Depending on where you work, the job of level designer can be a very big role. LDs collaborate with artists, writers, techs, and the rest of their team to build player experiences, and this can make it hard to remember that story delivery is a part of Level Design.
I find that the best player experiences tell a story. Whether you’re making a competitive deathmatch map, a story beat in an open world, or a linear AAA blockbuster mission: the best level designers know how to build and amplify the stories that their levels provide.
Today I want to talk about tips for doing great storytelling, from the perspective of a Level Designer in AAA games.
Align Your Collaborators With Macro Design Early
I use the word “macro” a lot and I’m really just referring to ‘big, overarching aspects of design that create rules and consequences as they occur’. These big-chunks-of-design-intent become the foundation of the level design I’m going to do, and as such: they will become the foundation of my conversation with key collaborators, like art, writing, and bosses.
For example, let’s say the “macro” design of my mission is : vigilante hero arrives at a mad scientist’s lab and investigates to find out what Dr. Badguy is up to. (I know, this sounds incredibly cool, but it is sadly just a throwaway example). I will lay out big chunks of intention as follows:
First, I’ll have a little conversation starter to align everybody about expectations for the mission/level . Let’s say I want people to agree to make this:
- Vigilante hero will do a combat sandbox beat, then investigate, learn of a weird machine in the basement, and explore to find the basement. Once arriving in the basement, we trigger a cinematic and Dr.Badguy escapes riding his strange machine into some kind of dimensional vortex portal.
Via email, zoom, approval meeting or however…. you want to make sure your key collaborators and bosses are aligned with your intention. Ideally this alignment gets documented and formalized somewhere. Confluence, shared design docs with everybody’s notes, whatever… but you want something solid that everybody can refer back to.
Remember that Level Designers must still do this for the stories they “did not create”. Just because a story beat was envisioned by a narrative designer does not mean that it is not yours to tell. At the end of the day, it is up to Level Designers to deliver the player experience.
Next, I do an MDD Paper Design (more thorough) to get everybody aligned on the individual beats of gameplay.
- Vigilante hero will enter the dungeon through a loose vent and arrive at a high position where they can see [Dr.Badguy’s Workshop]. It’s a large modern industrial space with futuristic equipment everywhere.
- Badguy thugs roam the area, so player must defeat them to make the area safe to investigate.
- Once investigating, the player gets an objective to “search for clues”
- After finding  clues on computer consoles that suggest that Dr. Badguy doesn’t want anyone to talk about “The Vortex Engine stored in the basement” the hero will have a realization beat where they talk about “clearly should go to basement”. Realization should gradually hint that the machine is experimental but can be very dangerous.
- Player objective changes to “find a way into the basement”. Hero dialogue supports this by underlining that learning of the mysterious Vortex Engine is frightening, warranting further exploration.
As you can probably guess: this is a more serious signoff process than the high-level… but what’s powerful about this alignment conversation is that all your key collaborators now know about every beat in your mission. Nothing is vague. Writers can start scratchpad work on dialogue and assets. Artists can do a little concept art. Creatively, you are now loosely aligned.
Greybox for Fun and Communication
A lot of Level Designers (myself included) find that greybox is the most fun, most creative, and generally coolest thing we get to do. Everything seems possible, and we can try ideas extremely quickly.
One of the longest things to get “right” when I greybox is nailing the right scale of an area; I tend to take a lot of time to build, and then play, and then build, and then play again, so that I’m confident that I am building “enough gameplay space” for each beat of my player experience, while still building a focused experience.
My personal aesthetic as a designer of spaces features exaggerated landmarks and wide paths. I tend to like to simulate the beats of the experience I want to build, and make sure that I feel confident everything will “work”. On For Honor, I obsessed over being able to see my landmarks from every angle. In Splinter cell I wanted to feel like I could look up and climb to every inviting shape that seemed advantageous or tactical. Every game is different, but I recommend testing constantly as you build. I used to recite lines of placeholder dialogue to myself in transition corridors, so I knew that there was enough time for them to play before the player would hit a new challenge, or learn about a new objective.
Once you’re confident in your greybox: get approval again from your collaborators. Artists will challenge your architecture, and maybe some changes will be made. Writers will tell you if they have enough space and clarity to be unblocked. Bosses will want to know that you won’t have to refactor your whole level later. Tech approvals will tell you if you have good plans for enemy spawning, player gating, and streaming. Validate everything you can before moving forward.
Your greybox map now becomes a supplement for your documentation. If you changed your MDD (Mission Design Doc) while greyboxing: update it. Add screenshots/videos of sections of your level. Great communication is the backbone of good collaboration.
The goal: everybody understands the story you want to tell. They know what assets are required for that story to shine. They have played your greybox map with you and they have seen the foundation of the story you want to create.
More Storytelling Tips
The number one, most powerful storyteller in your level is you, level designer. Other people will collaborate, and some of them will make decisions for you… but it is Level Design that ties together all the different bits of storytelling to make a unified player experience.
Even competitive multiplayer maps have stories to tell; these levels mostly tell their stories through their landmarks, so make sure everyone on your team knows what the story is. If artists don’t know that your giant wooden bridge only exists to drag the enormous crossbow from the castle, they will not deliver that story into your map.
If a narrative concept is meant to have emotional impact: try to find space for game characters to experience that impact. Dr.Badguy’s machine is frightening? Show game characters reacting and expressing fear, concern for others, determination to stop the villain before people are hurt. Find opportunities to reinforce important moments and concepts.
Does your mission depend on information or concepts that the player might not understand well or remember? Find ways to remind the player. If the key NPC is the grandchild of that guy who died six missions ago? Work with writers to find time to talk about it, like adding a “long walk corridor” so your hero can say, “ummm so you’re EvilDave’s Grandson, huh? What’s that like?” etc.
Stack your biggest player challenges against the biggest moments in the your story. Don’t reveal key story or character development information accidentally; design your challenges so that big-reveals or important moments are ‘earned’ by the player, and make them feel like the combat/puzzle/whatever challenges in your game were trying to stop them from advancing the story.