I’ve recently been playing a game called Boson X (iOS/Android/Win/Mac/Linux). It’s an infinite runner — think Temple Run meets Super Hexagon, both aesthetically and mechanically. It’s great fun, and has a couple of cool ideas I haven’t seen before in the genre, but one thing in particular has stuck with me.
The loose narrative conceit of the game is that you are a scientist conducting research inside a particle accelerator. Hence, there are a series of different levels, each ostensibly representing the research of a single particle you’re trying to discover, with a concrete win state that signifies you have “discovered” the particle and thus can go on to the next level.
It’s worth talking very briefly about the traditional role of level design in, say, a 2D platformer or a FPS. Some players are compelled by completionist tendencies. Others are driven by the sight-seeing aspect of being able to explore each level. Others still enjoy the varied challenges that arise when level designers find different ways to create vastly different puzzles and problems out of the same set of overarching game systems. Having a series of varied “levels” appeals to all of these types of players.
But “level design” in that sense almost always refers to hand-crafted content built by a designer. Even in a game like Spelunky, a masterpiece of procedural level generation, the joy of exploring each of the game’s worlds comes from seeing what new obstacles and enemy templates the designer has introduced; the “shiny new things” for you to explore are the building blocks rather than the structures they form.
Boson X turns that on its head. Each level is visually and musically distinct, sure, but more important are the changes is the procedural level generation algorithm. The thing that makes each level unique isn’t the new set of building blocks the designers have come up with, as is typically the case even within games like Spelunky or Super Hexagon that rely on procedural generation. The “content” itself is the algorithm, the designed code that in turn creates the levels. I can’t think of any other game that treats algorithms as content in this way.
In practice, I don’t know how much it matters — I bet the design process itself was still fairly similar to a traditional approach. But for a game in a fairly overcrowded genre, it’s certainly a cool design choice that stuck with me long after putting the game down.