Open world level design: the mystery of “Hollow Knight”, how does the 2D map realize the sense of exploration?


This article first published Tencent Game Academy GWB
Author: Kath Tencent Interactive Entertainment Game Planning

The Metroid-like Castlevania is a game type that promotes the progress of the game through map exploration, which is similar to the Zelda-style open world design. Regardless of whether it is a 2D game or a 3D game, the “sense of exploration” is created in the same way. This article will start with “Hollow Knight” to see how the game realizes the “sense of exploration”.

Conclusion first:

I personally summarize the micro gameplay cycle of the open world into four stages: goal construction, encounter challenges, goal attainment, and new goals. “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” makes it clear that only self-driven goal construction can bring a full exploration experience. The self-driven goal of the player comes from the subconscious guidance of the level. “Hollow Knight” uses more than forty rooms to construct a small “open world” level area by designing the links between the rooms and the potential branching process. The “linear” branch structure is used to construct a “non-linear” gameplay.


1. Directory

2. “Non-linear” level design of Forgotten Cross Road

2.1 Overview of Class Metroid Castlevania

Metroid-like Castlevania is a game type that promotes the progress of the game through map exploration. Its ever-extending world will be gradually unlocked according to the progress of the game. When the player is exploring every corner of the 2D map, the player will encounter tricky enemies, traps, or platform jumping puzzles. Overcoming challenges or exploring the world will reward special items, abilities or keys, which can be used to unlock doors and unlock crystals to further explore the map.

The large and complex flat map is the main feature of the Metroid-like Castlevania game. Because this type of game gives players enough freedom to explore, the designer cannot completely control the player’s process experience. In the game “Hollow Knight”, the designer solved the problem of combining the player’s exploration behavior with the goal in many rooms in a single area by branching the process. We can verify this view through level abstraction and deconstruction.

2.2 Abstract Deconstruction of Forgotten Cross Road



Forgotten Cross Road Map

The Forgotten Cross Road area is the first area of ​​”Hollow Knight” and consists of more than 40 rooms. This area not only undertakes the function of game teaching, but also lays the core tone of the game of “exploration” and “unicom”. It is an excellent level design of the Metroid-like Castlevania category.

The map is further abstracted according to the function of the room, and this structure diagram is obtained:



Forgotten Cross Road Structure Diagram

In this structure diagram:

Blue represents the starting room and boss room of the area.

Green represents the main flow room. The main flow room is the only way for players in the area.

White represents the branch exploring the room. The exploration room contains content such as collections, NPCs, shortcuts, and Boss that can be challenged; it assumes the function of providing an exploration experience. But it is not within the main line flow.

Separate the main line process room separately to get this structure diagram:



Forgotten Cross Road Main Line Structure Diagram

The blue room represents the room that must pass through in the experience process. The other colors represent the possible branches that the player may pass through. Each branch has a sufficient number of exploration rooms to provide an exploration experience. The rooms in the branches are connected end to end, showing linear characteristics; the main room assumes the role of a knot, connecting multiple branches, starting points, and boss battle processes.

It is further abstracted, and the branch flow chart of the Forgotten Cross Road is obtained.



Forgotten Cross Road Branch Flow Chart

The link room connects the linear process branch and the boss branch, and the links between levels guide the player to complete the level process. In this process, player goals and exploration are closely integrated to make the game experience more concise and full.

The designer restricts players through the link room of the map, and only through the third process branch can the boss process be unlocked. The branch design of the level is ingeniously combined with the vertical direction of the level. The first time players are subconsciously affected by the level information and enter the first or second process branch. After the exploration is completed, they will re-enter the link room and explore down to enter the Three process branches. Players who have entered this level multiple times can directly pass through several linked rooms and directly enter the third process branch.

The exploration experience comes from the guidance brought by the limited amount of information in the level. Most connected rooms have only one exit, and players are guided to explore; the transition between rooms also meets the player’s exploration expectations. The link rooms are all longitudinally designed, and the exits of the link rooms have a very large vertical gap. The limited amount of information gives players a clear goal.

At the micro level, the link room also assumes the function of “exploration interval”. The player completes the exploration from a branch, returns to the familiar link room, and starts a new exploration again. This clear exploration interval reduces the cognitive pressure caused by exploration.

2.3 Summary

I personally summarize the micro gameplay cycle of the open world into four stages: goal construction, encounter challenges, goal attainment, and new goals. “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” makes it clear that only self-driven goal construction can bring a full exploration experience. The self-driven goal of the player comes from the subconscious guidance of the level. “Hollow Knight” uses more than forty rooms to construct a small “open world” level area by designing the links between the rooms and the potential branching process. The “linear” branch structure is used to construct a “non-linear” gameplay.


3. Basic ability teaching and level rhythm of Forgotten Cross Road

3.1 Regional themes with teaching as the starting point for design

Each area in “Hollow Knight” has a clear regional theme, and the designer designs enemies and challenges based on the regional theme. This can be verified from the follow-up Green Path and Crystal Peak. However, the theme of Forgotten Cross Road is relatively abstract. This area is the first level area that players experience. Its level design theme is basic ability teaching. We can verify this view from the technical challenges that enemies and platform jumps pose to players.

3.2 Enemy design for teaching purposes

3.2.1 Train players to grasp the direction of attack

The common mosquito-type flying mobs will not attack actively and will be hurt if touched.

It is also used to train the player’s mastery of avoidance in platform jumping levels.

Advanced mosquito-type flying mobs will actively attack and can use sprints to attack players.

The difficulty is medium and the number is small.

High-level flying mobs will actively attack and can constantly produce mosquitoes to attack players.

The difficulty is higher and the number is small.

Boss-level flying monsters, master skills such as charging, producing small mosquitoes, and full-screen attacks.

The abilities that this Boss mastered, players have been fully trained in the early mobs.

Play the function of final proficiency verification.

3.2.2 Train players to grasp the attack distance

The common beetle can crawl 360 degrees around the platform.

Used to increase the difficulty of platform jumping.

Standing ladybugs will sprint quickly when they see the player.

The difficulty is simple, and there are many.

Advanced standing ladybugs will sprint quickly when they see the player, but their speed and distance are higher than those of ordinary standing ladybugs.

The difficulty is medium and there are few in number.

3.2.3 Train players to judge and attack skills based on the attack interval

Boss-level dragon tooth knight, master the skills of beating the ground and releasing shock waves.

Players need to judge and attack based on its attack interval.

There are two places on the map, which are used to train players to judge and attack skills based on the attack interval.

The final boss of the level: fake knight.

Master the skills of beating the ground, releasing impact, jumping attack, and full-screen attack.

The ability of this boss is the collection of all monster abilities in this level.

Challenge this boss is a comprehensive verification of the player’s ability practice in this level.

Players also need to judge and attack skills based on its attack interval.

According to the function of classifying the enemy, we can get the following table:

3.3 The level process and level rhythm of Forgotten Cross Road

Although the design purpose of the enemy is obtained through reverse deduction, it is still necessary to configure the challenge and teaching of the level through the configuration of the enemy. Fortunately, we learned about the linear branch level characteristics of Forgotten Cross Road in the previous analysis. We can use the third process branch with the fastest clearance speed for analysis:

Arranging the level elements according to the linear room order, we can get this RLD level element table:

Linking the level rhythms of each room, we can get the level rhythm of the fastest way to pass in this area:


Source: Tencent Game Academy GWB

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