The fourth step in the process of designing and developing a level/stage is the most original, creative, and seemingly difficult step to teach. The fourth step is about coming up with a game idea; the theme, concept, direction, or idea that governs and is communicated through the design of a stage.
Before we start working with our own ideas, we have to establish the necessary framework first.
Game ideas can be broken down and measured on two independent scales. One of the scales is that of gameplay/function. This scale involves everything that the player can experience directly through their senses. On the positive pole, are game ideas that are solely about the gameplay, or creating scenarios that are design to test the player's use of the game mechanics. Here mechanics and function govern the form, design, and all other aspects of the level. Adhering most to this type of game idea results in the creation of puzzle levels and levels that can be categorized under linear variation.
On the opposite (negative) end of the gameplay/function scale is where the forms, story, music, or any other game element governs the design of a level as opposed to the mechanics or function (ie. how the game plays). This type of game idea yields levels with their central idea that doesn't mesh with the heart of the video game medium (interactivity). It is nearly impossible for levels on the to harmonize what the level does (gameplay) and its purpose (game idea). This shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, those two aspects were assembled separately in the design process. Game design, like baking or engineering, is so exact and precise that, things won't just magically come together by happenstance.
The Scale of Meaning
The other independent scale measures meaning. If actions speak louder than words and a picture is worth a thousand, then video (moving picture) games (actions & reactions) potentially communicate more meaning more rapidly and loudly than any other medium. From the vast variety of video games it's clear that games can be part literature, film, music, and part visual art. More importantly, video games can communicate meaning using the techniques and methods of these other mediums. However, just like before, interactivity is the most unique and effective method of communication the video game's medium has to work with. Therefore, when a game idea develops and communicates its meaning through its gameplay, mechanics, interplay, and or counterpoint, the meaning and the gameplay not only harmonize, but the richness of such meaning is something quite unique reaching far beyond the limitations of other mediums. For an example, check out Rod Humble's The Marriage (Hint: It's all in the title).
On the negative end of this scale are game ideas that communicate meaning utilizing and privileging the non interactive facets of the video gaming medium. Whether it's a large block of text, a full motion video cut scene, still images, or lyrical messages, in a video game, these methods of communication are inferior to interactivity. This is not to say that using these methods is wrong. However, if they do not serve to influence, shape, and enhance the gameplay, then they ultimately separate, disjoin, and distract from the core of the medium.
Click the image to enlarge.
On this graph, I have arranged 10 levels from Bangai-O Spirits. Keep in mind that the graph is not a measure of the quality of the gameplay or game idea. Rather, the purpose of the graph is to organize the levels into what type of game idea they represent and to better understand how the levels relate to each other.
Though it is more challenging, designing a level that falls into the green zone (quadrant I.) is our goal. Levels in the green zone privilege gameplay over any other facet of a video game. In this way, such levels take advantage of the most effective, powerful, and unique aspect the video game medium has to offer.
In the next lesson, we'll take a look at the game ideas I've come up with for Bangai-O Spirits and discuss how to take any type of game idea and push the concepts until they convey a rich idea through gameplay.