A History and Analysis of Level Design in 3D Computer
Designing game spaces is not a new phenomenon. Children do it on a daily basis,
constructing complicated games governed by rule sets that can change at the drop of a
hat. The design of computer game spaces, on the other hand, has existed for only about
30 years and in that narrow timeframe has evolved dramatically. The level design in
most early titles was part and parcel of the game design itself; often the programmer was
the person designing the gameplay, as was the case with many titles by Atari
Corporation. One person could, much like an auteur, create an entire game alone, but as
time went on and games grew more complex the division of labor required led to the
creation of a new position; that of the “level designer.”
Defining Level Design & Level Designers
Level designers, or map designers, are the individuals responsible for constructing
the game spaces in which the player competes. As such, the level designer is largely
responsible for the implementation of the game play in a title. The name “level designer”
is something of a misnomer, at least for modern games. Originally, games were
comprised of distinct levels of difficulty, beginning with Level One. Each level was more
difficult than the last, providing steadily increasing level of difficulty, hence the term
“level”. Modern titles follow this formula to a degree, but the levels are no longer as
simple as they were in the mid 1970’s and early 1980’s. In most modern titles, the
distinction between individual levels is subtle, with transitions happening relatively
seamlessly. Alternately, individual levels can be extremely large and complex, with
storyline tying the individual levels together. Indeed, the term “level” now refers less to
the increasing difficulty of upcoming missions and more often to the next mission or
more accurate name for the position would be “game space designer.” In the computer
game industry the term level designer has become both sufficiently entrenched and
sufficiently broad in meaning that everyone understands what the job consists of.
In the context of this paper, “level design” refers to the creation of levels,
missions, maps, game environments, stages and any other space wherein the player or
their avatar interacts with the game world. The primary focus of this paper will be on
“first person shooter”, or FPS titles, though examination of non-FPS titles that made
significant technical or gameplay advances is also possible. For those unfamiliar with the
genre of FPS games, they can be most simply characterized as games wherein the view
on the screen is designed to simulate the view of the player’s character or avatar inside
the game world. Examples of traditional FPS’s would be games such as id Software’s
Doom and Quake, Valve Software’s Half-Life and Bungie’s Halo. Additionally, other titles such as Lucasarts’ X-Wing and Tie Fighter, Parallax’s Descent and Origin’s Wing Commander could also be considered to be first person shooters, since they place the player in a first person perspective, albeit inside the cockpit of a vehicle.
It is important to note that level design is not unique to three dimensional games,
but is an art that applies to all genres of computer games. The level design in a
two-dimensional side scrolling strategy such as Psygnosis’ 1991 Lemmings requires a great deal of forethought and testing. The extra dimension present in a 3D title adds a
significant amount of work to the level designer, who must now consider movement
across all three axes of movement – x, y and z, instead of merely x and y. Reaching the
current state of the art in 3D was no easy task. Before there was Unreal Tournament,
small steps, casual games, labors of love and simple curiosity that laid the foundations for
all the games to come.
The Beginning – 1974 to 1991
When contemplating what game represents the original first-person perspective
3D game, the answer is not immediately apparent. Depending on the age of the person
being asked, some might state, that Battlezone was the first 3D computer game, whereas others might name Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, or even Quake. While these titles may be some of the best known examples of the genre, the first documented 3D first person game
appears to be Spasim, a program written by Jim Bowery for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s PLATO network (Bowery). Bowery describes Spasim as follows:
Spasim was a 32-player 3D networked game involving 4 planetary systems with up to 8 players per planetary system, flying around a space in which the players appeared
to each other as wire-frame space ships and updated their positions about every second.
Bowery recalls that Spasim, short for Space Simulation, was originally released in March of 1974, but locating documentation of the exact dates for the release of many
PLATO games is very difficult since little conclusive documentation exists, probably
because these games were not seen as terribly serious endeavors so little effort was made
to record their creation and evolution. Users of the PLATO network probably had little
idea that these games would prove to be the genesis of entire genres of games. Bowery
Fortner. Bowery further asserts that Airfight eventually led to the development of a tank simulator for the US army. This tank simulator, Panzer (or Panzer PLATO), appeared on the PLATO network in 1977, and was apparently a highly detailed simulation for the
time (Dunnigan, Ch. 6 paragraphs 7-8). Panzer was an evolution of an earlier PLATO game called Panther, programmed by John Edo Haefeli, which was also a tank simulator.
Panther and Panzer would prove to be the inspiration for a game that would mark the appearance of polygon-based 3D graphics in both the arcade and the home: Atari’s
While Bowery claims to have the first documented 3D first person game, this
claim does not go entirely unchallenged. Maze War, also known as The Maze Game,
Maze and Maze Wars, was a program developed at the NASA/Ames research center in the summer of 1973 that could also be a contender for the title of the first 3D first-person
game. Maze War was aptly named, consisting of a maze constructed of polygon walls at 90 degree angles, through which a player could navigate and then shoot at other players
(Thompson, slides 10-13). Maze Wars included technical innovations that were not
present in many of the early PLATO titles. While the ships in Spasim were wire frame polygons that one could see through, the walls of the labyrinth in Maze War used a set of algorithms to eliminate any polygons that would not be visible to the player, lending an
impression that the walls were solid (Thompson, slide 10). This is a technique that would
not be seen again for some time, particularly not in the home computer market.
It is important to realize that as impressive as the technical achievements made in
both PLATO games were, as well as in games developed on other networks, these
systems were among the most powerful systems in the world at the time, and
prohibitively expensive for all but institutional use. True mass-market innovation, and the
creation of a more mainstream game industry, would have to wait for the emergence of a
broader market in personal computers.
For personal computers, the history of level design for 3D computer games begins
with the 1983 release of Battlezone for the Apple II and PC. A “port”, or translation, of the 1980 coin-operated arcade game of the same name, Battlezone allowed players to take control of a tank tasked with destroying enemy tanks and avoiding missiles. Battlezone is significant because it represents the first use of polygonal environments and opponents
combined on home computers, along with the ability to move through the gameplay
space, at least on the X and Y axes of movement. The move into polygonal environments
was the beginning of the transition from the two-dimensional sprite-based environments
and into the world of full 3D. Battlezone represented the most basic of polygon
environments, with all sides of a polygonal object being visible at all times. This served
to enhance the futuristic setting of the title, but also meant that everything in the game
appeared to be made of glass, since players could see through the wire frame models.
Battlezone also continued the proud tradition of computer games using storyline to hide engine technical limitations; battles were fought “in a large valley completely surrounded
by mountains and volcanoes” (Battlezone Operations Manual, p. 17), thus explaining why you couldn’t move beyond the area you began in. Regardless of these limitations,
The level design for Battlezone was relatively straightforward, in as much as it consisted of creating a game space (the “large valley surrounded by mountains”) in which
the player could drive around and destroy targets for points. Essentially, the level design
was that of a digital Roman arena, wherein the player could do battle, and it was a design
that worked well for the limitations of the graphics engine, and provided enjoyable and
novel gameplay for the arcade and home computer markets. Still, the gameplay was little
removed from that of Battlezone’s PLATO forbears.
Not all attempts at 3D games involved the use of polygon-based 3D environments
like those used in Battlezone; several games attempted to leverage other technology to provide an impression of a three-dimensional world. Notable efforts include Lucasfilm
Games, now LucasArts, 1986 title Rescue on Fractalus!, a first-person title that used fractal generation technology to render the game world. The title is notable both for the
use of a simulated 3D world, as well as for the first-person perspective. The player took
the role of a pilot looking out from a cockpit, tasked with rescuing other pilots stranded
on the surface of the planet Fractalus (Langston). The concept of a spacecraft based FPS
would later return in LucasArts’ 1993 title X-Wing and 1994’s Tie Fighter space combat simulators, as well as Origin’s 1990 release of Wing Commander. Rescue on Fractalus!
was completed in May of 1984, but due to a number of exclusivity decisions the title did
not become legitimately available for home computer systems until 1986 (Langston).
According to Langston, however, an incomplete version of the game for home computers
was widely pirated.
Polygon based engines, however, remained the most popular and effective way of
designers improved the technology. A PC port of the BBC micro and Acorn computer
title Elite,Elite Plus was a complex trading and combat simulation, wherein the player was given a spaceship and a small amount of funds then tasked with traveling to various
star systems and earning money. Firebird Software’s 1987 release of Elite Plus represents one of the first documented implementations of filled polygons (Rollings, 516-517), a
technique that solved the “glass enemies” issues of Battlezone by calculating and removing lines that would be blocked in a solid object. By combining these calculations
with the ability to fill the polygons that made up the enemy ships with color, Elite Plus
created enemies that had the illusion of a solid construction. This was a crucial step
towards realism. Elite Plus also featured an impressive amount of gameplay for its time, with eight galaxies and thousands of planets. Even today, having a designer specifically
craft such a universe would be a daunting task, so the authors of the software chose to use
a technique of pseudo-random generation of the worlds, allowing a complex universe in a
relatively small amount of space with a minimum of design effort.
The id Software title Wolfenstein 3D, released in 1992, is generally accepted as the start of the “First-Person Shooter” genre of 3D games, but id software was not the
first to experiment with texture mapped 3D games. That honor goes to the now-defunct
Looking Glass Technologies for their March 1992 title Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, which was also the first Role Playing Game, or RPG, to feature first-person action in a 3D environment. All 3D RPG titles from Morrowwind to World of Warcraft share
Ultima Underworld as a common ancestor, both graphically and spiritually, though
worse, Underworld moved the text-based RPG out of the realm of imagination and into the third dimension.
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss featured an extremely advanced graphical engine, far more advanced than what the better known Wolfenstein 3D would support.
Underworld could support a number of features that would not appear again until the release of Doom on December 10th, 1993 and, in at least one case, the release of Duke Nukem 3D years later on January 29th, 1996. While Wolfenstein would consist of a world with only 90 degree angles and ceilings all of the same height, Underworld allowed the use of varying height ceilings, and walls at 45 degree angles, allowing for much more
complex and realistic architecture. Further, while id software’s Doom and Apogee’s Rise of the Triad would introduce stairs, it would not be until Duke Nukem 3D that a major title from a company other than Looking Glass would feature inclined surfaces, allowing
ramps and other effects. All of these elements were in place in 1992 for Ultima Underworld and David Kusner states in “Masters of Doom” that id software only contemplated the idea of applying texture mapping after designer John Romero was
informed of what Looking Glass was doing with Ultima Underworld. Id software’s lead programmer, John Carmack, admits that id’s game Catacombs 3D, a dungeon-based title that beat Ultima Underworld to market by 6 months, was motivated primarily by
Romero’s interest in having id attempt a game with texture mapping. (Kusner, 89; Kent,
The texture mapping that Carmack added to Catacombs 3D was a significant innovation over previous titles. The texture maps were simple, consisting mostly of stone
helped to enhance the feeling of being outside (in certain levels) or trapped deep beneath
the earth. In an e-mail to the author, former id game designer and creative director on
Catacombs 3D,Tom Hall, stated that the texture mapping in Catacombs was “… the Wolfenstein technology, but in EGA”. Catacombs 3D also introduced a now-familiar element of many first-person shooter games; a visible weapon in the bottom center of the
screen. In Catacombs 3D, that visible weapon was one’s hand, from which a variety of magical spells could be projected to slay enemies. Again, level design and layout were
relatively simple, but the addition of the texture maps went a long way to deepening the
immersion of the game.
Catacombs 3D itself was an evolution of an earlier id title called Hovertank 3D, wherein the player drove around in a hovering tank, destroying enemies with its main gun
and rescuing trapped people. The gameplay was relatively straightforward, but it was the
engine that was something new. Id software’s head programmer, John Carmack, was
bothered by what he saw as excessively slow gameplay in flight simulator titles like Wing Commander and sought to create a faster 3D engine (Kushner 81-82). Carmack utilized a technique known as ray casting, allowing the computer to essentially draw only what the
viewer could see. This meant that the first id game based on this technology, Hovertank 3D, and its successor, Catacombs 3D, were much faster than any other 3D rendered game of the time. This emphasis on speed, however, meant less complexity in the levels, at
Evolution of the Engines
Wolfenstein 3D was a remake of Castle Wolfenstein, a title programmed by the late Silas Warner and originally created for the Apple II computer in 1981 (Kent, 458).
Castle Wolfenstein was subsequently ported to the Commodore 64 in 1983 and finally to DOS in 1984. The Wolfenstein 3D game engine was based on the same principles as that of Hovertank and Catacombs but with some major additions made by John Carmack.
Catacombs 3D’s engine supported EGA graphics, meaning that it could only display 16 colors, far from the millions of colors the human eye can discern in real life. Wolf3D also supported 16 color graphics, but included support for the VGA standard, allowing for 256
colors, a major step up (Kushner, 97). VGA also allowed for Wolfenstein to feature higher resolutions. These graphical upgrades, combined with the speed of John
Carmack’s improved rendering engine, achieved a level of immersion that surpassed
anything id had done before.
The emphasis on speed, however, again led to limitations on how detailed the
world was. Like Hovertank and Catacombs, the Wolf3D engine would draw just the walls, leaving the floors and ceiling a flat color (Kushner, 95; Hall). In a game set
completely indoors in a Nazi castle this was a decision that ultimately had little impact on
immersion, but it served to limit the flexibility of the engine. Texture mapped floors and
ceilings would have to wait until id’s next project.
Interactivity in Wolf3D was relatively limited, with the player having only two
ways to interact with the world; shooting things to kill them and opening doors by
pressing the spacebar, a universal “use” key. Wolf3D upped the ante, though, by adding
if a user hit the spacebar in front of them, the wall would slowly slide back, revealing a
hidden room (Kushner, 108). Hidden rooms and secret levels would play a major part in
future id games, and First-Person Shooters in general. The push walls were another
innovation by Tom Hall, who served as the director of Wolfenstein 3D (Kushner, 108-112), and served to reward the player for thoroughly exploring the game world. It was an
interesting gameplay mechanic, and one that grew out of a tradition in the video game
industry for including secrets, or “Easter eggs” for players to find (Kent 188-189). While
many would consider these “Easter eggs” to be afterthoughts, they present an important
opportunity for level designers to maximize player investment and interest in the game
world. Additionally, the careful placement of such Easter eggs or bonus areas can confer
additional replay value to a title, as well as providing significant benefit to the curious
player. Armor, medical kits and additional weaponry or ammunition are traditionally
found concealed in such hidden rooms, though later FPS titles such as Duke Nukem 3D
added in secret rooms that contained little benefit to the player but gave insight into the
minds and interests of the game and level designers.
Wolfenstein 3D also expanded on the weapon choices available to the player. In keeping with the style established by Catacombs 3D, the player’s chosen weapon was visible at the center of the bottom of the screen. This helped both with aiming and adding
a sense of actually seeing the world from your avatar’s perspective. This technique has
become a standard immersive device in First Person Shooters, and later titles have
expanded on the functionality, with some titles actually adding the ability so see the
players own feet when they look down. DreamWorks Interactive’s 1998 First Person
with the player being able to look down and see the female avatar’s ample bosom. The
player avatar had a heart tattoo on the upper part of the left breast which served as a
health indicator, removing the need for a health indicator in the player view.
The design of the levels in Wolf3D was accomplished using a proprietary
program, called TED5, developed by John Romero (Romero; Hall). TED5 was an
evolution of earlier tile-based editing programs that id used on Hovertank 3D and
Catacombs 3D (Hall). The levels were designed from a top-down perspective which was simple to do since all ceilings and walls had the same height in the Wolf3D engine (Romero). Designing what Romero referred to as a “high quality level” in TED5 for
Wolf3D could take “a few hours”. Romero also observes that “Back then, it didn't take
much to do a Wolf3D level since it was all abstractly represented by tiles - what you saw
on the screen in the editor is not what you saw on the screen in the game.” In terms of
pre-production, the designers would start by laying out the episodes, general themes and
enemies first, then start designing levels that the level designer themselves found to be
fun. There were few if any paper sketches of levels made, since the simplicity and speed
of the editor made it more time-efficient to simply create levels on the fly, versus doing
extensive pre-planning. Again, such simplicity was a direct result of the limited state of
the 3D presented in these early id software titles. In effect, the games were not truly three
dimensional, but could better be referred to as pseudo-three dimensional, since the player
did not have full range of movement, and all rooms were of a fixed height. There were no
stairs in Wolf3D, no ramps, and no way to change the players’ altitude.
Many of these engine limitations would soon be overcome, however, when id
First-Person Shooter genre, cementing many of the innovations in Hovertank 3D and
Wolfenstein 3D as fundamental elements for any FPS. Fast paced gameplay, a variety of powerful weaponry and detailed, realistic environments became hallmarks of FPS’s
subsequent to the release of Doom (Kent, 459). Indeed, Doom was such a watershed moment that most of the First-Person Shooters that followed its release were referred to,
somewhat derisively, as Doom clones.
The Doom engine supported a number of new features that finally made realistic and interactive environments possible. Instead of merely featuring doors that could be
opened, Doom featured the ability to alter the game world by using in-game switches and “triggers” to activate events. These events could range from a set of stairs rising out of
the ground to unsealing a room full of ravenous near-invisible monsters to bridges
emerging out of toxic slime. Additionally, Doom added in lifts, which could raise players to different levels inside the game world or, if used slightly differently, could act as
pistons and crush players against a ceiling. Further, the Doom engine’s support of
variable height floors and ceilings also meant that in addition to being able to move on all
three axes, more complex architecture could also be created. Tables, altars, platforms,
low hallways, ascending and descending stairs, spacious caverns and other objects could
all be created using geometry.
The ability to trigger events that could release monsters or alter geometry led
level designers to create a number of surprisingly complex traps for players to uncover as
they played through the game, from rapidly rising floors to bridges that would sink into
toxic sludge if players moved too slowly. A frequent occurrence in Doom would be
frequently, if a number of valuable items were left in plain view and easy access,
approaching them would unleash an attack. This gameplay mechanic was present in both
the 1994 release of Doom II and the 2004 release of Doom 3, though some players in
2004 were notably less amused. However, for Doom players, this was interactivity and detail that they had never seen before.
Doom’s support of variable height ceilings and floors meant that players were now free to move up and down in the game world, but not without limitations. Due to the
implementations of the engine technology, the game could not support rooms over rooms,
which meant that level designers could not have a second floor directly over the first
floor, as is common in architecture. Nevertheless, this was not a significant limitation,
and the ability to move around on all three axes was a major technical achievement. With
careful attention to detail, level designers could deceive players into thinking the
architecture was more complex.
The increasing architectural complexity was not limited merely to height changes,
as the Doom engine also supported walls that were at angles other than 90 degrees
(Kushner, 135). This was one of the most visible changes from the architecture present in
Wolfenstein, allowing much more realistic shapes. The engine supported only
horizontally sloped surfaces, however, and did not support vertically sloped surfaces.
This meant that walls could have an angle to them, but that ramps and other vertically
sloped surfaces were not possible. As a consequence, all floors and ceilings in Doom
were completely flat.
making for an improved appearance. Doom also supported a texture that could be projected onto the “sky”. This meant that when players looked outside or, as was often
the case, traveled outside, they could see an image of the sky and the surrounding terrain.
These textures could be changed, depending on what episode of the game, or level, the
player was in. The appearance of the sky textures was a subtle confirmation that until
now the majority of 3D First-Person Shooters had been confined to narrow internal
corridors, with no acknowledgement of an outside world.
In addition to architectural advances, Doom also added the ability to alter the light levels in a level. All levels in Wolfenstein 3D and earlier titles were lit at the same level throughout, with no variations. This led to a very artificial appearance, since areas
hundreds of virtual feet away were lit identically to areas just a few feet from the player.
In Doom, however, level designers could alter the lighting of certain areas, or even add simulated dynamic lighting, such as flickering lights. In many cases, the ability to alter
the lighting level was used to plunge the player into darkness at highly inopportune
moments, leading to players panicking as they were attacked by nearly unseen opponents,
desperately searching for a switch or trigger that would reactivate the lights. This use of
actual sources of light would be expanded upon further as game engines advanced.
The level designs for Doom were accomplished using much more advanced tools than previous id titles. Romero wrote an engine-specific level editing program called
DoomEd, which ran on the NeXTSTEP operating system, which was light-years more advanced than DOS, the then-current standard PC operating system or the newly
developed Microsoft Windows (Romero). Developed by NeXT Computers, a company
system and NeXT hardware was a powerful development tool for software designers, and
provided a perfect medium for John Carmack to develop the next-generation engine that
would power Doom. That meant, however, that all development had to be done on NeXT systems, and then ported over to the PC. This, combined with the new complexity of
designing worlds in a three-dimensional editor meant that the days of a simple tile-based
editor to create levels were over.
Despite the increasedrealism that Doom allowed, from a design perspective the levels were still more suggestive of a locale than representative. The levels could be
detailed in a way that gave the impression of a military base or demonic setting, but the
limitations of the engines prevented more detailed representations of the environments.
Doom did represent a major step forward in level design complexity and innovation, but it proved to be an even better illustration of the potential of the First-Person Shooter to
actually simulate real-life locations. Doom also illustrates that levels do not have to be based on easily recognizable locations in order for players to enjoy them, nor do they
have to conform to preconceptions of what an environment should look like. Few would
argue that the levels in Doom accurately represent what a research facility on an alien world would look like; indeed, the fact that the world is simultaneously familiar and
abstract (Kushner, 136) may be a fundamental part of the charm of the game. The
emphasis in Doom was not in levels that were recognizable, but in levels that were fun to play.
The emphasis on playability, the ephemeral “fun factor” is an important aspect of
poorly suited to serve as game environments A variety of factors conspire against the
level designer that seeks to use actual buildings and spaces in a simulation, but the
primary issue is that most real world locations are not designed to be played in, making
for an unmemorable experience. The key goal of a good level design is to balance setting
with flow, the balance between exploration and moving through a plausible game world
and interacting with the inhabitants and items in that world. Early Doom levels were likely accurate in terms of architectural style and function (Kushner, 136), but were
lacking in two distinct areas. First, the levels failed to highlight the innovations of such a
groundbreaking engine. Second, the levels failed to provide compelling or innovative
gameplay to the player, a cardinal sin in level design. Recognizing the problem, later
level designs emphasized the fast paced “run and gun” nature of the game, and also
served to showcase the technical advantages of the engine.
A later iteration of the Doom series, id software’s 2004 release of Doom 3, took a much different approach to level design, laying out highly detailed environments that
looked very much like what one would expect a base on Mars to resemble. However,
designers chose to take a progressive approach, wherein early levels appeared hyper-real,
but as players proceeded further into the facility, the levels grew increasingly abstract,
laced with pseudo-organic structures and, eventually, bringing the player into a gothic
nightmare vision of Hell itself. With an additional 11 years of technology, perhaps level
designers were now better able to bring the original vision of Doom to life. Conversely, the progression into more complex and inventive levels later in Doom 3 may be an example of level designers becoming more comfortable with their tools and the game
surprisingly common in game development. In several cases, levels designed early in a
project are later revisited and improved upon by level designers that are now much more
comfortable with their tools. In some certain cases, such as 1998 release of Valve
Software’s Half-Life, the development team may completely scrap earlier level designs and start anew, though financial constraints usually prevent such drastic steps.
Despite the many technological advances that Doom displayed, there were still some sacrifices made in the name of speed. Just as with Wolfenstein 3D, enemies and many objects in Doom were not constructed of polygons, and thus not actual 3D objects. Instead, the game rendered enemies, items and many decorative objects as sprites, simple
two-dimensional graphics. The advantages of sprites are that they require little processing
power to generate, and sprite-based characters could be designed relatively quickly. For
Wolfenstein, characters were manually drawn by artists, but for Doom several characters were created as clay models, and then digitally photographed in various poses. These
digital images were then adjusted and used as the various character attack and movement
animations (Kushner, 134-135). This approach reduced overhead while improving the
quality of the animations. One of the major downsides to using sprites, however, is that
they are two dimensional, meaning that they don’t actually look like part of the game
world, but instead like moving paper cut-outs. While this could be compensated for to
some degree, it meant that dead enemies and objects lying on the ground would always
appear to be facing the player, even if the player did a full circle around the objects.
Essentially, the objects appeared to have only one side, and the player could never see the
not a priority issue, and would eventually be dealt with when engines became fully
Before Doom, level design had centered on a single player experience. That is, levels were laid out only with one person in mind, the player, and how the player would
progress through the level. Doom, however, added the now-common idea of multiplayer gaming into the mix, which it called DeathMatch. Designing levels for multiplayer
requires a different set of priorities for level designers, depending on if the map being
designed is for co-operative play or, more commonly, a map for players to do battle
against one another, deathmatch-style. Level designers need to be aware of the size of the
map and how many players they are designing the map for. Too big a map and players
may never find one another, but too small a map and all semblances of tactics and
strategy is lost as whoever grabs the biggest weapon first will likely dominate. In modern
titles, multiplayer maps are usually specifically designed for multiplayer play, though
sometimes they are modifications or tweaks of levels found in the singleplayer game.
More often the levels multiplayer levels are custom-designed for multiplayer play. In
Doom, the single player levels did double-duty as multiplayer levels for deathmatch, as well as for the co-operative play. When designing for multiplayer, flow through the map
is very important, as players should be able to quickly move from one place to another,
particularly if being pursued. Weapon and item placement are also extremely important
in multiplayer games, as placing items such as armor or health replenishment too close to
powerful weapons can again unbalance the game, particularly if a player decides to
“camp” around these items and prevent other players from obtaining them. Several of the
excellent design. Doom also had another advantage over more modern titles. Each of its maps was a stand alone map, not structurally linked to the map before or after it, allowing
for a unified theme between maps but not requiring maps to directly flow into one
another. More recent games such as Ritual’s SiN, Valve’s Half-Life and Half-Life 2 and id’s own Doom 3 features a unified level structure, where each level is a single portion of a contiguous whole. Such level architecture helps to create a feeling of being part of a
larger world in the single player game but means that these levels, typically, are
unsuitable for Deathmatch.
The emphasis on single player storytelling and plot structure has also led to a
steep decline in the number of titles that allow cooperative play, since many of the
techniques and missions that are appropriate in single player are unworkable in
multiplayer. Further, since the emphasis in a single player is the individual player, there
is often some form of puzzle solving in order to allow the player to proceed. In Doom, this typically consisted of finding a key or switch to open a locked door, but in newer
games the puzzles or obstacles have increased in complexity. Puzzles are usually
structured such that they work only if there is one person attempting to solve them, and
the addition of anywhere from one to three additional players either renders the puzzles
too simple or possibly breaks the game. As such, commercial designers typically do not
create maps suitable for cooperative play as it is simply not time or cost effective.
Fortunately, Doom was also a leader in user-modifiable content. The game was essentially in two separate parts, with the engine being one part and content such as
levels, sound effects, animations and music being contained in special files called WADs,
could modify the program by themselves, adding in new content (Kushner, 166). Players
modifying games was not a new concept, since players had been developing content for
text-based role playing games for years, not to mention hacking Wolfenstein 3D and other titles to change the content. Hacking the executable files, the program itself, was a
concept that wasn’t embraced by the developers, since there was nothing to prevent
people from distributing the hacked executable, and thus the game. That meant software
piracy, which meant lost profits (Kushner, 166-167). By making the game easily
modifiable, Carmack and id software hoped to prevent piracy while encouraging
The decision to make Doom easily modifiable led to an explosion of creativity. Users began creating their own level editing programs and their own levels, along with
new music, new characters and entirely new textures. Drastic modifications, called Total
Conversions, such as Aliens Total Conversion emerged, transforming the corridors of Doom into the Atmosphere processor or Med Labs from the James Cameron film Aliens, complete with facehuggers, Aliens and pulse rifles. Level editors such as Brendon
Wyber’s Doom Editor Utility or DEU gave players a graphical interface allowing them to modify existing Doom levels or create them from scratch, while Greg Lewis’ DeHackEd, went far beyond the .wads and allowed alteration of the executable itself (Kushner, 168).
This gave incredible power to the emerging modification, or mod, community, and this
power was the key to enabling the total conversions. The mod community would come to
be an important component of game development in the coming years, serving as a
Doom created a sensation in the gaming community and popular media, but it was far from being the only title pushing the boundaries of technological innovation. In
March of 1994, Looking Glass released System Shock, a science fiction title built on a modified version of the engine used in the Ultima Underworld titles. The gameplay of system shock is that of a first-person shooter merged with an RPG and an adventure
game, much like that of Ultima Underworld, but with an enhanced role playing system. Indeed, much of the success of a System Shock player centers on the ability to make wise choices when literally upgrading and modifying the player’s avatar. Since the player is a
hacker that has been turned into a high-tech cyborg, the player has a number of abilities
and skills that can quite literally be upgraded, as well as allow the player to interface with
a virtual reality cyberspace set inside the game, a sort of world within the world. The
antagonist of the game, an amoral female artificial intelligence known as SHODAN,
routinely taunts the player from displays and interfaces, as well as sending cyborgs,
mutants and robots to attack the player. The game is not a fast paced title, with designers
choosing instead to emphasis story and character development, as well as providing a
complex mystery for players to unravel. This type of gameplay is a marked contrast to
that of Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, which emphasized a faster paced, higher-body count approach to immersion.
System Shock’s engine had many graphical features in common with Doom, but was designed to create a much more detailed environment, as well as for a slower pace. A
purely singleplayer game with no multiplayer capability, the emphasis in System Shock
was not on “run and gun”, but instead on slowly unraveling the mystery of what had
supported almost all of the features present in Doom, many of which had been present in the earlier Ultima titles. System Shock supported higher resolutions than most other games, allowing up to 640x480 resolution, which was necessary for the full amount of
detail included in many of the textures to be completely visible. These abilities came at a
price, however, as many computers couldn’t run such a complex game at a reasonable
speed. Conversely, Doom was engineered to run very quickly on as wide a number of systems as possible. Since the engines were designed for games with two completely
different approaches to interactivity, comparing the two on merits of mere speed is unfair,
and any comparison must take into account the different approaches to gaming.
The creepy, almost oppressive atmosphere of System Shock was enhanced by the utter lack of non-player characters to speak with. All humans encountered in the course
of the game are corpses, whose bodies can be rifled through. Many of the bodies contain
data discs with audio or text messages that provide the player with clues as to what
happened on the station, as well as information on how to defeat SHODAN. The original
release of the game provided these logs and messages as merely text, but a later CD
release of the game added an extensive amount of audio to the title, heightening the
immersion and fear factor of the title significantly. Ambient audio combined with the
vocal performance were an integral part of the game, providing clues as to hidden
enemies, as well as allowing SHODAN to harass the player as they moved throughout the
The level design in System Shock emphasized giving the player choices and rewards for thorough exploration of the station. The levels varied between the
creatures and plants run amok, orange tentacles creeping across the walls and integrating
with the digital systems. In certain cases, the player actually had to jack into a
representation of cyberspace in order to achieve goals such as unsealing doors or
repairing systems. The need for the player to balance choices, as well as having to
actually interact with computer and security systems in the game were innovative features
in the genre, and significantly increased the direct influence that players could have on
the game world besides merely butchering enemies and throwing switches.
System Shock’s design choice to eschew non-player characters in favor of using logs and messages left before their death is an interesting choice from a game design
standpoint. In a postmortem on System Shock 2, Irrational Games developer Johnathan Chey notes that System Shock made this decision primarily because the computer technology of 1994 “was simply inadequate to support believable and enjoyable
interactions with them” (Grossman, 12). While the decision was made out of necessity, it
served to greatly improve the feeling and immersion of the title, and was a decision that
was carried through in the August 11th, 1999 release of System Shock 2 by Irrational Games and Looking Glass.
While System Shock and Doom took a grim and serious tone towards their gameplay, other titles such as Apogee’s 1994 Rise of the Triad took a somewhat more light-hearted approach to the violence that was such an integral part of FPS titles. With a
software itself, meaning that Apogee would have had to license the Doom engine if they wanted to use it in a product, a costly proposition.
RotT featured several innovations for the Wolf3D engine, including adding the ability to move vertically. The game added a number of both humorous and deadly
methods of interaction for the player, including “jump pads” that could launch players
and enemies high into the sky, razor sharp spinning blades that could eviscerate unwitting
gamers, weapons that could leave bullet marks on walls and the introduction of explosive
deaths for all enemies. In RotT, when an enemy character was hit with a rocket they would frequently be reduced to a shower of digital meat, completely obliterated, seeming
to fly out towards any nearby player. This shower of exploded body parts included an
eye, bloody skull and, occasionally, a severed arm with its middle finger upraised. This
was a graphical advancement over Doom, which simply showed a shredded pile of an enemy after a rocket hit them. While a small addition, it made for some truly amusing
kills in multiplayer, called Comm-Batt.
RotT’s deathmatch also introduced a variety of inventive new ways of dispatching enemies, including homing missiles, heat seeking missiles, flame wall bombs, fire jets,
floor and ceiling spikes, and weapons such as the Excalibat, a cursed Louisville slugger.
These weapons and innovations allowed players, who were frequently in the same room
or near one another on a Local Area Network, to truly embarrass their opponents as they
beat them, as well as pulling off impressive feats of acrobatics.
Other technical innovations included walls that could move inwards and crush
flame-based weaponry, and enemies that could steal a players weapons and also feign
death. While seemingly superficial additions, these ideas were innovative and forced
RotT players to be more aware of their surroundings.
While Apogee was busy with RotT, Volition software was busy with their space-combat FPS, Descent. Released on March 17, 1995, Descent was the first PC game to feature a full three dimensional environment as well as fully three-dimensional enemies.
The engine was not completely three dimensional, as it still used sprites for doors, pilots
to rescue and item pickups, but was a significant improvement compared to Doom. In Descent the player flew an upgradeable space-fighter through narrow twisting corridors of a robot-infested mining colony. The goal was to clear out the robots in a
given mine and then locate the reactor for that mine and destroy it. After destroying the
reactor, the player had a set amount of time to reach an emergency escape door before the
reactor went super-critical and destroyed the mine.
Descent’s level design was intriguing because it blended the narrow corridors of
Doom with the spacecraft-based combat of the earlier Wing Commander and X-Wing
games. The 1993 release of LucasArts’ X-Wing featured three dimensional ships like
Descent, but X-Wing was set in deep space, and the ships were simple colored polygons, similar in nature to the walls of Hovertank 3D. LucasArt’s 1994 sequel to X-Wing, Tie Fighter, would add polygon shading but few other graphical enhancements. Again, faithful to the Star Wars movies, all combat took place in deep space.
Descent on the other hand, featured fully three dimensional ships with texture maps applied to them, allowing a greater level of detail. The various colors helped
distance. Descent also took place exclusively inside the mines, though 1999’s Descent 3
would add the ability to leave the mines and do battle outside using its Fusion rendering
Since the environment of Descent was fully three dimensional, that meant shafts could connect at unusual angles, requiring players to look up, down and to both sides
when moving through the levels. Making it to the escape hatches after destroying a
reactor either required extraordinary luck, or carefully pre-planning a route of escape
before trying to detonate the reactor. It also meant that level design could be challenging,
since the 3D engine had very specific requirements about how levels could be
Descent was also an innovator in its lighting. Where Doom’s lighting was relatively static, Descent had a dynamic lighting system that enabled the use of flares to
light areas, as well as laser blasts and explosions. The dynamic lighting also allowed
more gradations of light in the mines, which gave a more natural and realistic appearance
to in-game lights.
While Volition was adding three dimensions to its world and characters, Apogee
and its sister company, 3D Realms, would continue their more humorous take on the
First-Person Shooter genre with their next title, the January 29th, 1996 release of Duke Nukem 3D or Duke3D for short. Based on the Duke Nukem side scrollers produced by Apogee in the early 90’s, Duke Nukem 3D was the first commercial implementation of a new engine known as BUILD, developed by Ken Silverman. A self-taught programmer,
Silverman became a contract programmer for 3D Realms during his freshman year of
technical achievements. Set in a near-future science fiction world, Duke Nukem 3D places the player into the boots of world-renowned hero and tough guy Duke Nukem. Duke is
essentially a caricature of the stereotypical macho action hero, spouting one-liners
throughout the game and generally fulfilling the stereotype. The game was a huge hit, not
merely because of the never-before-seen attitude that Duke displayed but because Duke 3D and BUILD had solid technical and gameplay advantages over the games that had come before.
BUILD featured an editor that had a real-time What You See Is What You Get
(WYSIWYG) interface, meaning that level designers could lay out a level in two
dimensions, then immediately switch into a 3D mode to see what the level would look
like. Previous editors and engines required the map to be compiled and then run in the
game engine in order for level designers to see the progress of their work. This
innovation significantly reduced the turn around time for level design, and also made the
process much more intuitive.
Besides making level design easier, BUILD allowed Duke3D to have an
unprecedented amount of interaction with the world. The game had the ability to give the
illusion of dynamically altering portions of the level, allowing effects such as buildings
exploding and collapsing, ground cracking in earthquakes, and certain walls that players
could destroy with rocket launchers or explosive barrels. Most of these effects were
accomplished with technical slight-of-hand in the engine and in the level design program,
the game space, when in reality they were merely triggering the special effects that the
level designers had pre-placed. This is in contrast to later games such as Volition’s 2001
release of Red Faction, a title in which the player could use explosives and other weapons to dynamically alter and destroy many walls and other surfaces in the game.
In addition to the influence players could have on the geometry of the level, Duke 3D also added in the ability to destroy or interact with a large number of in-game objects. Fire hydrants could be smashed, urinals interacted with, coke cans exploded, and so on.
Practically any decorative object could be destroyed, resulting in a shower of debris,
adding realism to the firefights. Glass also made one of its first appearances in Duke 3D, though another sprite-based version had also appeared in Apogee’s earlier Rise of the Triad. In addition to glass, Duke featured mirrors that reflected the architecture around them, as well as Duke. The glass and mirrors could usually be broken, adding yet another
small touch to the worlds.
Duke 3D, for all of its technical innovations, was not a fully three dimensional world. Enemies were still sprite-based, as were all of the in-game objects, and the BUILD
engine, much like that of Doom still did not support rooms-over-rooms. This made effects such as multi-story buildings or sewers running under a building impossible to do
traditionally. Instead, Duke 3D leveraged an effect first seen in Doom: the teleporter. In
Doom, teleporters were spaces, usually denoted by pentagrams, that when stepped on would immediately transport a player to another part of the level. The effect in Doom was primarily used to transport players from point to point or to teleport monsters into an area
as “spawning”, a term still widely used in level design to refer to the appearance of
enemies or objects in the game world.
While still not a completely three dimensional engine, Duke 3D found many innovative uses for sprites, allowing certain decorative sprites to be applied directly to
wall surfaces. These sprites were commonly used for items such as signs, boards and
calendars, though they were also used for blood spatter on walls, cracks, scorch marks
and bullet holes. Such sprite based effects were first used in Rise of the Triad, but Duke Nukem 3D greatly expanded their use, and did so in highly creative ways. Minor effects such as blood from enemies splattering against a wall behind them helped to make
characters seem more a part of the world.
In Duke Nukem 3D, developers took the idea of teleporting and used it to cover up the weaknesses of the engine, giving the impression of it being capable of more than it
really was. An excellent example of this can be found in the Red Light District map, the
second map of the first episode. After obtaining a keycard and destroying a building, one
can find a manhole cover in the wreckage. If one destroys the manhole cover with
explosives, one can drop into the sewers. Looking more closely, though, one will note
that the manhole pipe is actually a dead end; if one looks down, the bottom can be seen.
By dropping into the hole, however, an invisible teleporter is triggered that moves the
player to a different area of the level that looked like a sewer. The sewer was supposed to
be immediately below the destroyed building, but since the BUILD engine couldn’t do
rooms-over-rooms the level designer, Alan Blum III, chose to use an invisible teleport to
move the player to a location not immediately underneath another room. Such techniques
water in which the player can actually submerge themselves and swim in. Because of
careful forethought and good map design, these effects are almost completely transparent
unless you know what to look for.
These effects were a crude predecessor of the scripting languages now used to
control many of the variables and effects in FPS titles. By altering values in the editor,
known as “hi tags” and “lo tags”, level editors could assign certain actions to certain
objects, as well as link a number of objects together to function as a single entity. These
tags and links made extremely complex actions possible.
Unlike Doom and RotT, the levels in Duke 3D were usually built around a central theme, as well as sharing a thematic link via episode. For instance, many of the maps in
episode one, L.A. Meltdown, and in episode three, Shrapnel City, are centered on
recognizable city buildings such as a movie theater, sushi house, prison, and so forth. The
second episode consists of more fanciful, but still recognizable, space-based structures.
Again, all of these maps, while not linear in the way levels in Half-Life are connected, are still linked, giving the player the impression of a larger world. The fact that the game
world was both easily recognizable and more interactive than ever before made Duke Nukem 3D an extremely popular title.
While Duke Nukem 3D was gaining fans with its tongue in cheek attitude to the game world and its technical innovations, id software, fathers of the PC First Person
Shooter revolution, were not resting on their laurels. On October 10th, 1994 id released
several new enemies and a new weapon, the double-barreled shotgun. The game, while
wildly successful, offered little more than its predecessor, but the gameplay of the
original Doom and Doom II was so compellingthat it did not matter. Still, id’s John Carmack had a vision for the future, and that vision was a fully three-dimensional world
Quake would be that next id title, and the realization of Carmack’s technical vision. Everything, from the environment architecture to the enemies and powerups
would be polygon based, another first in the industry. Singleplayer gameplay and world
detail, however, would suffer a severe decrease during the transition to full 3D, since the
computing power needed to render the world meant that the pace of the game would be
much slower than Doom. Worse still, since everything was polygon based, that meant that adding detail to an object meant adding polygons, and more polygons meant less
speed (Kushner 216-217).
Released on July 22, 1996, seven months after Duke Nukem 3D, Quake featured next to no story, but like Doom chose to focus primarily on action. The game featured dynamic lighting, similar to that implemented in Descent, and a variety of enemies that ranged from towering lightning-shooting behemoths to twisted knights to zombies that
would throw hunks of their own bloody entrails at the player. The game was extremely
popular, and was a major software engineering achievement, but featured single-player
gameplay that was almost exactly identical to that of Doom.
The levels in Quake were a mixture of the work of a number of level designers, all working on different themes. This led to an uneven tone in the level designs that id
of the game. Nevertheless, compared to many other titles, particularly Duke Nukem 3D, the world had a very static feel. Combined with the dark color palette, Quake provided a
singleplayer experience that, beyond the technical achievements of the engine, offered
little new gameplay.
Like Doom, Quake was designed with modification in mind. This time, instead of simply relying on WAD files, Carmack developed a scripting language called QuakeC
that allowed members of the mod community to drastically alter the game. Adding new
weapons and enhancing player function became a relatively simple affair, and a number
of popular modifications such as TeamFortress and ThreeWave Capture the Flag were a direct result of the power of the modding tools. These user-created modifications would
help fuel the popularity of Quake as well as a growth in the popularity of modding games.
Multiplayer proved to be Quake’s strong suit, with the game featuring support for the TCP/IP networking protocol, allowing multiplayer games to now take place over the
burgeoning internet. A later update to the game would add in a system known as
QuakeWorld, which added client-side prediction to the game, greatly improving network
performance on slow dial-up connections.
Curiously, the greatest achievement of Quake may not lie in its gameplay or its ease of modification, but in its use as a test bed in the evolution of 3D accelerator cards.
Carmack used a modification of Quake known as GLQuake to allow the game to use the new consumer technology of graphics accelerators to add both new features to Quake, as well as improve its rendering of the world as it existed. In addition to increasing the
graphical enhancements such as making water transparent, adding reflections and also
adding shadows. Until GLQuake, water in Quake and most other titles had been essentially opaque, with no way to see what was in the water without jumping in.
GLQuake made it possible to look right into the water, which not only allowed players to butcher their swimming opponents, but added another small touch of realism to the now
fully three-dimensional world. The added shadows served an important function, giving
game characters and items a greater appearance of being grounded into the game world.
Use of 3D graphics acceleration is now common in the industry, and its adoption has
shifted much of the graphics strain from the processor onto specialized graphics chips,
allowing the computers main processor to devote it’s time to other tasks, such as artificial
intelligence for non-player characters and physics calculations for game objects.
Id would follow up Quake with two official mission packs, the first being Scourge of Armagon, released on February 278th, 1997 and created by Ritual Entertainment. The second mission pack was Dissolution of Eternity, released on March 31, 1997 by the now-defunct Rogue Entertainment. While Scourge of Armagon received considerable praise for its excellent level design and inventive use of traps, as well as a cohesive series
of levels with an overarching story, Dissolution of Eternity was somewhat less popular. The fact that Richard “Levelord” Grey, one of the founders of Ritual, had been intimately
involved in the level design for some of the most memorable Duke Nukem 3D levels likely played a part in the inventive design of the Scourge of Armagon maps. In addition to new levels, both expansions added new weapons and new monsters.
and storytelling. While Quake II’s release on November 30th, 1997 would be a significant cash cow for the company, its much-vaunted single player storyline would once again
place the player in the shoes of a lone space marine against impossible odds. Technically,
the game would add improved graphics and the ability to render colored lighting,
allowing for much more dramatic graphic effects. Quake IIIArena would enhance the engine technology by allowing rounded surfaces in games, meaning that more organic
shapes could be constructed. Previously, almost all levels were constricted to more
angular shapes. As Quake II Arena was essentially a multiplayer only title, little use was made of this technology, and even if it had been properly seized upon it is unlikely that
players involved in intense multiplayer deathmatches would stop to admire the
Engine Refinements, Storytelling and Interactivity
The move into a fully three dimensional world with Quake was probably as momentous an occasion as the release of the original Wolfenstein 3D or Doom, a turning point in the development of three-dimensional first person titles. Many companies would
license Quake engine technology in order to construct their own games around its powerful rendering technologies, just as companies did with Doom. In addition to permitting faster development of games, this licensing of engine technology had a
second, less recognized effect. It allowed the licensees to concentrate more of their
energies on the design of the actual game, instead of focusing as heavily on technical
concerns. That is not to say that the engines were simply plug and play, but that
of designing whole new engines from the ground up. As the 1990’s came to a close, a
slew of new titles arrived on the shelves, with many offering singleplayer innovation.
On May 28th, 1998, Digital Extremes and Epic Games released Unreal, a title that had been under development for four years (Grossman, 91). Unreal had impressive graphical capabilities, supporting very detailed textures, connected linear levels and fairly
advanced artificial intelligence for the enemies. This resulted in moments where enemies
would narrowly dodge projectiles at the last moment, a nasty surprise to players.
Level design wise, the game featured moments demonstrating nearly cinematic
pacing, such as the players first encounter with a Skarrj warrior. Like Quake, Unreal
featured a full three-dimensional engine, but supported more complex environments.
Unreal also required levels to be constructed in a much different way than Quake engine titles. In Quake based titles, a level starts empty and must be assembled from various geometric shapes, called brushes. These brushes can be manipulated to alter size and
shape, as well as other features, resulting in what can be called additive level
construction. Unreal engine based projects, on the other hand, use a subtractive model, where the world starts full and level designers create empty spaces to serve as rooms,
then add other geometry as details, much like a sculptor whittles down a block of clay or
marble to create a sculpture. Level design for Quake engine titles were more akin to working with Legos that could be stretched and modified.
Unreal also featured much more natural environments. While Duke 3D did a good job of simulating cities and urban environments, Unreal was adept at creating believable and lush pseudo-tropical landscapes. The levels featured effects such as
as boxes, which could be pushed and used to create stairs. While the actual game offered
little new, the impressive use of graphical effects served to add yet another layer of depth
to the virtual world.
While the Unreal and Quake engines would become the two dominant engines used for the creation of First Person Shooters for computer games, they would not be the
only engines developed. Several companies, such as Looking Glass, would continue to
develop their own engines from scratch.
The Dec 3, 1998 release of Thief: The Dark Project and the August 1999 release of System Shock 2, developed nearly simultaneously, marked the first implementations of the Dark engine. Thief was best described as a First Person Sneaker, where the object of the game was not to loudly blast through enemies, but instead to avoid detection while
pilfering valuable or interesting objects. The storyline was involved and played out in
animated cut scenes before and after each level, setting the stage for the action to come.
The cut scenes were well done, but it was the gameplay that was novel, encouraging
players to hide in the shadows and use a variety of arrows to ease their path. Thief
featured truly dynamic lighting, with almost every light source able to be doused, a vital
component of the gameplay. Thief is, at the very least, the spiritual ancestor of popular modern titles such as the Splinter Cell series from UbiSoft. Thief also illustrated that there was a market for titles played from a first person perspective other than violent
Thief also relied heavily on audio as an element of player involvement. In most previous titles, enemies were essentially silent unless they were attacking the player. In
Further, players could use the sounds made by the NPC’s to determine how aware or
suspicious they were; casual whistling could indicate they were unaware of anything
amiss, while yells for help would ensue should the player be spotted. Players could also
use these aural capabilities to their advantage, throwing objects or using special
noisemaker arrows to distract opponents. This use and recognition of audio as an
important part of the immersive experience was a significant step forward, adding
another vital element to level design; the placement and use of ambient audio. While
ambient audio had been used in previous projects from Doom to Duke Nukem 3D and beyond, Thief was the first title to make audio a central element of the gameplay (Grossman 175-176).
System Shock 2, developed by both Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios, was a sequel to the innovative, if overlooked System Shock. System Shock 2 continued the story of System Shock, with the player taking the role of the sole survivor of a terrible disaster aboard two ships deep in space. The player awakens with no knowledge of past
events, and through audio logs and e-mails must piece together what happened aboard the
Like it’s predecessor, System Shock 2 was a difficult title to categorize, having elements in common with role playing games, action games like Doom and adventure games. More generally, the game could be categorized as an action horror survival game,
as the player had no idea why the crews of the ships were dead, and seldom enough
ammunition to simply blaze through any opponents. Item placement was a critical
ammunition and supplies, as well as manage various ammunition types. As in System Shock, certain weapons and ammunition types worked best against certain enemies, so players had to be aware that they could encounter any of a variety of enemies at any time,
and that using a more effective ammunition type would help conserve their meager
Problems or “puzzles” in System Shock 2 frequently had multiple solutions that would depend on the various skills of the player character and their playing style.
Enemies could be killed or snuck by, doors opened by finding a key code or by hacking
the lock. Players could disable cameras by shutting down a security system, destroying
the camera or merely sneaking by it when the camera was pointed elsewhere. As in
previous games from Looking Glass, players were usually rewarded for careful play and
exploration of the world, receiving upgrade chips that could be spent to improve
character abilities in an RPG style system. The game also allowed characters to do
research on enemies using a variety of simple chemicals. This research would then yield
distinct knowledge or combat advantages over opponents.
System Shock 2 also made extensive use of scripted sequences, a concept that would be fleshed out more fully in Half-Life. As opposed to pre-rendered movies advancing the story, System Shock 2 chose to display almost all events inside the game engine itself, helping to maintain player immersion which could easily be broken by the
interjection of pre-rendered movies. Many of these events were highly unexpected, such
as the player’s first encounter with a “ghost” of a crewmember. While the models of
characters and objects would later be criticized by some players as primitive, the attention