System Shock Remastered Edition Update #35

The latest Kickstarter update for Nightdive Studios' System Shock brings us a dev diary by James Henley, the lead level designer on the project, where he talks about the iterative process of updating the original System Shock's levels with some modern sensibilities. Is it something that needed to be done? James Henley sure thinks so. Here's why, along with a few initial steps of his creative process:

System Shock’s levels are already designed, aren’t they?

This update is about process rather than intent, so I’ll keep this brief! The purpose of a reboot is to leverage an existing foundation while still allowing the freedom to re-envision, clarify, or otherwise expand upon a work. You could view it as building a new body to house an old soul.

The answer to the question is both “yes” and “no.” The original levels were designed under specific philosophies and restrictions that have grown or otherwise evolved in the years since. To that end, much of my work involves translating old intentions and bringing them forward to work in tandem with the technology and principles we have today. My goal is to create a believable world space that retains System Shock’s original sense of exploration and freedom.

I won’t get into the specifics of my design philosophies at the moment but let’s just be clear that I’m not talking about the modern trend of corridor-shooter level design; I’m an advocate of choices, exploration, and the freedom to tackle challenges in a variety of ways. My job is to develop a believable world space for the player to explore, not a cinematic corridor to be raced through.

Initial Planning

Before we can place so much as a single piece of flooring, we must first consider the goals and themes of an area, addressing questions such as:
  • What section of the station does this level occur on?
  • What are the major narrative beats it must cover?(General objectives, Key events & interactions)
  • Is it a new tileset / major set of assets?
This information is compiled in a short document to provide material for the larger discussion meeting that comes next.

A level designer’s work can often be viewed as the end product of an assembly line, loosely speaking. Everything in the game feeds into it and much of what we rely on are the fruits of another department’s labors; creatures, tiles and art assets, hackable objects, etc. Accordingly, stakeholders meet to hash out some of the more detailed points of the level, such as:
  • What kind of artistic themes and points of interest can we leverage?
  • What is the player’s toolbox? (Abilities or powers, Weapons and other possible gear)
  • What is the designer’s toolbox? (New and returning creatures, Mechanics to introduce, Gating mechanisms, Features of the area itself, thematically or geometrically)
Paper, Please

Even in the digital age, I’m still a fan of working with paper first and foremost! I have a small notebook that I cram full of bullet point notes to clarify thoughts, sketch out room designs, etc. There’s just something about not being bound to my computer that lets me feel more creative at this stage.

I like to start by establishing the overall gameplay beats -- the pacing and flow of both narrative and game elements within a level’s critical* path. This means determining what the major objectives are at a more granular level. Where do you go? How do you get there? What affects your ability to get there and what options do you have for solving that?

* The specific events, be they branching or linear, that must be encountered in order to progress from beginning to end of a level

I write the major events, objective updates, etc. on cue cards. Yes, cue cards. I spread them around on the floor and start grouping, ordering, and reordering them to get a feel for strengths and weaknesses in the flow of events. I enjoy this approach because iteration is simple, rapid, and I can sort through and make adjustments anywhere from my office to a coffee shop -- though the latter is less appreciative about the whole “spreading them out on the floor” thing.