(Note: The following entry contains massive spoilers for the opening of Half Life 2 as it is the only way to provide examples on this concept)
Going back to my entry on FEAR I briefly touched on this concept of sectional game design and for this entry I want to expand on it. To begin here is a base definition:
Sectional Game Design: To design levels as a set of different sections as opposed to a single theme.
Many video games have an overall theme that sets the pace of a level. From finding a mcguffin at the end, killing everything in sight or a simple turret defense level, each one of these levels is primarily made up of one mechanic or interaction. Sectional Game Design however instead removes that theme and instead develops a level section by section to deliver a different experience between each one. Currently the developer I’ve seen use this the most effectively (and the basis for this entry) would be Valve with the Half Life series.
In HL2, levels are not defined as in other games as having a clear start and an end that whisks you somewhere else. Instead the start of a level is shown by a 5 second caption. To get started, in my opinion the following are the classification of game play sections in HL2:
Shooter: The player fighting the Combine with their standard armaments.
Exposition: Player is listening to NPCs talk about events, there is no combat during these sections and the player has to wait for it to end before moving on.
Transitional: Player moving from one section to another, there is no fighting during this section and the player can take their time moving through the section. Secret caches of items could be found during this part.
Puzzle: Player has to solve a puzzle to get where they need to go. Sometimes there may be enemies here.
Event: The player takes part in a specific event doing something different that most likely will not be repeated in the game (Example: driving a specific vehicle, defending an area, etc).
What Valve did with HL 2 was for each level, the player is constantly going back and forth between these five sections. Now I’m going to break down a part of the first level of HL2 to explain this.
(Exposition) The player is listening to G Man talk and wait for the train to arrive.(Transitional) Getting off the train the player is free to look around the train station as far as the Combine solders will let them. (Exposition) The player is going through a checkpoint and gets pulled aside by a solder and gets taken to an integration room. Here the player meets Barney and after talking for a few minutes the player is told to find their way to a lab and gets pushed out the door.(Puzzle) Stuck in the room the player must stack boxes to create a makeshift platform to get out of the window. (Transitional) The player explores the courtyard and apartment complex of City 17. (Event) Walking into a raid the player is attacked by Combine solders and has to flee through the complex and onto a roof to escape. (Exposition) After being knocked down the player is saved By Alyx who then leads them to the lab to meet up with Barney and Kleiner. After talking the player is put through a teleportation portal; they end up outside and are told by Barney to find a way through the city. (Shooter) Armed with a crowbar the player can start attacking enemies.
There is more to the first level of Half Life 2 but I’m going to stop there. What I just described was most likely about 15 to 20 minutes of play time (unless the player spends a lot of time in the transitional sections). Noticed how many times the player switched to a different section and now picture how the rest of Half Life 2 can be defined like this.
There are two big advantages of sectional game design. First is the pacing, by keeping the interaction of the player constantly changing it makes the game space flow a lot better compared to titles that just have the player doing one thing for 30 minutes. Later on in HL2 there are some sections that are just a minute or so long but that it is still enough to keep things moving along.
Another advantage which I know sounds corny is that it gives a sense of scale to the game. The title really does feel like an adventure when you take out the concept of levels. When you are describing the game to a friend you’re not talking in terms of “fire level, ice level, etc” but instead you discuss the moments that happen like ” racing across the desert, last stand in a city, etc”.
So far I’ve spent the majority of this entry on Half Life 2, however there are other titles that follow this concept. Action Adventure games lend themselves well to this as they are already split from the genre title alone. The Legend of Zelda series splits the game play between over world and dungeon and then within the dungeons split things further into puzzle and action segments.
Credit goes to my friend Corvus (Elrod) for reminding me of Psychonauts, here the game is split between exploring the camp and then the minds of the people you run across. Each mind was designed to emphasize a different mechanic and personality. Within each mind the game play is further broken down with different sections or challenges the player will have to face, such as going from a platforming segment, to solving a quick puzzle and ending things with a boss fight.
Recently the Super Mario Galaxy series is another excellent example. In essence the game is just sections of platforming goodness made bite sized for the player to explore. Granted you could argue that we just have a bunch of levels but I would say that since the average galaxy takes about five to ten minutes (not counting retries) to finish a challenge does keep things sectional.
My next example comes from Out of This World (with the re mastered version available on Good Old Games /end plug). OOTW is pure sectional design, there are no breaks in the game play and the only real way the player knows that they have moved on is through the checkpoint system. While the game play is simplistic the atmosphere and minimalistic story make the whole greater than the parts. For OOTW I would categorize the sections as the following:
Transitional: Moving from one screen to another where the player is not in danger.
Puzzle: Player has to solve some puzzle, such as finding a way to open a door or kill a guard.
Shooter: Player gets into a laser fight with the aliens.
One important detail is that “Puzzle” in OOTW could be considered “Event” sections from Half Life 2. The reason is that OOTW is so short that the encounters and situations don’t repeat themselves giving the game a sense of variety in the challenges. My final example is both a good use of sectional design and an example of what not to do with it and I’m reaching into the way back machine for this.
Star tropics and its sequel Zoda’s Revenge was a two game series on the original Nintendo, the first one came out in the late 80s and the sequel was in 95 I believe. Both were classified as Action-Adventure titles and that is also how the game’s sections were defined. During the adventure segments, the game was played from a top down view similar to the original Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior games. The player explored looking for information and hidden items to give them access to the dungeons where the action takes place.
The action segments still take place from a top down view but it is zoomed in, similar to the original Zelda or Crystalis. The player goes from room to room in the dungeon fighting creatures and looking for hidden paths and items. In the first Star tropics the player can only move and attack in the cardinal directions. This became challenging when fighting enemies who can move diagonal as well as the bigger boss enemies. For the sequel the developers not only allowed the player to move and jump in any direction but also allowed them to control their movement in mid air.
Putting both titles side by side, Zoda’s Revenge is more refined during the action segments thanks to the improved controls, however when we look at the complete picture, this is where in my opinion the original beats the sequel.
In the first Star tropics the adventure segments had a purpose and their own challenge for the player, such as the piano puzzle or finding your way through a maze. It was a way of challenging the player and giving them a break from the combat. In the sequel it started out the same way with the first two chapters but after that the adventure segments served little purpose. There were no puzzles or reason to explore, they were just there to fill a gap it seems in the game play or to pad out the game. What this amounts to in my opinion is that it gave the original better pacing and made the experience grander because of it.
The challenge of sectional design is that there has to be purpose to each section, whether it is used to give the player a break or set the stage for a fight. Looking at the games I mentioned it’s almost like writing a script for a TV show or movie scene by scene. Also you can’t have a section last for a long period of time such as for more than 30 minutes as it’s not really a section anymore. For example action titles that have the player fighting for 20 minutes then stopping for 2 minutes to solve a puzzle then going back to killing. The great part about Half Life 2 is how quick the game transitions between each section.
One final important detail to note, sectional game design should not be taken from this entry as the holy grail of game design. There are plenty of great titles that succeed by polishing and refining one or two game mechanics and go from there. Genres such as strategy and fighting would not work with this kind of development in mind and I feel that standard multi player games would be very difficult to develop like this.
For designers looking at improving the pacing of their games, breaking down their title section by section is a great way to see what works, what doesn’t and where things need to be improved and can turn a game from a linear sequence of events to a grand adventure.