Level art is a bit like interior design: We put some colors on the walls, arrange the furniture, and fix up everything so that it looks nice. Concretely, the goal of level art is to dress up the varying levels of the game to make them fit better within the universe and storyline. This sort of work happens towards the end of the production process. It happens after the artistic work on the overall feel, the creation of assets, and after the design of the mechanics and creation of the levels.
As a level artist, I’m going to use all the different parts created by the rest of the team: game mechanics, enemies, environments and puzzles, and assemble them into a coherent whole. It’s a bit like putting together Legos: We assemble a definite number of pieces, ranging in different sizes, colors and functions, to try and create a homogenous game experience. Each piece comes with its assembly constraints- to push the lego metaphor- but this also multiplies the possibilities of creating new combinations with different pieces. Hopefully, the whole result will be greater than the sum of its parts.
In Subaeria, the world is made of cube-shaped rooms connected by tunnels, rooms are distributed between levels with differing moods and ambiances. Thus a room is composed of a game puzzle and a specific setting. When I get my hands on the room to decorate it, only the essential game play blocks have been put into the level by the designer. It looks a lot like this, it seems artificial, but it’s perfectly playable:
Before I start, I try to understand what the designer was trying to do. How does the player go about moving in the environment? How can he solve the puzzle? Where can he go? Where can’t he go? etc… I then play through the room a couple of times to get a feel for it, and understand the movements of the player in the space. When I imagine a room, I always try to invent a story, a tiny story that could explain how the objects are arranged and the different scraps of life left by its occupants. For example, a train regularly passes through this room- as shown by the arrows on the ground. The train tracks are thus highly secured, and an overpass has been built so that people can cross the tracks from the top (top left of the next image)
Then I start placing the large objects, then the smaller ones, then lights, the details and finally apply all little fixes here and there. Lighting is, for me, the most important element to create a mood that stands out.
A room averages between 2 and 5 hours to decorate, depending on how complex it is. When its ready, it looks like this:
This was the first part of my series on level art, in next posts I’ll go more into detail on specific aspects of the subject.
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