Experimental narrative game
Unreal Engine 4
Maya, Git, Photoshop
Level design, environment art, concept, code
Igualada River is an experimental piece made with UE4. It's based on a real cemetery in Spain designed by Enric Miralles.
The meandering floorplan mimics a river's path. You start at the river's end, and slowly weave your way up the mountain to it's mouth, where a fountain waits.
Along the way, you encounter five obsidian graves. When you stand at them for some time, your reflection emerges from the headstones. Each of these is less decrepit than the last.
You eventually realize that what you're climbing isn't just a dried river - it's actually the afterlife, and the dried river represents the path of your life. You started at your death and have been climbing back to your birth.
As an adaptation of a real-life cemetery, most of the problems I faced in the project's development were in the translation between real and digital architecture.
I started by building Miralles' floor plan in Unreal and wandering around it myself. Unfortunately it was clear that his schematic wasn't going to work for my design goals. My hope in adapting a cemetery was that I would be able to primarily express the beauty and importance of death with the space, rather than the melancholy or pessimism. On the contrary, Miralles' plan was aimless, with wide open spaces and a total lack of a critical path. It was far too confusing for a level that was supposed to be beautiful and emotional.
I almost tossed the level after this, but I had a hunch that if I held onto the level's concept--mimicking a river's path--and applied it to a linear design, it would probably work for what I wanted and make for a really emotional ending.
Miralles' floor plan
My floor plan, critical path highlighted
I knew a linear design would result in an engaging climax. But the question was now -- how do I make everything leading up to that climax interesting?
My answer was suspense, and as a level designer I used perspective, zig-zag paths. and indexical environment art to achieve this.
Perspective The player is afforded only the tiniest glance of where they're going or what they've traversed. This builds isolation throughout the level, which releases at the end with a vista moment.
Zig-zag paths The critical path is made of a series of straight lines. When walking down each straightaway, the player sees a gigantic obsidian grave looming in the distance, which creates suspense as they approach it. This design offers both clear goals in the always-visible graves, and natural pacing as the player moves from suspense to release and back again.
Indexical Environment Art Every piece of environment art in a level should tell a story of its past. In the case of Igualada, that is of a river that has long since dried. The level's textures include water-stained concrete and storm drains, and players who notice these things will wonder what left them behind.
The importance of having clear design goals was very clear with Igualada River. Rather than aiming to create something simply 'fun' or 'interesting', it's best to have a one or two sentence idea statement and organize production around that. Having explicit goals not only makes it easier to judge whether you've met those goals, but also if you've failed and how you can do better next time.
My skills as a level designer and environment artist also grew significantly after this project, mostly because I gained a new understanding of how those two disciplines are related. Environment art is in many ways a subset of level design, and I think it's really important that people in those two roles communicate and be on the same page.
The level is quite linear. Optional little nooks or dead ends might make a great alternative to the critical path, and be an opportunity to build the narrative outside of just the river concept.
I would add more environmental effects. A light fog would make the vista moment especially beautiful by emphasizing how far away the level's start is, and I could take advantage of all the textured grass by adding wind.
Overall, I had to develop this level in only a month and a half, and I think this shows in the models especially. The first thing I'm going to do when I come back to this piece is take the time to fix the graves, faces, and blocky, broken walls.