Architecture and Emergence

by | January 13th, 2010 | Articles | 4 Comments »

Hello all! One of the things I’m primarily interested in is general game design theory, and how we can utilize some rather broad ideas to facilitate our level designs. This is a bit vague (especially for a blog about Source level design) but I figured I’d round out the content of this blog with something a bit more abstract and theoretical.

In this post I’m going to distinguish between two different methods of game design, and I’ll extend those methods to source level design with some examples. The first method is Architectural design (referencing Jonthan Blow’s commentary on narrative in games). This style relies upon a very specific starting point for the design process, perhaps a blueprint whose basic requirements are all but immutable (like a previous level that is being translated from one game to another), or a representational or narrative requirement (a theme or setting that one is trying to capture in your design). Think of a game like HL2: it seems quite likely that the story told via the sucession of levels was arhictected in advance of the level designers work (somewhat in line with the programmers getting the engine up to speed). As such, though the designers had a degree of creative capacity, they are often times composing spaces in reference to the prebaked narrative.

What is emphasized here is that the level is built with regards to the goals or needs of the other object (the previous level, the representation).  The level is built to fit something else, to match up with another creation.

The second style of design is what might be called Emergent design. Emergent design tends to start without a clear goal or idea, no real absolute towards which it must inevitably tend, but rather it allows the experience of designing the level to dictate the formulation of the space. Accidents, intuitions and chance feature heavily in this style of design: one isn’t so much designing a level, as exploring the possibilities of the level as one goes, allowing you think of spilt paint as a goal rather than a hindrance.

An analogy of these two forms which might prove useful is to consider a level as a ball of clay. The first style of design operates by proposing what you want to turn the clay into (a cup, a bowl, etc) and then matching the clay to the proposal. The second style of design offers no proposed target; rather, the artist simply molds the clay into interesting shapes until something happens to catch their eye, thus allowing them to form a coherent level.

Often these styles can be interwoven. Consider the developer’s commentary from HL2: EP2. In one section of the ant lion caverns, a brief story is relayed in which a valve designer randomly opened a wall in order to generate a new space for items. Upon doing so, they realized that the opening gave the player a perfect view of the upcoming path to the Ant Lion Thumper. This vista satisfied some of the general design goals, such as allowing players the opportunity to observe before engaging. It also gives the player feedback along the lines of “come here” or “you’re going the right way”, avoiding unnecessary backtracking or confusion. However, it wasn’t planned out or preconceived; rather, it emerged purely by accident, and just so happened to elegantly line up with Valve’s own design philosophy.

Ant Lion Caverns

With a game like TF2, we can clearly see how random or unplanned geometry can quickly lead to novel and interesting gameplay spaces. Imagine accidentally creating a small ledge by not properly player clipping a space, only to realize that said ledge gives defenders/attackers a much needed and enticing vantage point. Or, imagine composing a small detail room, separated from the rest of the map where detail work doesn’t hinder play, only to discover that said room perfectly connects two disparate parts of the map together. Likewise, a rock, thrown at random in the middle of a room might just as easily become a rocket (such as with my recent detail contest entry), allowing you to cement the visual nature of a space together and to expand the dimensions of the area in new directions.


It seems clear that at some level one is always architecting spaces together, ensuring enough overall consistency to complete the project. But one should also be sure to allow the very act of the creation enough room to change the blueprint. The very act of making a level should put the blueprint into question, allowing you to bend it as you go.

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4 Responses to “Architecture and Emergence”

  1. MangyCarface says:

    A very good article on some basic concepts of level design theory.

    The combination of emergent and architectural design is why I often say to judge aesthetics one must consider the gameplay implications of a given space in addition to the style and execution of said space.

    Easy examples of emergent design are the detailing process from an alpha gameplay map to its beta version, where architecture is mapped onto purely gameplay-related items. Architectural design, on the other hand, would consist of visualizing the theme and purpose of a space before routing gameplay elements throughout that vision.

    It is the intersection of skills utilized in both of these theory-driven processes that makes a designer truly good at their work.

  2. chickenm4n says:

    when i realized you were talking about emergent gameplay, i imediately harkened back to the concept of “emergent behavior in computer programs.” also… i remember reading something about player’s emergent behavior and how it shapes the design process of maps, transforming alphas into betas.

    good article.

  3. MrTwoVideocards says:

    I’m glad that someone has finally stated to change the blueprint. It’s something that often, most developers are too scared to wander off from. I’m about a Design Document as the next guy, but sometimes great gameplay comes from an entirely different perspective. One thats not entirely focused, or controlled. One that is just “going with the flow”.

  4. Shmitz says:

    It’s important for designers to remember that both methods serve the goal of design: to create an experience for an audience. Someone sticking to just architectural design could easily lose sight of the experience and end up with a highly developed but ultimately unfulfilling piece. Likewise someone sticking to just emergent design could lose sight of the audience and create something interesting but ultimately unfitting to the needs of what it’s created for.

    If there are holes in the design, a designer has to know how to pick the right peg for the right hole.

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