GD’s own Phatchopps recently made the bold claim that Dishonored 2 is the greatest game of all time. I know, I know, sound the hyperbole alarm. His argument stemmed around Arkane’s impeccable level design however, peaking with the absolutely astonishing Clockwork Mansion. It’s difficult to argue this specific level isn’t an absolute triumph. For those unfamiliar with Clockwork Mansion, it’s an architectural wonder which can be totally transformed by pulling levers, moving entire rooms. It could have all-too-easily been a confusing mess, but Arkane worked its magic to a tee.
Truly fantastic level design is a notoriously tricky thing to pin down. I’m sure we’ve all got specific types of levels we love or hate, but there’s surely some uniting factors which contribute to outstanding well worked levels, including being fun to navigate, surprising the player, subtly teaching new mechanics, empowering the player and, crucially, being memorable.
When I think back to my time with DOOM it was absolutely fantastic, however actually remembering a specific level is kinda tricky. On some level that means it failed to leave an impression on me, whereas the best levels I’ve ever played I can remember for years afterwards.
Dishonored 2 - Clockwork Mansion
So, the aforementioned Clockwork Mansion. As I said earlier, this is a constantly moving space which serves endless surprise the player. Fortunately its clean look and memorable rooms gives the player some chance of mapping out this 3D Rubik’s Cube. Before long you’ve got a picture of this giant machine works, activating mechanisms and using Blink to nip between the very cogs of the machine itself. You are the predator and the Clockwork Mansion is your toy.
Bloodborne / Dark Souls
I’m more familiar with Bloodborne so I’d posit that as my choice, but it’s got a very similar thing to Dark Souls going on. Bloodborne is basically one giant, interconnected world full of shortcuts and hidden corners. One of the best things about any Soulsborne game is spying something gigantic in the distance and knowing that at some point you’ll be there. This is only second to circling back round to an area I’d already been, coming at it from a different angle and it blowing my mind as I began to piece together the complex web of routes. This taps into so many areas that players can find satisfying, such as empowerment from mastering the design, surprise as you stumble on an old area in a new way, and the feeling of choice as you dictate which path to go down next.
Goldeneye 64 - Dam
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve played Goldeneye’s Dam level over the years. Everything about it is just perfect, and never before had a game actually allowed the player to feel like James Bond. It was also the first level to introduce a sniper rifle to gaming, letting players pick off enemies before they were even spotted. Dam is one of the perfect examples of teaching players new concepts through gameplay, introducing a totally new mechanic to gaming by simply giving the rifle to you and letting you play.
Half-Life - Blast Pit
At the risk of going too overboard with first-person shooters, Half-Life’s Blast Pit level really was, and is, an exemplary piece of level design. It was one of the first times I can remember playing an FPS where the answer wasn’t just to shoot your way out of it. It set the trend for puzzle-solving, environmental design, and a truly iconic tentacled beast to take down.
Super Mario Bros - 1-1
For great level design you can honestly pick just about any Mario platformer going, whether that be 2D or 3D. Few are quite as iconic as Super Mario Bros first level however, which is a tremendous example of teaching a player everything about the game while overtly telling them nothing. I’ve embedded it below so you can click to enlarge, but just scanning along it you can see textbook level design unfold.
Take that very first, infamous Goomba at the start. He’s positioned underneath the blocks precisely so that new players run into him on their first go back in 1985, understanding that running into an enemy means death. On the next run the player then jumps over the Goomba, realising rewards can be found by hitting blocks.
You then get a sequence of pipes getting taller and taller, teaching the player how to jump higher without the frustration of fail states. With that knowledge earned, players are then presented with the first gap to jump. Falling means instant death, but the practice with the pipes should be enough to see them through.
You can see this design reworked and extrapolated throughout the level, such as the two pairs of triangle blocks which need to be jumped over. The first has a floor to it, while the second doesn’t. By the end you’ve now (hopefully) built up the skillset to take down a pair of Goombas walking underneath blocks, before climbing the satisfying mountain at the end to reach your goal. For me this is an impossibly perfect level at teaching mechanics that we now take for granted.
So what are some of your favourite levels of all time? And what do you think makes a great level? Let us know below!