Really, this video turned out to be more trivia-focused than I had really intended it to be. Which is sort of a shame – around halfway through editing it (after writing, shooting, and gathering tons of video and audio clips) I had a few additional thoughts.
First of all: colored keys, man. They were an awful McGuffin when every level had you looking for the same damned cards/skulls over and over. But at the same time, they drove gameplay forward mechanically – you were always in pursuit of a specific goal, be it a key or a door or an exit. It was the use of discreet, ludic indicators of progress that gave the gameplay context and purpose. We don’t have much of in the way of that sort of motivation in first person shooters anymore – we’ve shifted almost exclusively to narrative contextualization in order to press the game forward. And it’s not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily – I just think it’s silly to be over reliant on a single technique as a motivator for the player when we have other gameplay driven alternatives available to us.
Mind you, I’m not calling for a return of three primary colored keys. But too often in modern first person shooters I find myself placed in a tunnel lined with enemies and am told “Your character really wants to go to the other end of this tunnel – better get going!” I’d like to see attempts made to make progression not just narrative driven but somehow gameplay driven as well – especially in first person games where, if you’re not actively roleplaying, it’s nigh impossible to get any emotional involvement in the protagonist. “Master Chief really wants to save Cortana” doesn’t necessarily mean the player will find any inherent delight in chasing after Cortana. Ludic goals are goals that are intrinsically interesting to players- they require no narrative buy-in. We don’t see them enough.
I called the level design “playful” in the video, and I think that encapsulates what I think levels are lacking these days. Not in the “fun, cutesy” sense, but in the sense of design that provides players with a space to traverse that plays off of, inverts, or generally forces the player to explore the mechanics they’ve been provided. I’ve walked down too many hallways with a few offshoot rooms and a few too many boxy warehouses with crates for cover. Give me giant, hand-shaped levels or gimmick levels where only one type of ammunition or power up is available; give me levels that toy with my expectations of how mechanics are applied. It’s actually something Half-Life 2 did really well – the entire Ravenholm section was made scary in party by simply reducing the amount of health and ammunition available to the player any given time.