What Happened To Objective-Based Level Design?


My “LTTP Thief” post drew some comparisons between that game and stuff like GoldenEye or the original Perfect Dark. Playing it really reminded me of how open-ended a lot of action games used to be, and of how sad I am those kinds of games pretty much aren’t made anymore.

What happened to the days when each mission of a shooter would simply drop you into a level, give you a list of objectives, and leave you to complete them at your own pace, with your own methods, and in your own order? Now it’s all corridors, shooting galleries, and set pieces in the guise of objectives.

If you go back and play GoldenEye 007 on the N64 today, it’s actually surprising how non-linear the levels in that game feel compared to today’s shooters. The first time I played that game, looking at the mission objectives and reading the briefing — knowing there were many things that could happen in each level but I was there to perform certain specific actions, made me feel like I was being sent to complete real tasks.

The same goes for pouring over the map of a level in Thief and deciding what tools I’m going to bring in accordance. The tactical shooter genre used to be all about this: games like the original Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon were about you creating your own plans to complete missions. Each level in all these games was basically a small sandbox. Overall, it just makes the games feel more intelligent.

A part I really miss is when games would actually add additional objectives on higher difficulties, making the missions more complex and sometimes changing their entire nature. I guess today designers don’t want to put that kind of content in a game that most players would likely miss.

Most of today’s action games do have what they call “objectives,” that are displayed on-screen, but really they’re just a chain of messages that have no meaning other than to guide you down a tight, predetermined path. In games like Call of Duty or Gears of War there’s usually no way to progress unless you keep shooting until the game tells you those objectives are complete, and there’s no way to fail those objectives unless you die. When Nintendo Power advertised GoldenEye, one of the selling points of the game was that there were ways to fail a mission other than dying!

There’s a quote from Wikipedia and one of the guys who worked on GoldenEye explaining the difference in how they designed that game:

Initially, the designers’ priority was purely on the creation of interesting spaces; level design and balance considerations such as the placement of start and exit points, characters and objectives did not begin until this process was complete. According to Martin Hollis, “The benefit of this sloppy unplanned approach was that many of the levels in the game have a realistic and non-linear feel. There are rooms with no direct relevance to the level. There are multiple routes across the level.”

These people didn’t really design video game levels — they tried to design areas that functioned like real places, and then gave you goals in them. Games like Thief seem to have been designed in a similar way.

I’m not against linear games when they’re well-done. I just don’t like how there are virtually no shooters or other action games on today’s hardware built in that objective-based style.

Most of the games that do something close to this on today’s hardware are games like Deus Ex Human Revolution or Fallout or Elder Scrolls. The way quests are completed in those games feels similar in practice, but those games are really descended from the legacy of 3D PC RPGs, so the connection isn’t intentional.

In terms of first person shooters, I would say the best modern example is the first Crysis game. I’ve begged so many people who couldn’t run the PC version of Crysis to try out the PSN and Xbox Live versions because of how different that game is from Crysis 2 and Crysis 3. Surveying an entire village with your binoculars from an adjacent hilltop and planning your approach is something basically no other FPS has done in the six years since. You could even say Crysis advanced this style of level design a bit by making the levels a lot bigger. The last couple Far Cry games kinda tried to do this but with much simpler objectives.

Dishonored is actually another pretty good example, taking direct inspiration from Thief. Hopefully the new THIEF follows suit. It’s bad enough we don’t get enough stealth games that offer a real sense of player autonomy these days. Remember Splinter Cell Chaos Theory? That’s a good example too, and I wish Ubisoft would go back to doing that (disclaimer: I haven’t played Blacklist yet).

Luckily, this style of game design seems to be exactly what KillZone Shadow Fall is doing judging from the E3 demo videos. With all the open-world games seemingly appearing on next-gen consoles I really hope objective-based game design returns in a big way to action games. If we’re lucky, Shadow Fall will be a big hit and lead the way for other developers.

Really, I just miss games that gave you nothing but a place and some goals.


  • Nuclear Throne, Vlambeer’s latest, is now available on Steam Early Access. http://t.co/1clFTrQsk5
  • First look at Soma, the next horror game from the guys who did Amnesia the Dark Descent. 2015, PC, PS4. http://t.co/KFJkCBCPJW
  • Giant Bomb interview about the same game. http://t.co/WZsut7zUsv
  • Castle Vidcons: Comic #121- Be Proud – bit.ly/19s2agR
  • I don’t like how Square Enix has been handling some of its iOS ports of classic games, but I’m open to the Dragon Quest series on mobile platforms. http://t.co/P0UTOGA4dX
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