize and lobotomize the choice… [looks at Robert’s screen] Your taskbar. You don’t just put it on the left to scare people?
RY: What about it?
JM: You weirdo. It’s on the left! How long have you had it that way?
RY: I like it that way.
RY: [Testing the new map logic. Now it won’t even drop a single cube from the cube dropper. Goddamnit.] I can’t even make it break on purpose! Goddamnit.
JM: Wait. Stop. That’s the other thing I want out of this: go back and grab this interview audio, where you say something like, “I can’t even do this right,” and put that in there.
RY: Like the level’s complaining?
JM: Inside the level, when only x amount of boxes come out, somewhere you can hear [Robert] going, “I can’t even do this right.”
RY: [laughs] Wow, that’s really meta.
JM: You’re very kind to indulge me. Actually, that’s all I want. I want that sound bite of Radiator Yang, going…
RY: You’re so weird. I wonder if anyone’s going to play this?… Yeah, they probably will, if it’s on Rock Paper Shotgun. They’ll just play it out of curiosity.
RY: Thanks for your time.
(Transcript edited for clarity and length.)
(Looking for the Portal 2 map? Sorry, you have to wait until part 7.)