Level Design: Remembrance

I did some pretty interesting level design work on a school project called Remembrance (link to trailer, link to download). Here’s the description:

“Remembrance is a puzzle platformer which tells a story through gameplay. Players follow the main character, a young girl named Anna enrolling in art school, as she struggles to paint an assignment about her memories. As she paints, she enters a surreal dreamscape where she can stretch and manipulate the terrain around her. Levels and puzzles are designed around this mechanic to have the player experience the same feelings and emotions as her.”

It could be described as an amalgamation of multiple different styles of level design. One major inspiration was Gone Home, for the heavy emphasis on world-building and environmental storytelling. Another one was Psychonauts, since you’re literally going inside the main character’s mind and reliving the fragmented pieces of her memories. Then there were cues from Portal, which blended narrative delivery with puzzle gameplay in a near-seamless fashion.

Our goal from the start was to tell a story through gameplay. This was a particularly interesting level design challenge, but it was also a challenge before we even reached the level design phase. We spent a lot of time talking about the theoretical foundation for the game: how do we tell the story? What kind of story do we tell? How interactive is the story? What is the story’s main theme? Who is the main character and what is her motivation?

We decided to go with a linear level system. Each of the main character’s memories are represented as a different level, and each level is loosely split into a gameplay section and a story section. In the gameplay section, you solve puzzles and jump around and do game things, but in the story section, you run past a few characters who will say little bits of dialogue as you pass. Sometimes, the story section will be more tightly interwoven with the gameplay, but generally they were kept distinct so players could concentrate on one or the other.

Gameplay revolves around the terraforming mechanic, which represents how Anna shapes her dreams and memories around her. The terrain is based on a voxel system (kind of like Minecraft), so Anna can stretch out pieces of the land around her to make bridges or pathways. Remembrance is played from a third person perspective, and Anna can terraform where she looks, but she only has a certain amount of terraforming power. She can get more by collecting powerups through the level, but if she runs out, she can’t do it anymore unless she resets the level. In order to make this mechanic resonate with the narrative, we made Anna an artist, and revolved the story around her struggle to pursue her craft.

Anyway, that’s enough for now. Moving on: a more in-depth level design discussion.

Level 1: Well


We gave little code-names to each of our levels, and the first one turned out to be “Well.” It’s a reference to the idea of the frog in a well, who looks up and sees the sky and is content without ever knowing how vast the world really is. This was the start of Anna’s story, and the player’s.

From a gameplay perspective, first levels need to be educational. They need to ease people into the mechanics and teach them how to play the rest of the game at a competent level. For us, we had to do all of that while simultaneously creating a narrative experience. At this stage, players are feeling a wide variety of emotions: incompetency, confusion, uncertainty in an unknown world. Curiousness and a little bit of recklessness. A strong desire for a helping hand.

So we connected all of those emotions to the narrative. In this memory, Anna decides that she really wants to go off to art school and be an artist. It’s a big decision and she’s a little uncertain, but the world shapes itself to help her up. The story kind of has an in media res start, meaning that it starts somewhere around the middle of Anna’s life and there’s still more backstory that isn’t shown yet. Narratively, it would have been better connected if the game started at the same place where the story starts, but since we couldn’t do that, we instead started the game at the same place where Anna’s first major decision is made.

The player starts at the bottom of a well. Several blocks of terrain morph outwards to form stairs in front of her. These indicate that the world can morph and shift, and that you can stand on platforms made this way. Additionally, this also indicates that the player should generally be moving up. It’s possible for players to duck under the stairs, but they’ll find nothing there.

Once they climb up the short steps, they hear the rumbling of terraforming terrain, but they don’t see it because they’re facing the wall of the well. When they turn around, they see several bridges forming around them, including one particularly steep slope that leads further upwards. This is just a reinforcement of the basic principles they learned in front of the steps, but it also serves to set the stage for the next segment of the well.

As the player moves to the top of the steep slope that was previously formed, another bridge begins terraforming straight towards them. This bridge will push them off if they are not careful (which is not dangerous, just inconvenient). However, if instead they notice what’s happening, they can move out of the way or jump on top of the bridge. Again, this continues to illustrate terraforming’s various uses and interactions with the player, just in a more direct setting this time.

Finally, the player steps out into an outcropping that ends in the center of the well. From here, they can see the top of the well. There are no more bridges forming in front of her, but instead there is a power up that allows the character to create her own bridges. Now, the player is well-versed enough in the terraforming mechanic that they are able to solve this simple puzzle: get out of the well. It doesn’t take very much height to do so, but it does require some tricky terraforming. You can build a staircase in the side of the well, or you can use a steep angle to create a slope, or you can just look straight down and terraform the ground below you. Terraforming is a little strange, but by this point most players have gotten accustomed to it.

Once the player gets out of the well, they can step onto the platform that marks the start of the narrative half of the well level, which is much less interesting (from a level design perspective) so we can go ahead and skip it.

Level 2: Volcano


The volcano is the second level, and it presents something of a twist on the well. In the well, you were inside an empty space surrounded by a cylindrical wall, and you could build off of the wall. But in the volcano, the cylindrical wall is now in the center, and you need to navigate around it. It’s related to what you were doing before, so there’s still a connection and people can still transfer the skills they learned from the well. But it’s slightly different, to compel people to apply their skills into a new situation.

In the story, Anna is slowly becoming more sure of herself as she becomes convinced that she needs to break away from her parents. Thematically, we want the player to start feeling a little more confident about themselves too. We took a lot of steps to make sure that level 2 in Remembrance was a little bit easier than what you would normally expect from a level 2, to keep that feeling of confidence and forward motion intact.

You start on a series of platforms along the outside of the volcano. These platforms give you a little bit of distance so you can see how high the volcano goes. As you learned previously, your goal is to go up. The volcano is also the first (and only) level to intersperse the narrative segments inside the level, so you’ll see floating pieces of environment alongside the volcano. These act as guidelines to direct players up along the volcano.

The volcano is surrounded by a ring of elevated terrain that you can stand on (and terraform). If you continue to walk along the ring, you’ll eventually find a tilted platform that will take you higher along the volcano. Once you reach the end of that platform, you’ll see another one, but it’s too far away to jump to. There is, however, a terraform power up that gives you a little bit more power. You can use this power to build stairs off of the volcano, leading you to the next platform.

This continues for the rest of the level. We got a little heavy-handed with this level in order to make it easier. In previous iterations, the tilted platforms didn’t exist, so you had to build everything from scratch using the volcano as a base. Some people built bridges, some people built stairs, some people built trusses. Now, with the tilted platforms everywhere, players are pretty much forced to navigate the volcano in the direction I designed for them, which is a pity but was necessary in order to maintain the level’s narrative theme.

Level 3: Beach


The beach is the final gameplay level, and represents how Anna’s world crumbles around her in her last confrontation with her parents. We really wanted to capture the feeling of uneasiness, tension, and a strange type of fear. It’s not a jump-scare type of fear, but more like a sinking gut feeling, a deep anxiety, the expectation that progression will lead to failure.

This is actually the least designed out of the three levels, because it’s generated pseudo-procedurally. The level itself is a scattering of terraformable pieces, being dense enough to stand on near the beginning where you spawn, but eventually tapering off into assorted floating fragments too small to stand on. You can, however, still terraform those pieces to make larger stairs for yourself, which you will need to do. From a top-down view, the beach is roughly square-shaped, with you starting at one corner and your goal at the other corner, at the same y-axis as yourself.

I use two systems to guide players through this pseudo-procedural area. First, I set down some scattered platforms around the area. These platforms are a constant size, are large enough for the player to stand on, and are placed independently of the rest of the terrain, so they will always be there. The platforms are placed at scouting locations, so you can stand on them and catch your breath while you scope out your next move.

Next, I scatter many of the terraforming power ups throughout the level, increasing in density the further you go. Like the platforms, these are placed independently of the terrain generation, so it’s possible for a power up to be in a place with unstable footing. However, the point isn’t for them to be explicit goals: they are a rubber-band mechanic so that you can build a bridge for yourself if you fall down too far. The process of building the bridge is still the difficult part, but at least you have more power to do it with.


From the perspective of a pure game designer, the levels in Remembrance follow the standard formula quite closely. You have the introduction to a new mechanic (the well), the twist that changes the way you use it (the volcano), and the climax that forces you to apply your knowledge to an unexpected situation (the beach). This is a pattern that you’ll see quite often if you keep an eye out for it, especially in puzzle games.

And ultimately, it might be kind of sad that Remembrance‘s level design turned out this way. We had been trying to do this crazy narrative experiment to blend storytelling and gameplay together, and we came out with a fairly linear product. There were times when we tried to use different structuring techniques, but they didn’t work out, whether because of scope or ambition or inexperience.

But that’s why it’s important to learn about so many different styles of level design. This one was heavily inspired by Closure, which also used the three-part system (intro, twist, climax) to great effect. Other techniques would include 4-koma structure, or 5 act structure. It starts to become a real problem when you try to do nonlinear narrative, and everything just turns to mush. Trying to make Remembrance deliver a solid nonlinear experience would have been a monstrous design undertaking that I wouldn’t have been able to do myself.

That’s why I’m glad that Remembrance turned out the way it did, because the process let me put another tool into my box. Next time someone tells me to make a crazy narrative experiment, I’ll have another tool that I can consider for the job.

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