My second map created with the modding tools for the 3D Platformer game, A Hat in Time. The player explores a multi-layered space (known in-game as a "Purple Time Rift") that follows the story of an Owl returning home after a long time away, only to find the village he grew up in completely destroyed. By exploring each space and collecting hidden story pages, the player can discover what happened to the once thriving village, and earn a Time Piece at the end. This map was built to further explore the capabilities of the Hat in Time modding tools while also applying what I've learned from my own level-design studies.
During the weeks following it's release, "The Mountain" was listed as one of Hat in Time's most popular playable mods, and currently holds a 5-star rating on Steam Workshop.
A Purple Time Riftis a type of level in A Hat in Time where the primary focus is exploration and collecting. They are typically set within the memories of a particular character, using environment art/assets and collectible "storybook pages" to reveal a character's backstory to the player. Purple Time Rifts are usually divided up into several smaller spaces, or "floors", through which the player may only progress once they have collected enough "rift pons" that are scattered throughout each space. These "pons" act as a currency for progression; the player may bank pons to allow them to skip certain challenges to proceed to the next floor. At the very end, the player recieves a "Time Piece", which is considered to be the primary collectible that allows the player to progress through the rest of the game.
Design From Narrative
The overarching story for this map was directly inspired by the song "Fire Coming out of the Monkey's Head" by Gorillaz. The level itself can be broken up into 5 individual spaces, with each of the 3 "main floors" of the map representing different portions of the song's spoken lyrics. However, rather than being present at the time of the events, the player is taking the role of a detective or archaeologist; they get the opportunity to explore these spaces to piece together the events that occurred before.
The 3 "main floors" of the level are divided as such:
Village - The first "primary floor", intended to provide a glimpse into the livelihood of the villagers (or "happy folk") who had lived there before. While the village itself is destroyed, players can still collect tidbits of information about what life may have been like before through simple exploration and observation.
Caves - The second primary floor, this area reflects the telling of the "strange folk", who sneaked into the village and into the mountain caves, which they looted and defiled.
Lava - The last of the primary floors, this area reveals to the player that the mountain that they are exploring is, in fact, an active volcano. In the song, the mountain became angry at the "strange folk" for mining gems from the caves; I took some liberties in further explaining that the mountain was also home to spirits, who the player may find dancing around in the area.
As it was, the game's assets already featured characters that fit perfectly into the story as well. Using owls in place of the "Happy Folk" and invisible cats as the "Strange Folk" fit all too well into the embedded narrative. This provided me with an opportunity to include character dialogue to help further flesh out the level's embedded narrative. Players can search for these characters as if they were collectibles, offering additional details to the story upon discovery.
Through the careful placement of decals, static meshes, and other art assets, players can piece together further details about the spaces they are exploring. For example, by using cat prints, scattered jewels, and graffiti, the players can deduce that these "strange folk" may have been up to some nefarious deeds when they arrived on the mountain. The same assets could also be used in different floors as a means of foreshadowing what the player could be encountering in the future.
Evocative Spaces & Mechanics
Each individual space in the level had it's own particular target emotion that it aimed to draw out of the player. These particular characteristics were drawn out in each space through multiple techniques, including lighting, fog, and choice in texture and materials. However, some of the more effective tools at work in the level involved the juxtaposition and reuse of specific assets and unique level mechanics.
For example, In order to better evoke a feeling of destruction and desolation in the village, I placed the player's spawn point within a more green and lively looking town. Both the smaller, fresh-feeling town and the larger but dry and dead village use many of the same assets, but the context in which they are placed amplifies the differences in the two spaces. This emphasis on contrast can be seen frequently in the transition between the player spawn point and the main village area, as the player makes their approach from the serene landscape into the mysterious and dangerous.
While each individual space has it's own theme that is reflected in it's setting and environment art, each space also has at least one particular mechanic to challenge the player's platforming abilities:
The village area keeps it simple; all of the platforms the player may use to navigate the space are static (with the occasional "spring" platform included). The only dangers the player may encounter are bird enemies or falling from great heights. This is intended to be an introductory and exploratory space to make sure the player has the basics of platforming control down before moving onto the next floor.
The caves are intended to instill a sense of peril. The player is now guaranteed to take damage if they fall from most platforms, as below them lies a seemingly bottomless pit. To further keep the player on their toes, falling platforms and grapple points have also been added that the player must use to get around.
The lava stage adds something entirely new: rising and falling lava. Every 10 seconds, the lava level will rise to a certain point and fall again, which turns approximately half of the platforms in the area into "risk spaces". However, by using a darker, more red coloring on these platforms, the player has a better idea of which paths are safe or not. By utilizing sounds and screen shake (with controller vibrations for those who use it), players also receive a fair warning of when the lava is going to rise again.
Player Choice & Fluidity
The most difficult concept to implement for this level was balancing player freedom and intended difficulty. As the player is meant to explore these spaces, keeping a strictly linear structure isn't desirable; however, this being a platforming game, the player should run into particular challenges that test their ability to control the player avatar. In an attempt to simply the design process, I established a set of rules to follow when developing each "primary floor":
No hard 180 degree turns. In order to keep the player in an optimal flow state, it seemed best to avoid situations where the player simply ran head-long into a dead-end. In the end, this proved more useful in some spaces than others.
Provide 2-3 choices to the player at the start of each floor. With the proper framing, the player should already have options when they start the level. This can be seen in the first 2 floors, where the players are quickly placed into a "hub" space, and on the 3rd floor, where two branching pathways are revealed to the player after the lava falls.
Minimize "steiner points"/unintended shortcuts. Perhaps the most difficult rule to implement, not only because of the amount of play-testing involved, but because of determining what was a "fair" or "unfair" shortcut. Players should be permitted to find the quickest way around these spaces, while at the same time not "breaking" the level by bypassing particularly tricky jumps or challenges.
In an attempt to ensure that players had the opportunity to thoroughly navigate each space, with perhaps a different pathway each time, I would sketch "flow maps" to determine how evenly spread player movement would be. If certain areas of the map created empty spaces or "dead zones" that the player would have interest in, I considered ways of opening up the space for traversal.