This sixth installment of Chris Marks’ column covers level design, as displayed (and perfected) in Diablo I and II. Chris talks about which levels he liked best, and which he liked… not so much. His intro to the column serves better as an opening than some quote from it, so here it comes. Click through to read the whole thing.
Diconstruction #6: *Ding* (sort of)
Last time I touched briefly on level design, insofar as I said they are where character movement takes place. Without levels Diablo would just involve wandering around in a giant void, populated only by idiots and really really uninteresting people with nothing to say that doesn’t involve saliva landing on their shirts. Levels are the spice of life as far as RPGs go, and it’s only fitting that they should earn the next spot in my column, not least of all because it’s the next subject on my list of things to talk about.
Really though, a game without level design is a game designed by Adelbert Ames (obscure reference du jour). Levels are what differentiate games from each other, and good games from great games. For instance, if you were to take the levels from Diablo II and insert them in to some other game, say Ultima IX, then Ultima IX would suddenly become worth playing.
I’d love to take a long, detailed look at all the levels from both games and their expansions, but I’m afraid of the things you nice folks would do to me if I provided you with a single column long enough to wrap around your house, so instead I’ll just focus on two of them: the really good ones, and the extremely terrible ones.
The levels in the first Diablo were all about setting mood. By mood I of course mean Measures of Ominous Orthogonal Doom. They were dark, and they were gloomy, except for Hell which was filled with boiling lava that couldn’t hurt you because it was being held back by bones. Sure, some would say they’re filled with blood, but which liquid do you think it would be easier to acquire that much of on short notice? I thought so. I’d like to start there, but the Caves are so much juicier as far as ridicule is concerned.
Picture a world where acid can flow like rivers. Acid that is, presumably, strong enough to dissolve a person in mere seconds or else why would we all be so scared of even touching it with our boot? Acid so strong it’s not quite orange, but it’s also not quite red. Acid so powerful it doesn’t even have a name! And yet, it is so obedient that not only does it only move at right angles to itself, it also never expands past its original layout. And if it’s not acid, then what’s the big deal about not stepping or falling in it? It’s not like Griswold is going to make fun of you for getting some on you as you slaughter everything. Cain might, but nobody listens to him anyway.
The Caves have also had the only level I ever died ten times in a row on. In the original Diablo you can’t have monsters spawn within some distance from any stairs, but on this particular level the game put a poison spitter pen right in front of the stairs on to the level. Filled with spitters. Spitters that could see me from their starting position, and whose acid balls I was unable to outrun because you don’t get to run in the original Diablo. I was pummeled to death by acid balls every time I entered the level, and I was unable to advance because I couldn’t get out of the way of the balls. It’s a good thing I had plenty of gold with which to buy more equipment to fend off the balls, or it could have gotten ugly. Eventually I beat them off, and all was well once again. Ah, memories.
The Dungeon had some very nice touches to it though. Having libraries under the Cathedral made a lot of sense for setting the mood. They were able to put the player in a frame of mind that said “this used to be a place of learning, but it has been recently corrupted by things that care enough not to destroy our books or scrolls.” Nitpicking aside, the levels in Diablo and Hellfire (by which I mean Caves and Catacombs redux) were very good at following the theme that was in place for that particular set of 4 levels. It’s just silly to expect us to believe that everything was done at perfect right angles. Also it’s amusing when the stairs to the next level spawn right next to the stairs to the previous level.
While Diablo gave us lots of mostly small, segmented levels to walk around in, Diablo 2 is much more open in its layout. Instead of small levels with stairs to go between them, we get large, sprawling landscapes, with stairs that take us down to small, segmented levels to walk around in. The problem with highly corrosive liquids staying at right angles and not advancing unfortunately persists in Act 4, but I guess since it’s already been established as canon it makes sense to leave that fodder. Rather punishing, don’t you think?
The nearly seamless transition from one level in an Act to the next makes for a more cohesive gameplay experience, but some of the connections from one area to another are a little hokey. Like almost any connection in the desert of Act 2, for instance. It’s supposed to be this wide expansive desert, but for some reason there are convenient staircases to areas for which they are the only access point, and narrow canyon after narrow canyon for you to walk through as if you’re in a horror movie that never pays off because you never get rained down on from above while you’re in them. And don’t get me started on the Maggot Lair; what kind of giant insects dig perfectly flat and entirely at right angles? They must be who dug all the tunnels in Act 1 as well.
At least the sections of Diablo-style multi-level-dungeon are broken up in to agreeable portions within larger sprawling areas in D2. It seems like they felt obligated to put some on every Act though. In Act 1 there are a lot of areas like that, from the Tower to the Jail and below. Act 2 gives us the Sewers and the Harem, among others. Act 3 has all those temples and the Durance of Hate, and don’t think I’m forgetting the Halls and the Worldstone Keep in Act 5. Ironically, the only Act that doesn’t include any of these throwbacks to the first Diablo game is the Act that most resembles it in theme, Act 4. I can just imagine how many developers slit their wrists when they couldn’t figure out how to work those levels in to that Act.
Claustrophobic Wide Open Spaces
When it comes right down to it, the levels in the two Diablo games are fitting for what they were trying to accomplish with each game. In the first Diablo they were aiming for a very dark thematic mood, and the tight turns and corridors through most of the levels fit with that and make the game rather claustrophobic. We’ll conveniently ignore how everything in Hell is a long wide hallway that’s easily Fire Walled for trap purposes.
Diablo 2 was going for more of an exploration theme. Where in the first Diablo you knew that everything was happening under the Cathedral, in Diablo 2 all you know is that the land has been corrupted and you’re the only one who can possibly save them until you leave the game and are replaced by some other poor sucker. The upshot is that you have to go out in to the world and find things to kill the offspring of, tracking down what ends up being yourself from the first Diablo game in chickenlegged form.
I’ve also carefully ignored the levels that are the same every time you play, like Catacombs Level 4 in D2 and King Leoric’s Tomb in Diablo. And, unfortunately, the Bloody Foothills. I don’t really have anything productive to say about them now, I just wanted you all to know I was deliberately avoiding talking about them before, and now you’ve gone ahead and ruined that for me. Thanks a lot.
The point is that the different level designs allow for different play styles. Diablo is very close, so it’s easy to use the terrain to your advantage. Diablo 2 is very open, so it’s harder to find cover in most cases outside Acts 3 and 5 and you end up having to brawl it out if you encounter anyone. Of course the levels have their quirks, but that’s part of the fun: finding things that don’t necessarily make any sense so you can subconsciously think to yourself “well, that’s not something you see every day” and get deeper in to the game. And really, drawing you in is what it’s all about.
Related to this article
Diconstruction (Diablo Deconstruction) is written by Chris Marks. It examines differences between the two (soon to be three) Diablo games, as well as comparing them to other games, in a hopefully amusing style. Diconstruction is published on the first and third Tuesday of every month. Leave your comments below, or contact the author directly.