The Learner's Garden is a level I worked on early this year that's designed to showcase all of the different types of level design covered on the blog. To keep things relatively simple, I kept the hazards in the level to a minimum. From there, I created 6 very small level sections and attached them to a central vertical hallway. I had planned to designed locks and keys to make the progression more like a Metroid game. Unfortunately, I ran into a lot of problems with the LBP level editor, and I decided to give up on the project. This article is my post mortem on The Learner's Garden.
The level itself was designed as an example of level design types, and was meant to be bare bones. Still, I couldn't help but add a bit of artistic direction to the project. To contrast the ridged, boxy room design, I cut through the boxes with organic shapes. This is evident in rooms 1-3. In 4-6 I transitioned into more mechanical shapes and level challenges to represent the man made machines underneath the natural. The level as a whole looks like a cactus.
- Section #1: Linear level section. The player spawns inside the box on the left, and makes their way to the central vertical hallway. The player must JUMP over the green root like structures.
- Section #2: Alternate paths. Continuing to move to the right from section #1, the player quickly comes up to platforming challenges with more consequences than in section #1. Using the dynamics of space and gravity, the upper branched path is harder to get to than the one below. Depending on the path the player takes, once they reach the end they'll transition into 1 of 2 starting locations for sections #3's branched beginning.
- Section #3: Branched beginning. If the player took the more difficult upper route in section #2, they get travel through section #3 in style. The glass slide allows players to slip right through the section. If players start at the other beginning of section #3, they have to choose between a difficult climb or dropping down into section #6.
- Section #4: Branched ending. At the fork in the path, the player can choose to go up or down. The spinning wheels help players move more quickly and interestingly through this level section. The bigger the wheel the slower the rotation speed.
- Section #5: Folded level design. In this level section players must travel to the end and back to progress. Moving left on the first layer of the folded level design, players can simply walk along the curvy path. All the while, the crushing top section to this level is pulled up and dropped back down repeatedly. Fortunately, the player is not crushed by this mechanism.
There's just enough space for Sackboy to remain safe (see images to the right. click to enlarge). Once the player reaches the end of the level section, they have access to a collection of pressure sensitive bombs. This is the crease of the level.
- To get back to the central vertical hallway, players have to drag the bombs back along the curvy path. Here's where the folded design adds an extra layer to the challenge. Dragging any item back makes Sackboy move more slowly. Furthermore, dragging anything up hill reduces one's speed further. The crushing mechanism may not move down far enough to crush Sackboy, but it certainly moves far enough to strike the bomb. Before the mechanism falls, players have to let go of the bomb and move away from it. When the mechanism strikes, a hole is blown out of the mechanism but not the concrete, curved floor.
- After the bomb explodes, players have to return to the left side of the level section and grab another bomb. By this time, the player should realize that the only way to make it back across safely with a bomb is to hide in the holes the bombs create in the crushing mechanism.
- Section #6: Accordion level design/(p)layered level design. There are two keys in this level section that the player needs to move from the right side to the left to progress. Notice also how the level section is arranged. The top half is a mirror of the bottom except that the mechanisms on top are in the opposite state as the mirror mechanisms on bottom. For example, when one piston is up, the mirror piston will be down. To control these mechanisms, the player must grab whichever of the mirrored pairs of mechanism has the grab switch. Some of the switches are on top while others on on bottom.
- To get the keys from one side to the other, the player must travel back and forth between the top and bottom half rearranging the mechanisms. This back and forth player motion is what makes this level section accordion level design.
- You might be wondering why section #5 doesn't count as accordion level design. Unlike in section #5, in section #6 each time the player changes the mechanism on one half (top or bottom) of the level, the opposite side is changed. This change alters the challenge. In section #5 traveling back and forth to get and use more bombs didn't change the challenge. Doing so is merely steps in solving the same challenge.
- This challenge of section #6 for a solo player is arranging each half of the level so that the key is advanced to the left side without pushing the mirror key closer to the right. Also, manipulating parts of the level to do work on both halves at once is part of the challenge. With two (or more) players, the accordion level design can actually be circumvented. If one player stays up while the other jumps down, both players can coordinate with each other instead of making trips back and forth. There is an added challenge when splitting up the work like this. If you're not careful, you can easily crush your teammate in a mechanism. "With great power comes great responsibility." ~ Uncle Ben.
Beyond showcasing the 6 types of level design, I wanted The Learner's Garden to be sequence breakable. To accomplish this, I made most of the level out of destructable material. This allows players to create their own paths through the level using bombs (a design that's analogus to Spelunky's bomb design). Aside from the bombs in section #5, I had to hide some more bombs throughout the level for players to use. For the player who's aware of the emergent potential in all LBP levels and seeks to try to "push through the walls" so to speak, I wanted to create a whole world within a world to reward their curiosity. So, in the gaps between sections 1 & 4, and 2 & 3, I designed extra areas that are outside of the ostensible level deisgn. In these areas, I hid explosive powerups and planned on rewarding the player with points.
Because all of the locks in The Learner's Garden are organic and all the elements are persistent, the level can be classified as a pure organic level. After all, with no spawners for any of the game elements the playero only has to work with the limited resources in the level. If they use up all the bombs, that's it. If the player can find a way to bomb a short cut, that's completely acceptible. The rules are in place. The interactions are rich. From there, it's up to the player to make the most of it.
It's too bad I couldn't finish and publish the level. Oh well. I learn from my mistakes to grow stronger.