the above is how a single screen of letters from beneath, a game i made in 2008, looks in game maker’s level editor. i thought maybe it could shed some light on the way a designer’s goals shape her design (particularly following my admonishment that designing levels in a text editor, like redder’s were, is a terrible way to go about things).
letters from beneath is the culmination of an experiment (that went through a few forms) in creating a game that could be scary / tense without relying on the standard tropes of photorealistic presentation (or a believable simulacrum) and limiting the player’s resources. (i also wanted to make a game where the ultimate threat was of being held down and tickled.)
in the final version of the game, i accomplished that goal through unpredictable controls – in every encounter, the player’s “shoot” key is one of the twenty-six letter keys on the keyboard, chosen at random (albeit more random when the player has more reaction time, if that makes any sense) – and a rhythm that is broken at sudden, unpredictable intervals, at which point the player must take quick action.
to ensure that those intervals were genuinely unpredictable, i decided (after a few revisions) to use randomness. each screen is chosen from a pool of seventy-six possible screens (or rather, from one of several pools, depending on which way danger jane exited the previous screen). each time the game is played, the crypt is constructed from a bunch of screens i’ve designed, shuffled in a different order.
the order in which scenes appear isn’t all that’s random. in the screen above, you can see three yellow Xs between jane and the screen exit (the blue arrow). these are potential triggers that will cause a creep to appear when jane steps on them (from the place indicated by the red arrow, which on this screen is underneath jane, pointing off-screen to the left).
i say “potential” because when the screen is actually played, one of the triggers is chosen at random to be the “real” trigger; the others are destroyed. all three are positions i tested to make sure the player has enough time to react, and all there are what i decided were the most interesting trigger positions given the screen’s shape.
the bottommost trigger calls a creep to follow jane from behind, after she’s out of sight, to give her a reason to keep moving to the next room. the one above it causes a creep to appear and immediately chase after jane the moment she turns the corner, and the one to the left of that is there in case the player anticipates the creep appearing at the moment she turns the corner.
but even before that, there’s a one-in-three chance of a screen having no creeps appear at all – all of the triggers are turned off. if the player came to expect an encounter on every screen, i figured, screens would stop being suspenseful. sometimes the player can go for a bunch of screens without seeing a single creep, during which time i hope for her to be anxious for the next one.
most of my design decisions were made to sabotage the player’s ability to make reliable expectations. randomness is useful here because of its ability to destroy rhythm: it eludes a predictable pattern. at the same time, i’ve designed every particular situation the player will encounter. you can see the ways i have designed around randomness, and how i’ve fashioned my tools to accomodate that kind of design.