Designing Fault Lever
Tabula Rasa world builder David Vargo guides us through the design process and philosophy behind the Fault Lever instance in Tabula Rasa.
I think one of the important things about being a world builder is making a lasting impression on players through visually compelling environments. I’ve tried to accomplish this goal in Fault Lever by keeping the level’s layout believable while fun, providing interesting highlights and details to the backstory, and focusing on the mood or character of these spaces. It was pretty clear how to begin Fault Lever’s design because the associated shared map, Thunderhead, had all of the relative environmental features I wanted to incorporate. The design document called for an underground instance map connected to the north face of the massive Ligo Fault Rift. The players’ ultimate mission within this instance is to turn off the four hammers (shockwave inducers) found within the shared map’s rift.. Because the mission objectives were closely connected to the shared map, I felt it important to integrate visually the rift and accompanying elements into the instance map. However, this design direction presented unique layout challenges. I had a strong desire to show how the interior spaces related to the exterior terrain features. One of the ways I achieved it was by creating windows that look out from the control rooms in the instance map into the rift where the hammers are firing off their energy bolts. That posed a problem where we had to make sure that I recreated all the shared map’s visible environmental features onto the separate instance map. So I had to work closely with Michael Hutchison, the shared map’s world builder, to make sure any changes he made also made it to the instanced map. It took more coordination than usual, but being able to see out onto the exterior was crucial because it allowed the players to create a visual link between the two maps. The second challenge to tackle was the long horizontal distance of the shared map’s rift. The four hammers on Fault Rift are grouped in pairs of two with a Bane entry tower located between them. Because the entry was already established, I had to come up with an agreeable solution for the player to move from the center towards the west and east hammers with minimal backtracking. The solution I came upon was to create separate regions and have the player teleport across the map. To connect these detached regions together, I created a central entry hub for players. The teleporters within the hub allowed the players to travel across the huge distances without getting frustrated or feeling disoriented as they complete their missions. Another benefit of this design approach was to give the illusion of a much larger complex without creating unnecessary spaces. Once I established the windowed control rooms and separate regions, I worked towards creating a believable layout for how the hammers were powered and how their energy was generated. The Power Transmitter tunnels and Main Generator room sprang from this idea. Situating them in relative position to the external hammers was an important detail even though it was not critical for game play or in creating a fun layout. Nevertheless, I felt this was needed to make the environment feel real. Some players may not notice the relationship at first, but I believe these details add up to a more complete experience. Another way I like to engage the players is by incorporating the elements of the story into the spaces I create using visual and environmental details. For example, the two side areas of the facility are mirror images of one another in their general layout. However, the Atta have invaded the west region, so I wanted these two areas to look and feel very different in relation to one another. The east region would look as if the Bane had everything under control and they might be on alert for any incoming trouble. But the west region of the map would be in a total state of chaos. These thoughts tailored how I approached creating the overall mood of these different environments. I’m a big believer in using props, lighting, and particle effects to create visual narratives and engage the player to piece together what occurs in these spaces. To help the player sense the dramatic contrast between the regions, I created prop arrangements that were initially identical in both areas. But once I completed the work in the west region in a “normal” state, I began altering its prop layouts to show the invasion’s destructive effect - overturned chairs and equipment, fires raging from consoles, sparks and fumes ejecting from broken monitors. By showing the contrast of the two regions, players can get a deeper sense of how the Atta impacted the region. It’s a fulfilling aspect of my job when I can get a player to wonder what happened in an area and naturally become more curious about the story. To me, it’s the little details that lend themselves to great storytelling. Along with the visual look of the instance, I wanted to provide a feeling of tension to the environment. The chosen special effects and audio added a great deal to the mood of place. For example, the claxons going off, rumble of the surrounding fires, and buzzing of malfunctioning computers are a constant reminder to the player that something has gone terribly wrong. One special effect I felt was important for the desired atmosphere had to do with the hammers. They’re meant to create earthquakes, so I wanted the player to get a sense of the shockwave while they are exploring. So as they go deeper, they can actually start to “feel” the hammers going off to greater effect. We accomplished this by combining the sound of the hammers firing off with a camera shake to simulate the ground vibrations. The shaking of the camera was crucial to creating this effect, but was technically a challenge. We’ve had to tweak it several times in order to create a balance where the player can sense the vibrations without becoming nauseated by the movement. We wanted it to be noticeable but not overwhelming, and the way it has turned out is something unique that I’m really proud of. The Main Generator area room in the back of the map is one of the highlights of the instance. I like to provide a dramatic conclusion to my levels, so I wanted to make this area an unique experience from the rest of the instance. I designed the Main Generator room as a last stand for the trapped Thrax commanders as they await the incoming Atta to attack their refuge. So in this backdrop of the facility’s large generators, the Thrax have barricaded the entry points with barrels, crates, etc. for makeshift protection. The player, while escorting a NPC into this region, is charged with destroying the generators. However a frontal assault in the room would be too deadly and the player must access it via another route. In doing so, the player triggers open the Main Generator doors and release the awaiting Atta on the outnumbered Thrax. The instance’s Mission Designer, Joel White, created some great cut-scenes and showed how the player’s actions trigger the Atta’s final attack. The player can safely watch the carnage they’ve unleashed from windows overlooking into the Generator Room. In addition, we made all the generators the player must detonate explode at the same time for a big finish. Fault Lever has been an interesting instance to work on. From tackling the initial layout to refining the small details, there were unique challenges to its development. However the high-level goal of creating a memorable environment is always present in my mind. It’s being able to come up with creative solutions towards that aim that make world building for Tabula Rasa really enjoyable for me. Hopefully the outcome is just as gratifying for players to experience as it is for me designing it.