July 1st, 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.]
When I was planning how to analyse the levels I considered including a “Variation” heading. Under the variation heading I would analyse each room and try to determine the minimum difference in variation so that I could then characterise the progression of the game ideas from room-to-room. After analysing a few levels and taking some notes I realised that, generally speaking, all of the levels follow a core design model. We’ve already mapped out the progression model of Wario Land 4, so the level design model is basically the same thing, just zoomed in a little more. Each level can be broken down into roughly the following steps:
- 1) introduction
- 2) a non-fail take on the game idea in its most minimalist form, restricted practice
- 3) a more established, more sophisticated take on the game idea, freer practice
- 4) an open ended problem take on the game idea
- 5) post-fold dash back to the exit, the final exam
Let’s take the level Big Board as an example. The game idea for this level is the board game. For more on this please refer to the level analysis.
The first room is just an introduction that serves to familiarise the player with the visual context of the level as well as reacquaint them with the basic mechanics. The latter is necessary for every level as the game is broken up into levels and between finishing one level and starting another, the player may wish to stop playing the game. In which case, the first room warms the player back into the gameplay after the interim. Furthermore, the first room can also be interpreted as a cool down from the post-fold sprint of the prior level.
It’s also critical that the first room informs the player about the visual context of each level. Unlike, say, Super Mario Bros. where the same core building blocks are used to construct the levels, in Wario Land 4 the ground, enemies and visual appearance of the blocks can change from level to level. This means that each level needs a point of reference to inform the player of the differences and the best place to do that is at the start of the level.
We can see in the first room of Big Board that the blocks are unique in appearance with their split between blue and yellow and the cracks which indicate that they’re of normal thickness. The Toy Car is also present. Notice how the arrangement also facilitates jumping and attacking, the basic mechanics of the game.
A Non-Fail Take on the Game Idea
Next, the unique and interesting premise that defines the character and challenges for the level, the game idea, debuts. It is absolutely pivotal to future gameplay that the player understands the game idea, thus the arrangements of these rooms are tightly focused and straight to the point. Often lock and key checks will be put in place to ensure that the player must, to some degree, engage with the game idea in order to advance. The game idea is only present in its most simplest, minimal state so as not to distract the player with any irrelevancies.
In our example, the second room features a dice roll switch that will advance the player’s progress along the board. To clear this room the player needs to jump over the wall using the outlined platform. To activate the outline platform they need to flick the switch. No matter if the player rolls a low or a high number, the initial 12 squares all activate the platform, so the player wins every time. This is a failsafe to ensure that the player ends up learning what they need to know.
A More Sophisticated Take on the Game Idea
The initial steps generally operate in single room values. That is, you only need to have one room for an introduction or an example of the game idea. The more sophisticated takes on the game idea operate on a sliding scale across multiple room, the number depending on the nature of the game idea. I have chosen 4 rooms to demonstrate this point.
The images show how the game idea develops over multiple rooms. Fire blocks, blocks in the wall, thick blocks and unit-high passages over water are all locks which require keys, keys being somehow related to the specific squares the player can land on on the board. Keys and locks facilitate puzzles and puzzles stress knowledge skills regarding the application of the mechanics. So, puzzles, in turn, establish the game idea by testing the player’s knowledge and adaption skills. The examples showcase different permutations of puzzles using the game idea.
These rooms are also less restrictive than the initial room. The player is given the choice of participating in the puzzles or not. There’s leeway for the player to approach the problem (because of the fact that it is a puzzle) and leeway for their execution. Take the first room, the player needs to first deduce a way to solve the problem by gathering clues (fire blocks, fire transformation on board, dice, path to the fire blocks) and then execute on the clues (move Flaming Wario to the fire blocks). The deduction and execution processes require experimentation, so the player has more flexibility.
An Open-ended Problem
The freer practice comes to a head with an open-ended problem, the freest of all free practice. Now that the player understands the game idea and relevant knowledge, and can adapt their knowledge to problem solving, the game can remove most of the scaffolding that assisted the player’s learning of such things.
As with the example, open-ended problems offer more avenues to play. We can see in the example that there are 3 areas which the player can spring up to as Bouncy Wario. One of them is a waste (left), the other offers a clue (middle) and one leads to the reward (right). The trick is that there are only 2 dice roll switches, meaning that at most the player can only transform 2 times. For each player, the experience may be different. For example, some players will spring up into the reward area on their first go, while others will fail and try again, possible landing on a transformation block or not the second time around; then again other players might just avoid the puzzle altogether. Whatever the case, the player’s experience can fork out into different paths. Compare this to the Introduction where every player can only advance by doing the one specific interaction. By introducing divergence and freedom into the level design, the player’s experience is more personalised. What this personalisation or customisation means is that the player can feel ownership over the game idea as they have used it as a form of expression. This is the height of education.
Just noting a trend too. These rooms tend to, be nature, be the largest rooms in the entire level because they offer greater freedom. What I mean is giving more options to the player in the level design more often than not equates to using more digital real estate. In terms of level design, restriction is expressed through limiting space. Furthermore, the minimal introduction arrangements don’t require much space in any case. What you’ll notice then is how the rooms from the vortex to the frog switch become progressively larger.
Now that the player has mastered the game idea, they’re tested on their ability to execute on the game effectively. To test the player not only is a timer is added into the mix, but they need to make their way through a series of rooms leading back to the vortex. Sometimes the trek back is through a few entirely new rooms, other times you need to run back through previously passed rooms, it depends on the game idea.
In Big Board the exam is front-loaded into the room with the dice roll switch. In this room the player must continuously roll until they get to the very last square. The trick is that if the player rolls more than the requisite number of squares away from the end block, then they’ll head back in the opposite direction X number of excess squares. In this way, the player needs to, at least once, roll the correct number. After the player has landed on the last square they need to make it back to the portal. The traversal mechanics are a secondary game idea.
Although Big Board isn’t an example of it, post-fold areas will usually include the most sophisticated arrangements in the entire level.
Divergences with this Model
As I mentioned this model is just a guide line, not all levels follow it to a tee, but most generally do. The changes to the model are used to suit the type of game idea present. Maybe some game ideas are larger so they need more tutorial time while other levels are split between several core ideas. Here are a few examples of divergences to the formula:
- Hotel Horror – Hotel Horror is a key exception, eschewing this template completely for an entirely open-ended approach
- Wildflower Fields – The game idea is introduced in the first room
- Monsoon Jungle – One could say that because the player is dropped into the water from the onset that the non-fail take on the game idea replaces the introduction.
- 40 Below Fridge – The introduction is extended
- Crescent Moon Village – The rooms bounce back and forth between the Vampire Bat Wario/Zombie Wario game ideas and the Yurei game idea. Levels with more than one main game idea split the more sophisticated takes on the game idea between the 2 game ideas they have.
So What? Why This Model?
Okay, we have a framework for interpreting the levels which is pretty neat, but what does it all mean? This model of progression is built around the idea of skill and thus through skill mastery. The game teaches the player so that the player can apply and advance their skills until they have reached a sufficient level of mastery that the games requires of them. I’ve called this system a progression system, but it’s more of an embedded education system. The mechanics (tools) and arrangements (problems) and the player (student) are all part of this education system.
Each room is about teaching the player something (game idea) and then testing them on that. They’re guided by the game and the more they play, the less the game handholds them through the challenges. When the player has built up competency, the player is given the opportunity to own what they’re learnt and express themselves with it. This step not only consolidates what the player has learnt so far, but it allows the player truly engage with what they’ve learnt. At last, there’s one final test.