8 Ways To Not Spatially Organize Your Game (Banjo-Kazooie: Part 2)

In light of Super Mario Odyssey’s release, I realized there’s a timely angle to look at BK with. Rather than summarize the levels like with Part 1, I’ll go over some of the major causes of getting lost/confused in BK. By no means do I suggest these are bad things to do, but they may be counterproductive to your goals in a 3D game, especially if you are doing something with ‘box-garden’ design like BK (or Mario 64, etc.)

Maybe this will make your Mario Odyssey playthrough more interesting, given that it is a semi-box-garden style design? Let’s see… at number one…

1. Mismatch of Interior Size to Exterior Visual Size

See TVTropes’ “Bigger on the Inside” page.

At least BK is consistent with this! Nearly every interior space in BK is much bigger than the exterior would suggest. This is something you might *Want* to do in a 3D game. Say you have a central castle in a level that you also need to navigate the exterior grounds of. It feels better for that castle to not be huge and boring to walk around. But if the castle’s interior is proportionately small, then it might not be as exciting or interesting, unless you are working in the style of Dark Souls or similar ‘realistic’ architecture games.

The “bigger on the inside” trope, can often make areas easier to navigate (take small pokemon starting towns). But, when a particular structure that is “Bigger on the Inside” is in 3D and has too many entrances, it can become confusing.

Example: In level 7, Mad Monster Mansion,  the exterior  is realistically sized, to make it easier to navigate around and see, but then the inside is far larger, to make it more fun to move around in.

One problem here is you can enter the mansion through a front door or a window to the left. Though these two entrances are only a few feet apart, they lead to entirely different spaces – respectively, a gigantic dining room, and some smaller  alcove. To make matters worse, the alcove should technically be inside the dining room.

This makes it harder to make a mental map of the overall level. We don’t just have to remember that these two spaces connect. We also have to remember the additional information that the two spaces are related in an non-physically-realistic manner. This mostly matters in box-garden-style games, where you progressively consume and make a map of the level. In a more linear game, it may not matter as much. I do the “larger on the inside” thing a few times in All Our Asias. The difference with AOA, is that remembering the specific connections between spaces is not as important, thus it’s less likely to result in being lost. Though there still may be a sense of disorientation – which may be good!

2. poorly-signed, screen-transition-connected subareas

Poorly-signed means an entrance to an area is not very distinct – it’s hard to identify where the entrance is going.

A screen-transition-connected area is when you go from one subarea of a level to another and the screen fades to black, or there’s  a loading screen, etc. E.g.: Mansion to mansion exterior in the above example.

Most games need screen transitions. It is worth mentioning that the more ‘screen fades’ you have in a 3D level, the harder it will be to remember how to navigate it. How many times have you left some new building in real life, and not been sure which way to turn? The same thing happens in games. A screen transition breaks the sense of spatial continuity and causes disorientation. This becomes more of an issue the larger an environment grows.

Generally a 3D game might fix the disorientation problem with a minimap or some kind of map – something to help you get your bearings when entering a new space. But… over-reliance on a map will reduce how well a player picks up on landmarks and really learns how to navigate a space. Or the game can make the inside/outside relatively clear and with few entrances. E.g., the sandcastle puzzle in Treasure Trove Cove is a very iconic building, and so it’s easy to know where it goes from looking at it. Again, in a more linear game, this is not as big of a problem, because you can generally emphasize that the place you are *leaving* is not as important as where you’re going. But in something with a box-garden design you need to be more careful.

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This issue compounds with the interior/exterior size mismatch problem.

The worst textbook example of this, which BK does not have, is straight up teleporting you to another place without any sense of logical spatial connection. Think teleport mazes in puzzle or RPG games.

BK has this issue in a few places.

  • Mad Monster Mansion: the mansion has many window entrances, that are of course hard to keep track of because they look the same.
  • Rusty Bucket Bay: The level’s outer rim with storehouses/etc have many entrances that are hard to keep track of because of similar appearance. The main boat has many portholes you can enter with similar problems.
  • Gobi’s Valley (Level 6, which I’ll come back to soon), which features pyramids and sphinxes with entrances. What’s on the outside doesn’t always match the inside… and so it’s hard to remember where a particular challenge is. Still, there are relatively few rooms in Gobi’s Valley so it doesn’t become a huge issue.

BK does get it right, though. E.g.:

  • Mumbo’s Mountain has a single anthill. Easy to know where that goes.
  • The big turtle and crocodile in Bubblegloop Swamp. Go to a simple place.
  • Christmas Tree and single ice cave in Freezeezy Peak.

3. Swimming

Swimming in BK is a nightmare, probably its biggest mistake. There’s a short air meter, even *enemies*, sometimes a shark that chases you, and in a later level the water drains your air meter twice as fast. Not to mention, swimming is slowly and unwieldy, and you are expected to collect things underwater.

Why is it disorienting? Well, you are moving in all three dimensions, freely. Water is usually harder to see in, and because you don’t have gravity stabilizing you, and the controls are so bad, it’s super easy to get turned around or confused as to where you are going. 3rd person cameras can be a little tricky in the water. This makes levels like Clanker’s Cavern or parts of Rusty Bucket Bay much harder than they need to be.  Being in water is sort of like throwing static all over a minimap or just negating all the progress you made in trying to remember where you’ve gone in a space. Add in the air meter, and you now have pressure that makes it harder to think clearly.

I’m iffy about water. I would just leave it out of my games, or make it more of some kind of jetpack like control, where the Y-axis movement is not totally free – some way of making it less disorienting for the player. At the least, keeping your ‘water entry areas’ relatively distinct could be a good move (rather than say, a giant lake you could enter from any point on the shore.)

4. Poorly signed / laid out tunnels

It’s hard to keep your sense of direction in tunnels due to the visual uniformity. It’s also difficult to use landmarks to reference where you have come from and where you want to go. All you see is tunnel.

This is made worse by slightly curving tunnels: you can’t try to remember right angles or ‘easy’ directional changes, you can only follow the tunnel and hope you find an exit. Good way to make you feel lost, though! Mixed with a map, this can actually be okay (think the maze-like tunnel dungeons of SMT Nocturne.)

You can make tunnels harder to navigate with by making their entrances and exits discreet. Put lots of tunnels next to each other to make things even worse.

And to top it off, you could even put tunnels in the water!

Example: Navigating the water tunnels in the final leg of the hub world. This has problems: not only are you using the most disorienting mode of movement (Swimming), but you are connecting places with tunnels.

(Left: an underwater tunnel in the hub world. Right: a tunnel entrance, then the tunnel.)

Or, the tunnels in the water in Clanker’s Cavern. The entrances’ similar coloration makes it easy to forget which tunnel you’ve visited.

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5. Lack of Color Variation in Level

Gobi’s Valley: everything is Yellow.

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While this at-a-distance picture looks fine, you’re much closer to things in the game’s 3rd person camera, and so even the structural distinctions might get lost amongst the overall Yellow. It’s good that the borders of Gobi’s Valley are brown, at least. Anyways, it follows that if everything is a similar color, it’s harder to tell parts of the level apart.

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Compare Mumbo’s Mountain where paths lead you around and there’s clearer color distinctions with the grass, hills, water, central mountain.

6. Lines of sight to other parts of the level broken by walls

When you can’t see to the rest of a level, you can easily feel lost or boxed in… in some ways this is a less intense ‘tunnel effect’. You aren’t sure where you are going or how you are oriented. Mad Monster Mansion has this problem: the hedge fences are tall, uniformly dark, so it’s really hard to tell what side of the mansion you’re on sometimes.  Click Clock Wood can be tough to remember where you are (at first) because your line of sight to the other side of the level is cut off by the central giant tree.

Compare Rusty Bucket Bay, which has a central boat in a pool, then a perimeter area. You can at least see what side of the boat you are on, so it’s easy to tell where you are overall in the level (though not necessarily easy to get to somewhere due to the water – RBB has its issues.)

BK pretty consistently increases the ‘broken lines of sight’ as the levels get bigger, partially because of more landmarks / more open space. In some ways, BK’s difficulty comes from having to remember more and more of a 3D space in your head. I think spatial organization topic is why Mumbo’s Mountain (Level 1) feels so strong – it’s really easy to get a sense of the level’s scale at a glance.

Level 4, Bubblegloop swamp (mentioned later), breaks lines of sight – but because it organizes its space in a hub-spoke form, it’s not too bad to navigate. I kind of like the hub-spoke structure: put challenges or singular things at the end of a spoke, so people know how to navigate back to the hub to find the next thing they didn’t do or see.

7. Lack of Landmarks

I wanted to throw this one in here, BK actually does this really well. But  if you are designing something in an ‘box-garden’ fashion like BK, you should make sure the sections of the level have some distinct feature to them – a landmark – that can be used for players to navigate with and judge their sense of place. One issue I’ve seen with first-time Unity students is making the terrain tool and creating high, bumpy and indistinct mountains. A good way to make landmarks is to do concept sketches of a level and include distinct sections/buildings/geological forms.

Landmark examples…

  • The termite hill in Mumbo’s Mountain.
  • The central mountain of Treasure Trove Cove.
  • Clanker, in clanker’s cavern.
  • Freezeezy Peak’s Snowman.
  • Click Clock Wood’s mumbo house.

I really love the structure of Bubblegloop Swamp – while I think its color choices can be a bit uniform and confusing, it has a central location with different branches, and each branch has clear landmarks to let you know what the branch is. My one complaint is the maze in the bottom left, which is hard to see from the center, and thus, hard to remember that there’s a Mumbo hut there (a place you need to go to transform into an alligator.)

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8. Excessive + confusing vertical layering

This relates a little to how swimming can get confusing, with having too much freedom of movement in 3D space. When a level starts to build tons of vertical layers, it gets harder to remember where you are – you aren’t just thinking about your flat, X-Z plane position, but also the vertical Y position.

In BK, most clear is the sense of place you lose when climbing up the giant tree in Click Clock Wood (see 2:35 on here). While you can sort of remember where you generally are on the spiral path, it’s hard to remember what is all the way below you.

Treasure Trove Cove initially feels daunting because you have both the ground-level paths and the rocky-raised-structure paths.

This is also why a lot of early 2D platformers can be confusing – too much vertical layering, and the camera is very close to the player so it’s hard to see what’s around you.  (Watch Toy Story 2 for a while.) Maybe this is also why Symphony of the Night and Super Metroid feature minimaps. This is partially why Even the Ocean featured mostly linear levels.

It’s not like you can’t vertically layer spaces or have vertical variation – but it might be good to keep the vertically layered space linear (like the timed challenge in Bubblegloop Swamp – see 1:34).

Now compare that to say, the scaffolding of an apartment building construction site, with intersecting scaffolding – that could get confusing, fast, depending on the level design!

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That’s all for Banjo-Kazooie – it’s a nice game to check out if you haven’t, at least for the first 2 levels !

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I’m Sean Han Tani and I worked on Anodyne and Even the Ocean. I write a lot of music and also teach music and game design at SAIC in Chicago. Now, I’m working on a 3D game coming out this year, All Our Asias.

You can check out more of my writing here.

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