A few days ago (as of writing this, as I am offsetting the publish for this post, it's probably been roughly a week) I posted a blog article about Mario Maker and bad levels.
In it, I had a section all about ultimate deductions to the "worst levels" possible in an old-school Mario game. I described levels with no obstacles, levels with way too many enemies, and even levels with no level at all.
After having a chat with my good friend Gabriel Priske (the dude I made See No Evil with) of Noetic Games, I came to some deeper inspection of what "bad" can mean in this context.
So, after shooting my article over to Gabe, he read it over and responded in the following day. He usually likes to read my stuff because he has excellent taste in reading material.
I haven't got the original conversation logged, but I'll paraphrase from memory his reaction with his approval:
I disagree with the part about the worst levels. A level can be good even if there is one block. It's not bad just because it's "depressing"- sometimes that's the message that needs to be sent. The human condition is much more complex than to just call a certain message or its delivery "bad design". There is danger of these rules limiting the artistic expression that games can accomplish.
Amazingly well put, paraphrased Gabe.
|"Thanks man, high-five!" he hypothetically would respond.|
At the time, my response to his reaction was kind of a defense that my evaluations were in context of the goals and elements of a Mario game. Where the gameplay is a start, finish, and obstacles in-between navigated through momentum and platforming prowess, a level with no finish or obstacles or even anything to reasonably platform on would be, by default, a terrible level.
|Pictured: a beginning, an end, and obstacles inbetween|
But then I started thinking things over some more. Does exclusion from the context of Mario really make these levels any less horrible?
Well, I'll start by stating that a level being depressing doesn't automatically make it bad. Games are used to convey all sorts of ideas and emotions, and the idea or emotion they choose should not be a deciding factor in whether or not they are well designed.
What is bad, however, is the underdeveloped nature of the level design, as well as the laziness. This kind of breaches into a wider topic of "what is art," so bear with me for a moment.
Now, what is on trial here is the level design. Not the game itself, mind you. Games are such complex amalgamations of mediums that they are often graded on a very segmented criticism scale. Level design, visual art, audio and composition, game feel, and story can all be attacked and defended completely independent of one another. This is similar to how soundtrack, acting, direction, screenplay, cinematography, and editing are all factors that can be separately and individually critiqued in a film.
The final product is absolutely affected by the sum of its parts, but sometimes (just like in film) a video game can still be good if a certain aspect of it is crummy.
It's really easy to see this in effect when we look at older games (or older films). The graphics may be aged, so they are now crappy. The sound quality is no longer acceptable by today's standards. However, there are often redeeming qualities outside of the failed aspects of the game that allow the game to be good regardless (and sometimes even retain some of the character and charm of those resources, even though their design is now archaic).
|I'm not going to stake my name on saying, today, that Mario 64 has great graphics. I will however, say that it's a great game.|
So this takes us to the ultimate question that I had to ask myself: is level design good if the game gets its message across accurately as a result of the level design?
After mulling it over for a long time, my conclusion is: not necessarily.
Now, for a lot of artists the buck stops at conveying your message in an understandable way. And, yes, that does mean that your art is effective. However, does that mean that it's a masterful use of your tools?
Here's a hypothetical for you: imagine that somebody released a painting of desolation. The painting, in fact, is actually a blank canvas with no paint on it what so ever. Not a depiction of a canvas. It's just a canvas that's never been touched.
|Starting bid is $2.5 million|
The argument can be made that this is an effective piece of art because it expresses what the artist wanted to express. Is it, however, a masterful painting? Did this employ amazing technique and craft?
No. It's a terrible painting. In fact, it's a non-painting. It is literally as lazy and underdeveloped as a painting can get. At best, the artist stared at it for a long time and it can be considered a souvenir of performance art. But in the end of the day no effort was put into it to make it a painting, so it is art without being a good painting.
Now let's get back to the level that was in question originally.
|Oh! Hello again!|
This was my original description for this level:
This level has two outcomes: you either do nothing or you kill yourself.Now, it would have done my message a lot more justice to dwell on how underdeveloped this was, but since this was number 8 in a list of 11 "Worst Levels" I had already talked to death about underdeveloped and empty levels.
Why It's Bad: It's just really depressing. If you wish to do anything other than just stand around and stagnate, waiting for the time limit to kill you, the only thing you can do is kill yourself. There's nothing fun about that, for sure. At least you can use the sweet release of death to get out of this level.
The issue that I really have here is that there is nothing in the level. Mario is standing on a solitary block, meaning that this level could have been designed in two or three clicks of a mouse. Two values in a hex grid. That's all. It's underdeveloped, it's not interesting, and it's lazy.
Now if you were to put this into an art game about being hopeless, it'd be fairly effective and the game could be considered good on that merit. But does this make it a well crafted level?
It gets the message across, just like the blank canvas does. But it does not make a well designed level.
Here's a thought for you: games have the most interesting method of conveying messages because they make you part of the action. Games are experienced and take you on a journey. This can be used to do so much that it's boggling to comprehend all of the possibilities. It is a relatively young medium, a green pasture of mostly untapped land just waiting for our manifest destiny to kick in and start building our art within.
In a game where you sit within a level with one option (jump to your death) aside from waiting, you're not really experiencing it. You're reacting to it. There isn't enough substance to experience. The construction is so simple and underdeveloped that you're hardly doing more than pressing play on a Mario snuff film (or watching the paused frame of him standing there beforehand). And once you've reacted once to it there isn't really much more.
The message is there, but the tools are not masterfully used. The art can be considered great for what it has accomplished to convey, but it can not be said to be conveyed with a masterfully handled medium.
|Bid is now at $55 million. Going once...|
A similar message can easily be conveyed with greater thought and complexity in a well designed level formed to convey feelings of desolation based on interaction (the hallmark of videogames) rather than reaction (which is all that a single block floating in the middle of nowhere can really hope to achieve, unless the player stubbornly sits and perseverates on attempting to beat the futility, which would be just as easily accomplished by printing a misleading word search puzzle
F C M W K L N W L Q I P B L V
J I F T V S D I I Y S D Q A X
R O Z E I R K K P H Q S X V W
V F R O O I P G M W H J P F L
T R A X E B Y F U D P V I O O
A W Q H B V Q J S J R U E B L
E P M T E U V H R W C Y G Q H
C C A U D N L Z X O Q W H P E
P Z K D I I R U L A R X Y G Z
P A R P D W D O R G C E G M N
S X J W Q U Q V Z K V F Z D R
P J S X G N F C B D J R J O J
D D C J P O P V P P I L R C A
N C M Y B E A R T H E Y R Q O
G U K D A E I N S X D G G G FFind "FRUSTRATING"As such, though initially swayed by Gabe's objection, I have returned to my original stance that such a level is some of the worst level design possible; just as a single 2x4 plank of wood could be an artistic piece but is one of the worst possible houses constructed.
|When the moon hits your eye as you contemplate suicide, that's amore!|
Now, just to be clear, this isn't an attempt to publicly refute Gabe. He and I have known each other for years and we have nothing but respect for each other's views on game design, art, expression, psychology, and philosophy.
In fact, this was written after I demonstrated the points above to him in a chat and he encouraged me to turn it into a blog post, so this is as much his article as it is mine. Thanks, Gabe.
Now is probably a good time to talk about something a bit more real, but only for a moment. My analysis of the single-block level implies that the only solution to such a level is to make Mario commit suicide. As such, cracking humor toward the level is difficult to do without also cracking some humor toward suicide.
All jokes aside, if you are feeling any suicidal thoughts or need some help through a hard time, there are people at phones ready to help. Please take the opportunity to speak with them. You're not in hypothetical Mario's shoes: there's more around you than a single block hovering in an abyss. There is a road with obstacles, goals, and rewards. You can be the hero who navigates that and emerges victorious.
These people can help you with that:
- Suicide Hotline: 1-800-SUICIDE (2433) – Can use in US, U.K., Canada and Singapore
- Suicide Crisis Line: 1-800-999-9999
- National Suicide Prevention Helpline: 1-800-273-TALK (8245)
- National Adolescent Suicide Helpline: 1-800-621-4000
- Postpartum Depression: 1-800-PPD-MOMS
- NDMDA Depression Hotline – Support Group: 1-800-826-3632
- Veterans: 1-877-VET2VET
- Crisis Help Line – For Any Kind of Crisis: 1-800-233-4357
- Suicide & Depression Crisis Line – Covenant House: 1-800-999-9999
- Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide: (UK only) 0844-561-6855
- Beyondblue info line: (Australia only) 1300-22-4636
- 24/7 Crisis Line:(Canada only) 905-522-1477
- Lifeline Australia: 13-11-14
- Teléfono de la Esperanza (Spain only) 902 500 002 / 91 459 00 50
Phone numbers courtesy of Mental Illness Mouse.