In case you haven’t noticed, based on my previous post, my last 3 braincells have been really stuck on level design lately. I’ve been playing through Kirby and the Forgotten Land – which is super rad by the way, I may actually have to write some more about it. But general quality aside, I think it’s kind of a perfect game for teaching some basics of video game ‘language.’ So I’ve been thinking: how does Kirby guide the player through its stages? How does it draw your attention to certain areas or pathways? And how do you learn to pick up on these signals?
Backtracking slightly: I follow a couple of blogging people on Twitch, and watching some recent streams got me thinking about these elements of game design, and how they try to communicate with the player. As a viewer, I noticed aspects of the game – whether it was a visual, sound, or other cue – that the streamer missed. Now, missing something as a streamer is completely fair, because your attention is already split between chatting and playing – but it did get my cobweb-filled head churning on the subject. As someone who has been playing video games for years, there are some things that I intuitively understand (and usually take for granted) while playing; without a huge amount of prompting, I can usually figure out exactly what a game wants from me. I don’t even think about it anymore. But for someone new to video games, or even unfamiliar with a certain genre, this can prove to be more of a challenge.
So, like, how do you learn to interpret these cues? Where do you pick up these fundamentals? Video games have their own sort of language – the ways in which they communicate with the player. In terms of gameplay, it can be how they draw your attention to certain elements, or even how they try to guide your approach to a puzzle. Whether this is a more obvious example, like a weak point on a boss in a Zelda game – that giant, glowing eyeball is just begging to be stabbed, isn’t it? – or something more subtle, like the way that Bloodborne uses incense burners to highlight the doors you can interact with in Central Yharnam. In modern video games, this ‘language’ can be much more complex and multifaceted, but building a foundational understanding of how exactly this medium conveys information can help to develop this “gaming” sense.
Kirb your enthusiasm
Kirby and the Forgotten Land teaches its audience a lot of these fundamentals – simple visual cues, like using an item to draw your attention to a certain area, or panning the camera in a specific way to make something noticeable. Once you start moving through the game’s stages, and learn to understand what you’re looking for, you’ll be finding all sorts of rewards in no time! Each stage in Kirby comes with a list of optional goals to be completed in order to save all the Waddle Dees, which is why you’re going to want to be thorough. I don’t actually treat these as optional, because if you leave any of your Waddle Dee pals behind, you’re a monster. Anyway, these checklists are great for teaching the player about elements of level design that they ought to be paying attention to; most of these goals are hidden along secret pathways, or otherwise require some extra exploring. Once you have an idea of how the game communicates to you, these subtle signs become a lot easier to keep an eye out for in the future.
Take the Concrete Isles stage from the Everbay Coast for example – once you’re at the end of the initial section, you might notice the camera zoom out as you approach the star to take you onward to the second half of the stage. Because of this change in perspective, you can see an island in the distance that is actually reachable (the coins/treasure chest on the beach are visible) which should prompt you to take another look around. If you hop back into the water, you’ll find a break in the powerline fencing, which allows you to swim out to the island, save one of the Waddle Dees, and get that sweet coinage. I completely missed this on my first run-through of the stage, but on my second go (once I knew what I was looking for) it seemed obvious. The deliberate shift of the camera was trying to show me something, and I simply wasn’t paying attention.
Once I started taking notice of these shifts in the fixed camera, wouldn’t you know, I started finding more hidden pathways! In Northeast Frost Street, there’s a balcony on the clocktower that’s accessible near the very end of the stage. The camera stays zoomed out as you approach the cage of captured Waddle Dees (signaling that you’ve completed the stage) for a reason – one of the optional goals is “reach the clocktower.” The missing piece of railing is another waving flag to let you know that there’s something to find. There are so many instances of intuitive camera work in Kirby – whether the game is trying to highlight an item, help you locate a hidden path, or find a new blueprint to upgrade your abilities – it’s a fundamental of design; learning how this works in a game like Kirby, and how it encourages the player to pay attention to their surroundings and explore, is a principle that applies to nearly any video game. It might be the specific way that the camera moves in a cutscene, or a seemingly pointless path that exists because the developer wants to draw your gaze to something else. This is just one of the ways that Kirby helps its audience learn the ABC’s of level design.
There are quite literally a thousand and one ways that level design can work to guide the player – but in a 3D platformer, both item placement and lighting are key elements. This isn’t unexpected or revolutionary, I mean, imagine a Super Mario game without the trails of coins highlighting the way forward. But Kirby utilizes both of these visual cues consistently, and in doing so, teaches its players to recognize them. These hints are particularly noteworthy in the “dark” levels, where you’ll be using Mouthful Mode to become an adorable little Kirby lightbulb. In Wondaria Remains, the stage “Invasion at the House of Horrors” is stylized with a glow-in-the-dark aesthetic, which forces the player to pay close attention to items and lighting. In order to navigate a series of narrow walkways in the pitch black, you’ll have to watch for coins and some colourful set pieces to get around safely. The Ghost Gordo’s hanging around are attracted to your light, so you’ll have to use your powers of illumination sparingly, and let the level guide you!
Another stage in Originull Desert, the Moonlight Canyon, also forces you to find your way in the darkness – but hopefully you’ve learned some lessons to apply to this one. Some helpful hints to avoid the hazards, find your hidden pals, and nail all those optional goals? One, follow those coins through the dark (and to find some sweet secrets). Two, watch for that subtle camera panning, like a small shift outward to highlight one of those pesky wanted posters you have to tear down (-25% notoriety, good job). I hope you saved all those Waddle Dees! You’re going back if you didn’t… right?
The intuitive nature of Kirby’s level design has also been genuinely impressive – the way that the levels flow, guiding the player from one section to the next, is top tier. In one of the very first stages, Downtown Grassland, you’ll come across a gigantic monster who appears to be half building, half tortoise. Why is there a tortoise the size of the Sky Dome? Does this building give him back problems? How does our little hero fight something like that? All good questions. After inhaling a traffic cone to become Cone Kirby™, you’ll follow a circular path around said tortoise-building (apparently he’s called Tortuilding, which is adorable) designed to help you avoid his bite attacks, while simultaneously getting you into a position to beat him. Using your cone-smashing power, you can create some holes to hide in while he lashes out to bite. When he retreats, you can move around him, using the pipes to block his attacks – then, you’ll be able to ride a water spout up to the top of some scaffolding to deliver the final blow, Assassin’s Creed style! Requiescat in Pace.
Learning these fundamentals is going to help you a lot in Kirby, but this language exists across all genres and platforms, in one way or another. Take Dark Souls, for instance (oh yes, we’re going there) and how it utilizes item placement – items and their locations can communicate the history of an area for storytelling purposes, but they can also serve a practical gameplay function. While exploring Sen’s Fortress, you’ll find quite a few Large Titanite Shards, an upgrade material used for strengthening melee weapons from +5 to +10. This is probably just the game being nice, right? Sort of. This is also Dark Souls‘ way of saying “hey you sad fool, you’re heading into the second half of the game, so you better have your weapon at +10.”
The Legend of Zelda, and Breath of the Wild most recently, are also well known for using these kinds of cues to help their players – which I noticed while watching the lead up section to one of the Divine Beasts. To access Vah Rudania, you’ll have to escort Yunobo (AKA the most annoying Goron ever) through a gauntlet of Ancient Guardian sentries. If spotted, Vah Rudania will launch a shower of flaming volcanic rocks down onto you. Not ideal. However, several visual indicators throughout this section demonstrate how they want you to approach the puzzle. Highlighting that the sentry ‘beams’ can’t see through the overhanging rocks (which you can conveniently hide under until they pass) and drawing your attention to the cannons along the pathway – all information that you need to succeed. It’s pretty textbook, but you need to be watching for it.
Games (the good ones, anyway) are put together methodically, with intention; nothing is ever pointless, and the more you take your time and pay attention to your surroundings while playing, the more you can get out of your experience. And, you know, it might make puzzle solving a little bit easier. With Kirby and the Forgotten Land, it’s about exploring and finding those hidden secrets. Maybe an enemy keeps respawning for some reason? It’s because you need that particular power, and the game doesn’t want you to miss it. A giant crack in the concrete floor? Yup, that’s definitely breakable. A conspicuous pile of breakable items or coins off the beaten path? That’s a secret if I ever saw one. So go forth, equipped with your new Pro Gamer Skills – but be mindful, as there’s always more to learn. Make sure you’re not sleeping on the lessons that each game is trying to teach you.