# SUPER game night 3: GAMES MADE QUICK??? 2.0

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/blog/2018/01/23/super-game-night-3-games-made-quick-2-0/

Game night continues with a smorgasbord of games from my recent game jam, GAMES MADE QUICK??? 2.0!

The idea was to make a game in only a week while watching AGDQ, as an alternative to doing absolutely nothing for a week while watching AGDQ. (I didn’t submit a game myself; I was chugging along on my Anise game, which isn’t finished yet.)

I can’t very well run a game jam and not play any of the games, so here’s some of them in no particular order! Enjoy!

These are impressions, not reviews. I try to avoid major/ending spoilers, but big plot points do tend to leave impressions.

## Weather Quest, by timlmul

short · rpg · jan 2017 · (lin)/mac/win · free on itch · jam entry

Weather Quest is its author’s first shipped game, written completely from scratch (the only vendored code is a micro OO base). It’s very short, but as someone who has also written LÖVE games completely from scratch, I can attest that producing something this game-like in a week is a fucking miracle. Bravo!

For reference, a week into my first foray, I think I was probably still writing my own Tiled importer like an idiot.

Only Mac and Windows builds are on itch, but it’s a LÖVE game, so Linux folks can just grab a zip from GitHub and throw that at love.

FINAL SCORE: ⛅☔☀

## Pancake Numbers Simulator, by AnorakThePrimordial

short · sim · jan 2017 · lin/mac/win · free on itch · jam entry

Given a stack of N pancakes (of all different sizes and in no particular order), the Nth pancake number is the most flips you could possibly need to sort the pancakes in order with the smallest on top. A “flip” is sticking a spatula under one of the pancakes and flipping the whole sub-stack over. There’s, ah, a video embedded on the game page with some visuals.

Anyway, this game lets you simulate sorting a stack via pancake flipping, which is surprisingly satisfying! I enjoy cleaning up little simulated messes, such as… incorrectly-sorted pancakes, I guess?

This probably doesn’t work too well as a simulator for solving the general problem — you’d have to find an optimal solution for every permutation of N pancakes to be sure you were right. But it’s a nice interactive illustration of the problem, and if you know the pancake number for your stack size of choice (which I wish the game told you — for seven pancakes, it’s 8), then trying to restore a stack in that many moves makes for a nice quick puzzle.

FINAL SCORE: $$\frac{18}{11}$$

## Framed Animals, by chridd

short · metroidvania · jan 2017 · web/win · free on itch · jam entry

The concept here was to kill the frames, save the animals, which is a delightfully literal riff on a long-running AGDQ/SGDQ donation incentive — people vote with their dollars to decide whether Super Metroid speedrunners go out of their way to free the critters who show you how to walljump and shinespark. Super Metroid didn’t have a showing at this year’s AGDQ, and so we have this game instead.

It’s rough, but clever, and I got really into it pretty quickly — each animal you save gives you a new ability (in true Metroid style), and you get to test that ability out by playing as the animal, with only that ability and no others, to get yourself back to the most recent save point.

I did, tragically, manage to get myself stuck near what I think was about to be the end of the game, so some of the animals will remain framed forever. What an unsatisfying conclusion.

Gravity feels a little high given the size of the screen, and like most tile-less platformers, there’s not really any way to gauge how high or long your jump is before you leap. But I’m only even nitpicking because I think this is a great idea and I hope the author really does keep working on it.

FINAL SCORE: \$136,596.69

## Battle 4 Glory, by Storyteller Games

short · fighter · jan 2017 · win · free on itch · jam entry

This is a Smash Bros-style brawler, complete with the four players, the 2D play area in a 3D world, and the random stage obstacles showing up. I do like the Smash style, despite not otherwise being a fan of fighting games, so it’s nice to see another game chase that aesthetic.

Alas, that’s about as far as it got — which is pretty far for a week of work! I don’t know what more to say, though. The environments are neat, but unless I’m missing something, the only actions at your disposal are jumping and very weak melee attacks. I did have a good few minutes of fun fruitlessly mashing myself against the bumbling bots, as you can see.

FINAL SCORE: 300%

## Icnaluferu Guild, Year Sixteen, by CHz

short · adventure · jan 2017 · web · free on itch · jam entry

Here we have the first of several games made with bitsy, a micro game making tool that basically only supports walking around, talking to people, and picking up items.

I tell you this because I think half of my appreciation for this game is in the ways it wriggled against those limits to emulate a Zelda-like dungeon crawler. Everything in here is totally fake, and you can’t really understand just how fake unless you’ve tried to make something complicated with bitsy.

It’s pretty good. The dialogue is entertaining (the rest of your party develops distinct personalities solely through oneliners, somehow), the riffs on standard dungeon fare are charming, and the Link’s Awakening-esque perspective walls around the edges of each room are fucking glorious.

FINAL SCORE: 2 bits

## The Lonely Tapes, by JTHomeslice

short · rpg · jan 2017 · web · free on itch · jam entry

Another bitsy entry, this one sees you play as a Wal— sorry, a JogDawg, which has lost its cassette tapes and needs to go recover them!

(A cassette tape is like a VHS, but for music.)

(A VHS is—)

I have the sneaking suspicion that I missed out on some musical in-jokes, due to being uncultured swine. I still enjoyed the game — it’s always clear when someone is passionate about the thing they’re writing about, and I could tell I was awash in that aura even if some of it went over my head. You know you’ve done good if someone from way outside your sphere shows up and still has a good time.

FINAL SCORE: Nine… Inch Nails? They’re a band, right? God I don’t know write your own damn joke

## Pirate Kitty-Quest, by TheKoolestKid

short · adventure · jan 2017 · win · free on itch · jam entry

I completely forgot I’d even given “my birthday” and “my cat” as mostly-joking jam themes until I stumbled upon this incredible gem. I don’t think — let me just check here and — yeah no this person doesn’t even follow me on Twitter. I have no idea who they are?

BUT THEY MADE A GAME ABOUT ANISE AS A PIRATE, LOOKING FOR TREASURE

PIRATE. ANISE

PIRATE ANISE!!!

This game wins the jam, hands down. 🏆

FINAL SCORE: Yarr, eight pieces o’ eight

## CHIPS Mario, by NovaSquirrel

short · platformer · jan 2017 · (lin/mac)/win · free on itch · jam entry

You see this? This is fucking witchcraft.

This game is made with MegaZeux. MegaZeux games look like THIS. Text-mode, bound to a grid, with two colors per cell. That’s all you get.

Until now, apparently?? The game is a tech demo of “unbound” sprites, which can be drawn on top of the character grid without being aligned to it. And apparently have looser color restrictions.

The collision is a little glitchy, which isn’t surprising for a MegaZeux platformer; I had some fun interactions with platforms a couple times. But hey, goddamn, it’s free-moving Mario, in MegaZeux, what the hell.

(I’m looking at the most recently added games on DigitalMZX now, and I notice that not only is this game in the first slot, but NovaSquirrel’s MegaZeux entry for Strawberry Jam last February is still in the seventh slot. RIP, MegaZeux. I’m surprised a major feature like this was even added if the community has largely evaporated?)

FINAL SCORE: n/a, disqualified for being probably summoned from the depths of Hell

## d!¢< pic, by 573 Games

short · story · jan 2017 · web · free on itch · jam entry

This is a short story about not sending dick pics. It’s very short, so I can’t say much without spoiling it, but: you are generally prompted to either text something reasonable, or send a dick pic. You should not send a dick pic.

It’s a fascinating artifact, not because of the work itself, but because it’s so terse that I genuinely can’t tell what the author was even going for. And this is the kind of subject where the author was, surely, going for something. Right? But was it genuinely intended to be educational, or was it tongue-in-cheek about how some dudes still don’t get it? Or is it side-eying the player who clicks the obviously wrong option just for kicks, which is the same reason people do it for real? Or is it commentary on how “send a dick pic” is a literal option for every response in a real conversation, too, and it’s not that hard to just not do it — unless you are one of the kinds of people who just feels a compulsion to try everything, anything, just because you can? Or is it just a quick Twine and I am way too deep in this? God, just play the thing, it’s shorter than this paragraph.

I’m also left wondering when it is appropriate to send a dick pic. Presumably there is a correct time? Hopefully the author will enter Strawberry Jam 2 to expound upon this.

FINAL SCORE: 3½” 😉

## Marble maze, by Shtille

short · arcade · jan 2017 · win · free on itch · jam entry

Ah, hm. So this is a maze navigated by rolling a marble around. You use WASD to move the marble, and you can also turn the camera with the arrow keys.

The trouble is… the marble’s movement is always relative to the world, not the camera. That means if you turn the camera 30° and then try to move the marble, it’ll move at a 30° angle from your point of view.

That makes navigating a maze, er, difficult.

Camera-relative movement is the kind of thing I take so much for granted that I wouldn’t even think to do otherwise, and I think it’s valuable to look at surprising choices that violate fundamental conventions, so I’m trying to take this as a nudge out of my comfort zone. What could you design in an interesting way that used world-relative movement? Probably not the player, but maybe something else in the world, as long as you had strong landmarks? Hmm.

FINAL SCORE: ᘔ

## Refactor: flight, by fluffy

short · arcade · jan 2017 · lin/mac/win · free on itch · jam entry

Refactor is a game album, which is rather a lot what it sounds like, and Flight is one of the tracks. Which makes this a single, I suppose.

It’s one of those games where you move down an oddly-shaped tunnel trying not to hit the walls, but with some cute twists. Coins and gems hop up from the bottom of the screen in time with the music, and collecting them gives you points. Hitting a wall costs you some points and kills your momentum, but I don’t think outright losing is possible, which is great for me!

Also, the monk cycles through several animal faces. I don’t know why, and it’s very good. One of those odd but memorable details that sits squarely on the intersection of abstract, mysterious, and a bit weird, and refuses to budge from that spot.

The music is great too? Really chill all around.

FINAL SCORE: 🎵🎵🎵🎵

## The Adventures of Klyde

short · adventure · jan 2017 · web · free on itch · jam entry

Another bitsy game, this one starring a pig (humorously symbolized by a giant pig nose with ears) who must collect fruit and solve some puzzles.

This is charmingly nostalgic for me — it reminds me of some standard fare in engines like MegaZeux, where the obvious things to do when presented with tiles and pickups were to make mazes. I don’t mean that in a bad way; the maze is the fundamental environmental obstacle.

A couple places in here felt like invisible teleport mazes I had to brute-force, but I might have been missing a hint somewhere. I did make it through with only a little trouble, but alas — I stepped in a bad warp somewhere and got sent to the upper left corner of the starting screen, which is surrounded by walls. So Klyde’s new life is being trapped eternally in a nowhere space.

FINAL SCORE: 19/20 apples

## And more

That was only a third of the games, and I don’t think even half of the ones I’ve played. I’ll have to do a second post covering the rest of them? Maybe a third?

Or maybe this is a ludicrous format for commenting on several dozen games and I should try to narrow it down to the ones that resonated the most for Strawberry Jam 2? Maybe??

# Physics cheats

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/blog/2018/01/06/physics-cheats/

something about how we tweak physics to “work” better in games?

Ho ho! Work. Get it? Like in physics…?

## Hitboxes

Hitbox” is perhaps not the most accurate term, since the shape used for colliding with the environment and the shape used for detecting damage might be totally different. They’re usually the same in simple platformers, though, and that’s what most of my games have been.

The hitbox is the biggest physics fudge by far, and it exists because of a single massive approximation that (most) games make: you’re controlling a single entity in the abstract, not a physical body in great detail.

That is: when you walk with your real-world meat shell, you perform a complex dance of putting one foot in front of the other, a motion you spent years perfecting. When you walk in a video game, you press a single “walk” button. Your avatar may play an animation that moves its legs back and forth, but since you’re not actually controlling the legs independently (and since simulating them is way harder), the game just treats you like a simple shape. Fairly often, this is a box, or something very box-like.

Since the player has no direct control over the exact placement of their limbs, it would be slightly frustrating to have them collide with the world. This is especially true in cases like the above, where the tail and left ear protrude significantly out from the main body. If that Eevee wanted to stand against a real-world wall, she would simply tilt her ear or tail out of the way, so there’s no reason for the ear to block her from standing against a game wall. To compensate for this, the ear and tail are left out of the collision box entirely and will simply jut into a wall if necessary — a goofy affordance that’s so common it doesn’t even register as unusual. As a bonus (assuming this same box is used for combat), she won’t take damage from projectiles that merely graze past an ear.

(One extra consideration for sprite games in particular: the hitbox ought to be horizontally symmetric around the sprite’s pivot — i.e. the point where the entity is truly considered to be standing — so that the hitbox doesn’t abruptly move when the entity turns around!)

### Corners

Treating the player (and indeed most objects) as a box has one annoying side effect: boxes have corners. Corners can catch on other corners, even by a single pixel. Real-world bodies tend to be a bit rounder and squishier and this can tolerate grazing a corner; even real-world boxes will simply rotate a bit.

Ah, but in our faux physics world, we generally don’t want conscious actors (such as the player) to rotate, even with a realistic physics simulator! Real-world bodies are made of parts that will generally try to keep you upright, after all; you don’t tilt back and forth much.

One way to handle corners is to simply remove them from conscious actors. A hitbox doesn’t have to be a literal box, after all. A popular alternative — especially in Unity where it’s a standard asset — is the pill-shaped capsule, which has semicircles/hemispheres on the top and bottom and a cylindrical body in 3D. No corners, no problem.

Of course, that introduces a new problem: now the player can’t balance precariously on edges without their rounded bottom sliding them off. Alas.

If you’re stuck with corners, then, you may want to use a corner bump, a term I just made up. If the player would collide with a corner, but the collision is only by a few pixels, just nudge them to the side a bit and carry on.

When the corner is horizontal, this creates stairs! This is, more or less kinda, how steps work in Doom: when the player tries to cross from one sector into another, if the height difference is 24 units or less, the game simply bumps them upwards to the height of the new floor and lets them continue on.

Implementing this in a game without Doom’s notion of sectors is a little trickier. In fact, I still haven’t done it. Collision detection based on rejection gets it for free, kinda, but it’s not very deterministic and it breaks other things. But that’s a whole other post.

## Gravity

Gravity is pretty easy. Everything accelerates downwards all the time. What’s interesting are the exceptions.

### Jumping

Jumping is a giant hack.

Think about how actual jumping works: you tense your legs, which generally involves bending your knees first, and then spring upwards. In a platformer, you can just leap whenever you feel like it, which is nonsense. Also you go like twenty feet into the air?

Worse, most platformers allow variable-height jumping, where your jump is lower if you let go of the jump button while you’re in the air. Normally, one would expect to have to decide how much force to put into the jump beforehand.

But of course this is about convenience of controls: when jumping is your primary action, you want to be able to do it immediately, without any windup for how high you want to jump.

(And then there’s double jumping? Come on.)

Air control is a similar phenomenon: usually you’d jump in a particular direction by controlling how you push off the ground with your feet, but in a video game, you don’t have feet! You only have the box. The compromise is to let you control your horizontal movement to a limit degree in midair, even though that doesn’t make any sense. (It’s way more fun, though, and overall gives you more movement options, which are good to have in an interactive medium.)

Air control also exposes an obvious place that game physics collide with the realistic model of serious physics engines. I’ve mentioned this before, but: if you use Real Physics™ and air control yourself into a wall, you might find that you’ll simply stick to the wall until you let go of the movement buttons. Why? Remember, player movement acts as though an external force were pushing you around (and from the perspective of a Real™ physics engine, this is exactly how you’d implement it) — so air-controlling into a wall is equivalent to pushing a book against a wall with your hand, and the friction with the wall holds you in place. Oops.

### Ground sticking

Another place game physics conflict with physics engines is with running to the top of a slope. On a real hill, of course, you land on top of the slope and are probably glad of it; slopes are hard to climb!

In a video game, you go flying. Because you’re a box. With momentum. So you hit the peak and keep going in the same direction. Which is diagonally upwards.

### Projectiles

To make them more predictable, projectiles generally aren’t subject to gravity, at least as far as I’ve seen. The real world does not have such an exemption. The real world imposes gravity even on sniper rifles, which in a video game are often implemented as an instant trace unaffected by anything in the world because the bullet never actually exists in the world.

## Resistance

Ah. Welcome to hell.

### Water

Water is an interesting case, and offhand I don’t know the gritty details of how games implement it. In the real world, water applies a resistant drag force to movement — and that force is proportional to the square of velocity, which I’d completely forgotten until right now. I am almost positive that no game handles that correctly. But then, in real-world water, you can push against the water itself for movement, and games don’t simulate that either. What’s the rough equivalent?

The Sonic Physics Guide suggests that Sonic handles it by basically halving everything: acceleration, max speed, friction, etc. When Sonic enters water, his speed is cut; when Sonic exits water, his speed is increased.

That last bit feels validating — I could swear Metroid Prime did the same thing, and built my own solution around it, but couldn’t remember for sure. It makes no sense, of course, for a jump to become faster just because you happened to break the surface of the water, but it feels fantastic.

The thing I did was similar, except that I didn’t want to add a multiplier in a dozen places when you happen to be underwater (and remember which ones need it to be squared, etc.). So instead, I calculate everything completely as normal, so velocity is exactly the same as it would be on dry land — but the distance you would move gets halved. The effect seems to be pretty similar to most platformers with water, at least as far as I can tell. It hasn’t shown up in a published game and I only added this fairly recently, so I might be overlooking some reason this is a bad idea.

(One reason that comes to mind is that velocity is now a little white lie while underwater, so anything relying on velocity for interesting effects might be thrown off. Or maybe that’s correct, because velocity thresholds should be halved underwater too? Hm!)

Notably, air is also a fluid, so it should behave the same way (just with different constants). I definitely don’t think any games apply air drag that’s proportional to the square of velocity.

### Friction

Friction is, in my experience, a little handwaved. Probably because real-world friction is so darn complicated.

Consider that in the real world, we want very high friction on the surfaces we walk on — shoes and tires are explicitly designed to increase it, even. We move by bracing a back foot against the ground and using that to push ourselves forward, so we want the ground to resist our push as much as possible.

In a game world, we are a box. We move by being pushed by some invisible outside force, so if the friction between ourselves and the ground is too high, we won’t be able to move at all! That’s complete nonsense physically, but it turns out to be handy in some cases — for example, highish friction can simulate walking through deep mud, which should be difficult due to fluid drag and low friction.

But the best-known example of the fakeness of game friction is video game ice. Walking on real-world ice is difficult because the low friction means low grip; your feet are likely to slip out from under you, and you’ll simply fall down and have trouble moving at all. In a video game, you can’t fall down, so you have the opposite experience: you spend most of your time sliding around uncontrollably. Yet ice is so common in video games (and perhaps so uncommon in places I’ve lived) that I, at least, had never really thought about this disparity until an hour or so ago.

### Game friction vs real-world friction

Real-world friction is a force. It’s the normal force (which is the force exerted by the object on the surface) times some constant that depends on how the two materials interact.

Force is mass times acceleration, and platformers often ignore mass, so friction ought to be an acceleration — applied against the object’s movement, but never enough to push it backwards.

I haven’t made any games where variable friction plays a significant role, but my gut instinct is that low friction should mean the player accelerates more slowly but has a higher max speed, and high friction should mean the opposite. I see from my own source code that I didn’t even do what I just said, so let’s defer to some better-made and well-documented games: Sonic and Doom.

In Sonic, friction is a fixed value subtracted from the player’s velocity (regardless of direction) each tic. Sonic has a fixed framerate, so the units are really pixels per tic squared (i.e. acceleration), multiplied by an implicit 1 tic per tic. So far, so good.

But Sonic’s friction only applies if the player isn’t pressing or . Hang on, that isn’t friction at all; that’s just deceleration! That’s equivalent to jogging to a stop. If friction were lower, Sonic would take longer to stop, but otherwise this is only tangentially related to friction.

(In fairness, this approach would decently emulate friction for non-conscious sliding objects, which are never going to be pressing movement buttons. Also, we don’t have the Sonic source code, and the name “friction” is a fan invention; the Sonic Physics Guide already uses “deceleration” to describe the player’s acceleration when turning around.)

Okay, let’s try Doom. In Doom, the default friction is 90.625%.

Hang on, what?

Yes, in Doom, friction is a multiplier applied every tic. Doom runs at 35 tics per second, so this is a multiplier of 0.032 per second. Yikes!

This isn’t anything remotely like real friction, but it’s much easier to implement. With friction as acceleration, the game has to know both the direction of movement (so it can apply friction in the opposite direction) and the magnitude (so it doesn’t overshoot and launch the object in the other direction). That means taking a semi-costly square root and also writing extra code to cap the amount of friction. With a multiplier, neither is necessary; just multiply the whole velocity vector and you’re done.

There are some downsides. One is that objects will never actually stop, since multiplying by 3% repeatedly will never produce a result of zero — though eventually the speed will become small enough to either slip below a “minimum speed” threshold or simply no longer fit in a float representation. Another is that the units are fairly meaningless: with Doom’s default friction of 90.625%, about how long does it take for the player to stop? I have no idea, partly because “stop” is ambiguous here! If friction were an acceleration, I could divide it into the player’s max speed to get a time.

All that aside, what are the actual effects of changing Doom’s friction? What an excellent question that’s surprisingly tricky to answer. (Note that friction can’t be changed in original Doom, only in the Boom port and its derivatives.) Here’s what I’ve pieced together.

Doom’s “friction” is really two values. “Friction” itself is a multiplier applied to moving objects on every tic, but there’s also a move factor which defaults to $$\frac{1}{32} = 0.03125$$ and is derived from friction for custom values.

Every tic, the player’s velocity is multiplied by friction, and then increased by their speed times the move factor.

$$v(n) = v(n – 1) \times friction + speed \times move factor$$

Eventually, the reduction from friction will balance out the speed boost. That happens when $$v(n) = v(n – 1)$$, so we can rearrange it to find the player’s effective max speed:

$$v = v \times friction + speed \times move factor \\ v – v \times friction = speed \times move factor \\ v = speed \times \frac{move factor}{1 – friction}$$

For vanilla Doom’s move factor of 0.03125 and friction of 0.90625, that becomes:

$$v = speed \times \frac{\frac{1}{32}}{1 – \frac{29}{32}} = speed \times \frac{\frac{1}{32}}{\frac{3}{32}} = \frac{1}{3} \times speed$$

Curiously, “speed” is three times the maximum speed an actor can actually move. Doomguy’s run speed is 50, so in practice he moves a third of that, or 16⅔ units per tic. (Of course, this isn’t counting SR40, a bug that lets Doomguy run ~40% faster than intended diagonally.)

So now, what if you change friction? Even more curiously, the move factor is calculated completely differently depending on whether friction is higher or lower than the default Doom amount:

$$move factor = \begin{cases} \frac{133 – 128 \times friction}{544} &≈ 0.244 – 0.235 \times friction & \text{ if } friction \ge \frac{29}{32} \\ \frac{81920 \times friction – 70145}{1048576} &≈ 0.078 \times friction – 0.067 & \text{ otherwise } \end{cases}$$

That’s pretty weird? Complicating things further is that low friction (which means muddy terrain, remember) has an extra multiplier on its move factor, depending on how fast you’re already going — the idea is apparently that you have a hard time getting going, but it gets easier as you find your footing. The extra multiplier maxes out at 8, which makes the two halves of that function meet at the vanilla Doom value.

That very top point corresponds to the move factor from the original game. So no matter what you do to friction, the move factor becomes lower. At 0.85 and change, you can no longer move at all; below that, you move backwards.

From the formula above, it’s easy to see what changes to friction and move factor will do to Doomguy’s stable velocity. Move factor is in the numerator, so increasing it will increase stable velocity — but it can’t increase, so stable velocity can only ever decrease. Friction is in the denominator, but it’s subtracted from 1, so increasing friction will make the denominator a smaller value less than 1, i.e. increase stable velocity. Combined, we get this relationship between friction and stable velocity.

As friction approaches 1, stable velocity grows without bound. This makes sense, given the definition of $$v(n)$$ — if friction is 1, the velocity from the previous tic isn’t reduced at all, so we just keep accelerating freely.

All of this is why I’m wary of using multipliers.

Anyway, this leaves me with one last question about the effects of Doom’s friction: how long does it take to reach stable velocity? Barring precision errors, we’ll never truly reach stable velocity, but let’s say within 5%. First we need a closed formula for the velocity after some number of tics. This is a simple recurrence relation, and you can write a few terms out yourself if you want to be sure this is right.

$$v(n) = v_0 \times friction^n + speed \times move factor \times \frac{friction^n – 1}{friction – 1}$$

Our initial velocity is zero, so the first term disappears. Set this equal to the stable formula and solve for n:

$$speed \times move factor \times \frac{friction^n – 1}{friction – 1} = (1 – 5\%) \times speed \times \frac{move factor}{1 – friction} \\ friction^n – 1 = -(1 – 5\%) \\ n = \frac{\ln 5\%}{\ln friction}$$

Speed” and move factor disappear entirely, which makes sense, and this is purely a function of friction (and how close we want to get). For vanilla Doom, that comes out to 30.4, which is a little less than a second. For other values of friction:

As friction increases (which in Doom terms means the surface is more slippery), it takes longer and longer to reach stable speed, which is in turn greater and greater. For lesser friction (i.e. mud), stable speed is lower, but reached fairly quickly. (Of course, the extra “getting going” multiplier while in mud adds some extra time here, but including that in the graph is a bit more complicated.)

I think this matches with my instincts above. How fascinating!

What’s that? This is way too much math and you hate it? Then don’t use multipliers in game physics.

## Uh

That was a hell of a diversion!

I guess the goofiest stuff in basic game physics is really just about mapping player controls to in-game actions like jumping and deceleration; the rest consists of hacks to compensate for representing everything as a box.

# Random with care

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/blog/2018/01/02/random-with-care/

Hi! Here are a few loose thoughts about picking random numbers.

## A word about crypto

DON’T ROLL YOUR OWN CRYPTO

This is all aimed at frivolous pursuits like video games. Hell, even video games where money is at stake should be deferring to someone who knows way more than I do. Otherwise you might find out that your deck shuffles in your poker game are woefully inadequate and some smartass is cheating you out of millions. (If your random number generator has fewer than 226 bits of state, it can’t even generate every possible shuffling of a deck of cards!)

## Use the right distribution

Most languages have a random number primitive that spits out a number uniformly in the range [0, 1), and you can go pretty far with just that. But beware a few traps!

### Random pitches

Say you want to pitch up a sound by a random amount, perhaps up to an octave. Your audio API probably has a way to do this that takes a pitch multiplier, where I say “probably” because that’s how the only audio API I’ve used works.

Easy peasy. If 1 is unchanged and 2 is pitched up by an octave, then all you need is rand() + 1. Right?

No! Pitch is exponential — within the same octave, the “gap” between C and C♯ is about half as big as the gap between B and the following C. If you pick a pitch multiplier uniformly, you’ll have a noticeable bias towards the higher pitches.

One octave corresponds to a doubling of pitch, so if you want to pick a random note, you want 2 ** rand().

### Random directions

For two dimensions, you can just pick a random angle with rand() * TAU.

If you want a vector rather than an angle, or if you want a random direction in three dimensions, it’s a little trickier. You might be tempted to just pick a random point where each component is rand() * 2 - 1 (ranging from −1 to 1), but that’s not quite right. A direction is a point on the surface (or, equivalently, within the volume) of a sphere, and picking each component independently produces a point within the volume of a cube; the result will be a bias towards the corners of the cube, where there’s much more extra volume beyond the sphere.

No? Well, just trust me. I don’t know how to make a diagram for this.

Anyway, you could use the Pythagorean theorem a few times and make a huge mess of things, or it turns out there’s a really easy way that even works for two or four or any number of dimensions. You pick each coordinate from a Gaussian (normal) distribution, then normalize the resulting vector. In other words, using Python’s random module:

 1 2 3 4 5 6 def random_direction(): x = random.gauss(0, 1) y = random.gauss(0, 1) z = random.gauss(0, 1) r = math.sqrt(x*x + y*y + z*z) return x/r, y/r, z/r 

Why does this work? I have no idea!

Note that it is possible to get zero (or close to it) for every component, in which case the result is nonsense. You can re-roll all the components if necessary; just check that the magnitude (or its square) is less than some epsilon, which is equivalent to throwing away a tiny sphere at the center and shouldn’t affect the distribution.

### Beware Gauss

Since I brought it up: the Gaussian distribution is a pretty nice one for choosing things in some range, where the middle is the common case and should appear more frequently.

That said, I never use it, because it has one annoying drawback: the Gaussian distribution has no minimum or maximum value, so you can’t really scale it down to the range you want. In theory, you might get any value out of it, with no limit on scale.

In practice, it’s astronomically rare to actually get such a value out. I did a hundred million trials just to see what would happen, and the largest value produced was 5.8.

But, still, I’d rather not knowingly put extremely rare corner cases in my code if I can at all avoid it. I could clamp the ends, but that would cause unnatural bunching at the endpoints. I could reroll if I got a value outside some desired range, but I prefer to avoid rerolling when I can, too; after all, it’s still (astronomically) possible to have to reroll for an indefinite amount of time. (Okay, it’s really not, since you’ll eventually hit the period of your PRNG. Still, though.) I don’t bend over backwards here — I did just say to reroll when picking a random direction, after all — but when there’s a nicer alternative I’ll gladly use it.

And lo, there is a nicer alternative! Enter the beta distribution. It always spits out a number in [0, 1], so you can easily swap it in for the standard normal function, but it takes two “shape” parameters α and β that alter its behavior fairly dramatically.

With α = β = 1, the beta distribution is uniform, i.e. no different from rand(). As α increases, the distribution skews towards the right, and as β increases, the distribution skews towards the left. If α = β, the whole thing is symmetric with a hump in the middle. The higher either one gets, the more extreme the hump (meaning that value is far more common than any other). With a little fiddling, you can get a number of interesting curves.

Screenshots don’t really do it justice, so here’s a little Wolfram widget that lets you play with α and β live:

Note that if α = 1, then 1 is a possible value; if β = 1, then 0 is a possible value. You probably want them both greater than 1, which clamps the endpoints to zero.

Also, it’s possible to have either α or β or both be less than 1, but this creates very different behavior: the corresponding endpoints become poles.

Anyway, something like α = β = 3 is probably close enough to normal for most purposes but already clamped for you. And you could easily replicate something like, say, NetHack’s incredibly bizarre rnz function.

### Random frequency

Say you want some event to have an 80% chance to happen every second. You (who am I kidding, I) might be tempted to do something like this:

 1 2 if random() < 0.8 * dt: do_thing() 

In an ideal world, dt is always the same and is equal to 1 / f, where f is the framerate. Replace that 80% with a variable, say P, and every tic you have a P / f chance to do the… whatever it is.

Each second, f tics pass, so you’ll make this check f times. The chance that any check succeeds is the inverse of the chance that every check fails, which is $$1 – \left(1 – \frac{P}{f}\right)^f$$.

For P of 80% and a framerate of 60, that’s a total probability of 55.3%. Wait, what?

Consider what happens if the framerate is 2. On the first tic, you roll 0.4 twice — but probabilities are combined by multiplying, and splitting work up by dt only works for additive quantities. You lose some accuracy along the way. If you’re dealing with something that multiplies, you need an exponent somewhere.

But in this case, maybe you don’t want that at all. Each separate roll you make might independently succeed, so it’s possible (but very unlikely) that the event will happen 60 times within a single second! Or 200 times, if that’s someone’s framerate.

If you explicitly want something to have a chance to happen on a specific interval, you have to check on that interval. If you don’t have a gizmo handy to run code on an interval, it’s easy to do yourself with a time buffer:

 1 2 3 4 5 6 timer += dt # here, 1 is the "every 1 seconds" while timer > 1: timer -= 1 if random() < 0.8: do_thing() 

Using while means rolls still happen even if you somehow skipped over an entire second.

(For the curious, and the nerds who already noticed: the expression $$1 – \left(1 – \frac{P}{f}\right)^f$$ converges to a specific value! As the framerate increases, it becomes a better and better approximation for $$1 – e^{-P}$$, which for the example above is 0.551. Hey, 60 fps is pretty accurate — it’s just accurately representing something nowhere near what I wanted. Er, you wanted.)

### Rolling your own

Of course, you can fuss with the classic [0, 1] uniform value however you want. If I want a bias towards zero, I’ll often just square it, or multiply two of them together. If I want a bias towards one, I’ll take a square root. If I want something like a Gaussian/normal distribution, but with clearly-defined endpoints, I might add together n rolls and divide by n. (The normal distribution is just what you get if you roll infinite dice and divide by infinity!)

It’d be nice to be able to understand exactly what this will do to the distribution. Unfortunately, that requires some calculus, which this post is too small to contain, and which I didn’t even know much about myself until I went down a deep rabbit hole while writing, and which in many cases is straight up impossible to express directly.

Here’s the non-calculus bit. A source of randomness is often graphed as a PDF — a probability density function. You’ve almost certainly seen a bell curve graphed, and that’s a PDF. They’re pretty nice, since they do exactly what they look like: they show the relative chance that any given value will pop out. On a bog standard bell curve, there’s a peak at zero, and of course zero is the most common result from a normal distribution.

(Okay, actually, since the results are continuous, it’s vanishingly unlikely that you’ll get exactly zero — but you’re much more likely to get a value near zero than near any other number.)

For the uniform distribution, which is what a classic rand() gives you, the PDF is just a straight horizontal line — every result is equally likely.

If there were a calculus bit, it would go here! Instead, we can cheat. Sometimes. Mathematica knows how to work with probability distributions in the abstract, and there’s a free web version you can use. For the example of squaring a uniform variable, try this out:

 1 PDF[TransformedDistribution[u^2, u \[Distributed] UniformDistribution[{0, 1}]], u] 

(The \[Distributed] is a funny tilde that doesn’t exist in Unicode, but which Mathematica uses as a first-class operator. Also, press shiftEnter to evaluate the line.)

This will tell you that the distribution is… $$\frac{1}{2\sqrt{u}}$$. Weird! You can plot it:

 1 Plot[%, {u, 0, 1}] 

(The % refers to the result of the last thing you did, so if you want to try several of these, you can just do Plot[PDF[…], u] directly.)

The resulting graph shows that numbers around zero are, in fact, vastly — infinitely — more likely than anything else.

What about multiplying two together? I can’t figure out how to get Mathematica to understand this, but a great amount of digging revealed that the answer is -ln x, and from there you can plot them both on Wolfram Alpha. They’re similar, though squaring has a much better chance of giving you high numbers than multiplying two separate rolls — which makes some sense, since if either of two rolls is a low number, the product will be even lower.

What if you know the graph you want, and you want to figure out how to play with a uniform roll to get it? Good news! That’s a whole thing called inverse transform sampling. All you have to do is take an integral. Good luck!

This is all extremely ridiculous. New tactic: Just Simulate The Damn Thing. You already have the code; run it a million times, make a histogram, and tada, there’s your PDF. That’s one of the great things about computers! Brute-force numerical answers are easy to come by, so there’s no excuse for producing something like rnz. (Though, be sure your histogram has sufficiently narrow buckets — I tried plotting one for rnz once and the weird stuff on the left side didn’t show up at all!)

By the way, I learned something from futzing with Mathematica here! Taking the square root (to bias towards 1) gives a PDF that’s a straight diagonal line, nothing like the hyperbola you get from squaring (to bias towards 0). How do you get a straight line the other way? Surprise: $$1 – \sqrt{1 – u}$$.

### Okay, okay, here’s the actual math

I don’t claim to have a very firm grasp on this, but I had a hell of a time finding it written out clearly, so I might as well write it down as best I can. This was a great excuse to finally set up MathJax, too.

Say $$u(x)$$ is the PDF of the original distribution and $$u$$ is a representative number you plucked from that distribution. For the uniform distribution, $$u(x) = 1$$. Or, more accurately,

$$u(x) = \begin{cases} 1 & \text{ if } 0 \le x \lt 1 \\ 0 & \text{ otherwise } \end{cases}$$

Remember that $$x$$ here is a possible outcome you want to know about, and the PDF tells you the relative probability that a roll will be near it. This PDF spits out 1 for every $$x$$, meaning every number between 0 and 1 is equally likely to appear.

We want to do something to that PDF, which creates a new distribution, whose PDF we want to know. I’ll use my original example of $$f(u) = u^2$$, which creates a new PDF $$v(x)$$.

The trick is that we need to work in terms of the cumulative distribution function for $$u$$. Where the PDF gives the relative chance that a roll will be (“near”) a specific value, the CDF gives the relative chance that a roll will be less than a specific value.

The conventions for this seem to be a bit fuzzy, and nobody bothers to explain which ones they’re using, which makes this all the more confusing to read about… but let’s write the CDF with a capital letter, so we have $$U(x)$$. In this case, $$U(x) = x$$, a straight 45° line (at least between 0 and 1). With the definition I gave, this should make sense. At some arbitrary point like 0.4, the value of the PDF is 1 (0.4 is just as likely as anything else), and the value of the CDF is 0.4 (you have a 40% chance of getting a number from 0 to 0.4).

Calculus ahoy: the PDF is the derivative of the CDF, which means it measures the slope of the CDF at any point. For $$U(x) = x$$, the slope is always 1, and indeed $$u(x) = 1$$. See, calculus is easy.

Okay, so, now we’re getting somewhere. What we want is the CDF of our new distribution, $$V(x)$$. The CDF is defined as the probability that a roll $$v$$ will be less than $$x$$, so we can literally write:

$$V(x) = P(v \le x)$$

(This is why we have to work with CDFs, rather than PDFs — a PDF gives the chance that a roll will be “nearby,” whatever that means. A CDF is much more concrete.)

What is $$v$$, exactly? We defined it ourselves; it’s the do something applied to a roll from the original distribution, or $$f(u)$$.

$$V(x) = P\!\left(f(u) \le x\right)$$

Now the first tricky part: we have to solve that inequality for $$u$$, which means we have to do something, backwards to $$x$$.

$$V(x) = P\!\left(u \le f^{-1}(x)\right)$$

Almost there! We now have a probability that $$u$$ is less than some value, and that’s the definition of a CDF!

$$V(x) = U\!\left(f^{-1}(x)\right)$$

Hooray! Now to turn these CDFs back into PDFs, all we need to do is differentiate both sides and use the chain rule. If you never took calculus, don’t worry too much about what that means!

$$v(x) = u\!\left(f^{-1}(x)\right)\left|\frac{d}{dx}f^{-1}(x)\right|$$

Wait! Where did that absolute value come from? It takes care of whether $$f(x)$$ increases or decreases. It’s the least interesting part here by far, so, whatever.

There’s one more magical part here when using the uniform distribution — $$u(\dots)$$ is always equal to 1, so that entire term disappears! (Note that this only works for a uniform distribution with a width of 1; PDFs are scaled so the entire area under them sums to 1, so if you had a rand() that could spit out a number between 0 and 2, the PDF would be $$u(x) = \frac{1}{2}$$.)

$$v(x) = \left|\frac{d}{dx}f^{-1}(x)\right|$$

So for the specific case of modifying the output of rand(), all we have to do is invert, then differentiate. The inverse of $$f(u) = u^2$$ is $$f^{-1}(x) = \sqrt{x}$$ (no need for a ± since we’re only dealing with positive numbers), and differentiating that gives $$v(x) = \frac{1}{2\sqrt{x}}$$. Done! This is also why square root comes out nicer; inverting it gives $$x^2$$, and differentiating that gives $$2x$$, a straight line.

Incidentally, that method for turning a uniform distribution into any distribution — inverse transform sampling — is pretty much the same thing in reverse: integrate, then invert. For example, when I saw that taking the square root gave $$v(x) = 2x$$, I naturally wondered how to get a straight line going the other way, $$v(x) = 2 – 2x$$. Integrating that gives $$2x – x^2$$, and then you can use the quadratic formula (or just ask Wolfram Alpha) to solve $$2x – x^2 = u$$ for $$x$$ and get $$f(u) = 1 – \sqrt{1 – u}$$.

Multiply two rolls is a bit more complicated; you have to write out the CDF as an integral and you end up doing a double integral and wow it’s a mess. The only thing I’ve retained is that you do a division somewhere, which then gets integrated, and that’s why it ends up as $$-\ln x$$.

And that’s quite enough of that! (Okay but having math in my blog is pretty cool and I will definitely be doing more of this, sorry, not sorry.)

## Random vs varied

Sometimes, random isn’t actually what you want. We tend to use the word “random” casually to mean something more like chaotic, i.e., with no discernible pattern. But that’s not really random. In fact, given how good humans can be at finding incidental patterns, they aren’t all that unlikely! Consider that when you roll two dice, they’ll come up either the same or only one apart almost half the time. Coincidence? Well, yes.

If you ask for randomness, you’re saying that any outcome — or series of outcomes — is acceptable, including five heads in a row or five tails in a row. Most of the time, that’s fine. Some of the time, it’s less fine, and what you really want is variety. Here are a couple examples and some fairly easy workarounds.

### NPC quips

The nature of games is such that NPCs will eventually run out of things to say, at which point further conversation will give the player a short brush-off quip — a slight nod from the designer to the player that, hey, you hit the end of the script.

Some NPCs have multiple possible quips and will give one at random. The trouble with this is that it’s very possible for an NPC to repeat the same quip several times in a row before abruptly switching to another one. With only a few options to choose from, getting the same option twice or thrice (especially across an entire game, which may have numerous NPCs) isn’t all that unlikely. The notion of an NPC quip isn’t very realistic to start with, but having someone repeat themselves and then abruptly switch to something else is especially jarring.

The easy fix is to show the quips in order! Paradoxically, this is more consistently varied than choosing at random — the original “order” is likely to be meaningless anyway, and it already has the property that the same quip can never appear twice in a row.

If you like, you can shuffle the list of quips every time you reach the end, but take care here — it’s possible that the last quip in the old order will be the same as the first quip in the new order, so you may still get a repeat. (Of course, you can just check for this case and swap the first quip somewhere else if it bothers you.)

That last behavior is, in fact, the canonical way that Tetris chooses pieces — the game simply shuffles a list of all 7 pieces, gives those to you in shuffled order, then shuffles them again to make a new list once it’s exhausted. There’s no avoidance of duplicates, though, so you can still get two S blocks in a row, or even two S and two Z all clumped together, but no more than that. Some Tetris variants take other approaches, such as actively avoiding repeats even several pieces apart or deliberately giving you the worst piece possible.

### Random drops

Random drops are often implemented as a flat chance each time. Maybe enemies have a 5% chance to drop health when they die. Legally speaking, over the long term, a player will see health drops for about 5% of enemy kills.

Over the short term, they may be desperate for health and not survive to see the long term. So you may want to put a thumb on the scale sometimes. Games in the Metroid series, for example, have a somewhat infamous bias towards whatever kind of drop they think you need — health if your health is low, missiles if your missiles are low.

I can’t give you an exact approach to use, since it depends on the game and the feeling you’re going for and the variables at your disposal. In extreme cases, you might want to guarantee a health drop from a tough enemy when the player is critically low on health. (Or if you’re feeling particularly evil, you could go the other way and deny the player health when they most need it…)

The problem becomes a little different, and worse, when the event that triggers the drop is relatively rare. The pathological case here would be something like a raid boss in World of Warcraft, which requires hours of effort from a coordinated group of people to defeat, and which has some tiny chance of dropping a good item that will go to only one of those people. This is why I stopped playing World of Warcraft at 60.

Dialing it back a little bit gives us Enter the Gungeon, a roguelike where each room is a set of encounters and each floor only has a dozen or so rooms. Initially, you have a 1% chance of getting a reward after completing a room — but every time you complete a room and don’t get a reward, the chance increases by 9%, up to a cap of 80%. Once you get a reward, the chance resets to 1%.

The natural question is: how frequently, exactly, can a player expect to get a reward? We could do math, or we could Just Simulate The Damn Thing.

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 from collections import Counter import random histogram = Counter() TRIALS = 1000000 chance = 1 rooms_cleared = 0 rewards_found = 0 while rewards_found < TRIALS: rooms_cleared += 1 if random.random() * 100 < chance: # Reward! rewards_found += 1 histogram[rooms_cleared] += 1 rooms_cleared = 0 chance = 1 else: chance = min(80, chance + 9) for gaps, count in sorted(histogram.items()): print(f"{gaps:3d} | {count / TRIALS * 100:6.2f}%", '#' * (count // (TRIALS // 100))) 
  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15  1 | 0.98% 2 | 9.91% ######### 3 | 17.00% ################ 4 | 20.23% #################### 5 | 19.21% ################### 6 | 15.05% ############### 7 | 9.69% ######### 8 | 5.07% ##### 9 | 2.09% ## 10 | 0.63% 11 | 0.12% 12 | 0.03% 13 | 0.00% 14 | 0.00% 15 | 0.00% 

We’ve got kind of a hilly distribution, skewed to the left, which is up in this histogram. Most of the time, a player should see a reward every three to six rooms, which is maybe twice per floor. It’s vanishingly unlikely to go through a dozen rooms without ever seeing a reward, so a player should see at least one per floor.

Of course, this simulated a single continuous playthrough; when starting the game from scratch, your chance at a reward always starts fresh at 1%, the worst it can be. If you want to know about how many rewards a player will get on the first floor, hey, Just Simulate The Damn Thing.

 1 2 3 4 5 6 7  0 | 0.01% 1 | 13.01% ############# 2 | 56.28% ######################################################## 3 | 27.49% ########################### 4 | 3.10% ### 5 | 0.11% 6 | 0.00% 

Cool. Though, that’s assuming exactly 12 rooms; it might be worth changing that to pick at random in a way that matches the level generator.

(Enter the Gungeon does some other things to skew probability, which is very nice in a roguelike where blind luck can make or break you. For example, if you kill a boss without having gotten a new gun anywhere else on the floor, the boss is guaranteed to drop a gun.)

### Critical hits

I suppose this is the same problem as random drops, but backwards.

Say you have a battle sim where every attack has a 6% chance to land a devastating critical hit. Presumably the same rules apply to both the player and the AI opponents.

Consider, then, that the AI opponents have exactly the same 6% chance to ruin the player’s day. Consider also that this gives them an 0.4% chance to critical hit twice in a row. 0.4% doesn’t sound like much, but across an entire playthrough, it’s not unlikely that a player might see it happen and find it incredibly annoying.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile to explicitly forbid AI opponents from getting consecutive critical hits.

## In conclusion

An emerging theme here has been to Just Simulate The Damn Thing. So consider Just Simulating The Damn Thing. Even a simple change to a random value can do surprising things to the resulting distribution, so unless you feel like differentiating the inverse function of your code, maybe test out any non-trivial behavior and make sure it’s what you wanted. Probability is hard to reason about.

# Some memorable levels

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/blog/2017/07/01/some-memorable-levels/

Another Patreon request from Nova Dasterin:

Maybe something about level design. In relation to a vertical shmup since I’m working on one of those.

I’ve been thinking about level design a lot lately, seeing as how I’ve started… designing levels. Shmups are probably the genre I’m the worst at, but perhaps some general principles will apply universally.

And speaking of general principles, that’s something I’ve been thinking about too.

I’ve been struggling to create a more expansive tileset for a platformer, due to two general problems: figuring out what I want to show, and figuring out how to show it with a limited size and palette. I’ve been browsing through a lot of pixel art from games I remember fondly in the hopes of finding some inspiration, but so far all I’ve done is very nearly copy a dirt tile someone submitted to my potluck project.

Recently I realized that I might have been going about looking for inspiration all wrong. I’ve been sifting through stuff in the hopes of finding something that would create some flash of enlightenment, but so far that aimless tourism has only found me a thing or two to copy.

I don’t want to copy a small chunk of the final product; I want to understand the underlying ideas that led the artist to create what they did in the first place. Or, no, that’s not quite right either. I don’t want someone else’s ideas; I want to identify what I like, figure out why I like it, and turn that into some kinda of general design idea. Find the underlying themes that appeal to me and figure out some principles that I could apply. You know, examine stuff critically.

I haven’t had time to take a deeper look at pixel art this way, so I’ll try it right now with level design. Here, then, are some levels from various games that stand out to me for whatever reason; the feelings they evoke when I think about them; and my best effort at unearthing some design principles from those feelings.

## Doom II: MAP10, Refueling Base

screenshots mine — map via doom wiki — see also textured perspective map (warning: large!) via ian albertpistol start playthrough

I’m surprising myself by picking Refueling Base. I would’ve expected myself to pick MAP08, Tricks and Traps, for its collection of uniquely bizarre puzzles and mechanisms. Or MAP13, Downtown, the map that had me convinced (erroneously) that Doom levels supported multi-story structures. Or at least MAP08, The Pit, which stands out for the unique way it feels like a plunge into enemy territory.

(Curiously, those other three maps are all Sandy Petersen’s sole work. Refueling Base was started by Tom Hall in the original Doom days, then finished by Sandy for Doom II.)

But Refueling Base is the level I have the most visceral reaction to: it terrifies me.

See, I got into Doom II through my dad, who played it on and off sometimes. My dad wasn’t an expert gamer or anything, but as a ten-year-old, I assumed he was. I watched him play Refueling Base one night. He died. Again, and again, over and over. I don’t even have very strong memories of his particular attempts, but watching my parent be swiftly and repeatedly defeated — at a time when I still somewhat revered parents — left enough of an impression that hearing the level music still makes my skin crawl.

This may seem strange to bring up as a first example in a post about level design, but I don’t think it would have impressed on me quite so much if the level weren’t designed the way it is. (It’s just a video game, of course, and since then I’ve successfully beaten it from a pistol start myself. But wow, little kid fears sure do linger.)

The one thing that most defines the map has to be its interconnected layout. Almost every major area (of which there are at least half a dozen) has at least three exits. Not only are you rarely faced with a dead end, but you’ll almost always have a choice of where to go next, and that choice will lead into more choices.

This hugely informs the early combat. Many areas near the beginning are simply adjacent with no doors between them, so it’s easy for monsters to start swarming in from all directions. It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed by an endless horde; no matter where you run, they just seem to keep coming. (In fact, Refueling Base has the most monsters of any map in the game by far: 279. The runner up is the preceding map at 238.) Compounding this effect is the relatively scant ammo and health in the early parts of the map; getting very far from a pistol start is an uphill battle.

The connections between rooms also yield numerous possible routes through the map, as well as several possible ways to approach any given room. Some of the connections are secrets, which usually connect the “backs” of two rooms. Clearing out one room thus rewards you with a sneaky way into another room that puts you behind all the monsters.

In fact, the map rewards you for exploring it in general.

Well, okay. It might be more accurate to say that that map punishes you for not exploring it. From a pistol start, the map is surprisingly difficult — the early areas offer rather little health and ammo, and your best chance of success is a very specific route that collects weapons as quickly as possible. Many of the most precious items are squirrelled away in (numerous!) secrets, and you’ll have an especially tough time if you don’t find any of them — though they tend to be telegraphed.

One particularly nasty surprise is in the area shown above, which has three small exits at the back. Entering or leaving via any of those exits will open one of the capsule-shaped pillars, revealing even more monsters. A couple of those are pain elementals, monsters which attack by spawning another monster and shooting it at you — not something you want to be facing with the starting pistol.

But nothing about the level indicates this, so you have to make the association the hard way, probably after making several mad dashes looking for cover. My successful attempt avoided this whole area entirely until I’d found some more impressive firepower. It’s fascinating to me, because it’s a fairly unique effect that doesn’t make any kind of realistic sense, yet it’s still built out of familiar level mechanics: walk through an area and something opens up. Almost like 2D sidescroller design logic applied to a 3D space. I really like it, and wish I saw more of it. So maybe that’s a more interesting design idea: don’t be afraid to do something weird only once, as long as it’s built out of familiar pieces so the player has a chance to make sense of it.

A similarly oddball effect is hidden in a “barracks” area, visible on the far right of the map. A secret door leads to a short U-shaped hallway to a marble skull door, which is themed nothing like the rest of the room. Opening it seems to lead back into the room you were just in, but walking through the doorway teleports you to a back entrance to the boss fight at the end of the level.

It sounds so bizarre, but the telegraphing makes it seem very natural; if anything, the “oh, I get it!” moment overrides the weirdness. It stops being something random and becomes something consciously designed. I believe that this might have been built by someone, even if there’s no sensible reason to have built it.

In fact, that single weird teleporter is exactly the kind of thing I’d like to be better at building. It could’ve been just a plain teleporter pad, but instead it’s a strange thing that adds a lot of texture to the level and makes it much more memorable. I don’t know how to even begin to have ideas like that. Maybe it’s as simple as looking at mundane parts of a level and wondering: what could I do with this instead?

I think a big problem I have is limiting myself to the expected and sensible, to the point that I don’t even consider more outlandish ideas. I can’t shake that habit simply by bolding some text in a blog post, but maybe it would help to keep this in mind: you can probably get away with anything, as long as you justify it somehow. Even “justify” here is too strong a word; it takes only the slightest nod to make an arbitrary behavior feel like part of a world. Why does picking up a tiny glowing knight helmet give you 1% armor in Doom? Does anyone care? Have you even thought about it before? It’s green and looks like armor; the bigger armor pickup is also green; yep, checks out.

On the other hand, the map as a whole ends up feeling very disorienting. There’s no shortage of landmarks, but every space is distinct in both texture and shape, so everything feels like a landmark. No one part of the map feels particularly central; there are a few candidates, but they neighbor other equally grand areas with just as many exits. It’s hard to get truly lost, but it’s also hard to feel like you have a solid grasp of where everything is. The space itself doesn’t make much sense, even though small chunks of it do. Of course, given that the Hellish parts of Doom were all just very weird overall, this is pretty fitting.

This sort of design fascinates me, because the way it feels to play is so different from the way it looks as a mapper with God Vision. Looking at the overhead map, I can identify all the familiar places easily enough, but I don’t know how to feel the way the map feels to play; it just looks like some rooms with doors between them. Yet I can see screenshots and have a sense of how “deep” in the level they are, how difficult they are to reach, whether I want to visit or avoid them. The lesson here might be that most of the interesting flavor of the map isn’t actually contained within the overhead view; it’s in the use of height and texture and interaction.

I realize as I describe all of this that I’m really just describing different kinds of contrast. If I know one thing about creative work (and I do, I only know one thing), it’s that effectively managing contrast is super duper important.

And it appears here in spades! A brightly-lit, outdoor, wide-open round room is only a short jog away from a dark, cramped room full of right angles and alcoves. A wide straight hallway near the beginning is directly across from a short, curvy, organic hallway. Most of the monsters in the map are small fry, but a couple stronger critters are sprinkled here and there, and then the exit is guarded by the toughest monster in the game. Some of the connections between rooms are simple doors; others are bizarre secret corridors or unnatural twisty passages.

You could even argue that the map has too much contrast, that it starts to lose cohesion. But if anything, I think this is one of the more cohesive maps in the first third of the game; many of the earlier maps aren’t so much places as they are concepts. This one feels distinctly like it could be something. The theming is all over the place, but enough of the parts seem deliberate.

I hadn’t even thought about it until I sat down to write this post, but since this is a “refueling base”, I suppose those outdoor capsules (which contain green slime, inset into the floor) could be the fuel tanks! I already referred to that dark techy area as “barracks”. Elsewhere is a rather large barren room, which might be where the vehicles in need of refueling are parked? Or is this just my imagination, and none of it was intended this way?

It doesn’t really matter either way, because even in this abstract world of ambiguity and vague hints, all of those rooms still feel like a place. I don’t have to know what the place is for it to look internally consistent.

I’m hesitant to say every game should have the loose design sense of Doom II, but it might be worth keeping in mind that anything can be a believable world as long as it looks consciously designed. And I’d say this applies even for natural spaces — we frequently treat real-world nature as though it were “designed”, just with a different aesthetic sense.

Okay, okay. I’m sure I could clumsily ramble about Doom forever, but I do that enough as it is. Other people have plenty to say if you’re interested.

I do want to stick in one final comment about MAP13, Downtown, while I’m talking about theming. I’ve seen a few people rag on it for being “just a box” with a lot of ideas sprinkled around — the map is basically a grid of skyscrapers, where each building has a different little mini encounter inside. And I think that’s really cool, because those encounters are arranged in a way that very strongly reinforces the theme of the level, of what this place is supposed to be. It doesn’t play quite like anything else in the game, simply because it was designed around a shape for flavor reasons. Weird physical constraints can do interesting things to level design.

## Braid: World 4-7, Fickle Companion

screenshots via StrategyWikiplaythroughplaythrough of secret area

I love Braid. If you’re not familiar (!), it’s a platformer where you have the ability to rewind time — whenever you want, for as long as you want, all the way back to when you entered the level.

The game starts in world 2, where you do fairly standard platforming and use the rewind ability to do some finnicky jumps with minimal frustration. It gets more interesting in world 3 with the addition of glowing green objects, which aren’t affected by the reversal of time.

And then there’s world 4, “Time and Place”. I love world 4, so much. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in any other game, and it’s so simple yet so clever.

The premise is this: for everything except you, time moves forwards as you move right, and backwards as you move left.

This has some weird implications, which all come together in the final level of the world, Fickle Companion. It’s so named because you have to use one (single-use) key to open three doors, but that key is very easy to lose.

Say you pick up the key and walk to the right with it. Time continues forwards for the key, so it stays with you as expected. Now you climb a ladder. Time is frozen since you aren’t moving horizontally, but the key stays with you anyway. Now you walk to the left. Oops — the key follows its own path backwards in time, going down the ladder and back along the path you carried it in the first place. You can’t fix this by walking to the right again, because that will simply advance time normally for the key; since you’re no longer holding it, it will simply fall to the ground and stay there.

You can see how this might be a problem in the screenshot above (where you get the key earlier in the level, to the left). You can climb the first ladder, but to get to the door, you have to walk left to get to the second ladder, which will reverse the key back down to the ground.

The solution is in the cannon in the upper right, which spits out a Goomba-like critter. It has the timeproof green glow, so the critters it spits out have the same green glow — making them immune to both your time reversal power and to the effect your movement has on time. What you have to do is get one of the critters to pick up the key and carry it leftwards for you. Once you have the puzzle piece, you have to rewind time and do it again elsewhere. (Or, more likely, the other way around; this next section acts as a decent hint for how to do the earlier section.)

It’s hard to convey how bizarre this is in just text. If you haven’t played Braid, it’s absolutely worth it just for this one world, this one level.

And it gets even better, slash more ridiculous: there’s a super duper secret hidden very cleverly in this level. Reaching it involves bouncing twice off of critters; solving the puzzle hidden there involves bouncing the critters off of you. It’s ludicrous and perhaps a bit too tricky, but very clever. Best of all, it’s something that an enterprising player might just think to do on a whim — hey, this is possible here, I wonder what happens if I try it. And the game rewards the player for trying something creative! (Ironically, it’s most rewarding to have a clever idea when it turns out the designer already had the same idea.)

What can I take away from this? Hm.

Well, the underlying idea of linking time with position is pretty novel, but getting to it may not be all that hard: just combine different concepts and see what happens.

A similar principle is to apply a general concept to everything and see what happens. This is the first sighting of a timeproof wandering critter; previously timeproofing had only been seen on keys, doors, puzzle pieces, and stationary monsters. Later it even applies to Tim himself in special circumstances.

The use of timeproofing on puzzle pieces is especially interesting, because the puzzle pieces — despite being collectibles that animate moving into the UI when you get them — are also affected by time. If the pieces in this level weren’t timeproof, then as soon as you collected one and moved left to leave its alcove, time would move backwards and the puzzle piece would reverse out of the UI and right back into the world.

Along similar lines, the music and animated background are also subject to the flow of time. It’s obvious enough that the music plays backwards when you rewind time, but in world 4, the music only plays at all while you’re moving. It’s a fantastic effect that makes the whole world feel as weird and jerky as it really is under these rules. It drives the concept home instantly, and it makes your weird influence over time feel all the more significant and far-reaching. I love when games weave all the elements of the game into the gameplaylike this, even (especially?) for the sake of a single oddball level.

Admittedly, this is all about gameplay or puzzle mechanics, not so much level design. What I like about the level itself is how simple and straightforward it is: it contains exactly as much as it needs to, yet still invites trying the wrong thing first, which immediately teaches the player why it won’t work. And it’s something that feels like it ought to work, except that the rules of the game get in the way just enough. This makes for my favorite kind of puzzle, the type where you feel like you’ve tried everything and it must be impossible — until you realize the creative combination of things you haven’t tried yet. I’m talking about puzzles again, oops; I guess the general level design equivalent of this is that players tend to try the first thing they see first, so if you put required parts later, players will be more likely to see optional parts.

I think that’s all I’ve got for this one puzzle room. I do want to say (again) that I love both endings of Braid. The normal ending weaves together the game mechanics and (admittedly loose) plot in a way that gave me chills when I first saw it; the secret ending completely changes both how the ending plays and how you might interpret the finale, all by making only the slightest changes to the level.

## Portal: Testchamber 18 (advanced)

screenshot mine — playthrough of normal mapplaythrough of advanced map

I love Portal. I blazed through the game in a couple hours the night it came out. I’d seen the trailer and instantly grasped the concept, so the very slow and gentle learning curve was actually a bit frustrating for me; I just wanted to portal around a big playground, and I finally got to do that in the six “serious” tests towards the end, 13 through 18.

Valve threw an interesting curveball with these six maps. As well as being more complete puzzles by themselves, Valve added “challenges” requiring that they be done with as few portals, time, or steps as possible. I only bothered with the portal challenges — time and steps seemed less about puzzle-solving and more about twitchy reflexes — and within them I found buried an extra layer of puzzles. All of the minimum portal requirements were only possible if you found an alternative solution to the map: skipping part of it, making do with only one cube instead of two, etc. But Valve offered no hints, only a target number. It was a clever way to make me think harder about familiar areas.

Alongside the challenges were “advanced” maps, and these blew me away. They were six maps identical in layout to the last six test chambers, but with a simple added twist that completely changed how you had to approach them. Test 13 has two buttons with two boxes to place on them; the advanced version removes a box and also changes the floor to lava. Test 14 is a live fire course with turrets you have to knock over; the advanced version puts them all in impenetrable cages. Test 17 is based around making extensive use of a single cube; the advanced version changes it to a ball.

But the one that sticks out the most to me is test 18, a potpourri of everything you’ve learned so far. The beginning part has you cross several large pits of toxic sludge by portaling from the ceilings; the advanced version simply changes the ceilings to unportalable metal. It seems you’re completely stuck after only the first jump, unless you happen to catch a glimpse of the portalable floor you pass over in mid-flight. Or you might remember from the regular version of the map that the floor was portalable there, since you used it to progress further. Either way, you have to fire a portal in midair in a way you’ve never had to do before, and the result feels very cool, like you’ve defeated a puzzle that was intended to be unsolvable. All in a level that was fairly easy the first time around, and has been modified only slightly.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I could say it’s good to make the player feel clever, but that feels wishy-washy. What I really appreciated about the advanced tests is that they exploited inklings of ideas I’d started to have when playing through the regular game; they encouraged me to take the spark of inspiration this game mechanic gave me and run with it.

So I suppose the better underlying principle here — the most important principle in level design, in any creative work — is to latch onto what gets you fired up and run with it. I am absolutely certain that the level designers for this game loved the portal concept as much as I do, they explored it thoroughly, and they felt compelled to fit their wilder puzzle ideas in somehow.

More of that. Find the stuff that feels like it’s going to burst out of your head, and let it burst.

## Chip’s Challenge: Level 122, Totally Fair and Level 131, Totally Unfair

screenshots mine — full maps of both levelsplaythrough of Totally Fairplaythrough of Totally Unfair

I mention this because Portal reminded me of it. The regular and advanced maps in Portal are reminiscent of parallel worlds or duality or whatever you want to call the theme. I extremely dig that theme, and it shows up in Chip’s Challenge in an unexpected way.

Totally Fair is a wide open level with a little maze walled off in one corner. The maze contains a monster called a “teeth”, which follows Chip at a slightly slower speed. (The second teeth, here shown facing upwards, starts outside the maze but followed me into it when I took this screenshot.)

The goal is to lure the teeth into standing on the brown button on the right side. If anything moves into a “trap” tile (the larger brown recesses at the bottom), it cannot move out of that tile until/unless something steps on the corresponding brown button. So there’s not much room for error in maneuvering the teeth; if it falls in the water up top, it’ll die, and if it touches the traps at the bottom, it’ll be stuck permanently.

The reason you need the brown button pressed is to acquire the chips on the far right edge of the level.

The gray recesses turn into walls after being stepped on, so once you grab a chip, the only way out is through the force floors and ice that will send you onto the trap. If you haven’t maneuvered the teeth onto the button beforehand, you’ll be trapped there.

Doesn’t seem like a huge deal, since you can go see exactly how the maze is shaped and move the teeth into position fairly easily. But you see, here is the beginning of Totally Fair.

The gray recess leads up into the maze area, so you can only enter it once. A force floor in the upper right lets you exit it.

Totally Unfair is exactly identical, except the second teeth has been removed, and the entrance to the maze looks like this.

You can’t get into the maze area. You can’t even see the maze; it’s too far away from the wall. You have to position the teeth completely blind. In fact, if you take a single step to the left from here, you’ll have already dumped the teeth into the water and rendered the level impossible.

The hint tile will tell you to “Remember sjum”, where SJUM is the password to get back to Totally Fair. So you have to learn that level well enough to recreate the same effect without being able to see your progress.

It’s not impossible, and it’s not a “make a map” faux puzzle. A few scattered wall blocks near the chips, outside the maze area, are arranged exactly where the edges of the maze are. Once you notice that, all you have to do is walk up and down a few times, waiting a moment each time to make sure the teeth has caught up with you.

So in a sense, Totally Unfair is the advanced chamber version of Totally Fair. It makes a very minor change that force you to approach the whole level completely differently, using knowledge gleaned from your first attempt.

And crucially, it’s an actual puzzle! A lot of later Chip’s Challenge levels rely heavily on map-drawing, timing, tedium, or outright luck. (Consider, if you will, Blobdance.) The Totally Fair + Totally Unfair pairing requires a little ingenuity unlike anything else in the game, and the solution is something more than just combinations of existing game mechanics. There’s something very interesting about that hint in the walls, a hint you’d have no reason to pick up on when playing through the first level. I wish I knew how to verbalize it better.

Anyway, enough puzzle games; let’s get back to regular ol’ level design.

maps via vgmaps and TCRFplaythrough with commentary

Link’s Awakening was my first Zelda (and only Zelda for a long time), which made for a slightly confusing introduction to the series — what on earth is a Zelda and why doesn’t it appear in the game?

The whole game is a blur of curiosities and interesting little special cases. It’s fabulously well put together, especially for a Game Boy game, and the dungeons in particular are fascinating microcosms of design. I never really appreciated it before, but looking at the full maps, I’m struck by how each dungeon has several large areas neatly sliced into individual screens.

Much like with Doom II, I surprise myself by picking Eagle’s Tower as the most notable part of the game. The dungeon isn’t that interesting within the overall context of the game; it gives you only the mirror shield, possibly the least interesting item in the game, second only to the power bracelet upgrade from the previous dungeon. The dungeon itself is fairly long, full of traps, and overflowing with crystal switches and toggle blocks, making it possibly the most frustrating of the set. Getting to it involves spending some excellent quality time with a flying rooster, but you don’t really do anything — mostly you just make your way through nondescript caves and mountaintops.

Having now thoroughly dunked on it, I’ll tell you what makes it stand out: the player changes the shape of the dungeon.

That’s something I like a lot about Doom, as well, but it’s much more dramatic in Eagle’s Tower. As you might expect, the dungeon is shaped like a tower, where each floor is on a 4×4 grid. The top floor, 4F, is a small 2×2 block of rooms in the middle — but one of those rooms is the boss door, and there’s no way to get to that floor.

(Well, sort of. The “down” stairs in the upper-right of 3F actually lead up to 4F, but the connection is bogus and puts you in a wall, and both of the upper middle rooms are unreachable during normal gameplay.)

The primary objective of the dungeon is to smash four support columns on 2F by throwing a huge iron ball at them, which causes 4F to crash down into the middle of 3F.

Even the map on the pause screen updates to reflect this. In every meaningful sense, you, the player, have fundamentally reconfigured the shape of this dungeon.

I love this. It feels like I have some impact on the world, that I came along and did something much more significant than mere game mechanics ought to allow. I saw that the tower was unsolvable as designed, so I fixed it.

It’s clear that the game engine supports rearranging screens arbitrarily — consider the Wind Fish’s Egg — but this is s wonderfully clever and subtle use of that. Let the player feel like they have an impact on the world.

## The cutting room floor

This is getting excessively long so I’m gonna cut it here. Some other things I thought of but don’t know how to say more than a paragraph about:

• Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins has a lot of levels with completely unique themes, backed by very simple tilesets but enhanced by interesting one-off obstacles and enemies. I don’t even know how to pick a most interesting one. Maybe just play the game, or at least peruse the maps.

• This post about density of detail in Team Fortress 2 is really good so just read that I guess. It’s really about careful balance of contrast again, but through the lens of using contrasting amounts of detail to draw the player’s attention, while still carrying a simple theme through less detailed areas.

• Metroid Prime is pretty interesting in a lot of ways, but I mostly laugh at how they spaced rooms out with long twisty hallways to improve load times — yet I never really thought about it because they all feel like they belong in the game.

One thing I really appreciate is level design that hints at a story, that shows me a world that exists persistently, that convinces me this space exists for some reason other than as a gauntlet for me as a player. But it seems what comes first to my mind is level design that’s clever or quirky, which probably says a lot about me. Maybe the original Fallouts are a good place to look for that sort of detail.

Conversely, it sticks out like a sore thumb when a game tries to railroad me into experiencing the game As The Designer Intended. Games are interactive, so the more input the player can give, the better — and this can be as simple as deciding to avoid rather than confront enemies, or deciding to run rather than walk.

I think that’s all I’ve got in me at the moment. Clearly I need to meditate on this a lot more, but I hope some of this was inspiring in some way!