A few friends and I made a bet to see who could single-handedly (we defined that as a team of up to 10 people, all of whom must be personal friends) make the best video game over the course of two years. I am planning on making a first-person horror game. I have already lined up a storyline, my brother is working on my sprites and 3D models, and a friend of mine is dealing with audio. This leaves me stuck with level design. Does anyone have any tips for how to design good levels? This will be the biggest project I have ever encountered. I have made three 3rd person shooters before (all HUGE hits among my friends) and two 1st person maze games (more of a test of my skills, but still fun to play). Any other tips for making a good game are welcome. I am in grade 12, and will be going into software engineering next year. For now I could really use some help (I am behind in the bet :() Thank you!
Definitely take the 'feel' of the storyline into account when developing the levels. Not only will you want to match the mood but you'll want to enhance the mood of the story the game is telling with lighting and general scenic styling.
Since it is in the first-person horror genre I will give you the same tips I've given to filmmaker friends that were shooting indie horror films: you want to create a true feeling of horror/dread that is longer lasting than simply having 'bad things' jump out at the main character. This isn't frightening someone..it is simply startling them and once the adrenaline wears off and their heart rate slows..there's nothing to that experience.
Sustained lighting effects and other elements can have a much longer-lasting and stronger effect on the person playing the game. Many game levels in this genre have a lot of corners and hiding places for things to hide and come at your suddenly. But if your 'enemy' animations are solid (especially if they themselves are frightening looking) it can have a great effect to have the area more open. To give the player more time to see the monstrosity that is approaching them. It also has the psychological impact of the fact that the enemy is not afraid of you and certainly seems to believe that they can and will kill you.
Although it IS good to mix it up. Like if the script allows for crawling through ventilation ducts or something that can feed upon a player's fear of enclosed spaces especially when something could want to attack them and they'd have little chance to move. Maybe even have some covered vent openings where some muddy reddish light shines through and there being a potential for an enemy to suddenly grab you through one of the vents. This does feed on the 'startle' factor a little bit but then that adds to the intensity of the confined space. Of course the storyline may not allow for this particular scenario but it gives an example of how you can think within the scope of the storyline.
Also have things slightly askew within the environment can help fill someone with a sense of dread. Weird psychological things.
When developing a level take into account the type of setting that the storyline establishes for that level.
If I were writing the storyline I would take the level design into account and for this genre I would tap into human primal fears. Ones that are nearly guaranteed to freak EVERYONE out. One thing I liked about certain mechanics of the movie Arachnophobia was the scene where a lady goes to turn on a lamp with the pull chain and as she reaches in a spider drops down and bites her. This not only feeds off of many humans' fear of spiders in general but even though I haven't seen it in MANY years the scene still pops into my head whenever I go to reach for a lamp.
So when creating game play levels you want to make the character have to do things physically that would be emotionally uncomfortable.
One game example I would point out in this genre would be the original F.E.A.R. which I've played on XBOX360 but honestly did not get very far into it...because...not that I necessarily feared that something would jump out at me but there is a segment early on in the game where lighting, aural sound effects, creepy setting and the ghostly voice just freaked me out to much hahah The problem I have with this example is that it happened so early in the game (which it had to in order to advance the story at the pace the developers wanted I suppose) but it wasn't far enough into the story where I cared enough about finishing the game to put up with the emotional distress, HAH!
In early levels you should make it a little less 'freaky' so that there is somewhat of a curve in the feelings of horror the player experiences. But as the levels progress and more is made known about what is going on...players will forge ahead to either figure out some kind of mystery behind what's happening to them as a character but they also can then develop a personal connection to the character which they are playing and perhaps any other 'good' NPC's. In F.E.A.R. I just didn't really care about my character yet. It hadn't gotten to the point where something would propel me through the tense moments. I believe that levels should generally follow an even arc of horror-to-character development ratio. The more a player cares about what has happened, is currently happening and what may await them yet...the more you can put them through emotionally.
I know that this was long and a lot to think through but hopefully you've found something of value to you in this post. And overall just keep it interesting and as modern as you can. I wouldn't want to see you create a rehashed 90's DOOM.
Best of luck.
Thank you, that was very helpful. I am lucky that my story line will help me out greatly. You start in a war zone where you have to help an injured buddy to a large military complex to get him healed. This will help give you that connection with the character that you were talking about. Once you get to the complex there are a few levels where you just get used to the scary environment of the large complex, but there are human allies all around you so you should not be too afraid. Along the way you start hearing that weird stuff is happening outside. When you get to the medical center it blows up and then the horrific zombie attacks start. This post will be VERY helpful to me as a reference for making my map. I might even put you in the credits ;) (I have a clever idea of writing them in blood on the street that you walk out on)