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Pure Organic Level Design

It has been a personal quest of mine to the push styles, standards, and limitations of game design in a new direction. I've already written about organic/inorganic level design and the organic unity of Splash Woman's stage. If you haven't guess already my personal style and preference in all art is heavily influence by my love and appreciation for nature and the natural world. When you think about it all the interactions in our day to day lives exist in a type of organic interplay. Though eating my breakfast cereal, for example, isn't some kind of counter strategy, all of my physical, mental, and even emotional actions are connected to the physical world. There's nothing I can do that exists outside of the law of the conservation of energy, inertia, or time. We're all connected by these laws and rules and therefore everything we do pushes and pulls on each other. Whether we're breathing in an atom of air from the infamous Caesar's last dying breath, or stepping on a butterflies causing irreparable alterations to future politics, our mere existence is a sort of push and pull on the universe. 

So I aim to push game design to a level that reflects the interconnected intricacies of our organic world. I call this type of level design pure organic design.  Basically, designing a pure organic game means taking out all the video game crutches we've all internalized by now. In general this means...

  • no infinitely spawning enemies from nowhere
  • no spawning of objects because the screen moved away from the scene
  • elements off screen must react as they do on screen
  • no puzzles that magically reset when you leave the room and come back
  • no physical items or entities that blink out of existence after a period of time
  • obstacles and challenges have an appropriate level of open ended requirements for completion 
  • no artificial, forced obstacles or invisible barriers. Obstacles must be organic and mechanical. 
  • etc.


The challenge with designing a pure organic level is making the range of player mistakes and failures part of the organic whole without breaking the game (ie. making the goal unobtainable). For example, if the goal is to open a door with a large key and you drop the key into a chasm, the level would have to be designed to allow the player to climb down the chasm to recover the key, find a way to continue without going through the door, find another way to open the door, or provide some other combination of solutions. Ultimately, when the game doesn't artificially hold the player's hand, new and unexpected challenges are generated that harmonize with the level instead instead of the challenges being separate and self contained positioned in the middle of a bigger picture. 

Two games that have sections and elements in the direction of pure organic level design are The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Phantom Hourglass. 

In the Snowpeak Ruins in Twilight Princess (skip to 5:15), players have to find and lug around heavy cannon balls over to the cannons positioned at various points throughout the level. When a cannon is fired, the ball flies across the room sometimes smashing through walls. When this happens, the ball can be found in the room it smashed into. With a limited number of cannon balls for the entire dungeon, players have to travel around going after cannon balls, bringing them to cannons, and launching them away. In this way, this challenge achieved an organic accordion (folded) level design. 

In Phantom Hourglass, unlike in the other Zelda games, players must physically carry around the large boss keys (skip to 6:00) and other switch activating jewels. Basically, the boss keys don't just disappear into your menu only to come out when you need it. Because these elements are designed with physicality, going to the keys and returning to the boss door with them folds the level in interesting ways. Players can make short cuts by throwing the keys around, but they have to remember to go back for them.

Having to keep track of one's key as a physical entity is a organic design feature that can be found in Super Mario World as well. In this case, if you drop the key down a pit, it's gone forever sort of like in real life.

While these were a few good examples, I intend on pushing the design even further with LittleBigPlanet. Because the entire game engine is physics based, creating an organic interconnected world of interplay should be easier than if working with a Mario or Mega Man engine. In the above examples, the organic design is mainly confined to puzzles, secrets, and keys. With LBP, I'll make the entire physical platforming world organic.

Actually, my favorite parts of LBP are the levels that feature folded organic design. I won't spoil any of the details for anyone, but certainly keep your critical-eye peeled.

Before I conclude, I wanted to briefly illustrate the different types of level design I've covered on the blog so far. If I had the time or the experience I would incorporate the different types of level design into an interactive learning stage in LBP. But this is only the first day of the LittleBig takeover, and the servers aren't even up. 


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Reader Comments (5)

although you seem obsessed with using the word organic - which doesn't really help explain anything - I think persistent level design is actually what you're talking about.

November 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteralastair

Persistent level design doesn't accurately describe the types of levels I describe as organic.

Persistent is used to describe a world/level that is maintained and one that is active when the player is not active/logged in/ in the general vicinity.

Examples: Animal Crossing: persistent world. Time keeps moving and NPCs change according to a real time schedule.
WOW: Players change the game world that's always "there" whether you're logged in or not.

Organic implies a level of continuity that exists without any/many artificial and arbitrary additions. As far as level design is concerned, the game fiction and the player mechanics create the organic scope. Anything that keeps you from doing things or solving a problem "naturally" would be inorganic.

It's different from a level of persistence and even a high level of suspension. It's an entire style of design that looks at creating challenges and contrary motion using organic core dynamics like space/time/weight/etc.

If you need more explaining than that just ask. I do have a glossary in addition to articles specifically talking about organic and inorganic level design.

November 2, 2009 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

Would Trine 2 be a good example of pure organic level design?

March 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRodrigo

@ Rodrigo

I'm not familiar with Trine 2. I've only played most of Trine 1. Is it similar?

Sorry for not commenting sooner. I'm still pretty busy at GDC 2013.

I think Trine 2 is linear and sometimes alternate path.

October 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJeanclaude

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