“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 3 of 7.
Of everyone I spoke to, Magnar Jenssen is the only one still actively working in the game industry as a level designer at Avalanche Studios. Before, he also worked on Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 (GRAW2) and Bionic Commando at GRIN, up until the studio’s demise. When he isn’t raking in all that sweet map-stamp money from arena_offblast for Team Fortress 2, he tinkers with some less profitable but absurdly polished single player Half-Life 2 mods.
Robert Yang: So, GRAW2. Sum it up.
Magnar Jenssen: You know, it’s one of Tom Clancy’s games. On the console it was a third-person arcade shooter, but [on the PC] we wanted to keep it more realistic, punishing, and “hardcore,” I guess. It’s very different from Ubisoft’s console versions.
RY: Did you ever get to meet Tom Clancy? What’s his role on these games?
MJ: No, I never did. Maybe he’s just happy to sign his name off on things.
RY: He doesn’t write the plots where, say, Mexican terrorists are trying to kill everyone?
MJ: We just got the story from Ubisoft and worked with that, with maybe a few adjustments for our PC version.
RY: I was trying to find a demo so I could ask you about it, but I couldn’t find it on Steam. [NOTE: I later found one. It never occurred to me to look somewhere else; so firm is Steam’s hold around me.]
MJ: It was funny – before one of the guys at GRIN started as a level designer, he had an interview with the boss. They asked him if he had played Ghost Recon and if he knew about the heritage and history and everything. He was like, “Well, I tried to play the demo, but it kept on crashing.”
RY: What was your role on GRAW2 exactly?
MJ: I was level designer and scripter… which means “object placement.” Artists created the assets, then I placed and scripted them. It was a lot of work, but we had a lot of freedom and control as well. Right now [at Avalanche], I work closer with game designers, which is a more controlled production.
RY: You say you had more “creative freedom.” What does that mean in the industry?
MJ: At GRIN, sometimes it was – I probably shouldn’t use this word – but it was a little bit of an “anarchy.” If we weren’t happy with the level, even though the game was halfway through production, we could just sit for 48 hours and redesign the level from scratch. We never heard from the publisher because we were insulated from that stuff, so we could do whatever we wanted, almost.
RY: Wait, are you telling me this stuff and expecting it’ll get published? I don’t want to get you in trouble.
MJ: I probably shouldn’t. [laughs] I’m going to get killed for this.
RY: What about your personal politics? The European stereotype is that you’re against American imperialism, but you’re making these Tom Clancy games that glorify that.
MJ: Story-wise, for the Ghost Recon games, that stuff is almost tongue in cheek. It’s written by French people who are maybe trying to sound really American –
RY: [shocked] Wait, French people write Ghost Recon?
MJ: Ubisoft is French, dude.
RY: I know, but I thought they might have an American branch to inject some Americanism in there.
MJ: They probably have Americans on the team, but the storyboard artists are probably French or French-Canadian, in Montreal or Toronto. It’s someone who’s not an American patriot, most likely, trying to sound a lot like a patriot.
RY: I was watching a scene from GRAW2. One of your Mexican allies says, “oh, look at what they did to this town.” Then an American soldier goes, “that’s the price of peace.”
MJ: It’s sort of tongue in cheek, but it’s also sort of not intended to be.
RY: But so many people are going to think it’s not tongue in cheek.
MJ: What should I say? Would anything be tongue in cheek for those people? [laughs] If people buy it like that though, that’s okay. That’s what it was supposed to do.
RY: What did you think of that business about Six Days in Fallujah?
MJ: It’s rough. Wasn’t that announced a year after the offense? That might be a bit too close to human tragedy.
RY: All these games are based on human tragedy.
MJ: But I don’t think it would’ve focused on narrative or shown you what happened there. I think it was a shooter that wanted to use the free publicity of the war.
RY: Do you think it’s possible for any of these military shooters to be insightful about war?
MJ: There were some games… Kuma, is the name?
RY: Kuma? Really? Don’t they just make that Source-powered stuff that no one seems to play?
MJ: They were making something like, “The Battles of Iraq and Afghanistan,” but I don’t think any major publisher is willing to touch that stuff. It’s too political.
RY: Ian Bogost wrote about Medal of Honor and free speech. He was making the case that all these military shooters want to have their cake and eat it too: capitalize on sensationalism, but say nothing about it.
MJ: Yes, and publishers publish games to make money. I think [Six Days in Fallujah] just wanted free PR, and it hugely backfired.
RY: I went to a BLDGBLOG-hosted talk with a war photographer and a national security blogger. They said modern warfare, today, isn’t about guns. It’s more often about a hundred people sitting at computers, analyzing footage from a spy drone, then using a joystick to bomb someone. So it’s weird how warfare is becoming more like video games, but video games about warfare don’t want to look at the reality of it at all. There’s no heroism in sitting in an air-conditioned office, bombing someone, then going home to eat pancakes.
MJ: Exactly. You can just switch out enemies for space aliens and it’s the same game. It’s not realistic and it’s not about war.
RY: Then what are these games about, then? How do these games function as pieces of culture?
MJ: I don’t think it goes that deep. These are just popular video games. You don’t have to take it seriously, you don’t have to think about it.
RY: I guess I’m just trying to feed you my own opinion: Thinking “it’s just a game” is dangerous to think. When you think of war, you’ll think mostly in terms of Call of Duty. You’ll think it’s mostly a heroic exercise.
MJ: Yeah. There’s that Onion video about Modern Warfare 3 being more realistic, and you’d just repair hum-vees and sit around. People are aware of how detached it is from reality, but it’s scary to think that someone might sign-up for four years just because they’re good at Call of Duty.
RY: It’s not that direct. Most people know they can’t sprint upstairs at full speed, holding a giant rifle, in real-life –
MJ: – and then stab a guy –
RY: – yeah, and then stab a guy without losing your breath. It’s telling a lot of small [unbelievable] lies so that you’ll actually swallow this big one, about what war vaguely feels like.
MJ: Have you seen the trailer for the new Modern Warfare? The Eiffel Tower gets blown up. It’s funny, how it started out as this realistic World War II shooter with beautiful music tugging at your heart strings, and now it’s Michael Bay’s Choose Your Own Adventure in 3D.
RY: I was talking about this before with Jack Monahan: the first Russian level in Call of Duty 1, where you’re crossing the river and get 5 bullets but no gun. It was vaguely educational. They used to feel they had a certain responsibility to depict war authentically.
MJ: Well, [Modern Warfare] does come out every year.
RY: It only takes a year? My god.
MJ: It’s one of Activision’s big releases. They have to do it every year, or else the books might not look as good as they should. And each time you have to surpass the past one. Now they’ve blown up everything they can blow up. Was it Treyarch?
RY: Or Infinity Ward? But now they’re Respawn… but they have a deal with EA? People don’t even know or care.
MJ: Yes, most people don’t. The people on forums are pretty educa –
MJ: [laughs] … They’re educated.
RY: Okay, we’ve just talked so much about all this – maybe kind of boring – military FPS stuff. It must be refreshing to work on your own projects.
MJ: First it was my hobby, then it turned into a job. It’s still my hobby. I get up in the morning, make levels professionally, then come home and work on my own stuff.
RY: How do you do that? Most people do so much at work, then don’t want to look at a level editor for the rest of the day.
MJ: It’s an outlet. You have all these ideas, but you can’t put them in retail games that are more strictly controlled.
RY: Now, Mission Improbable and Whoopservatory aren’t really about story.
MJ: No, they’re about gameplay, as I’m not much of a story writer. When you’re working in games professionally, you release something every 2 years maybe, and work undercover up until six months before release. You work in a vacuum. I just want to see people play my levels and enjoy them.
RY: What strikes me about Mission Improbable – well, everyone else interviewed in this series has strong opinions about the importance of story, but I feel like you (and someone like Valve, at times) treat it more as a wrapper for something else.
MJ: It’s all about the gameplay, making something memorable and something fun. Story is just motivation for placing the player. For Mission Improbable, it’s contained completely in the readme file. You should just be having fun and seeing cool stuff. I’m not really a great story writer, I don’t know how to write three acts that build-up to something.
RY: I don’t share your envy. Maybe you’re not doing three act structure, but pacing is its own form of story. At the beginning of Mission Improbable, you’re sailing slowly into this cave. Then it slowly escalates as you get to the top of the lighthouse.
MJ: Yes, you need peaks in action. You tense up your shoulders, but you can’t play like that for long periods of time. Sometimes it’s good to be able to just relax and take in the environment.
RY: So what do you think of Dear Esther then?
MJ: I played some of it. I got maybe halfway through, but I got stuck on a bit of the terrain and fell through [the terrain], got annoyed, and quit out of it. I think it’s cool that it exists, and it’s cool that there’s an audience for it as well. For me, I’m scared to take things in a completely radical direction. Same thing with your stuff. It’s cool that people appreciate these things.
RY: But why are you afraid to try weird stuff? If this is your hobby, why not try new things?
MJ: That’s true, but you want all your hard work to pay-off. I’m afraid of spending a year on something only for 200 people play it. To go with something new then have it bomb completely? That’s a bit scary… which sounds…
RY: It sounds rational. But if you make it pretty enough, people will play it anyway? They’ll see screenshots, and they’ll want to see that space and explore it.
MJ: Absolutely. The Dear Esther remake looks fantastic. But the question is, will these new players appreciate it for what it is, or will they be disappointed there were no Apache helicopters and exploding Eiffel Towers? I think people might be expecting Crysis, only to be disappointed, and then they’ll be very vocal in their disappointment… Maybe. We’ll see.
RY: I still do encourage you to make something really weird.
MJ: I was thinking about this on the subway for the past few days: create a small level, a building – then have a “chronometer” that triggers randomly, teleporting you 20,000 years into the future or 5000 years into the past, to see how this small space stays recognizable but changes so much. It wouldn’t have much gameplay.
RY: That’s great! But I’m finding sometimes weirdness is too weird; I was prototyping a level where you couldn’t walk forward, only backward. Which, now, sounds like the stupidest thing ever.
MJ: Oh! I wanted to make something with those weeping angel statues from that Doctor Who episode. [NOTE: Someone made a Minecraft mod.] You might turn around, but then you hear footsteps and suddenly it’s 5 meters closer to you. Then you have a room with a pillar, and now this pillar is your worst enemy.
RY: So why aren’t you doing all this?
MJ: I should. But then the level designer in me takes over and I have to build an entire level around that mechanic. Whoopservatory was about cloning your movements to play cooperatively with yourself. It could’ve been just a test area released on design forums, but I decided to go all-in, so if someone downloaded it and didn’t like the mechanic, then at least they could enjoy the level instead. It’s playing it safe.
RY: The level designer in me thought you didn’t go far enough, but you were right to keep it short. I like that about your work; it’s well-executed, it’s confident. I’ve been working on Radiator 1-3 for two years, and I had a very game-y stealth mechanic about hiding from an NPC, but then I chickened out and deleted it. I thought the game stuff would be too hard for them for anyone who likes weird stuff.
MJ: It depends on who your market is, and how you make your own “brand.” People have learned to expect oddness from you.
RY: My approach has its own price. Did you know PlanetPhillip (a large HL2 mod blog / database) doesn’t have any entries for “art mods”? He thinks they’re so weird that they’re not even Half-Life 2 mods anymore.
MJ: Yeah, I saw that discussion. I thought it was pretty cool…
RY: Cool? I was so upset!
MJ: No, the discussion was cool. I think it’s cool that a creator can go out to defend his stuff.
RY: I always see it as lose / lose. If I go out there, being defensive, being an asshole…
MJ: [laughs] You weren’t an asshole.
RY: There’s all these artsy new Half-Life 2 mods coming out, and Phillip won’t cover any of them.
MJ: It’s a volunteer-based community…
RY: You’re right, it’s his site. He can do what he wants with it. But it really represents the huge divide between your conventional practice and weird stuff like mine. I really want to combine them, but so far, everything is telling me I can’t.
MJ: Maybe you could make a regular zombie-shooting level, then near the end it turns completely artsy.
RY: So basically, trick people.
MJ: Yeah. It’s about attracting a market.
RY: It’s weird to talk about people as markets. They don’t buy anything from us.
MJ: They pay us with their time. That’s why I’m scared to release a prototype, that’s why I over-develop everything. I’m always afraid it’s not enough.
RY: [starts demonstrating the Portal 2 map, and it’s really buggy]
MJ: Was that supposed to happen?
RY: When I came up with this series, I didn’t think the mapping would be the hard part. I forgot how hard it is to prototype and script a map.
MJ: It’d be cool if the puzzle got more and more complex, each time you return to the room. Maybe 50% of the walls turn to metal. Maybe the pit gets filled with acid. Maybe you have to build a bridge across the acid with the five boxes… Though that’s all just more gameplay, it doesn’t “make a statement.”
RY: I think the cubes dissolve if they touch acid.
MJ: But that’s through scripting, isn’t it?
RY: I don’t think they even float. Do they have a “buoyancy” value compiled into the model?
MJ: We could make the pool of acid more shallow then. Or the next time the player presses a button, they’d have to manipulate the boxes to fall into a portal in some way. It adds another gameplay layer each time. Make that fizzler lower.
RY: Won’t it fizzle the boxes?
MJ: Use one of those red fizzlers. It doesn’t fizzle boxes, it holds them.
RY: Huh? That’s not… I think that might’ve been in a custom map you played. I mean, sure, we can script that, but I don’t think players will know what it is.
MJ: That’s true. Let’s restart this. What if you had to take a box with you, as you loop through the rooms, then take it back to the starting elevator to activate something?
RY: So we’ll have a floor button in the elevator room.
MJ: Hm, but would that make any sense?… What if going through the exit doesn’t complete the level, and you need a decoy?
RY: Oh, so you’d put a cube in there, then the elevator closes and takes the cube.
MJ: Yes, but it’d be pretty hard to convey that to the player.
RY: And I forgot there are fizzlers right before the exit elevators. We can’t do that.
MJ: Let’s restart again then. I still like the idea of dynamic environments.
RY: [looks through list of Portal 2 level elements] Um, laser catchers? No, I don’t like them. They’re too easy of a crutch to make something complex. “Just add lasers to it.”
MJ: Something with the tractor beam?
RY: The second time [you go through the room], you have to use a tractor beam to pull the crates out?
MJ: When you put the box on the button, it won’t stay on there [because the tractor beam will pull it off the button] so you need to bring the box with you to the exit and release it just in time. [pause] Um, do you think this level will be playable after all 8 designers have… ?
RY: [laughs] I don’t know. It’ll be a grand experiment. Oh, what if the tractor beam went into the exit elevator room?
MJ: How would you get past that?
RY: I don’t know. I just think it’d be cool, since usually that room is sealed off from anything the level can do.
MJ: Yes, it would break convention. But what if… taking the exit isn’t the objective here. There can be a secret area, a radio where you hear some noise, right underneath that overhang. You need to stack two boxes in order to enter.
RY: Oh, that’s where “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” can play from! See, isn’t it fun being weird?
MJ: Well, they did those secret areas in Portal 2 too. But Portal 2 is weird.
RY: Really? I thought it wasn’t weird enough.
MJ: You should start working at Valve then, and…
RY: I did interview with Robin Walker, once, at GDC. He basically told me I was too weird, that they wouldn’t even know what to do with me. He told me to call him when I make some normal levels. [laughs]
MJ: That’s what I’m saying! Be weird only in small doses, then once you’ve signed the contract –
RY: [still laughing]
MJ: Don’t forget to add a light in the room there, [so players can see it]. And add a hallway for the next designer to add something…
RY: … Yeah?
MJ: It’ll be interesting to see if any players really solve this.
RY: They probably won’t. Thanks for your time!
(Transcript edited for clarity and length.)
(Looking for the Portal 2 map? Sorry, you have to wait until part 7.)