REDDER is Anna Anthropy's platform game about exploring a strange alien planet. To improve my own level design I've looked at the levels of REDDER and scribbled down my thoughts. Sometimes I'll be "wrong", sometimes I'll say obvious things and sometimes I'll completely miss the point, but I can only get better by trying.
Anna teases us here, by showing a diamond with no path to it. Running into a diamond is great, but having one just out of reach makes it all the more exciting to get. How will we find it? What dangers will we encounter? Only one way to find out!
This diamond is valuable and we aren't supposed to take it. How do we know that?
This area could easily be the player's first encounter with the green wavy lines. They feel dangerous for several reasons:
The pit at the top of the screen is another great design, because it allows us to imagine the area above. It gives us the upper-hand, because we know that we should avoid jumping into that pit.
Many years ago at school I was talking about Command & Conquer with a friend. He'd already completed the game and warned me about an ambush on the last level. When I played that level I was ready for the ambush and easily destroyed their forces. This felt great, because the game designers had tried to surprise me, but I'd surprised them instead. I felt like I'd protected my troops, by gathering intelligence before the battle. The game has many ambushes, but I'd made this one different.
Anna is doing a similar thing here, but without the metagaming. She's given us all the information we need, so it's our responsibility to notice and remember it.
I saw these background tiles as a face. It was someone guarding the diamond, which would imply that it’s valuable and that the owner doesn't want it to be stolen. The same effect could be achieved by putting a real enemy next to the diamond, but this room would most likely be encountered very early in the game. The player senses that the diamond is valuable, but due to the absence of danger they are happy to go over and grab it.
This screen allows us to imagine what has happened over time. The design of the tiles around the player was clearly created by man or aliens, due to the straight lines and unbroken patterns. We can imagine that this entrance was built and then the barrier was built to protect it and keep it hidden from anyone.
This level makes us excited to go to the next level, because the entrance feels like a secret that we've broken into.
I think the green rectangle looks like an ice cube tray, so that helped me get the idea of filling it up. It also helps the ice cubes look similar to diamonds, but I might be reading too much into this!
This area is completely symmetrical except for the save point. I think this would get the player's attention, because it's different. However, moving over the save point does nothing, so it's purpose isn't clear. Maybe the player would guess, but they'll only know after they die.
A few months ago I got Plants vs Zombies for one of my non-gamer friends. I showed her the first few levels and she liked it a lot. Every few days she would come over to me and say things like "I've reached the level with the bucket-head zombies!". One day she came over to me all upset, because she'd failed one of the levels. She assumed that all progress had been erased and the game had to be restarted from the beginning!
I think the save points in REDDER have a similar problem. If a game doesn't clearly explain the rules to the player, they might make incorrect assumptions. These assumptions could lead them to play the game in a unintended way and then be surprised later when unexpected events occur.
Unfortunately my games suffer badly from this problem and I'm not sure how it could be fixed in REDDER. I would suggest making the first checkpoint deactivated, so at least it changes when the player moves over it. This would show the player that moving into it causes something to happen. If the player dies before activating a checkpoint I would return them to their ship.
Save points are explained in the 'author comments' below the game, but I feel like the instructions for a game should be contained within a game. This is because people might not read the comments, they might have been linked directly to the game, or the game might have been copied to another website, which didn't include the comments.
The red/green circles appear dangerous for many reasons:
I first encountered this screen by falling from the top. My split-second reaction was to go straight into the red robot. I did this because the top of the robot is completely flat. I assumed the robot was a moving platform and I could use it to reach the higher exit on the left. I think this is more my fault than the game's fault. I doubt many people made this mistake.
If I had to suggest a solution I'd add a couple of tiny antennas to the top of the robot. These would only take up one pixel, but that would be enough to break up the straight line, whilst still maintaining the look of a robot.
Here’s an example of a puzzle that gets progressively harder. We begin in a safe place, which allows us to observe the obstacles ahead. On the bottom row we’re safe on the ground, which means we’re safe for the majority of the time. We choose the time to put ourselves in danger. However, the opposite occurs at the top. The ground tiles are unsafe, so we’re in danger for the majority of the time. We jump into safety, instead of jumping into danger. This makes the top half much harder, especially because we need to avoid the green lines when we land.
Each half of the puzzle get harder as we tackle it. On the bottom-half, we're getting closer to the source of the bullets, so we have less reaction time. The final jump is the hardest, because there’s less space to manoeuvre. On the top-half, we also get closer to the source of the bullets and the final jump is adjacent to the source of the bullets.
The location of this diamond is confusing. Previously we thought they were valuable and guarded by the inhabitants of the planet, so why is a diamond lying out here in the open? The way it's placed at the highest point makes me think it's being proudly displayed to anyone passing by.
That contradicts our beliefs about the diamonds. Is there a logical reason for it to be here? Perhaps:
So I can't think of a believable reason, but it was fun to come up with potential stories. From a game perspective it's obvious why it's there and if this was another game I wouldn't even question it, but REDDER is so well designed that little things stand out.
Here's my solution:
Green blocks are always solid when the player enters from the left.
This layout keeps the purpose of the original layout, but now it makes the situation believable. With this layout I was mostly going for my first explanation in the list above, but this makes all of them more believable.
On this screen we're given the opportunity to see the dangers before we encounter them. We're not forced to blindly rush in, then fail in a way that seemed out of our control. This is true for a large majority of the levels.
The tiles being hit by bullets look corroded, as if they've been slowly damaged over time by a continuous stream of bullets. This reinforces our belief that these bullets are dangerous. These tiles also look like supports for the guns, which implies that the guns are heavy and therefore powerful. They also look a bit like frogs, but that's probably just me!
The ground between the pillars is also a safe location, but getting into and out of those places is dangerous. This provides us with a way to "play" with the bullets, to gain a greater understanding of them now, before we encounter them in more dangerous situations later. I couldn't resist going into those areas, simply for the unnecessary danger and because it's off the normal route.
The two lower bullets contribute significantly less to the challenge of this room, because they don't need to be encountered. However, they work as a punishment if we fall between the pillars, because now we have two bullets to contend with, instead of one.