From Prince of Persia to Assassin’s Creed: the curse of overly complex level design & traversal

For me 2004’s reboot of the Prince of Persia series, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, was the equivalent of a gameplay revolution.  It moved with such fluidity, combining elements of disparate genres into one massively impressive package that – quite frankly – was miles ahead of its competition, and its time.  I could talk about how fantastic the combat was, or how mind-blowing the rewind feature was, but while Sands of Time was great for all those reasons (and more), it was the Prince’s amazingly free-form and athletic traversal of the stunning persian environments that made the game stand out from the crowd.  We’d had games focusing on exploration and feats of athleticism before, with Tomb Raider being the most obvious, but we’d never seen one pull off the sensation that the world was your playground.

Ubisoft knew that its levels and mechanics were the star of the show and kept the Prince, for the most part, silent.  The world was the main character of Sands of Time and traversing it was the plot twist.  It was clear that the focus was on making the player feel like the very best Cirque Du Soleil performer, able to push the limits of physics and human ability to the very limit, but still managing to look beautiful and elegant while doing so.  The levels were immaculately designed, almost resembling mazes, as they twist and turn in every direction.  There is a straight path but it is perfectly and organically woven into the aesthetic design of the levels, making every move the Prince makes feel superhuman.  He isn’t traversing an artificial obstacle course that has been designed to be overcome, he is traversing a world that he just shouldn’t be able to.  And so the free-running video game revolution began, and with that revolution and increased use of free-running traversal mechanics by developers of all shapes and colours, came an increasing level of complexity in level design.


The problem is that with all of these complicated levels designed around multidimensional traversal mechanics it usually isn’t clear where you need to go – or worse – how to get there.  And so I found myself drawn out of the intricately developed world put in place by very clever level designers as I stumble from one place to another, following the pre-determined path without ever really knowing in advance how to get there.  Sure it all looks pretty, with the swinging and the wall-running and the (in some cases) smashing through brick walls to find conveniently located secret passages or alternative paths – but there is usually no coordination, thought, or planning required to progress – you just move from ledge to ledge, platform to platform, with no real idea how to get to your destination; only that eventually you’ll get there.  If you can reach it that’s probably the way to go becomes your ethos, and so you stumble through levels until you find the correct ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ the developers have set out for you. It simply becomes a matter of blind traversal. Comparing across mediums, it is the equivalent of Indiana Jones accidentally stumbling into the grail knight’s tomb at the Biblioteca di San Barnaba in Venice, without referring to his little brown book.  It just doesn’t make sense.

Of course fast forward to Ubisoft’s successor Assassin’s Creed and all of these problems for the most part disappear with the freedom given to players, where there more often than not isn’t only one way to get to your destination.  It was a change in game design sentiment that focused more on the movement than on the environments, and so while the environment was designed to accommodate free movement of the player, it wasn’t constrained by a greater linear level design, in turn alleviating the blind traversal issues found in early free-running inspired games.  While it is easy to be sad for what we’ve lost – namely the perfectly planned and executed level designs found in Prince of Persia games – it is easy to see what we’ve gained.  The Prince of Persia reboot and its sequels were (and are still) great games, but they were Ubisoft’s stepping stone toward the more fluid and open traversal mechanics we see today in the Assassin’s Creed series.  Ubisoft Montreal weren’t just evolutionary, they were revolutionaries – twice over.

AC Altair