Folded Level Design
Tuesday, August 5, 2008 at 6:40PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Level Design, Mario Kart, Metroid, Perfect Dark, Pikmin, Super Mario Bros., Zelda

Ever since Super Mario Brothers brought side scrolling levels to the masses, gamers have been running through the world without ever looking back. Kick a turtle shell to the left, and run away to the right for safety. Narrowly jump over a Hammer Brother and keep moving until he's off the screen and out of your life forever. Even though the majority of levels made nowadays aren't 2D side scrolling, they do have a starting point and an ending point with little to no backtracking.

Today I want to focus on the kind of level design that isn't about leaving things behind. I want to focus on a type of level design that is like climbing a tall tree to rescue a cat; going one way provides one kind of challenge (ie. climbing a tree), and getting back is a different challenge that builds upon the original challenge by adding a layer of depth/complexity (ie. climbing down a tree with a cat in one hand). I call this kind of level design folded level design.

Folded level design is different from back tracking, or playing new level/scenario that uses a familiar environement. Back tracking is simply traveling along previously visited paths and areas and usually involves the same challenging game elements as the original pass through. In other words, back tracking is simply going back without any significant changes or surprises. Likewise, reusing an environement from a previously visited environement is merely making a new level at a fraction of the effort.

Folded level design is like like folding a piece of paper; the two halves cover the same area but there's an addition layer to consider. For example... on your way to the kitchen you had to dodge all kinds of domestic objects that are now hazards in the dim lighting. But on your way back, you must to reconsider your approached due to the glass of water you are carrying in each hand.

The genius of folded level design is in how it develops a set of knowledge for the player and then manipulates it. In the cat tree rescue example, climbing up a tree is a challenge due to gravity, footing, and visibility. While ascending, one would gather knowledge about the arrangement and strength of the branches. Using both arms and legs, one would climb up the tree one step at a time. Upon reaching the top and with the cat (the crease) in hand, the challenge is folded. The crease is simply a term for the point at which a level folds upon itself. Now the climber has one less arm/hand to use, the pole like branches are transformed into downward steps, and the cat must be protected from stray branches. In this scenario, the knowledge of climbing branches is reanalyzed. A great path going up, could be a risky path going down.

In a video game, a level can be designed so that a player must perform certain actions before the level folds upon itself. Doing this is a safe way to ensure that the player has enough information to make the best decisions once the next layer is added. The clearest examples I can think of come from the Metroid series. Instead of using text boxes to explain what each power up does, the levels are design in a way so that the player "traps" themselves getting a powerup and then must use that powerup to escape thus self teaching the function of power up.

Perhaps it's best just to show some examples.


Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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