SWIFTHEART: A Level Design Challenge

Gameplay Concept: Swift Movement + Platforming + Light Narrative

Description: The challenge was: Create a brisk Sonic-like level with double jump, leaning heavily on horizontal platforming, but including vertical elements, loops, branches, vistas, and a touch of narrative.

In a week.

Development: I started with an entirely empty scene and the song Flim, by Aphex Twin. I’ve thought for a long time that it would make a great level soundtrack and it fit my vision of a minimal, abstract world that is mostly serene but underscored with a driving energy.

The first thing to get right was controls. The running speed and magnitude of jumps would determine the size of the level and influence everything in subtle and non-subtle ways. I had questions to answer. How fast can the character run? How high can it jump and double jump? How far? Does it feel solid and agile?

When those things felt right (it took a couple days, I used the Invector 3rd Person controller), I got a sense for how big the terrain would need to be. I dropped in the song and hit the ground running – literally. If linear, the terrain would be HUGE. So, circling back through areas (loops and branches) was not only going to be important as a design challenge, but necessary to keep the level to a manageable size.

I bounced back and forth between very loose sketches and translations of those sketches onto the flat terrain, settling on a central temple area with four exits. In rationalizing 4 exits, the idea of seasons presented itself and the notion of a world where magic crystals guard and guide the seasons sprang to life.

Level Objective: The seasons are broken, the Spring Crystal is missing from the Temple of Seasons and Winter cannot end. Find the Spring Crystal and return it to the Temple of Seasons.

Boy are the seasons messed up.

Only the Winter Crystal is intact and in place. (The Summer Crystal has been corrupted and its Door so messed up I didn’t even need to build that section of the world! Bonus.) The Spring Crystal is just missing, its Door inoperable. And the Fall Crystal is shattered and missing, but one tiny shard of the Fall Crystal remains in place, rendering the Fall Door operable. With the other seasons out of balance, Winter rules the land and ice and snow covers everything.

When all was finished, the player could go and collect the Spring Crystal which would follow at a distance. With this Crystal in tow, the player can approach trees and the tree’s sheathing of ice falls away. Additionally, hidden around the map are 6 Fall Crystals which the player can collect. If the Fall Crystal shards are all collected and brought back to the Fall area of the temple, the tumbled columns and broken ledge get fixed. Returning the Spring Crystal to its place sets of a shockwave effect of Spring that opens the Spring temple doors and spreads Spring through the land.

I wrote and cobbled the scripts and behaviors, designed the ‘terrain system,’ and came up with a light and evocative narrative to bind everything together and hit challenge objectives: speed, double jump, exploration, some verticality, branching paths, loops, with small and large rewards.

For assets, I downloaded a pack of trees, a skybox, and a character controller from the Unity Store. The controller is very sophisticated and not at all meant to go this fast – I would like it to be faster to really get that Sonic vibe, but any faster and Terrible Things begin to happen. Also, my husband volunteered temp sound effects and VO which I am very grateful for. The Invector controller also came with some other assets, moving platforms, and particles that were handy. The creator also helped me hone in on good settings for high speed.

Map Layout: There were a few iterations of the layout, starting with a more natural setting, canyons and waterfalls, but eventually gelled around the idea of a central temple area within a mountain cavern, that gave over quickly to needing to quickly block out large chunks of terrain not using the terrain system (Unity’s terrain is easy to exploit by most controllers)

 Trivia: The final size of the world including length and shape of the track was determined by running at full sprint for the duration of the song ‘Flim’ by Aphex Twin from start to finish – knowing that a player would be unlikely to every get through the level at that speed

Author: Karen M

Game designer and instructor.

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