A first-person horror experience inspired by ALIEN: Isolation, where the player needs to infiltrate a bio-engineering company in order to steal company secrets. However, things take a turn for the worse when the player realises that something have gone horribly wrong mere moments before their arrival...
For this project I wanted to work with other TGA students to create a complete whitebox level.
I teamed up with Gabriel Hector (technical-/game design), Anton Berngarn-Wallerstedt (character art), Johan Jergner Ekervik (foliage art) and Edgars Kaulins (animation).
Since we were going to be two designers working on the same project, we started out by planning our work according to the scrum principle and decided on which
areas we were going to be responsible for.
We also came up with an rough idea for a game that would fit both our visions of the project and also be able to showcase as much of our own interests as possible.
We then started gathering references and set up a simple trello-board to plan our work for the coming 4 weeks and to keep track of our progress.
We also decided to use perforce since it would be the best way to be able to work on different aspects of the project without interfering with each others work.
REFERENCES & SKETCHES
We looked at various games (Resident Evil 2, Alien: Isolation, Blair Witch, Amnesia and Quadrilateral cowboy) and while Gabriel started working on alpha tools I focused on creating some sketches for the level.
At first we intended to create a level more like those of RE2, but with our limited timeframe we decided on a more streamlined, horror-experience.
We also created a story-outline that could be fleshed out during the process via environmental storytelling and by subtitles (in lack of voice acting).
I really wanted to create some kind of greenhouse, to replicate the sudden change of environment in RE2.
The feeling of being outdoors while still indoors provided a nice juxtaposing environment that created further feelings of unease.
First I planned on using asset-packs from the Epic Store to create the greenhouse, but I knew that Johan was working on a foliage-kit for his portfolio, and I asked if I could implement it into my project instead.
By using assets made by another student, I was able to get first-hand information about the different materials and how to use the vertex-painter Johan had set up. Thus I learned quite a lot about materials and how to set up similar assets.
WORKING WITH ANOTHER LEVEL-/GAME DESIGNER
By choosing to work together on this portfolio piece, Gabriel and I wanted to take the project to a "complete" whitebox, with all the gameplay fully functional and the level in such a state that environment- and/or level artists could step in and begin working on the different areas right away.
LEVEL DESIGN TOOLS
Gabriel had created an assortment of tools/scripts to be implemented and adjusted to my needs in the project.
For example; Audio-/subtitle triggers, Cinematic-/ sequence triggers, a customizeable elevator and an array of hackable-/interactable objects that could be used to almost any scenario needed.
This sped up the process of creating the level considerably. As gameplay and game mechanics could be tested from an early stage, various iterations could be made as needed to suit both gameplay and the tools at hand.
Sound plays a huge part in horror games, and thus both me and Gabriel spent a good amount of time to find all the sounds we would need. We set up documents where we listed all the scripts, sounds and other assets we would need. Gabriel focused a bit more on finding gameplay related sounds where as I focused on, and implemented event/ambience sounds throughout the level.
The toolset set up by Gabriel allowed for quick iterations when it came to changing sounds and creating unique events.
I created several sequencers that will play during certain events in the level. Both audio- and visual events were handled through sequencers. This was mainly because I find it easier to work with visual editors where you can adjust elements in the editor and quickly test them out.
The original plan was to only use sequencers to handle the nemesis character, but I soon realized that only using sequencers wouldn't work as it would've been too easy for the player to circumvent certain situations if they saw through a completely sequencer-based nemesis.
Instead I decided to create a very simple AI, as I could use sequencers for certain situations where the nemesis weren't supposed to be an actual threat, and a proper AI that could chase and attack the player at certain moments.
The animated character used root-motion, something I had never worked with before.
I set up the nemesis animations using animation blueprints and animation montages in Unreal.
Due to my inexperience working with root-motion I had some conversations with Edgars (animator) to get it fully functional.
I also bound a lot of sounds through the animations (footsteps, vocal sounds and attack sounds) which meant that I didn't have handle sound through other blueprints (behaviour-tree tasks, AI controller etc.).
I used the level design to further play on the unsettling horror-experience, implementing architectual design principles for different areas:
When the player reach the basement (ACT II), the intensity of both story and level is ramped up. Here I use hard, sharper shapes to create feelings of imminent danger. The lower ceiling and tighter spaces further promotes the sense of threat.
The architecture combined with the need of a flashlight narrows the players vision further, tricking the senses that the environment tighter than it actually is.
I also used flickering lights to lead the player simultaneously increasing feelings of stress and unease.
For the lobby (ACT I) I wanted to create a feeling of awe for the player and to sell the PROMETEO-corporation as a powerful organization.
By adding large, imposing structures facing the player as soon as they enter the lobby I aimed to create a "David vs. Goliath"-scenario for the player.
Since the first area isn't really dangerous, I used rounded shapes to help instill sense of security in the otherwise spooky atmosphere.
For the greenhouse (ACT III) I wanted to mix it up a bit to create subtle but chaotic/conflicting feelings for the player. I tried to achive this by using round shapes combined with foliage illuminated from various angles to create long, sharp shadows.
I intended to create feelings of calm (round shapes, nature) mixed with danger (stark shadows and foliage illuminated from below)
The main objective is presented to the player via a few lines of text in the intro sequence. As not all players will read texts in games, I narrowed down the basics into four lines:
"Your mission is simple."
"Infiltrate the PROMETEO building and get your hands on any research connected to their Lazarus project."
"Payment will be wired upon delivery, as agreed."
"Failure is not an option."
I wanted the player to feel uncertainty about their own motives (Are you the bad guy?) while at the same time instill feelings of unease as if something isn't right.
Throughout the level, several "subtitle-events" can be triggered. Either via player-collision or upon interaction with certain objects. I used this to further create tension inside the building.
Infilitrate the PROMETEO Bio-Engineering facility and gain access to the underground lab in order to download a DNA-sample from their LAZARUS-project.
With your hacking device, you will be able to bypass various terminals and access PROMETO subnets in order to reach the research lab.
The player will have to venture through three areas in order to reach the lab, each with unique atmospheres.
The player starts out in an alley adjacent to the PROMETEO building and its parking lot.
They will then progress through the alleys which serve as a tutorial area, teaching the player the mechanics (ability to scale and mantle objects and using the hacking-tool).
A minor puzzle is presented where the player has to unlock both the main doors and a door into a security station in order to turn off some laser detectors.
The problem is that the player has to distribute enough charges to both set of doors in order to make it into the security checkpoint before the doors auto-close.
Activating the elevators:
Hidden around a corner is a ventilation shaft they can crawl through. Inside the shaft, sounds and sequencers help build up tension (the player finds a corpse and it is clear that they are not alone).
- The ventilation leads into the barricaded room, and as the elevators are activated via use of the hacking tool on the terminal, more sounds can be heard from inside the walls.
- The player can now head downstairs and enter the elevator down which ends ACT I.
After the brief tutorial, the main objective is first presented to the player. The PROMETEO building and a parking-lot full of cars.
When they reach the entrance, the player finds the foyer deserted with no one in sight.
A slight problem:
When the entrance-puzzle is completed, the player finds themselves inside the deserted foyer. The elevator down is presented straight ahead but it is currently offline, which means that the player has to find a way to activate them. Sudden sounds from an office upstairs leads the player to a semi-barricaded room with a terminal to unlock the elevators, however they have to find another way in.
A dark descent:
As the elevator comes to a stop at the bottom floor, a corpse falls to the side of the opening elevator door.
When the player exits the elevator they find themselves in yet another prison-cell area where a new, more challenging puzzle awaits.
A laser-grid is blocking the way forward and here both grids need to be turned off via two different terminals. They run on timers however, and will only be inactive for 5 seconds each. If the player gets trapped in between the two grids they are trapped and cannot proceed any further without triggering the alarm. As we decided on using a checkpoint system, we deemed the puzzle not too unforgiving.
The biology chamber is closed and can only be opened from insde a security station. As the player rounds a corner towards the door, they find it locked and have no choice but to crawl into another ventilation-shaft despite knowing that something is crawling around in it.
Inside the ventilations:
The player stumbles upon large fan which needs to be turned off via a breaker on the wall. The fan operates on a timer, which means that the player has to time their passage through it in order to avoid getting mauled.
A way in:
Inside the security station the player can finally open the lab door. As they do - a shadow of something standing in the airlock appears.
- After a couple of seconds, the figure leaps into the ventilation again and the player can now return to the lobby via the previously locked door in the security point.
They can then head into the airlock to end ACT II.
The plot thickens:
When the player pass the puzzle, they will find themselves inside the basement lobby which shows signs of struggle and several bodies can be found.
More sounds can be heard from the ventilations above and as the only light in the area breaks, the player will have to rely on their flashlight in order to navigate.
The player emerges into a narrow corridor behind the checkpoint. Suddenly, a body falls from a ventilation pipe in the ceiling and serves a jump-scare. As soon as the body hits the floor, more movement can be heard from the ventilation above and the player can follow the sounds of movement into the adjacent room.
Through the airlock:
The player emerges into a room showing signs of fighting with barricades and smashed doors.
As they head through the only cleared doorway, a vast greenhouse opens up below the player. The way forward leads straight onto a walkway with a retracted bridge and an elevator down on the other side. With no way to extend the bridge from this location, the player is forced to turn around again where an alternate path down can be seen. Following this path takes the player through the observation deck and further into the greenhouse.
As the player downloads the data needed, they accidentally trigger an alarm which resounds throughout the entire complex. Even worse, the noise from the alarm wakes another creature which bursts through the vat and start to chase the player.
Now the player have to retrace their steps to the surface, all the while being chased by one of the experiments.
They have to make a run for the greenhouse elevator and can now extrude the previously retracted bridge and make their way through the airlock into the basement lobby.
With alarms blaring, and the entire lobby bathing in red light, the player has to shut down the same laser grid, but this time while being chased.
Down in the greenhouse the player will have to look around for the research lab.
As they access the door into the laboratory, they come upon a room filled with strange creatures in vats, lining the walls. Through a broken security door, the player can finally reach the mainframe from which the data required can be downloaded to the hacking tool. Here they also discover that one of the vats are empty.
As they deactivate the grid and head into the elevator towards the main floor foyer, sounds from the elevator shaft can be heard. Something is racing the elevator through the shaft, and as soon as the doors open into the foyer the first creature is waiting for the player, whom unfortunately meets their demise and the level ends.
The level follows a classic three-act structure with key moments listed below:
PROJECT CONTEMPLATIONS AND CLOSING THOUGHTS
Despite being quite pleased with the project, there are somethings I would like to have done if I had more time.
Mainly I feel that I didn't incorporate enough puzzle elements as I could have done with Gabriels system.
If I had more time, I would like to iterate further on the greenhouse (act III) and implement some more puzzles to up the challenge a bit, as well as implementing more sounds to the overall experience.
By being two level designers, Gabriel and I could talk about improvements and tackle various problems that could occur. Distributing responsibilites between the two of us helped to create a more stable, "finished" product.
For example; even though I was solely responsible for the level design, I could still have feedback-sessions with Gabriel and iterate on my work continously. Gabriel on the other hand could get feedback on various scripts, tools and gameplay elements in order to adjust them to any needs necessary.
Working with Anton and Edgars taught me more about animation and rigging, how to set up root-motion based characters in Unreal, and how their individual creation-process works within each of their disciplines.
Working with Johan taught me more about foliage-materials and vertex-painting and gave me a lot of insight into his creation-process.
It was truly a pleasure to be able to work with such talented collegues on the same project and to be able to use their work in a level that I've created. Check out their portfolios for more fantastic work.