Question: What does level design mean for games without spatial navigation? Does level design only mean the design of spaces?
So full disclosure: I’ve always been a little skeptical of level design in general. In my time looking for game design jobs, level design positions came up pretty frequently (at least compared to writers/narrative designers). All things considered, level design might be one of the most concrete and specific types of design in demand right now by the industry.
What makes me skeptical is level design’s relative lack of interactivity. I always thought game design was in the design of interactions: what happens when I press this button, how do I win, what happens if I say this piece of dialogue. That isn’t to say that geographic location or spatial layout aren’t important, it’s just to say that I’ve never felt excited to try to design a map for CS:GO or even Team Fortress 2. At a high level, maps and locations felt like things you look at as opposed to things you interact with.
This is all to say that I’m certainly not the most knowledgeable (or even most passionate) person to write about what level design is. Level design is important and valid and aesthetically significant. It’s true! I just think that spreadsheets and rule sheets are cooler. Regardless, I find myself attracted to the concept of what a level might mean in different contexts and so shall do my best to lay out a first definition of conventional level design.
Level design (as most people will likely recognize it to be) appears to constitute the design of a physical space for games involving spatial navigation. If I was a stickier and stodgier academic, I’d probably look up the first usage of the term “level design” to see if it uses the word level in the spatial sense (i.e. levels of a building or a dungeon).
This definition (physical space for games with spatial navigation) works for most modern digital action games: racing games, first-person shooters, puzzle games, platforming games, RPGs, etc. What’s interesting to note is that all of these games involve movement as a mechanic: an activity that is usually experienced through sight and something that the visual strength of computers lends itself well to. In a hypothetical game development team, the level designer and movement designer probably work really closely with each other (or are the same person): where you can move is just as important as how you can move.
So a level can be a physical space for a game that needs spatial navigation. This understanding gets complicated in puzzle games, e.g. match-4 games, Portal, Tetris. Arguably it’s still a physical space that’s being navigated in all of these games, but is it really? For a game about crossword puzzles, you could imagine that each “level” is actually a different crossword puzzle itself. Alternatively, for Guitar Hero (arguably a puzzle action game since there’s only 1 best and perfect way to perform a given song) each song has multiple levels of difficulty. More than physical space, the most important feature for a level might just be this: 1 level is 1 experience of achievement.
This understanding lends itself to more narrative-focused games. You could imagine pure text-based games needing levels, but not necessarily architectural level designers. The player wakes up in a dank cell with a locked door, how do they get out? For some games that is their “Mario world 1-1.”
Beyond action, puzzle, and narrative games, some games just don’t have levels. Games that don’t have levels typically involve other players for their variety: chess, field games, etc. The exception to this/overlap would probably be competitive FPS’s.