When you think about 3D level design, odds are you think about building levels in 3D - width, height and depth - fairly common fare for those acquainted with game development. But that's not what I want to talk about. I put "3D character writing" in the heading because there is a good chance people have heard of this subject, and it helps us game developers get out of the mindset of three dimensions automatically meaning width, height and depth, which, for the purposes of this writing, they don't (although, to be honest, I'm not sure what they stand for, or even if there are exactly three).
In storytelling, the three dimensions of a character are physical, sociological, and psychological. The idea is that if, as a writer, you only flesh out the physical dimension of a character, the character is shallow, not believable, and not interesting. Developing a character's past and explaining the psychology behind their motives helps the audience suspend disbelief and more vividly experience the plot surrounding that character. Something similar to this strategy applies to level design.
When we were developing Conduit 2, while analyzing problems with its predecessor, we identified the level designs as a major area to improve. Most common critical complaints regarding The Conduit's levels involved the excessive corridors and boring layouts. We knew we were going to address that in the sequel. But another problem that bothered me was the hollow, dead feel of the environments and the player's experience in them. The levels felt like merely containers for enemies-arenas with a thinly veiled movie set facade resembling some real life place. I didn't view this as an art problem, but actually a design problem. We needed to apply something similar to three dimensional character writing to our level design.
One way to address this involved the characters in the level. In The Conduit, all of the characters in the levels were enemies, and all of the enemies felt like they were simply standing in wait for the player-their entire existence framed by the single moment their lives intersect with the player. As you might expect, this doesn't help create a very believable world. Rather than having the enemies (or any characters) standing there facing wherever the player will inevitably appear, designers should setup some sort of scripted event for characters to be involved in when the player first witnesses them. Even if the event is nothing more than standing around, smoking a cigarette out of boredom, it will contribute greatly toward making the level feel more alive and helping the player suspend disbelief.
However, if we designers are going to the trouble of setting up so many scripted events, we might as well add to them a bit of meaning. A design goal I established for Conduit 2 was to have each level appear to have some dramatic event unfolding, such that the action taking place would have been interesting even if the player character never showed up. Of course, the player should have some important role to play in the events transpiring. But the player's role should only shape the outcome of the events-not completely define them.
I think we did a decent job of this in the first level of Conduit 2. The player is on an oil rig, but the inhabitants of the oil rig are quite busy preparing for (and ultimately fending off) attacks from a sea monster. Not only are these characters visibly doing this, but there are notes the player can read, announcements over the PA, and other evidence the player can witness to help piece the plot of the level together.
Bioware games typically provide great, formulaic examples of this aspect of design. Almost invariably, the player shows up to some new environment to accomplish a step in their long-term plan for defeating whatever evil they've embarked on defeating (note: hero's journey). But once the player arrives, it quickly becomes apparent that something interesting is happening in the level. It would have happened even if the player didn't show up-but the player has shown up and will influence these events, solving the mini-drama of the level before becoming one step closer to accomplishing their overall, game-encompassing goal.
For example, in Dragon Age, when you show up at the dwarven homeland pursuing the help of the dwarves in your campaign against evil, you discover yourself in the midst of a political dispute that must be resolved before the dwarves will help anyone. The player is given the impression that the dispute's origin predates the player's arrival. However the player's arrival generates the opportunity for the political stalemate to be broken (and the player is, in typical Bioware fashion, free to tip the scales in favor of either side).
I think the sociological dimension of 3D character writing also pertains to 3D level design-you need to give the player the impression that people have realistically inhabited the space and have developed an appropriate set of customs and habits.
For example, in Portal, you can look behind the broken wall panel and discover signs of other test subjects living on the fringes of the lab, and hints that the experiments of Aperture Science are perhaps unsavory. Later in the game, you get an inside look at the areas on the other side of the one-way glass: workstations, Power Point presentations, and other signs of life help the player feel that they are in the midst of a space that was recently inhabited by actual people. Plus, the player receives a pretty clear picture of the history and culture within the space without sitting through any cut-scenes or reading any prologues.
This blog post is just an early rambling, but I think there is something to be gleaned from exploring the topic. Eventually, I will try to put this together more coherently and perhaps venture to more definitively label some dimensions of level design that, when fleshed out, provide players with more engaging and immersive experiences.