Level Design in Max Payne: Roscoe Street Station
Max Payne is a third person shooter developed by Remedy Entertainment and published on July 2001. At the time of its release, the game gained critical acclaim for its use of the bullet time mechanic - a special ability that slows down time around the character. Inspired by Hong Kong action films and hard boiled detective novels, the game focuses on intense action sequences and the protagonist's internal struggle as he attempts to avenge his murdered family.
The game's story is structured under three parts, each containing several chapters. For the purposes of this article, we will take a look at Chapter One: Roscoe Street Station, from the first part of the game, and deconstruct the level progression as well as state design decisions when encountered.
The level begins with a cutscene of Max riding the subway train towards Roscoe Street Station to meet with his friend Alex. As soon as Max gets off the train, he remarks that “The station was drenched in gloom. Alex was a ghost nowhere to be seen. I’d have to look for him”. Although we aren’t given much information to work with, it’s enough to build a sense of mystery and give the player a goal.
Taking control over the character, we discover that our main path is blocked and are forced to explore a side area where more narrative is to be revealed. As we burst open the doors of the personnel room, we stumble over the body of a transit police officer. Once again, a quick cutscene centers on Max while he delivers his lines and sets the tone accordingly: "Death was in the air at Roscoe Street. I'd have to find Alex fast." At this point, Max pulls out his pistol and we can either return to the starting area or explore the room for hidden ammunition and health. Doing the latter teaches the player that exploration is rewarded through much needed supplies.
On our way back, we encounter our first two enemies and notice that the main path is no longer blocked. Though, If the player takes his time and waits around the corner before engaging the enemies, bits of story will be delivered by them, explaining their reason for being there or informing on the overall situation. And as trivial as that sounds, it can have a major impact on immersion and believability. Clearly this is something the developers have identified early on and implemented throughout the game. Giving the player the option to advance at his own pace goes a long way and makes for a more dynamic experience. Those who want to rush through the levels can do so. Others that want to explore and listen to bits of story can do that as well. It’s an ideal situation that satisfies both worlds.
After our first encounter, we can proceed through the main path where we immediately find two more enemies. As previously mentioned, we have the option to directly engage in combat or wait for the enemies to reveal additional information. An important thing to make note of is that despite the fact that the gameplay space is tailored around the player’s needs, the environment always feels natural. A good example is this specific bit, where the player is now emerging from a set of stairs and can dive on his side towards a nearby mail box for cover.
When designing a space that is supposed to represent a real life location, it's essential for the level designer to always keep in mind that everything placed in the scene must abide by the real location's logic. Of course, adding something unusual or out of place is a good way to draw the player's attention, but in general we all have expectations of what kind of objects to find in most environments. Meeting those expectations is key to creating a believable game world.
Going down the corridor, we hear another enemy, but this time located behind an inaccessible gate. Although his placement seems odd, this set-up accomplishes two things. Firstly, it creates an audio cue to draw the player forward. Secondly, it gives the illusion that the environment is much larger than it actually is. It's a simple trick and probably one of the oldest in the level design book, one which the developers have used extensively throughout the game to their advantage. If you find yourself creating a fairly linear level, simply adding a few inaccessible areas is a quick and painless way of providing some visual depth to your environment. As in real life, there are plenty of areas that we cannot access.
Continuing with the idea of guiding the player, we begin to notice even more ways of doing that. This time our direction is implied through arrow signs in combination with an enemy audio cue. And after encountering the said enemy we acquire a new weapon type, the pump action shotgun, as well as discover the Subway Control Room. Unable to access it, Max elaborates that “The security panel let off a mocking cackle. I’d need the right code”. Without knowing specifically why need to gain access, we can nonetheless conclude that opening the Subway Control Room is somehow tied to the level progression in some way. Turning to our immediate left, we begin to descend to a closed station.
At this point, having also acquired the shotgun, the difficulty starts to increase as we encounter three enemies on our path. Once they have been dealt with, we find ourselves in a fairly elaborate space with two options for exploration:
Taking the path to our right, we end up in a room designed to replenish the player’s ammunition and health. Going to the back of this room, we locate a corridor leading to a locked grate door. Even though we cannot open it, reaching the end will deliver additional information through the means of dialogue between two enemies situated on the other side. In contrast to previous encounters, this time we have the option to kill our enemies by shooting a nearby propane canister. After dealing with them, Max notes that "The gate was locked. I would need to find another way to get to the tunnel". This gives us a hint as to where we need to go in order to progress with the main goal.
Opting for the path to our left, towards the end of the station, we locate a personnel room, a bright yellow maintenance train and a small supply room. Checking out the maintenance train, Max states that "The power to the rail had been cut. I'd have to get it back on to get the train moving". Looking to the opposite side of the train, we notice a tunnel blocked by a series of wooden boards. Putting two and two together, we must find a way to power up the maintenance train and crash though the boards to reach the level's final area. Of course, now we realize why we must gain access to the Subway Control Room. Turning our attention away from the train, we open the door to the nearby personnel room. Inside, we find a transit police officer held at gun point by an enemy. After killing the thug, the officer informs us that he can access the Subway Control Room and so we begin to backtrack. Having reached the security panel, the officer unlocks the door, but is shot dead by an enemy already on the inside.
Reopening the door, we notice the enemy has retreated to a secondary room. Pursuing him, we encounter 3 additional thugs, totaling 4 enemies, the most we have yet to fight at once. It's important to notice that, as we advance through the level, the number of enemies we encounter at a given point increases, but in a manner that is fluid and balanced. So far, the pattern has been to include single enemy encounters between group encounters. This way, the player doesn't constantly feel overwhelmed and has time to recuperate before a larger fight.
After dealing with the enemies, we discover a third smaller room to the back. Inside this room there is an electric panel that controls the subway power lines, a cabinet with health supplies and a series of camera displays. Using the button on the electric panel triggers a green line to rise on it's display, giving the player visual confirmation that power is now back on for that specific line. Additionally, using the nearby camera display will show an image of the bright yellow maintenance train and compel Max to state that "The train lit up like a Christmas tree. The power was back on".
We then proceed to backtrack to the train. Backtracking again. Sometimes, and especially if overdone, this design decision can become tedious and potentially confuse players. However, when used sparingly in design and with a bit of logic, forcing the player to go back and fourth between parts of the level in order to progress can make the environment seem more connected as a whole. Backtracking can also prove to be a good way of making the most out of a given environment by squeezing as much gameplay as possible.
Once we have reached the train, we can either immediately operate it or explore the area behind it for ammunition. Manning the wheel, the train begins to accelerate and shortly crashes through the wooden barricade. Advancing in the tunnel, we encounter 3 enemies and reach the area seen previously from the locked grate door. Our only path to follow now is through a rusty door leading to the next level. While we didn't accomplish our primary goal in this level, we still managed to gather information about the situation, be it directly from Max's lines or indirectly from the enemy dialogue.
Despite it's ever growing age, Max Payne still proves to be relevant even today. Examining how the gameplay unfolds in Roscoe Street Station, we can only conclude that the people at Remedy Entertainment are without a doubt true masters of their craft. And for those passionate about designing single player levels, here are 10 principles that we can learn from them:
- Story is revealed in small amounts to keep the player interested for more
- Exploration is rewarded through useful items
- Inaccessible areas can give more depth to the environment
- Players that want to be engrossed in the game world are rewarded with additional information
- Environments are designed with a certain logic to meet player expectations
- Players are guided through subtle visual language, audio cues or lighting and colour
- Progression obstacles are designed to be relevant to the story
- Intelligent backtracking uses the gameplay space to it's full potential and makes the environment seem more connected
- Interaction with the environment is reinforced through audio-visual feedback
- Properly balanced difficulty allows the player moments of rest and doesn't constantly overwhelm with enemies