I’m not a gamer by any means. Sure I’ve played video games before, but most of my experience begins and ends with classics like The Legend of Zelda when it was still on Nintendo 64. For me, playing an open-world game like Zelda was never about final boss battles; I was just there for the vibes—wandering around Hyrule Field, buying supplies at the Potion Shop, unlocking doors to hidden side quests, or advancing deeper into the game’s primary narrative. As a player, I enjoyed navigating the environment of each game level in a nonlinear way.
So when the Washington Post recently published an article citing Stray, a game played from the perspective of a cat, as "a master class in environmental story telling and level design," I was obviously intrigued. What made this feline phenom such a masterclass? How exactly do video games like Stray build worlds that players want to stay in, and find believable? It comes down to level design—a lesser known digital design field which itself has close ties to UX. For UX designers that want to become world-builders themselves, it’s about expanding your tech capabilities, while remaining true to the UX principles that ground the industry.
"Stray," a new videogame played from the perspective of a stray cat, recently went viral online. It had its level design to thank. Images via: IGBD.
For those unfamiliar with Stray, also known online as just “the cat game,” it’s a wildly popular video game created by indie developer BlueTwelve Studio and published by Annapurna Interactive. The game’s protagonist, an orange stray tabby cat, must find its way through a dystopian cybercity populated by robots and other non-human lifeforms. Having launched in June, it continues to remain one of the highest rated games on Steam; and was an instant hit with players and critics alike. Even real cats love it.
One of the unique aspects of Stray’s gameplay is how it integrates so many realistic cat behaviors into the way players navigate the city—walking across precariously high rooftops and narrow pipes or beams with ease, knocking objects off surfaces to advance in the game (or also just for fun), hiding in boxes to evade enemies, scratching carpets; there's even a dedicated meow button. Stunning art direction and sound design coupled with physics-based environmental puzzles, and players’ instant connection to their cat avatar keeps you emotionally invested and engaged throughout the game. There are lessons for designers in that.
To be a level designer is to be a world-builder. They’re responsible for creating, shaping and iterating on the design of the environments in a game as well as the sequences of experience over time. A great level designer understands how people interact with spaces, and uses that knowledge to guide players through an emotional experience within the design of space. “Like any craftsperson or artist, level design starts with a curiosity about how people think and act,” says Brandon Sichling, an associate teaching professor at Northeastern University. With this in mind, designers need to pay careful attention to the game’s interior and exterior environments, so the levels they design are true to the logic of the game, according to Sichling.
Level designers imagined a "world ravaged by mankind" for a mother fox and her two cubs to roam in the eco-conscious video game "Endling." Images via: HandyGames.
While a level designer wears many hats—they are part architect, part landscape designer, part interior designer—there’s also considerable overlap in skillset with UX/UI designers. A video game has to be intuitive, just like a website. “It's not realistic for a door to be the same color as the key that opens it, but it makes it easier to navigate,” Sichling says. “Shafts of light draw attention to important items, towers ease navigability, and so on. All that is to say, it's really important for the level designer to know what the players are supposed to do and feel in any given space,” they explain.
Like UX design, level design is also a highly iterative process. Richard Lemarchand, associate professor at University of Southern California, says the discipline is rooted in gathering concrete data about how the level is working in the game. “This is something that game design has inherited from the world of UX/UI and human computer interaction (HCI); it’s an empirical approach to making design better by running tests, gathering data, and analyzing that data.”
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Pacing, balance, and emotional connection are other key factors that level designers need to consider when constructing a compelling game. “Good level design is always shaping the player’s experience so that it is modulated over time with peaks of intensity and troughs of calm,” Lemarchand adds. Stray is a great case study in how to build that connection to the narrative by tugging at players’ hearts, beginning with the emotional and cinematic intro where you, as the cat, are separated from your feline family and must spend the duration of the game trying to reunite with them. Players have even been sharing their reactions to the intro online, with one Reddit user posting, “The game made me cry within the first five minutes.”
Recently, Sichling has been playing Stray, too, and they applaud the game's worldbuilding and storytelling, which narrows from an industrial cityscape to individual apartments that focus on inhabitant’s personalities. But they say there’s room for improvement in the UX/UI, as the navigability could have been better with the addition of mini-maps and quest markers. There's also been some criticism of the game’s appropriation of Asian aesthetics, which is unfortunately a common pitfall within the cyberpunk genre.
Level design should still be immersive and intuitive, even if the setting is fantastical. See the video game Omno, set in a fantastic "ancient world of wonders." Images via: InkyFox.
At this point in time, it's not enough to just have the hard skills necessary to create a game. Designers and developers also have a responsibility to understand the very real historic and cultural legacies of the aesthetics they choose to integrate into their fantasy worlds and interrogate their use of those creative influences within their games, no matter which part of the industry they’re in.
If a digital designer wants to broaden their portfolio and have a hand in designing the next Stray, it really comes down to skillset, according to David Sanchez, visiting lecturer at Rochester Institute of Technology. Master the essentials of solid UX, then broaden your skills. 3D and AR/VR design capabilities will come in handy, as more and more games move towards the metaverse and immersive gameplay experiences. Sketching, modeling and game engine skills as well as composition theory are also important. As are communication and collaboration skills—level designers work with every area of the development team, from concept artists and animators to software engineers and audio designers.
Both Sanchez and Lemarchand agree that one of the best ways to test the waters of game design is to get involved in the modding community, where players can download user-created modifications to existing games or upload their own to share with others. What designer wouldn’t want the ability to convert Stray’s famous orange tabby into the even more famous orange tabby, Garfield? (a mod that is currently available, btw).