The Impact of Level Design on Gameplay

God of War released for the PS4 in April of 2018 to massive critical acclaim. It is one of the most sold games on PS4, selling over 3.1 million copies in its first three days (Quizilbash). God of War 4 tried to distance itself from its previous iterations, focusing more on story and exploration than its predecessors. In fact, Rob Davis, the Lead Level Designer for God of War 4, said in a lecture at USC that the game has three central pillars: exploration, narrative, and combat. Despite pulling God of War into a new direction, many elements within the game are made as concessions to the established audience so God of War 4 doesn’t feel too foreign. These concessions and usage of the three pillars are most evident in the level design, since the level design determines the affordances given to the player.

God of War 4 largely succeeded in creating a sense of exploration and providing incentive to explore. Comparing God of War to Horizon: Zero Dawn elucidates this success, as both games strive to create similar experiences in terms of the three pillars. The presentation of the two respective maps as shown below immediately elucidates the differences in the level design between these two games. 

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Fig 1: World map from God of War 4 (left) and Horizon: Zero Dawn (Right)

Despite being an open world game, Horizon: Zero Dawn does not encourage exploration. The blackness at the edges of the world map in comparison to the fog of war in God of War is a perfect example of discouraging exploration. This harsh darkness quite clearly tells the players that there is nothing to explore in that direction, since the entirety of the world can be clearly seen through color. However, God of War’s foggy map border implies there might be another zone for the player to explore if they just find the right entrance. Furthermore, the map is far more granulated in Horizon, and has every location of interest clearly labeled. Again, this subtly tells the players that there isn’t anything of interest between these labelled points, since if it were interesting, it would have a label. In God of War however, the lack of granularity further suggests increased possibility, and that you have to look around to find the points of interest within each of the larger areas.

God of War also quite literally rewards exploration, where if the player wanders off the path a little, they recieve rewards that then make gameplay easier. However, this is completely optional and players can complete the game without needing to explore every nook and cranny. In Horizon: Zero Dawn however, the player receives either no reward or a small fragment of background narrative for exploring every cranny. This further disincentives the player to explore, since exploration does not help the player with combat or the direct narrative of the protagonist. Since the exploration in God of War is intentionally limited in its scope, exploration is more satisfactory for players as it’s only a small diversion from the main progression.

The other point that made exploration so successful in God of War was the Metroidvania style of exploration that the world provided. Throughout the game, players would unlock new abilities, which then allows the player to explore more of the world and gain access to more resources. This was made even more successful since the short side paths to the main level flow were often gated by obviously distinct elements that the player hadn’t been taught yet. Upon returning to the areas with increased knowledge, the possibilities of play are vastly increased. The failure of these mechanics is that not all of the affordances offered by a new skill created interesting puzzles. For instance, when the player unlocked the chisel, its sole function is to act as a key for a select handful of doors. This mechanic in particular did not create interesting puzzles, as it didn’t interact with other abilities. Since not every mechanic was as important in the exploration of the world, this reduced the desire to explore previously unlocked content again, the newer abilities did not unlock that much new content, and thus players did not feel rewarded. If some of these abilities created more interesting scenarios by using their affordances, it would have increased the investment in the later half of the game, where the game becomes a bit of a slog.

The earlier portion of the game was made even more interesting due to the integration of narrative and level design. This comes through most clearly in the boat, where Kratos or Mimir tell various stories, which humanizes all of the characters, and establishes a more genuine connection between the player and the characters. This also allows the player to understand the characters better and roleplay as them more effectively. If it were not for these stories and connection building, Atreus’s rebelling and moodiness in the latter third of the game would have felt less genuine and not affected the player as much, nor the moment when Kratos calls Atreus son at the very end of the game.

One area where level design failed the narrative of the game is through instances in the visual language of the game. God of War has a very clear design for where you can and where you cannot traverse since the player is incapable of jumping. This is usually very effective and for the most part succeeds in informing the player of what they can do in a given area. However, this occasionally fails. One instance in particular is in the River Pass as shown below.

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Fig.2 : A failure of the visual language in God of War

This area in particular fails on several levels. The intention is that you throw Atreus up on the right in the small alcove, where he then walks across over to the left, where he kicks down a chain for Kratos to climb up. The first failure is through lighting. The area on the left is far more brightly lit than the intended first correct area on the right. Players are naturally drawn towards light in games, so players are more likely to try and interact with the section on the left before looking around elsewhere. The second failure is that of texturing, where similar to the issue of lighting, the markings on the left are made far more obvious than those on the right, further obfuscating the correct path. This design was most likely executed in this manner to make traversing this area after the chain was dropped more intuitive, as the path the player can actually traverse is more obvious than the path to solve the puzzle. However, this decision was most likely made before lighting on the chain itself was finalized, as most chains glint in the light which would have provided enough visual direction when returning to this area alongside the white pip indicating an interactable.

Finally, the largest failure of this area is that it breaks the player’s immersion. In this area, the right where you throw Atreus up and where the chain drops from are the exact same height. Since both of these are the same height, it doesn’t follow diegetically why Kratos can throw Atreus up on the right, but not the left, where Kratos could also overthrow Atreus to have him land on top of the platform.. As such, this puzzle feels especially contrived, rather than a reasonable outcome resulting from actual people. Raising the left side with the chain another meter or two would fix this issue by making it more obvious that the player cannot interact with it in the same way as the right. Breaks in immersion such as this one occurs several times throughout the game, where Kratos and Atreus can perform amazing physical feats at some points, but at other times are completely incapable of actions of similar magnitude. Although God of War heavily relies on metrics for level design, more nuanced metrics would avoid breaks in the immersion, making Kratos a more believable character.

There are three fights in particular besides boss fights that are especially interesting and stand out from the entirety of the game. Shown below, these three fights are in Tyr’s Hall, in the River Pass, and on the ship escaping from Helheim. 

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Fig. 3: Three especially memorable and interesting fights

The element that made all three of these fights interesting and more memorable than the vast swath of generic fights is that the player must consider and play around an element besides enemies that the player has defeated many times over at this point. In Tyr’s hall, the flame geysers forced the player to alter their positioning or take a significant amount of fire damage. There were also ranged enemies spawning at the end of several trapped hallways, so the player had to either tempt the enemies back into the hallway or make their way through dodging both enemy attacks and the traps. In the River Pass, a fight breaks out under a spiked ceiling that drops down unless the player uses their main weapon to keep it up. This again presented the player with interesting decisions as the player had to play around this element. They could give up the leviathan axe to keep the ceiling up and punch enemies to death, occasionally stop fighting to manage the height and leave themselves open for counter attack, or attempt to bring the ceiling down to crush the enemies. Finally, the fight on top of the boat in Helheim added a secondary “loss” condition, forcing the player to pay attention to another factor or replay the fight. By trying to protect just one fire, the player quickly becomes nearly overwhelmbed by enemies, but splitting your attention between both piles leaves the player themselves vulnerable to the enemies. Furthermore, the grappling hooks physically changed the space of the fight by limiting where the player could walk, further making the battleground itself dynamic.

Fights like these three encounters also help the narrative of God of War by either literally being a plot point in the case of Helheim, but by better showcasing the characterization of Kratos and Atreus. While it makes sense that Kratos would not run away from a combat after its been started since that’s against his character, throughout the storytelling of the game, Kratos is shown as an intelligent character. In terms of storyline, Kratos’ ability to problem solve, such as the escape from Helheim, displays this intelligence. The level design reinforces this intelligence through the puzzles that Kratos solves throughout the game, and the aforementioned especially notable fights. In these three fights, the player can think creatively about how to engage in fights rather than mindlessly mashing. However, this is not true for most generic fights. While it makes sense for Kratos in Spartan Rage to feel more button-mashy, the more mindless fighting towards the end of the game doesn’t match the intelligence shown in Kratos through the other elements of the game. The more unique fights require more significantly more narrative work and setup, but provide a more engaging combat experience for the player through increased variance in play.

However, the largest failure of the level design in God of War is the concentration of these interesting combat scenarios, so many of the fights blend into each other and are unmemorable. The vast majority of the combats throughout the game are designed to be gladiatorial style engagements, where Kratos fights against a handful of enemies at a time, trapped in a flat small circular area. The final boss of the game, every Valkyrie, Realm Tears, and most generic fights all follow this same pattern. While this isn’t necessarily an unwelcome style of combat, the overuse of this singular type causes many of the fights to feel identical, and thus lack interest. This was most likely implemented to appeal to the established God of War player base, as older games from the series followed this hack and slash style gameplay. However, many enemies towards the end of the game don’t pose any significant threat to the player, so fights without any additional factor for the player to think about develop into an interference. 

In addition to the disconnect between narrative and combat, a similar disconnect exists between exploration and combat. While simply exploring the world leads to more combat encounters, many of the mechanics introduced as part of the Metroidvania style exploration lack combat integration. While Axe Throws, Chaos Blades, Shock Arrows, and Light Arrows have utility in fights, Light Crystals, Winds of Hel, Glowvines, and the Chisel were never included as a part of combat, while throwable Sap Crystals were only used in one combat, which was against Hraezlyr. In addition to these exploration mechanics not being integrated, combat arenas often exclude movable set pieces, such as the pulley system on the path to Asgard Tower. If the player had access to use any of these elements more creatively in combat, fights towards the end of the game could have been more varied and unique in their execution, and thus more memorable. 

As an alternative to creating more dynamic combat environment, the level design could have allowed for more varied styles of play. Since the majority of combats take place in close range gladiatorial fights, the player often does not have enough space effectively take advantage of axe throws, especially the Hunter-Killer series. This issue is made more apparent when many enemies are either immune to axe throws or dodge them, further reducing the utility in throwing your axe in combat. Furthermore, since many enemies appear after you enter the arena, Kratos cannot attack from any significant distance to pick enemies off one by one. While some enemies, such as Ancients, require a mixture of abilities to defeat, more enemies could have used this mixture of abilities to defeat, especially later in the game. If God of War had more unique weapon attack combos or enemies that required different approaches to defeat, it would further increase the interest in each and every fight, as the player would have to think about more factors towards the end of the game as they become more skillful and have the mental capacity to process the greater number of factors.

As a whole, the level design and visual language created in God of War is amazing and delivers upon the three pillars of exploration, narrative, and combat. However, the lack of variation in level design of fights, and failure to use all of the affordances of mechanics causes the later portion of the game to feel grindy rather than new, engaging, or exciting.

 

Quizildash, Asad. “God of War Sells Over 3.1 Million Units in 3 Days, Becomes Fastest-Selling PS4 Exclusive.” PlayStation.Blog, 3 May 2018, blog.us.playstation.com/2018/05/03/god-of-war-sells-over-3-1-million-units-in-3-days-becomes-fastest-selling-ps4-exclusive/.

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