The Poetics of Level Design
I've always been fascinated by Final Fantasy Tactics A2's stages. These stages are small dioramas - a selection and cut-out piece of nature.
When you walk around in good architecture, you can feel like the place has some kind of "spirit" to it, or like when you were a kid and felt like everything was alive.
These stages are no different, so today I want to explore the poetry that can be found here.
As you can see on the stage above, the cuts are very specific. The stage is not a perfect square or rectangle. There probably isn't anything "non-forest" in those holes that have been cut into the stage, right?
What artistic effect does this have?
Realistically you'd be able to walk directly from one of the bottom trees to the next, but you can't, because a designer chose to make cuts in that part of the stage. It's as if you'd fall off into an amorphous abyss below if you tried.
Yet the cuts give it character and evoke strong emotions.
These dioramas become their own little pocket universes. It's a very peculiar feeling. It's nature, but edited nature. Video gamey at first glance, but dreamlike in feeling, sparking the imagination as to what lies beyond the boundaries of the stage.
Compare the top forest stage to the following stage. This stage is a different story altogether:
What kind of story are we talking about exactly?
Imagine the road between your house and the house of someone you like. Imagine that these houses and this road are all that exists. You cut these two houses and the road between them out of reality and make it into its own little pocket universe. That's where the story of you and the person you like exists.
At least one of the possible stories.
Maybe you would ride a bicycle back and forth on this road, every day trying to muster up the courage to knock on that person's door and ask them out to play.
Cutting away the rest of the world heightens the observer's sensitivity and focus to what happens on that stretch of land, even if it doesn't realistically make sense.
Imagine a campsite in a forest. There is a central fireplace, five tents in a circle around the it and the site itself is surrounded by a dark forest.
Now use your imagination to cut out certain paths between the various structures in this scene. What are the meaningful connections between them?
A path from a tent to the fireplace tells a story.
Paths from all the tents to the fireplace tells a different story.
A path connecting all the tents together in a circle tells another story yet again.
These selections all convey particular "observed meaningful actions", or even just "observed meaningful potential", that have been isolated and then elevated.
The meaning of coming out of your tent to warm yourself, or the meaning of retreating into the tent to sleep. The meaning of everyone coming out of their tents to warm themselves and keep each other company, or the meaning of everyone retreating to their tents after sharing a meal. The meaning of walking from one tent to the next, visiting another person.
You as a human being can use your mind to see connections between elements in nature and cut them out into different dioramas that all tell their own story.
This is what the level designer has done in Final Fantasy Tactics A2. The stages are a representation of a particular meaningful connection portrayed through the level design itself.
This one is called Traveler's Rest. What does it tell us?
The wells are spread out and there are four of them. They are connected centrally, and not in a circle or by any other means. If you were to walk around on this stage, you'd walk over to one well, then go back and try a new path to arrive at a different well. Then a third, then a fourth, and so on.
What emotions do you feel having to approach the wells this way? Having to walk back to a central hub instead of simply walking directly from one well to another?
A linear connection would have conveyed a different story. This story would instead have conveyed a sense of progression: "From one well, to the next well... [...] to the final well".
Had the path been a circle on the other hand, the fact that the path bites its own tail would've changed the meaning as well, implying some sort of cyclicity - that when you've visited all the wells, you still have to continue visiting them, and in a certain order at that.
The central hub connection between the wells convey a sense of searching blindly. You invest resources into every search and try again, having found nothing. A treasure hunt without a map.
A traveler then arrives at the scene and experiences these stories. Realistically, this traveler would walk in a straight line between the wells, but instead of representing the physical reality, the stage instead represents the experienced reality.
There is in other words a psychological, phenomenological aspect to the representation.
There's a sense of drudgery, and anxiety of not finding water. Or alternatively, a well drying up and having to make another one. Or maybe there's water in all the wells, because the site is visited by so many adventurers at the same time that one well was not enough.
Now let's take the symbolism into account. A well is a connection between the world on the surface and the world underground. These deep, dark places are similar to the unconscious parts of your mind in that you don't know what's down there, and can't see it either when you try to look down into it from the conscious.
To find out what's there you need the courage to delve into it. You're looking for something, but you're not sure you'll find it. To dig for water is not so different from trying to make art.
In this case it's not so much about the treasure being difficult to get up, as it's simply a matter of trying several times. You may feel like you're not getting anywhere, but the process of elimination at least makes you marginally wiser than you were before.
Do not give up!
This stage is called "Traveler's Rest", and so you can imagine this place having been a resting stop for travelers for generations. The wells have dried out, and so they've had to dig new ones over the course of history.
Indeed, this is a place with a history, and the history is implied simply by adding multiple wells and a name indicating what they have been used for. What we see in front of us may merely be a moment, but our mind reaches far into the past.
Doesn't this make the place come alive to you? So much is achieved with so little.
Here are some stages you can interpret on your own. I'll help you along by asking some questions:
Consider the shape of the base and the height of the stage. How is the mass is distributed in relation to the base? What kind of volume is this stage?
Imagine that you are a person walking through the stage, exploring it. Where would you be able to enter the stage, and walking through it, where would you exit? Is there perhaps more than one way to move through it? Back and forth, alternate routes, dead ends and roads that lead outside the stage.
What structures do you see? What vegetation is there? How would they have come to be? How are they placed in relation to each other?
Does the stage invite to any kind of activity? Does that activity necessitate stopping or can you do it while passing through?
Is the stage unrealistic in some way? Why would it be presented that way?
What does the title say about the story of the level? Does it surprise you? Does it give you information you wouldn't get from the stage itself? Or does it simply amplify what you already see?
When we inhabit a space, our minds form stories of how they have been or can be used. Pondering this, we imagine what feelings must've gone through the people who used them. In a sense, we can say that these places contain the remnants of emotions past. They roam the grounds like ghosts and bear witness to what has been before.
Hopefully you have now tasted some of the poetry hidden in these stages. I have asked myself many times why this game is so stimulating to play, and I believe this is part of the answer.
Thanks to Cesar and Shoda for the rips.