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The hourglass philosophy behind Dishonored and Deathloop's genre-leading level design

Colt following.

A funky pale blue and orange wallpaper for Deathloop. Lead characters Colt and Julianna can be seen on it, against a swirling pattern, with other comic characters drawn on too. Lots of energy, lots of style.
Image credit: Bethesda / Deathloop

Arkane Lyon, the creator of the Dishonored series and Deathloop, is a studio known for level design. Immersive sims run on the quality of their levels, of being playgrounds that offer you multiple routes and therefore gameplay choices about how to tackle them. They need to hold up to your curiosity and experimentation, while at the same time tell you a story without really seeming like they're telling you a story. Frankly, it's an art, and there aren't many better at it than Arkane.

How does it do it? Let me introduce to you the hourglass principle. It's a principle explained to me by Arkane's level-making maestro Dana Nightingale, who's now campaign director at the studio and working on, well, whatever the studio is working on now - she was tight-lipped about it. Redfall, remember, is being made at the other Arkane studio, Arkane Austin.

Dana Nightingale is known for being the mind behind the Clockwork Mansion in Dishonored 2, although she obviously had a lot of help; and she's the person who fixed down the critical path in Deathloop - as in, who you have to kill and when - and helped work out how to track it all and present it to you. Given the time-looping nature of the game, that's no small feat. In other words, Dana Nightingale knows her stuff.

And it's she who tells me, in a podcast interview available everywhere now (and which covers a lot more besides) all about this hourglass idea. And it begins with, she says, something the studio has nicknamed "the white rabbit".

I meet Dana Nightingale. She has a lovely array of mementos and memorabillia on her bookshelves behind her.

"This is the thing that catches the players attention," she explains. "Whatever it is in the environment - either it's a specific enemy, it's something they want to go get, it's a doorway, it's a clue in the story - it's what gets them on the right track."

It's followed by the infiltration phase. "We always have this infiltration phase," she says, and it's here you typically find a barrier of some kind - physical or otherwise - barring your way. You have to work out how to get past it. "A classic example of this is ''I want to get inside of that building.'" There's one way in and multiple ways you can do it - which do you choose?

"Then, of course, there's the interior map - that's our big sandbox playground space. That's where things can get very freeform," she says. And I can think of multiple spaces like this in both Dishonored or Deathloop - large buildings or open spaces you have to clear out or navigate, all in your own way.

"But then it has to narrow back down to - we call this 'the last metres'." And it's here the design becomes more bespoke depending on what it is you're trying to achieve at the time. Nightingale reels off a few questions as examples: "What is the player's main goal for this entire space? What has this all been leading to? What's the specific challenge of overcoming it? What does the player get after defeating the challenge?"

It might be you facing off against one of the visionaries in Deathloop, for example, that final confrontation with them. Or it might be an assassination target in Dishonored. It's the climax of the level. But it should never end there.

"After that we always want an exfiltration," she says. "We don't want to just end it immediately after the goal is completed. There's always a moment where you re-traverse the space you've been through, or go in a brand new direction, but you're still escaping the scenario."

And then, finally, "a very player-signalled departure moment of the player opting into saying, 'Yes, I'm finished. Yes, I'm leaving.'" Think of the exit doors in Deathloop - and Dishonored, come to think of it. They're there to double-check whether you're done and ready to go.

That's "the dry skeleton" of how Arkane Lyon designs a map, then, but it's not the full hourglass philosophy. "That's just the top half of the hourglass," Nightingale says. "I still have two more pieces to explain.

Cover image for YouTube videoLet's Play DEATHLOOP - HIGTON'S KICK RUN CHALLENGE - EGX 2021
Imagine only being able to kick in the game. Oh Ian.

"The pinch of the hourglass is really about the gameplay loop," she goes on. And the loop is about what players are feeling in every moment while they're playing the game. Crucial to it is a feeling of understanding.

"We want the player to be able to observe the scenario and understand the goal, the obstacle, and what they'll get afterwards. And then have the moment of them being able to make a plan, carry out that plan, and if it's unsuccessful and they fail, try again."

You are not being swept along by something you don't understand, in other words. You are consciously, purposefully, directing the action.

"And then at the bottom half of the hourglass - and now we're getting really theoretical - is the idea of affordance and intentionality," she adds. "Affordance can mean like a thousand different things. But what I need affordance to do, as a designer, is to be able to design the whole game in a way where the player understands that this is a world that operates under rules, and these rules are going to be consistent. And if they understand a quarter to a third of the rules, the rest of it is going to be comprehensible."

Affordance is making sure that players grasp enough about how the game works that you can transport them to a completely new situation and they don't feel confused about how to play there or what to do. They know enough to get stuck in.

"And then the intentionality is the player always doing things on purpose and doing things with a goal in mind," Nightingale says. What Arkane doesn't want, maybe surprisingly, is players saying to themselves, "Okay, I'm in a space, these things are interactive, these things are destructible; I'm just going to do random stuff and see what the game does."

As she says: "That's playing with no intentionality. And there's a lot of fun and value in that type of play, but it's not really what we're trying to do in our maps. We want the player to always keep in mind, 'I'm trying to accomplish this.'

Arkane wants you to always be following a plan - the plan you hatched based on your understanding of the consistent way the game works. In other words: "The game has behaved in the way I anticipated and I achieved the goal."

Cover image for YouTube videoDishonored 2 and the fear of getting caught
Here's a nice video from Johnny, from a few years ago, on why they loved Dishonored 2.

And that's the Arkane hourglass, as taught to Nightingale by Christophe Carrier, who was the campaign director before her, and with some embellishments by Joachim Daviaud, who was a lead level designer there. Both Carrier and Daviaud are no longer at Arkane Lyon, by the way, but at Weird West developer WolfEye Studios with former Arkane founder Raphael Colantonio.

Given Nightingale's level design expertise, then, it's easy to imagine she's very critical when playing other people's work. And, well, it depends.

"I'm very happy in level design when first of all, I'm not thinking about the level design, I'm just enjoying the game," she says. "But I'm always looking for that combination of affordance and intentionality. Do I understand the tools the game is giving me? Do I trust the game to be honest with me? Am I going to move from one scenario to the next and the tools the game is giving me are going to behave differently? Which is a very big red flag. Do I always understand what my goal is? Do I always understand my obstacles? Those kinds of things are what I look for.

"And if all of that's working at level, let's call it good-to-great, it all just melts away and I stop being aware of it," she says. "When it reaches into sublime and phenomenal, then I'm thinking about level design again," she laughs. "At that point I'm like, 'Teach me, teach me!'"

And there is a recent example of a game that's at that sublime or phenomenal level. She barely has to even think about it when I ask what it is. "Outer Wilds," she says. "Some of the best level design I've ever... So much we can learn from how that's all set up and the use of curiosity as the player's main motivation. The main way you interact with the entire world was just so good."

As I said, the full podcast interview with Dana Nightingale is now available everywhere, in which we talk about making Deathloop and the Clockwork Mansion, and about the broomstick that saved Dishonored 2 expansion Death of the Outsider from breaking and not being able to ship at all. We talk about her roundabout way into games, too, and about why she loves level design so much in the first place. I love her answer to this, by the way. She says maps, or levels, are the vehicles or vessels that hold everything you do in a game. Cool, huh?

I hope you enjoy the podcast if you listen to it. There's a full One-to-One archive of similar podcasts if you want more.