Level Design for Third-Person Action Games: A Highly Iterative Process

This semester I decided to push myself to learn more about Level Design (and brush up on my architectural design skills) by enrolling in a 10-week long course through CG Master Academy: Level design for Games. Each week will have different intentions for the design, with different design leanings as well. Thanks for reading!


In this level, I learned how to sculpt spaces with shapes to guide players. I also designed the level to make vantage points rewarding for players looking for either of the two treasures on the map, but most of the playtesters seemed to think they were seeing the treasure by mistake, even though I was perfectly framing the treasure in some iterations for them…



The numbers in the image above correspond to the player’s view in the gallery.


Morally Ambiguous Characters And Player Choice

I recently jumped back into my personal favorite: The Last of Us. At its higher difficulties, The Last of Us is pure survival horror, always leaving players with little to no resources, too many enemies to count, and a plethora of options when it comes to enemy encounters. I was immediately flooded with memories of an engaging post-apocalyptic road trip, but first had to complete Naughty Dog’s incredible tutorial level. One striking moment in this tutorial level got me thinking. After you as a player are taught that spores in the air are fatal, both Tess and Joel put on gas masks to prevent themselves from turning into infected members of society. Soon after, the player is given a choice. In the image below, notice two things: an NPC is caught under rubble with a broken face mask, and there is a flashing gun laying on the ground to the left of this trapped character.


After Tess (the companion NPC for the tutorial) asked me what I wanted to do about this situation, I felt torn. I know from the previous encounter that these infected creatures are dangerous, vile, and very scary. I don’t want to deal with them again anytime soon, so I should put this guy out of his misery before he turns and bites my neck flaps off… right? I only have a few bullets left, but there’s more ammo right next to me. But killing this guy is just plain wrong… right?

The choice is yours morally ambiguous player!

The choice is yours morally ambiguous player!

“Why am I okay with this choice?” I thought to myself as I held L2 to aim. I pulled R2, then asked, “Master Chief in Halo probably wouldn’t have a similar player choice to murder a helpless marine with the Flood desperately chasing after him… would he?”

Master Chief is one of the most iconic heroes of all time, and he kills things constantly. Heroes like Master Chief fulfill fantasies we’ve all had as kids: saving the world from an unstoppable threat. The Last of Us is brilliant in that it attracts players with its simple zombie apocalypse story, but has you stick around for its incredibly complex characters. In The Last of Us you play a grizzled apocalypse survivor with the simple task of taking cargo to a location. The stakes are easy for players to grasp from the beginning, but they get higher and higher as both you and Joel get more and more invested in the “cargo” as the game progresses. From beginning to end, The Last of Us is constantly asking players to make life-or-death decisions. The same ingredients in your crafting tree make either a molotov cocktail or a health kit, for example. Choices like the one above can only be made by a morally ambiguous character which a player can intimately connect with.

Players given similar choices in Halo would almost always decide to save a life, because the fantasy of all the Halo games is simple: space marine that saves the universe from ugly aliens. Who wouldn’t want to save the human race from an invading alien species?

If I’m being honest, however, fantasies with less clear intentions are the reason I am a game designer. Games that ask a player to make difficult choices at every moment of gameplay attract me more than something as “simple” as saving the world.

Characters in other games like Heavy Rain, God of War, or Red Dead Redemption II expose players to difficult choices with one common thread: their characters are not out to save the world. Instead, these characters are protecting someone from the dangers of the rest of the world. Players are exposed to choices that effect the outcome of the character relationships in the game, not the stakes themselves.

Heavy Rain  notoriously asked players if cutting off their finger was worth more information on their son’s kidnapper. [1]

Heavy Rain notoriously asked players if cutting off their finger was worth more information on their son’s kidnapper. [1]

In reality, these choices go deeper than changing the outcome of the game. These choices help players realize just where their priorities lie. I chose to save a man from pain, suffering, and turning into a lifeless zombie in The Last of Us, knowing very well that I would have to use a precious bullet. In Red Dead Redemption II, I choose to be a heartless cowboy to anyone that owes our gang money, because putting food on the table for Dutch and the gang is more important to me. If breaking someone’s face and having the authorities chase me out of town is the only consequence for keeping my family healthy and happy, I'm okay with that.

Look at all these mouths I have to feed as Arthur in  Red Dead Redemption II . [2]

Look at all these mouths I have to feed as Arthur in Red Dead Redemption II. [2]

It’s no coincidence that three of my favorite games ask players to put family first, because I was raised with the same moral compass. Blood is thicker than water for Joel, Kratos, Arthur, and I, and each of their respective games consistently remind players of the only good in the world being their families. Growing up, every decision my parents made was in the interest of bettering my life. Like two of the most beloved antiheroes of my generation (Joel and Kratos), they made difficult decisions with the intent of bettering their child’s life.

Kratos and his son Boy are surviving together in  God of War (2016) . [3]

Kratos and his son Boy are surviving together in God of War (2016). [3]

Joel’s new daughter is the only thing that matters to him anymore in  The Last of Us . [4]

Joel’s new daughter is the only thing that matters to him anymore in The Last of Us. [4]

If The Last of Us Part II really wants to take morally ambiguous characters and player choice to the next level, I would recommend Naughty Dog let players choose which characters survive and which ones die. If the information fans have so far is anything to work with, Ellie is going on killing spree against a dangerous cult. If Part II has me fall in love with a character, has this character switch sides, then asks me to make my own decision for saving or killing them, I don’t know what I would do. Should I save an old friend, or rid the world of a deranged cult follower? The power of videogames lies in the difference between having a theoretical philosophical conversation about a morally ambiguous decision and actually having to make the decision. In other words, forcing me to make a decision I don’t know the right answer to (rather than just thinking about it) is the secret sauce of my favorite games. Giving players this much choice lets them dive deeper into their own moral compass, and progresses our medium as the art form to pay close attention to.


[1] [2] [3] [4]

Viva Piñata Taught Me How to Kill My Pets

Viva Piñata Taught Me How to Kill My Pets


One of my favorite games of all time is the Rare cult-classic Viva Piñata. From its unique economy systems to its incredible art direction, Rare put out a game unlike any other I had ever played when it first released in 2006. But this blog isn’t a review of Viva Piñata, this blog is intended to dive deeper into the more impactful moments I had within the game, and how games can teach you about purposeful choice for a greater good.

It starts out easy: Having soil in your garden attracts cute little Whirlms (VP’s version of a Worm). You’re taught how to convince a piñata to stay in your garden through love, taught how to romance two piñatas, are treated to a delightful minigame and cutscene of the two piñatas dancing together, and finally receive an egg of a new baby piñata you helped conceive. It’s all a lot cuter than it sounds, trust me.

Whirlms are so cute, aren’t they?

Whirlms are so cute, aren’t they?

Once you’ve got a healthy, thriving family of worms living in your garden, you begin to attract Sparrowmints. These sparrow lookalikes will only visit your garden if you’ve got worms as residents. But in order for you to begin to romance these birds together, you must have a family of worms, and each Sparrowmint must eat one whirlm.

Evil-Eyed Sparrowmint

Evil-Eyed Sparrowmint

Let me remind you that in November 2006, when Viva Piñata launched, little Julian was a 10 year old. My experience with animals was quite different from a normal 10 year old. By the age of 10, my parents had donated two dogs (RIP Wrinkles, RIP Coby) to their coworkers that were starting to get old. That was it.  That was the only “problem” with them in my parent’s eyes. My parents wouldn’t consult my sister or I, we would just wake up one day and realize that our dog was gone. In both cases, they took us to eat breakfast at a restaurant and explained to us that they didn’t want us to remember our pets as sick or in pain, so they donated them to families they knew could help handle the stress of a sick animal when the inevitable happened with age. By the age of 10, I had yet to experience a death, let alone the death of an animal I had loved.

So, when a game asked me to kill a newfound pet I was caring for (a fucking adorable one at that), I took a second to think about it.

“There has to be another way for me to romance this Sparrowmint,” I thought to myself. I tried waiting it out, and kept romancing my Whirlms in an effort to convince the sparrows that the worms would go nowhere, and that seeing a buffet of worms would get their bodies all hot and bothered enough to just want to romance anyways. They had an evil look in their eyes, and it was no surprise. Rare knew exactly what these Sparrowmints were for… teaching children about the harsh realities of animal husbandry.

No luck.

I didn’t know the word for pacifism at age 10, but by-golly I was desperate for some in this game. I wasn’t ready to see one of my pets die. I walked around my garden and looked for clues to a secret way of romancing sparrows when I suddenly heard the cheers of children coming from within the game. I looked back at where the noise came from and saw one of my sparrows eating candy off the grass. It then received a pink heart over its head (the universal sign for “I’m all hot and bothered now”). It was ready to romance. I wondered where that magical candy on the ground came from, then looked over at my second Sparrow. It was crouched over, and looked like it was going to attack one of my Whirlms. “Here it comes,” I thought to myself. Rare must’ve had a hunch that some players wouldn’t find killing their pets as easy as others, so they implemented a system where the piñatas begin to fulfill their own requirements for themselves if the player take too long to complete the deed.

The first death of a pet I experienced was in a game. After the death of the cute little Whirlm, kids cheered, candy fell out, and my other pet Sparrowmint ate his candy guts.

And yet, I wasn’t traumatized. The family of piñata Whirlms I spent the last hour raising and caring for went on about their wiggling business, and the two Sparrows went in to their house to romance. I was again treated to a cutscene of two sparrows flying around each other, and an egg landed in my garden with a soon-to-be-hatched Sparrowmint inside.

I expected to be hurt, but Rare’s masterpiece was so good at easing me into death that I felt progress instead of pain. I quickly readjusted to my newfound population, and began to worry about how to attract a nearby Fudgehog that was lurking in the background in all its colorless goodness.

Fudgehog: my favorite piñata in  VP

Fudgehog: my favorite piñata in VP

By the end of my prime Viva Piñata days, I was literally begging new visitor piñatas (which you can’t forcibly control) to eat my pet piñatas in hopes of increasing the diversity rate in my garden.

It all got better from there when I realized that these deaths weren’t the end of the world. These deaths were simply codas leading to new beginnings, cuter piñatas, and gardens full of more bustling critters than I could have ever dreamed of as a 10 year old.

Growing up, my parents were quick to trade in old for new. We never had a car for longer than 5 years, and we always got rid of pets that were too old for us. Now that I’m older, I have Rare’s timely cult classic to thank for my ability to say goodbye to those I’ve cared for. I now realize that my parents were only trying to prevent us from seeing our cute pups in a pitiful manner. They were protecting us from the harsh realities of life, whereas Rare was quick to shed light on those truths. Viva Piñata taught me how to kill that which I worked so hard to achieve for the bettering of my world. Sure, its ways of animal husbandry are gruesome, but what in life isn’t, amirite?

Image Sources

Hades And Its Delicate Use of “Roguelike” Elements

Pairs well with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Soundtrack


Announced at the 2018 Game Awards via a stunning player story trailer, Hades is Supergiant’s newest addition to its library of tight, fast, and detailed games. Hades puts players in the shoes of the prince of the Underworld—Zagreus. He has acquired some newfound knowledge of his existence, and wants to join the rest of his family on Mount Olympus.  From its perfect setting that redefines “dungeon crawling” to its developer’s historic presence in the action-RPG genre, Hades delivers the goods through a fresh lens on the Roguelike genre.

But first, let’s examine the magical genre we now call “roguelike”, which Hades borrows elements from. During the International Roguelike Development Conference in 2008, all in attendance gathered to define this new genre of roguelike games. They split the list between High Value Factors and Low Value Factors. In the end, they classified roguelikes as having some or all of the following gameplay elements: 

*Hades uses this element at least loosely

High Value Factors

*Random environment generation (each time you die and come back to life in Hell, the rooms and caverns reset)

*Permadeath (loosely—some currency is saved and used for upgrades or unlocking new weapons)




*Complexity (the combat and the variation in weapons allow for various types of play)

*Resource management (one must always keep track of health, gold, and other currencies throughout the run)

*Hack 'n' slash (we’ll get to the impeccable combat system soon)

*Exploration and discovery (getting further and further through the chambers of Hell unlocks new opportunities for bosses, new opportunities for Olympian boons, etc.)

Low Value Factors

*Single player character (this world revolves around our protagonist, Zagreus. Every character is specifically looking for him, all enemies auto lock on, etc.)

Monsters are similar to players

*Tactical challenge (again, we’ll get into this during combat)

ASCII display

*Dungeons (all rooms are procedurally molded together on-the-fly)

*Numbers (lots of numbers are involved in every run, and one is always calculating how many upgrade runes are necessary in their current run to unlock the next perk of choice)


Hades falls deeper into this genre of games into what we now so commonly call the roguelite subgenre. According to Game Maker’s Toolkit, a roguelite carries upgrades across deaths, while roguelikes do not. That’s a pretty straightforward way of thinking, and that’s the way we’ll categorize Hades for the remainder of this blog. Let’s get to it.



Notice the first difference from traditional roguelike games: we’re not going deeper and deeper down through cavernous dungeons, we’re going up through the layers of Hell on our trek to Mount Olympus. The Underworld is a dark, grimy, off-green tone that adds the right touch of drama and urgency to move on. It feels like a death trap is in every corner, and each room could send you back to your demented bedroom…

Supergiant Games has no shortage of beautifully vibrant worlds. From the start with Bastion, Supergiant has given players rich environments, complex color-palettes, and thorough level design. It’s no surprise that Hades’ world includes the aforementioned details throughout its randomly generated chambers. Little details like breakable Greek vases, destructible pillars, and spirits of the dead floating around the world help to keep your eyes moving around the screen at all times. I keep wanting to find new artifacts to interact with, new characters to dialogue with, and new enemies to wall slam against a pillar, watch it crumble into pieces on top of them, then finish them off with one more hit of my weapon.


Hell may be a character, but it’s certainly not the only one.  Hades understands it’s History, and not the only way. It seems like I’m constantly discovering new family members trying to help me break free. Their special “Boons” spice up the gameplay enough for me to want to get to know them. Each of their Boon’s dealing really on a thematic characteristic of them or their weapon of choice. Athena and her shield integrate nicely into the mechanics, while Poseidon and his aggressive boons compliment it nicely. These characters give off stronger boons when you interact with them by giving them gifts. By giving them gifts and favoring them, they grant you with special items that can increase their chances of appearing in the labyrinth. It’s like spending Time with them at a family function.  ongoing…

Julian Ochoa's Mines of Videogame Memory

Here lies a work-in-progress list of every game I have ever played. This list will always be in progress because I am always playing a new game. I’ve decided to sort these by year, because I like feeling nostalgic from the very top when I look at my list.

Let me know if you think I should play something based on any item on this list. I’m always hungry to expand the Mine, so leave a comment with your game suggestion!

Julian Ochoa: Mines of Memory (this will open a new tab)

What makes for a great Trophy list in games?

On December 8, 2005, I discovered an entirely new way to experience video games. It was my birthday, and I had just unwrapped my first Xbox 360 console (I say first because I got hit hard by the red-ring plague throughout my adolescence). I booted up my second gift, Kameo: Elements of Power, and was immediately placed in the middle of a fantastic world filled with guardian spirits that I could control.

Later in the game, after stripping the player of all their power, Kameo sets the player on a path to retrieving your guardian spirits back. After a level or so, a pretty normal boss fight occurs that rewards you with your first spirit, a plant-like creature with boxing-glove shaped hands and a playfully evil look in his eye.

Suddenly, I heard a noise that will forever be engrained in my brain. I looked towards the bottom of my screen and at the flashing notification on my screen. It read:

“Achievement Unlocked – Found Pummel Weed                20G”

I opened the guide button just as it recommended, and to my surprise I found an entirely new set of challenges for every game I was to play game living inside my new console’s interface. I had 20 Gamerscore out of 1000 for Kameo, and I immediately browsed the rest of the list to get a feel for how to play the rest of the game while maximizing Gamerscore along the way.

My first 1000 Gamerscore game came in the form of another Rare title—Viva Piñata. I was in so in love with everything the game represented, so 1000G was almost a no-brainer. At the time, I wanted to show my love for the game through my Gamerscore.

Okay, but this blog isn’t called “What makes a good Achievement list?”, so what gives?

Well, one day, after successfully completing Halo 3’s Legendary campaign and finally (!) obtaining 1000 Gamerscore to receive my shiny Hayabusa Katana armor in Multiplayer, I realized that my 1000 Gamerscore came from more than just Halo’s base game. I had received some multiplayer achievements from a previously released DLC and the total added up to over 1000. But how was I supposed to represent that I did, in fact, 100% the base game’s original achievement list without them all getting blended together?

Enter the Platinum trophy.

Exhibit A: Resogun has a bunch of DLC (free and paid) each with its own set of trophies contributing to the overall percentage. I don’t mind anymore, because look, I unlocked the Platinum for the base game!

Exhibit A: Resogun has a bunch of DLC (free and paid) each with its own set of trophies contributing to the overall percentage. I don’t mind anymore, because look, I unlocked the Platinum for the base game!

Though they first debuted in 2009 with the first Uncharted, I didn’t unlock my first Platinum until 2013. A Black Friday sale that included 4 games was too good to pass up, so it was finally time to replace my launch PlayStation 3 that couldn’t render red or blue colors anymore. I unlocked my first Platinum trophy (for Telltale’s The Walking Dead) on July 24, 2013. I’ve been obsessing over trophy lists since then. I shiny Platinum trophy account would forever be displayed, regardless of if I played the DLC that added more trophies or not.

Based on my observations, 3 types of trophy hunters exist:

1)      The non-trophy hunter

2)      The “I guess I’ll go for that trophy since I love this game” hunter

3)      The “How can I maximize my trophy count in one play through” hunter

Of course, I fall in the latter category, but let’s break down the others in a bit more detail.

The first category could give two sh**s about trophies. They play games purely for the experience, and some even turn off the trophy notifications (those savages) because they believe the “Ding” noise ruins the immersion. These players are not the ones you’re designing your trophy list for. At best, they’ll pop some unmissable story-related trophies, but those are just participation trophies anyways.

The second category of hunter is platinum-curious. If a list entices them enough, they’ll be open to attaining more trophies. Also, if the game is truly special to this category of hunter, then they’ll be enticed to further explore the game in its entirety. This is where a list filled with things that encourage exploration, tests involving fun or intricate mechanics, and collectibles that expand on the world’s lore can convert this category to the dark side of trophy hunting…

The third category consists of people like me that check trophy lists as soon as they release on psnprofiles.com (usually a couple of weeks before release). We like to maximize a single play through for the most trophies, usually playing on the hardest difficulty available to unlock stacked difficulty trophies, and explore every nook and cranny of a level to find as many collectibles as possible to save time on the final leg of the Platinum hunt.

…seriously, I’ve done this for every game I’ve played on PlayStation 4.

It’s not as bad as it sounds though, I personally believe that we just enjoy the metagame within the PlayStation ecosystem that helps us prove to ourselves (and others) that we know a certain game like the back of our hands.

Either way, good trophy lists should be designed to entice both the second and third categories of trophy hunters. A strong list like the recent God of War essentially asks the player to see everything the game has to offer. This is the beginning of a strong list, and what follows are a few ideas on what you should (and shouldn’t) do when designing your trophy list. Good luck and happy hunting!

The Good:

Trophies that entice movement through the world

Open world games usually throw in a “See all locations” related trophy for a reason. If you consider your world a character, motivate the player to keep exploring!

Trophies that require fully upgrading a character/vehicle/etc.

If your game’s design is going for the experience of feeling powerful, then encourage your players to unlock the fullest potential of their character and their companion!

Trophies that show off your incredible attention to detail

If Breath of the Wild included a “trophy” for getting shocked by lightning while a metal object is equipped, that would be a perfect example.

Trophies that require finding an Easter egg to unlock

They tell your players, “We’re human too!”

The Bad:

Trophies that are unlocked through lots of repetitive fetch quests (I’m looking at you Insomniac)

You don’t want your player to get bored of your world, or see the same crimes over, and over, and over again. (I’m looking at you Insomniac. Please add more crime variations for Spider-Man 2, please.)

Trophies that force us platinum hunters to play out the story a certain way

The difference is clear between games like The Walking Dead and The Witcher 3. The former simply asks the player to complete the story however they see fit. A trophy pops for every chapter completed. The latter, on the other hand, asks players to save all companions, requiring perfect dialogue choices, saving characters that you may not necessarily want to save, etc. In short, try not to funnel your players into making the choices you want them to make…

The Ugly:

Multiplayer trophies that exist on a dead server…

You may say now that your game will never get shut down, but for the sake of us Type 3 Trophy hunters down the road, please include a kill switch or auto pop for trophies like this. Thanks!

I’m sure I missed some, but these are just the ones that immediately popped in my head. Maybe I’ll keep updating this post as I unlock more types of trophies in the future.

Thanks for reading!

INSIDE by Playdead: A Visual Analysis

I love Playdead’s INSIDE, and I will find any excuse to play it. When I was tasked with playing a game with a visual composition lens, I immediately redownloaded INSIDE. I was excited to explore the world again with a fresh set of eyes.

How Celeste Pulled Me Out of the Mud

When I first downloaded Celeste to my Nintendo Switch, I was in one of the scariest times of my life. I was a recent grad working at GameStop studying for the GRE, unsure of the next few years of my life. Would I still be struggling to break in to the games industry? Would I be accepted to the Entertainment Technology Center? It was an anxiety-plagued time in my life filled with sleepless nights, unnecessary nights out drinking, and difficult conversations about my future with my parents. I felt like I was sitting in a pile of mud that made it difficult to stand up straight. My anxiety was piled on when I began feeling ill. I rarely get sick, so when it happens, it feels like death. I laid in bed anxious, dazed, and worried about my future. In an attempt to make myself feel better, I put on the weekly episode of the Kinda Funny Gamescast. One of the members of the podcast said, “Get off your ass and start playing Celeste,” and it spoke to me in a deeper way than he intended. I stood up straight for the first time in a month, pushed through the body aches and walked over to my Switch, and played the purest, most emotional platformer of my life. In short, Celeste and its mystical mountain are a metaphor for overcoming anxiety and depression. This game could not have impacted me at a more perfect time. By the end of Celeste’s emotional experience, I was in tears, ready to take on the rest of my life.

The bulk of Celeste was made by the six people at “Matt Makes Games”, an indie studio known for its fast-paced platformers and gorgeous art. Celeste was marketed simply as a platformer, with the metaphors of anxiety and depression it speaks about hidden from the consumer. Even podcasters were keeping the secret, urging folks to experience the storytelling for themselves. I downloaded the game with no prior knowledge of its release. Even working at GameStop, no one I knew was talking about it. I had no idea why this game was speaking to me, but I was allowing my gut feelings to take over.

Upon booting up Celeste, a few screens with text pierced right through me.

“This is it, Madeline. Just breathe. Why are you so nervous?”

 I was immediately placed into the shoes of the red-haired pixel character on screen, because I too was hitting a point where breathing and reassuring myself was the best way to ease my nerves. I was taught how to jump across a pit and climb walls, by a mystical crow, then traversed over to an old lady that warned me of Celeste Mountain’s spectacular power.

“You might see things. Things you ain’t ready to see,” she said. Her words would begin foreshadowing the metaphor for the mountain: It will reveal Madeline’s anxiety to her, regardless of if she is ready to cope with it or not. She calls the old woman crazy and moves up the mountain. As she crosses a stone bridge, it begins to break behind her. A gap in the bridge forces her to jump, and as she prepares her landing, the bridge collapses under her. She plummets to her death.

Time freezes.

Just before hitting rock-bottom in her life, Madeline is taught by the magical crow that she can “Dash”. In doing so, Madeline saves herself and begins the long journey up the mountain, determined to complete the climb.

“You can do this,” the screen says. By now, Madeline and I were connected. We were both on the same journey of learning how to cope with our anxiety.

Now that I knew how to dash, no platform or cliff felt too high up. Madeline and her new dash ability felt fluid and engaging. By deciding against a User Interface, the team at Matt Makes Games was able to use the pixel art as both form and function. When Madeline can dash, her hair blows red in the wind. When Madeline has used her dash, her hair turns blue. Her red hair and dash ability will not return until she has safely grounded herself. From screen to screen in the first level alone, Celeste’s difficulty ramps up in a way that makes the player feel powerful. The platforming goes from simple linear traversal to angled traversal requiring a mix of wall jumping and dashing in the first few screens. As soon as the player feels powerful and confident with the mechanics, Celeste Mountain throws in a new way of thinking about traversal. For example, a new way of thinking is introduced in the form of a green crystal, that, when collected, recharges Madeline’s dash mechanic in midair.

After completing the first phase of her climb, Madeline has a dream. The player is treated to a dreamy soundtrack, and takes control of Madeline while in said dream. She finds a mirror, and out pops a purple, oozing version of Madeline. It introduces itself as a part of her personality (I now believe it to be a representation of the negative energy in her life), and becomes the first “Boss” the player encounters. Because the only mechanics in the game are jump, dash, and climb, the harder boss levels are essentially speed run levels. They require the player to platform away from the boss, who chases them at an increasing speed. The speedy platforming requires plenty of tries. In my first play through of the first boss level, I was introduced to yet another metaphor planted in by the developers: Assist Mode.

Assist mode is accessible from the very beginning of the game. Before giving you the ability to turn the mode on, the developers say through text that difficulty is a crucial part of Celeste’s experience. It hints at the fact that Madeline’s journey to the summit of the mountain will not be easy. The developers go on to explain that they highly recommend playing the game in full without Assist Mode turned on, but that they realize every player is in different stages of their life. I believe that the developers mostly just want everyone to enjoy Celeste in its entirety, so they included Assist Mode as an alternative to anyone that felt too stressed at any point in the game. 

Upon escaping the purple metaphor for her negative traits, Madeline hears a pay phone ring. She gets a call from “someone she hasn’t heard from in ages” and subsequently gets eaten by the phone, waking her from the dream. Madeline retraces the steps she took in her dream, but this time conscience and without the purple figure chasing after her. She sees the same payphone in her dream, and calls her mother for the first time in weeks.

As hard as it was for me to admit, I personally felt like I hadn’t spoken to my own mother in weeks as well. When we did speak, it was either me raising my tone with her about my uncertainties in life, or her desperately trying to help me wade out of the funk I had found myself in. When Madeline called her mother in the middle of a dangerous climb, I too felt the urge to reach out. I called out for my mom to help me feel better, and she responded by holding me and keeping me on track with my cold medicine. Her presence was a wake-up call for me, much like Madeline’s dream.

The next few levels do an astounding job at reminding you that you’re powerful. Elements introduced previously are now being combined in an effort to make the player feel powerful. Though the team at “Matt Makes Games” never explicitly says it, this way of teaching and melding mechanics is a way of saying, “Take baby steps, and you’ll reach the summit.” Baby steps can be in the literal sense of platforming, but I also took it as a metaphor for learning to cope with your surroundings. 

As Madeline continues her climb, her red-eyed, purple-skinned persona keeps returning. It disrupts her conversations, it discourages her from continuing the climb, and it haunts her through her journey. She meets characters along the way that are on the mountain for different reasons. Theo, a millennial in between jobs, is trying to figure out if photography is a career-worthy passion or not. Mr. Oshiro, a phantom that haunts an abandoned hotel, represents someone that has let their guilt and fear take over their life. As Madeline learns new ways of coming to terms with her purple persona, she learns how to cope with her negativity from the people around her.

The most effective technique she learns later becomes a mechanic near the top of the mountain. At the plot’s climax, Madeline and Theo are riding a gondola to the summit. The purple figure returns and begins to shake the gondola in an effort to stop Madeline from progressing forward. Madeline begins to scream and prepares for the plummet to her death. Theo teaches her a meditative technique where she imagines that her breath is holding a feather afloat in her chest, and they survive the gondola ride. That night, in another dream, Madeline confronts the part of her that has been trying to stop her from climbing. The purple fiend retaliates by throwing her off the edge of the mountain, and the player is introduced to a “Feather” power up that gives Madeline the ability of flight.

After utilizing her new technique, Madeline once again confronts her fears. She now understands that this part of her is a manifestation of all of the negative traits of her personality, and Madeline struggles to calm down the red-eyed expression. In a final effort, she admits that she loves that part of herself, and the two finally come together as one. Madeline allows the manifestation to join her again, and she gains the ability to Dash a second time in the air. Madeline is the same person, but now the part of her is encouraging and helpful in the final climb to the summit. On the way back down the mountain, Celeste proves that the accomplishment to the summit was just the beginning, and that feeling like a new person on the way down is just as challenging and powerful as the climb up.

Upon completing the climb, I took the game’s advice and began to meditate. It helped me realize that in reality, my negativities were just me confused with my future. I began to love my life again, excited about the future that may be. I received an acceptance letter from Carnegie Mellon University weeks later, and I realized that it was merely the summit. The trek back down the mountain would be my time at the ETC, and a better understanding of myself as a person was crucial to my success in the program.

Celeste is filled to the brim with metaphors of meditation and learning to love one’s self. It is a transformational game as much as it is a humbling platformer. At a time when I felt like standing up straight was a challenge in and of itself, it taught me how to climb a mountain of fear and anxiety by taking baby steps, understanding what I had learned about myself in the past, and learning to accept my prior negativities. But then, it taught me that the summit was just the beginning. As a new person with a better understanding of myself, I am able to come down the mountain with a new set of eyes on the constantly changing world around me. Celeste is the perfect balance between intricate platformer and accessible transformational game, and it’s one I will always describe as an epitome of game design.

West Coast Trip

1/5 (12:57 AM)

I just flew in from Denver for Christmas break. I watched Into the Spider-Verse 3 times. Once with my girlfriend, once alone, and once with my family. It felt right, and it felt necessary. It’s a spectacular film with intricately detailed animation. Each frame feels like a panel of a comic. It’s oddly satisfying, like butter on warm toast but for your eyes, and it never lets up. Every 30 seconds there’s a tiny mark in the background that adds the extra shine needed for it to feel like a comic book. It never ceased to surprise me in terms of swag. Spider-Verse was the perfect gateway drug back into Insomniac’s Marvel Spider-Man every night that I could. But more on that in my review, here

Besides that, after watching Girlfriend Reviews on YouTube, I was able to convince my girlfriend, Alison, to start a new save in Breath of the Wild. In her doing so, I was able to retrace my thought process with every new piece of the world she interacted with. The old man on the edge of the cliff was the perfect chaperone into the world. He engaged her curiosity and asked if she wanted to know more about the wilds. It was fascinating to replay the game with this new set of eyes. In just 20 minutes she went from, “Noooooooo, fighting those things is annoying,” referencing a Bokoblin camp, to, “Get back here, you!” when a Hopper was too quick for her reflexes.

 1/6 (11:21 PM)

My most successful Disneyland trip yet is all thanks to my willingness to tap back into my childhood memories and lack of a visit since then. Reentering the park for the first time made me giddy with excitement, and I immediately made a run to California Adventure. I never got to go as a kid, so seeing Pixar Pier for the first time felt natural. Why wouldn’t Disney give Pixar their much-deserved attention and love?

Because of the Disneyland app and my willingness to splurge on the $15 MaxPass, I only had to wait in a normal line twice (Indiana Jones and Haunted Mansion) and those were each only 30 minute wait times. For the other dozen or so rides, I was using and abusing my MaxPass privileges. It felt like the walks across the parks took linger than the wait times themselves. Whether the spectacular theming in the lines, or just the sheer lack of people behind the FastPass entrances are to blame, my time at Disneyland felt breezy and efficient.

Incredicoaster was a great, tight coaster with solid drops and turns that gave me enjoyable butterflies. It was my first and second-to-last attraction. At night, all of Disney Pier was lit up, so the Ferris wheel gave me heavy Santa Monica peer vibes (great for tourism). We then jumped to the Guardians of the Galaxy/Tower of Terror ride. This ride was special because I had never gone on the original Tower of Terror attraction before its reskin, so I had no idea what I was getting into. I expected one large drop like most tall tower rides at amusement parks, so when the doors would open to a screen of Chris Pratt doing his Star-Lord thing, or Baby Groot doing his Baby Groot thing, I kept assuming the ride was over. I screamed every time it dropped, and I was having an absolute blast:

Front row, white shirt. I promise I’m enjoying myself.

Front row, white shirt. I promise I’m enjoying myself.

Star Tours and Buzz Lightyear ended up letting me down after the excitement that Guardians of the Galaxy brought me. I was having trouble with accuracy in Buzz Lightyear’s shooting gallery, and Star Tours felt like the old Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios (it is now defunct) which, at the time, was at least decently engaging. I slightly blame it on Kashyyyk, because Coruscant easily outshined it.

Then, it was time to hit up the classics. My Disneyland memories mostly consists of Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, and Haunted Mansion, so riding all three of them in succession was a trip down memory lane. To my surprise, these attractions have aged pretty well. I’m very sad to see the three door selection in Indiana Jones go, but the rest of the ride was still entertaining. Seeing Haunted Mansion with a layer of The Nightmare Before Christmas was impressive and fit well, but it just made me miss the classic ride even more when the final part of the coaster just turned me into a gingerbread man instead of a ghostly figure.

It is very easy for me to admit the highlight of my Disneyland trip. Star Wars: Shadow of the Empire at The Void is one of the most jaw-dropping experiences I’ve ever had. Within seconds of transforming into Stormtroopers our group of 4 turned into a pack of screaming boys. We were all in formation when the Empire was onto our plan, and when one of us would get shot, we could hear the terror through the intercoms. It’s everything I’ve hoped for in VR, and I’m glad to see Disney and The Void push VR as a medium into new forms with their dedicated venues.

We ended our trip with Toy Story Mania. It was a great end to my ETC-driven Disneyland trip because of Jesse Schell’s involvement in the attraction. Hearing him discuss some of his design challenges in class, then being able to enjoy the attraction as a Game Designer was intriguing. The game itself is satisfying throughout, and the lines theming made me feel like a kid opening a new toy on Christmas.

Overall, this was my most enjoyable Disneyland trip yet. Between the almost perfect weather (it sometimes got a little too chilly) and the sheer volume of attraction I got to experience, I can’t help but be excited for the rest of the West Coast Trip, and get to the important stuff: site visits.

1/9 (12:53 AM)

From Walt Disney Imagineering to Scopely, I’ve had the privilege of visiting a wide variety of design studios these past two days, and it’s not over yet.

WDI knew exactly who we were, what we were doing there, and the best way for us to be able to communicate with those in our fields of interest. It was the only location that every class member visited, because Imagineering has such a wide variety of roles. It was interesting to hear about the Game Design Internship they opened up from an ETC alum herself, because she was worried for her future. Disney didn’t have a proper “Game Designer” role for her, so she was unsure of her plans after it. Definitely something to keep thinking about.

The Activision Motion Capture studio was definitely a fan-boy geek-out moment for me. The tour felt geared more towards potential technical artists or riggers, but I still enjoyed the hell out of seeing a large mo-cap studio like that in person.

While at Ready at Dawn, I felt connected to the employees. The studio felt authentic and down-to-earth. It was great to hear the authenticity and passion in their voices when they talked about their work. Now when is Daxter 2 coming?

Scopely considered themselves as much a tech start-up as a game studio, so the tour seemingly showed off more about the space itself than the employees. It reminded me of the ETC in some ways, and I enjoyed it.

Tonight, we had an alumni dinner that opened my eyes to how real our connections were. The ETC has alumni across the board in all types of industry roles, and it was great to see them interact and joke with each other.

And now, in giddy preparation for the Naughty Dog tour, I’m rewatching Grounded: Making The Last of Us. Tomorrow morning, I’ll listen to Cory Barlog’s GameOverGreggy show guest appearance in giddy preparation for Santa Monica Studio. Not even two years ago, I never thought I’d be able to tour either of these studios, and now thanks to the ETC I get to visit BOTH IN ONE DAY.

1/9 (9:46 PM)

Naughty Dog was dark and chilly, but I could feel the warmth through the people there that enjoyed their work. Kareem is definitely someone to keep in touch with, and his advice to be willing and ready to talk face-to-face with someone seemed crucial to his success at the studio.

Neil was calm and collected as I expected, and he’s definitely someone I aspire to learn from. He stated that soft skills and people skills would be important at the studio, especially since the flat structure encouraged communication at the studio.

It was great visiting Santa Monica Studio immediately after Naughty Dog, because I definitely felt different “vibes” (for lack of a better word) from both. Santa Monica still had a fair number of employees on break, so that probably influenced that feeling. It felt a little more rigid and separated. When we went to the balcony overlooking about half the studio, I felt disconnected from the people below me. Naughty Dog, on the other hand, was one giant circle where one could easily cut through to talk to someone on the other side. Either way, both studios were incredibly eye-opening, and visiting both in one day was a dream I never thought I’d be able to experience until now.

1/10 (5:09 PM)

Today I experienced an incredible sense of purpose and passion from Tangible Play (the folks behind the groundbreaking educational games known as Osmo). I very quickly realized how much I would love a place like Osmo relatively soon. I asked a panel of ETC alumni if they would ever consider increasing their targeted demographic from kinds to teens, and the response gave me a sense of “maybe… if the right idea came along”. This got me very excited to stay in touch with the alumni at Osmo.

EA was interesting until I realized that they didn't want to show us any offices. The gyms, cafés, awards, and statues are interesting, though.