When it comes to video games, I believe there are two major factors that, above all, are necessary in creating an immersive and fun game: gameplay and level design. While refined and balanced gameplay is obvious, level design can often be more subtle. Think of it like this; gameplay is the cast of a show, and level design is the set crew. Both work hand-in-hand to deliver a satisfying experience for the audience, us gamers. Gameplay is definitely the more important of the two, as a game can be aesthetically simple yet still hold gamers’ attention for hours, much like actors can still create a compelling and emotional scene even without a set. That being said, level design is still an integral component of a game, and serves to enhance the core gameplay as well as engross players in artificial worlds.
Now, I could talk all day about level design. From map layouts to art direction, easter eggs to replayability; there are plenty of topics to nerd out about, er, discuss. However, this little journey into the world of level design seeks to discuss one particular aspect, the unsung hero of the design world.
We’re talking about doors.
Yep, that’s right- doors. I hope by now you’ve realized that this isn’t the most serious article in the world. And yet, I hope you keep reading, because you may not have noticed how much a simple idea such as a door has affected the gaming world over the years. I could go on and on about the thematic or literary significance of doors, but this isn’t an analysis of Donnie Darko and I’d rather discuss the aesthetic and gameplay impact doors have on video games.
Since the dawn of 3D game worlds, doors have evolved from simple transition tools into something much more. After all, now we actually get to see the door. On top of everything else the art team has to create, now they have to create doors that not only look and feel like they belong in the game world, but they have to move in a way that reflects that atmosphere as well.
My favorite example is Halo: Combat Evolved. In the Forerunner installations across Halo, there are two types of doors; ones that you have to open manually via terminal, and those that open for you as you approach them. Aesthetically, both fit the game world perfectly. The blast doors in “Assault on the Control Room” are massive and slow, filling gamers with equal parts anxiety and intrigue as they lumber open. You get the feeling something big or important hides behind them. The smaller, automatic doors are the ones that you interact with most throughout the game, however. These doors have a great look to them and help the game stay at a relatively quick pace. They’re sleek, futuristic, and have a great sci-fi vibe to their animation.
When done wrong, doors can be annoying and bothersome. I’ve straight up avoided entire areas of Bethesda games because at the time, I didn’t want to sit through the long load screen just to enter an area with nothing but mirelurks and crappy loot. But when done right, a game’s doors and their animations can serve to create a rich and memorable experience. My thoughts turn to the dungeon doors of The Ocarina of Time, as the metal bars slam behind you, trapping you in a room. There’s Gears of War, with your character showing off his machismo by booting each and every door wide open (I may have adopted that method for a few months after the first game’s release.) Metroid Prime, whose doors not only fit the sci-fi aesthetic wonderfully, but also manage to stay true to the original game’s concept of shooting the doors to open them. And I’ll never forget Super Mario 64’s Star Doors, as almost nothing was as satisfying back then as finally acquiring the right amount of stars to open them (and not to mention that sick sound effect when they do.)
Doors are one of those level design elements that can be very easily overlooked or designed to be just that- a door. But when a development team puts the effort and time into making each levels’ doors look, feel, and move like they belong in the game world, it only serves to better enhance the gamer’s experience. And in today’s contemporary gaming landscape, with photo-realistic visuals and (sometimes) Hollywood-level narratives, every aspect of level design goes a long way in making video games that much more of a legitimate storytelling medium.