"THE OWLCHEMIST" is an exploration game in an open level environment – a journey through a poisonous bog to cleanse the world. The player controls the titular Owlchemist accepting quests, collecting materials found throughout the world and crafting potions. A torch, steadily depleting, is the only protection from the poisonous fog and lurking enemies.
The game was designed for the player to be at a disadvantage if not memorizing and utilizing the map layout to find a way through the darkness.
Engine Unity 2019
Team Size 12
Time 7 weeks
Whiteboxing / Level design / Cinematics & Camera work / Game design
The overarching structure of the level is a circle – first time players are implicitly directed through the map’s key areas, only to wind up at the starting point after seeing the level.
The circle was essential to communicate the key elements of the game to the player:
Going in a circle through the map communicated the size of the map for the player without the player ever being able to see it in its entirety. Ending up where you began demonstrates that you've experienced the whole of something.
The lifetime of the player’s torch was balanced to be just below the average time to complete one lap of the circle. The torch must be managed by the player – without fire the player takes damage from the fog.
Knowing the size of the level and the limitations of the torch the player can strategize each tour out into the bog – weighing risk versus reward and subconsciously get a feel for when its time to return to the cart to refill the torch.
To help the player navigate the open level I set up a system for switching between active cameras. Altering the framing, the position or highlighting specific assets served as a level design technique, enhancing readability, guidance and giving the level personality.
To make the system feel like a natural part of the level design camera movements had to be subtle, just slightly deviating from the top-down follow-camera the player spends most of their time looking through. No hard cuts or sudden shifts, and only in service of the level design.
The intro-cinematic highlights the fire and the first objective for the player. The framing suggests more to come if the player keeps walking right – green lighting and the outline of a body. The camera slowly centers on the player character. When the letter on screen has been read the camera is static, implicitly prompting the player to interact with the controller.
Trees were deliberatly placed in the vicinity of the player whenever transitions between cameras happened during gameplay.
Tall structures in frame emphasized the camera movements and created depth in the imagery.
After rounding the corner from the dead body the camera centres on the alchemist cart – the game’s hub. Drawn to the light and the new focus of the camera, first time players were to approach and interact with the cart.
Crossing the bridge, the map opens up and exploration begins. The camera speedily catches up with the player adding momentum in the player movement. This was meant as a way to echo the level design and telling the player that the adventure starts beyond the bridge.
Behind the cart there is another less obvious path with a bridge leading to the other side of the map. While first time players are free to go here, they aren’t encouraged to do so – the area contains ingredients meant for late game quests and several patrolling enemies. But a player returning from exploration, coming from the opposite side of the bridge, should be encouraged to take this shortcut as it connects the end game area with the cart.
This posed a challenge in design: how to discourage first time players and simultaneously encourage experienced players?
The answer was in nudging the camera back in direction of the cart if the player tries to cross the bridge from the direction of the cart.
The same camera movement but from the opposite side of the bridge helps the experienced player to find their way back to the cart and complete the aformentioned level loop.
I wanted to assist the player in comparmentalizing and envisioning the space without seeing every corner of the map. This area in the middle of the level connects with all the other areas of the game. When the player enters it vicinity the camera zooms out and centres on a large and unique tree.
Visually, the tree and the connecting bridges are meant to mimic a crossroads with a signpost, with the static camera angle reinforcing the imagery. The crossroad as a concept is implicitly understood as “the middle of the road”. The intention was to give the player a waypoint on the map but also communicating that by this point they’ve seen half of the level.
The poisonous well and its cleansing is the final objective of the game – its the source of the poisonous fog. This is the only area where the camera zooms in as opposed to out. Highlighting the well by reducing the field of view created dramatic tension in the imagery.
When blocking out the level bridges became a key element to the design. Walking on or below bridges highlights alternative routes and "breadcrumbs" (crafting ingredients) for the player – either during the current quest or the next one. Areas with bridges that the player can go under are separated from enemy patrol routes, the player's view should not be obstructed during hectic moments.
( 1 ) A Timeline with a Cinemachine Track used to implement cinematics. The intro fades in from a black screen and then blends between the positions of the two intro cameras finally ending at “CM vcam 1” – the main camera following the player.
( 2 ) Using trigger events and switching active cameras through code. When the player enters one of the sphere colliders in the level the camera with the highest priority shuts off and transitions to one with lower priority.
( 3 ) The Camera Blend used for all camera transitions in the game. The only time the camera does a hard cut is when the player enters or exits the alchemist cart (which practically functions as a menu).
All camera transitions revolve around “CM vcam1”, the player camera, effectively making the game fit into a single take.
Blocking out the level the primary challenge to overcome was the perspective. How to design an open world styled level and giving it visual diversity and readability with the limitations of a static top down camera?
The aforementioned camera modifications helped but I also I discovered that slightly breaking top down-camera “rules” and partially obscuring the view of the character with geometry created routes and spaces with strong identities. Creating visual depth this way helped the player to navigate the map.