You wake up in the midst of some tower ruins, confused over how you ended up here you start exploring the place to find a way home. During your exploration you happen to find some inhabitants, helping you build a hot air balloon taking you home.
4.5 weeks fulltime
Asset packs from Unreal Engine marketplace
Advanced Locomotion System
Dreamscape Nature: Meadows - Stylized Open World Environment
To build a big open level that still feels inviting to explore
Make non linear experience and give lots of player agency
Enemy camp located in the mountains where the player can find of three NPC's
Tower ruins is where the player starts the level, acts like a HUB where the NPC's gather in.
A small village ruin located by the river, here the player can find lots of loot
Wizard tower where the player can find one of three NPC's
The abandoned village by the lake where the player can find of of three NPC's
I started the project by looking at different open world games to take inspiration from. I landed on the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, since it's a game I'm very familiar with, and I liked how they had made the world feeling both alive and abandoned at the same time. I collected reference pictures, mainly for the structures and buildings that I wanted to have in the world.
I took the idea of Eventide Island, how Link must complete a quest to get away from the island. At first I went with the same idea, that the player had to find three different shrines to complete to be able to leave, but it changed further in production.
Rough digital sketch of the basic layout of the level
Refined overview of the final level
The majority of the blockout process consisted of building with the landscape tool in Unreal Engine. In this project I wanted to focus on world building and creating a big world with only a landscape as the base. Where I wanted water, I placed a plane with a blue material to visualize how the river and sea would feel. As base, I started with a 2km*2km landscape, and slowly made the shape more organic as I worked. During the process I also got feedback on how the rivers flowed didn't really make a lot of sense, so I made some research on how natural water flows in the nature and how it can shape the mountains around it.
Building process of the whole level
Building process of the village
For this project, my main focus wasn't scripting. However, since I wanted the level to be relatively playable and not keep all gameplay conceptual, I had to make some scripts with simple mechanics. I made micro-puzzles that could be scattered a little bit all around the level, to help prevent gameplay fatigue.
To make the torch getting lit by fire, and lighting other objects I had to communicate with several blueprints, including the player blueprint to make sure everything happened in the right order and that other things didn't happen by mistake, e.g. spawning a rock when the player was supposed to drop the torch.
Modeling meshes in Blender
Since the majority of the buildings in the world would be ruins, the easiest was to create those from blockout meshes, simple shapes such as cubes, cylinders, ramps etc. The structures that were a bit more complex were made in Blender with the building in Unreal Engine and reference pictures as a baseline.
Points of Interests
Tower Ruins (HUB)
The tower ruins are located almost in the middle of the world. The player starts their journey here and the location is supposed to act as returning point for the player throughout their journey.
Main goal for the player is to explore the island and find a way to leave it. By traversing the world, the player can find NPC's that will help the player get away in exchange of help from the player.
When the player has helped an NPC, they help the player in return by building a part of an hot air balloon. This air balloon, when it's done, will take the player away from the island and completing the main goal.
The NPC's will teleport to the HUB after the player has left the area they reside in. This is to show progression in the level and to make the HUB feel more populated and worth to revisit.
In this area I wanted the player to be able to get an establishing shot of the whole world, and the easiest way to accomplish that was to build a tall building for the player to climb.
I also decided to build the area higher up than its surroundings, to invoke a feeling of safety and superiority. By placing it higher up it also gives the player an easier shot of the whole world without having to climb the tower
West Lake Village
The village that mostly consists of house ruins is located south west of the HUB, in a partly dried out lake.
When exploring this village, the player can find an NPC in the temple located highest up in the area. The NPC will reminisce about their past and how they used to live in this populated village before. The NPC will ask for a specific seed that reminds them of their childhood, and it's up to the player to find one of these special seeds.
On a cliff, the player can find a small puzzle, and when the puzzle is solved they will get a special seed and then can return to the temple to give the seed to the NPC
After the player has helped the NPC the NPC will teleport to the HUB and build one of the pieces of the hot air balloon. The player can still find the NPC in the village, right until the player visits the HUB again, then the NPC change location and is only found in the HUB.
If the player takes the main path to get to the village, they will be funneled through a tight passage, until they reach the village. This is done to exaggerate the feeling of the village's size. The player might feel that the place is big but as they start to explore it, they quickly realize it's not as big as their initial feeling.
However, if the player decides to take their desired path, the shortest to the village, or their exploration paths, they will get an overview of the whole village, since the area around it is higher.
When reaching the entrance of the village, the player is presented their mid term goal, the temple. The player doesn't exactly know what to do there, however, by framing the temple's tower with mountains in the background, it gives the player some sort of importance to visit the building.
The temple is also placed on a higher ground than the surrounding houses, to further strengthen the implication that this temple is important. This creates a hierarchical set up of the village.
The enemy camp consists of old castle ruins overrun by monsters. It is located east of the HUB in the middle of the big mountain range. Underneath the castle, is a medium sized catacomb is located. The player don't know about the catacombs until they enter the castle ground and fall down.
To get to the enemy camp the player must climb the mountains surrounding the area, bumping into monsters on the way, and the closer they get to the camp the more enemies they meet, to foreshadow and hint what might come.
I wanted the enemy camp to feel isolated and away from the rest of the world, and first decided to build it in between some high mountain ranges. To further accentuate this feeling I added a moat around the camp area, so it would feel even more detached and like it's the monsters own little world.
For this area I also took inspiration from the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I looked at some areas, where they made some areas specifically for the enemies to live and dwell in, and I felt like it was fitting for this world.
Some time into the process I felt like area was a bit lack-luster, and that there was a risk of gameplay fatigue by just relying on combat as gameplay. This made me add a catacomb consisting of two different puzzles to solve. It would give the player a breathing space from enemies.
Since I wanted the catacombs to feel dark, and mysterious I didn't want the player to get too comfortable and calm in this area, which made me add a small, short bait & switch section, to keep the player on their toes all the time while traversing throughout the catacombs.
The ruins, are what they sound like, ruins of a small living area. On one side of the area, a draw bridge is pulled up, and the player must go to the other side of this draw bridge to pull it down.
Here, the player can find some things to loot, such as weapons, and other valuable things.
For this area, I also wanted it to feel like it's on its own. It was also made as a passage, for the player to explore another, more populated area, while getting to another, bigger area such as the Village
Since it's a relatively small area compared to the other, it naturally started to feel more cozy. I strengthened that feeling by making the number of ruins low, and spacing it more tightly, both the path and the houses.
Here a wizard resides. They have a giant chicken as a pet, and the player can borrow this chicken to easier roam the world. However, in order to be able to ride this chicken, the player must climb the tower and talk to the wizard located on top of it.
The wizard will of course give the player a quest when talking to them. The quest is as simple as going to the forest and find a specific mushroom the wizard needs for their potions.
After the player found the mushroom and returned to the wizard, they in exchange get help from the wizard to operate the hot air balloon.
What I wanted with this tower was to feel interesting from far away and inviting for exploration.
When climbing the tower there was a risk for the player to be rail-roaded, that they would mindlessly keep walking up a never-ending staircase up to the top. To avoid that, I broke off some staircases which forces the player to jump and climb in some sections. When reaching the outside balcony, the opening to the next room collapses, forcing the player to look around for another path up.
From away, the forest looks a bit foggy, and as the player progress further into it it turns foggier, making the atmosphere mysterious and makes it more complicated for the player to navigate. When the player reaches the middle the fog clears up. In this clearing the player finds the mushroom the wizard asks for, but also a minipuzzle to give the player another reward for finding their way to the middle.
Since the main feature of the forest was to turn foggier when the player traversed into it, it was very important to create a border between the trees and the path. To achieve that, I put trees closest to the path very tight to each other to create a wall of trees. Then I also lowered the path to separate the path even more from the forest ground.
Polishing the Level
The last week of the project was reserved to polish the environmental looks of the level. The lighting is usually something I save for last to make look good. Sometimes, during the project I sat and tweaked minimal on the exposure, and made it differentiate if the player was above or below ground. I wanted the player to feel free, and at peace above ground, so I made the lighting more warm, and inviting. With the small section below ground, I wanted it to feel small, and dark.
That was something I focused on, accentuate the feeling of being free and out in the open above ground, and to give off a murky, dark feeling below ground
During my education I always stuck to making smaller levels in fear of getting too overwhelmed by the size, however, this project made me step out of my comfort zone. This project also made me realize how much I enjoy sculpting a whole landscape from scratch, imagining how the landscape might have been deformed throughout centuries.
Some things that I would have wanted to do different are:
Make the tower in the HUB bigger to make it stand out even more
Place out more NPC's with smaller quests in the world, and also have them populate the HUB like the other NPC's to make the HUB feel more important and populated as the player progressed.
In conclusion, this project made me grow as a level designer and world designer. First focusing on the bigger world, and then building up each area and POI, making sure the areas worked with the rest of the world but also feeling special in their own way. I would love to work on these kind of projects in the future.