March 18th, 2011
[The article below is a draft piece from my book, Rethinking Games Criticism: An Analysis of Wario Land 4. I strongly urge you read the book instead of this article. What you see below was edited and re-written several times for the final copy, so the analysis in the book is much deeper and the writing flows a bit more. Thank you.]
You’ve played Wario Land 4‘s levels, right? Of course you have. This means that you probably already know what I’m about to say, right? Good. Let me validate your assumptions.
Folded level design is a design crux used throughout all 16 of Wario Land 4‘s level and defines much of the game’s character. With folded level design, the player makes their way through a level, reaches a set point and then turns around and goes back to the start. The trek to the midpoint is different from the trek back to the exit as the player approaches the level coming back from a different angle. We call this folded level design as the design is analogous to folding a piece of paper in half: there’s a crease/fold (the midpoint) and 2 sides of paper layered on top of each other. Folded level design requires these 3 parts: an initial section, a fold (or crease) and then a closing section.
Folded level design allows the player to build up a set of knowledge in the first half of the level and then forces the player to readapt that knowledge for the second half. Allow me to illustrate with an example stolen from good mate Richard Terrell where he talks about climbing a tree to save a cat:
“The genius of folded level design is in how it develops a set of knowledge for the player and then manipulates it. In the cat tree rescue example, climbing up a tree is a challenge due to gravity, footing, and visibility. While ascending, one would gather knowledge about the arrangement and strength of the branches. Using both arms and legs, one would climb up the tree one step at a time. Upon reaching the top and with the cat (the crease) in hand, the challenge is folded. The crease is simply a term for the point at which a level folds upon itself. Now the climber has one less arm/hand to use, the pole like branches are transformed into downward steps, and the cat must be protected from stray branches. In this scenario, the knowledge of climbing branches is reanalyzed. A great path going up, could be a risky path going down.”
And you thought it was backtracking, didn’t you? Well it kinda is, but well thought out to make the track back more enjoyable. We need to consider a few things though:
In Wario Land 4 every level except for the boss stages uses folded level design. The blue frog switch at the end of the first section is the fold.
The player must step on the switch to activate the fold, therefore they have control over when they are ready to make the flip. This is important, not only because in Wario Land 4 the second phase has a timer, but also because the player needs feel that they’re familiar with the level before they proceed any further.
There’s an inherent newness to the gameplay after the fold stemming from the fact that you’re coming at the level from a different perspective. This in itself makes the backtracking more interesting, however since all of Wario Land 4‘s levels use folded level design, more needs to be done to stop the mandatory retread from growing stale. Fortunately Nintendo do this by introducing tension into the second half of the level. They do this by:
- adding a timer
- changing the enemies
- changing the terrain
- activating devices which reroute the path back to the exit
In education we say that you can make anything more engaging by adding a timer. Sure the students can complete a task easily. Give them a minute to do it and watch them become more engaged with the activity. The same approach is true here. By adding a timer the player is suddenly sparked into action by the threat of the timer. They’re forced to engage with the game or fail at the task. Such is the case with punnishments.
Introducing a timer also modifies the relative state of the first half of the level. The level before the fold is a breeze by comparison to the second half, designed to ease the player in as a tutorial to the level-specific elements and arrangements. No time limit means that the player can freely interact and learn about the level without much pressure. It almost seems as if the first part of the level is designed to make the player feel relaxed and carefree, only to catch them unaware in the second instance which is basically an escape or speed run. Just by displaying a timer our psychology to the level changes. The timer tells us to hurry up which means that time for exploring and getting acquainted with the level is over. The time sets off a natural panic and affects our playstyle accordingly. We can see now that the timer does much to differentiate the two halves and strengthen the folded level design.
But that’s not all, the other changes are intended to further fuel tension by subverting the player’s learned knowledge of the first instance of the level. New enemies require different play tactics. Different terrain (such as the frozen cavern in Fiery Cavern) diminish the player’s ability to navigate the level. Finally, interjecting previously passed terrain with new rooms totally has no need for the player’s learned knowledge. Each of these factors contribute to catching the player off guard when they intrinsically fall back on their learned knowledge to navigate their way back to the exit. So adding a timer and changing the play space strengthen the organic nature of folded level design which is to have to player replay the a level from a fresh perspective.
Folded level design is also a great way to capitalise on space in a game. Instead of creating entirely new levels, existing space can be reused and just altered a little bit.
Levels that utilise folded level design must accept the approach as central to the level design. What this means is that when designing levels of this nature:
Most rooms need to be designed for a dual purpose, one for before and one for after the fold. This purpose works on many levels including making the trek inwards longer than the trek outwards (ie. before fold: climb platforms; after fold: fall down to the ground floor) and the placement of secrets which are exclusively available for each half of the level.
Puzzle rooms should always accessible in the first half where the player has time to complete them. Whether or not they’re available after the fold depends on the designers. Not having puzzle rooms after the fold makes the escape to the exit more focused, having them ensures that players who missed out the first time still have a chance to try the puzzle rooms.
The game idea of a room doesn’t need to be present in the first half, in fact, it can come into play after the fold (such as the outdoor areas in Cresent Moon Village and Yurei). That is, some rooms can have interaction points that are only activated after the fold. Allusions to potential interactivity act as curiosity markers for the player and can encourage them to continue playing to find out how to engage with them.
Some game ideas aren’t fit for folded level design, so instead of the player backtracking, they can pass through an alternative route. In this way the player’s expectations for backtracking will be subverted. It’s a good way to keep the game fresh. Arabian Nights does this as using the slow-moving flying carpets after the fold conflicts with the hastiness of the second half.
And with the last point, but on a smaller scale, some rooms aren’t entirely appropriate for backtracking, so reroutes through new rooms or shortcuts can be added into the design.
I think that’s everything I want to say about folded level design. We’ll look more deeply at folded level when we explore the individual levels starting next week. Might be a good idea to read up on some examples from other games with folded level design in the meantime.