The Domain of the Virtuous
A First-Person Medieval Fantasy Action Experience
This project has been a collaborative effort between myself and my classmate Tony Palm, where I focused on level design while Anton created the gameplay system it utilizes.
This is a short action level that takes place in a medieval fantasy castle. It’s combat oriented and focuses on using a combat space to the player’s advantage through the design and through physics based environmental hazards.
Created in 5 weeks half-time
What I did:
Helped with Game Design
My initial overview sketch of the then titled "cathedral" with its two floors.
Final blockout of The Main Hall.
This project came about when I thought of what kind of level I’ve always wanted to create and my frustration of not being able to do it. I wanted to make a medieval fantasy level where you would fight enemies with a sword! I wanted it to be a playable level with functioning enemy AI. Something akin to a Skyrim dungeon, but in Unreal Engine 5. The problem was that I lacked a suitable framework to work off and neither had the time nor the knowledge to create one myself. So, I was at a bit of an impasse.
Having voiced this frustration with my classmates, I found myself talking with my classmate Tony, who had decided to focus on technical design. Together we started forming the idea of creating a melee combat framework of our own, and decided to do a collaboration.
I came up with the idea of creating a cathedral or castle of some sort, where the player would start on a high point and work their way down.
I did a quick overview sketch of how I wanted the basic layout to look like and started blocking this out in the engine. I wanted the cathedral to lead down to a larger dungeon level, but quickly realized I needed to down scope in order to finish on time. Thus, I focused on what I had and continued to build upon it. The result was a level consisting of narrow corridors and small spaces that lead down to a large open combat area.
The Melee Template
As already mentioned, the level was designed around a melee template which was created by my classmate Tony. We collaborated on coming up with game design ideas that could work well in a first-person melee action game.
In trying to figure out what to add to the combat system, we started looking at the game Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, a Source Engine game that incorporates a lot of physics in its combat and its environment. We ended up taking inspiration from gameplay features from that game, and these features became the basis of the creation of this level.
Early blockout of "The Catherdral" compared to final blockout of The Main Hall and The Dungeon.
The design went through quite a few changes as I was blocking it out. What I originally called The Cathedral is what in the final blockout became The Main Hall and The Dungeon. The original idea was for the cathedral to only be the starting area of a level that took place in a dungeon/cave environment. Additionally this area was supposed to focus on puzzle solving instead of combat.
I started by blocking out the space I had already sketched out on paper and I was very happy with the result. Based on the time it took to get the cathedral into the engine, I realized that adding even more content within my time frame was going to be difficult. I also really liked the space and I thought it would be a shame just to use it as a puzzle area in the beginning before immediately moving on to something else.
Although I initially wanted the level to be more puzzle oriented, I felt it was important to do something more combat oriented that would utilize the capabilities of the melee template. My puzzle space now got converted into a combat space.
With more time I would have liked to keep the puzzle elements, but they had to go in the end. I closed off the middle section of The Cathedral, splitting it in two and so it became The Main Hall and the Dungeon.
Top-down screenshots of The Cathedral and The Main Hall, showcasing how both its layout and main path changed.
The level can be divided into seven individual high-intensity gameplay bubbles that are tied together by short moments of breathing room in between. The intensity of each bubble increases, as more gameplay features are introduced. When introducing new features, I followed the structure of “Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu”, meaning “Introduction, Development, Twist, Conclusion”.
An example; The player is introduced to the ability to pick up and throw crates and barrels. This can then be used in combat to make enemies fall over. By then putting the player on a narrow support beam high up, a twist is added since the same feature can be used to make enemies fall downin a spectacular fashion. I tried keeping this approach in mind with all gameplay features that are introduced.
A big part of the gameplay revolves around the use of environmental hazards to gain the upper hand in combat. Creating environments where these hazards could be utilized in a natural way was super important. As such the function of these hazards greatly influenced the design of the environments themselves. Like I mentioned before, we took a lot of inspiration from Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, and many ideas and concepts were borrowed from that game.
The player is able to kick enemies by pressing “F”. Doing so will deal a small amount of damage, interrupt their attack and push them backwards. If an enemy is kicked while standing in front of a ledge, they will ragdoll and fall down. Depending on the height, they will take different amounts of damage. A fall from a high place will kill them instantly, as such the kick is a very useful move.
Barrels and Crates
Strewn throughout the castle, the player will find a lot of wooden barrels and crates which can be picked up and thrown at enemies. In addition to dealing a small amount of damage it will make them ragdoll and fall to the ground, buying the player some extra time in a fight.
Throughout the level the player will encounter pieces of railing that are white and slightly shorter than normal. This indicates that the railing is fragile and will break easily. If an enemy is kicked or gets hit by a throwable and falls on it the railing will break, making for some cool moments.
The kick and throwable objects can be combined with the spike board for some spectacular kills. Similar to when standing close to a ledge, if an enemy is kicked near a spike board they will start ragdolling and be impaled by the spikes, killing them instantly.
In the main hall the player will find wooden scaffolding with barrels and crates on top of it. The scaffolding has two support pillars which will break when they are hit. Destroying both pillars will make the scaffolding collapse and the barrels on top will crash down and kill any enemy who is hit.
In the dungeon there is a large chandelier that has been strung up to its side with some rope. Cutting the rope will release it and make it swing violently back and forth and anyone who is struck by it will die (including the player!).
"Never should've come here!"
I Imagine this takes place in a dark medieval fantasy world and that The Domain of the Virtuous is the name of the castle where the level plays out. The Domain is a place of great power and significance, as it holds the power to open portals to other worlds. There are many who would use its power for evil.
The level starts as an evil cult has invaded the castle and killed most of its inhabitants. Their intention is to use the domain to invade and conquer other worlds. The player takes on the role of a protector of the domain, who by chance was spared in the initial onslaught. They are now forced to face the cultists alone.
The level starts as the player is awoken by commotion downstairs. Something is wrong. Descending the stairs, the player reaches a balcony area that overlooks The Main Hall. On the opposite side of the building is an identical balcony where an enemy can be seen. Evil cultists have invaded the castle! From here, the first goal is to go upstairs to the top floor and ring the bells to call for help.
The player reaches a storage room with barrels and crates strewn about. In here lies the body of a slain ally, a gruesome warning of things to come. As a bit of an introduction, the crates and barrels can be picked up and thrown if the player so chooses. There is a doorway to the left, leading to a corridor.
Looking through the doorway, the arm of an enemy can be seen at the end of the corridor to the left. Three wooden barrels lie near the doorway to the right. The first combat encounter initiates as the player approaches. The encounter is rather straightforward. The combat space is open and uncluttered, leaving room for maneuverability in a melee fight. The barrels can be picked up and thrown at the enemy to gain the upper hand.
At the end of the corridor is a locked door. To the left of the corridor is an open doorway leading to a spiral staircase to the top floor, which is where the player has to go next.
The first combat encounter.
The Top Floor
The player reaches the top floor which consists of two lofts that are connected by a support beam high above the main hall. The lofts are used for storage and more crates can be found up here. On the other side of the beam and after climbing some stairs, the player reaches the bell tower where they ring the bells to call for help. Doing this triggers a level transition.
Going back down, the player is met on the support beam by two enemies. This encounter is rather high-risk as the player is outnumbered and standing on a very narrow space high up. The drop to the ground is lethal, but this can be used to the player’s advantage. It’s a good place for the player to use the kick ability and knock the enemies off the beam.
On the other side of the beam, a door has opened up to a balcony outside. Once outside there are some ledges leading to an open window down to the left where the player can proceed.
It's a long way down...
Through the Window
Jumping through the window, the player ends up on the other side of the locked door in the corridor. Another enemy has heard the commotion and engages the player in combat. This encounter is similar to the one in the corridor, as it is 1v1 in a semi-spacious area with throwable crates close by to aid the player.
After this encounter, the player reaches the balcony they saw in the beginning. The railing is broken, offering the player a better view of the main hall. The player then proceeds through a doorway to the right and passes through some storage areas. These areas work as a decompression zone where the player is given some breathing room. In a final game I’d like there to be some loot strewn about. The player then reaches a long spiral staircase leading down to the wine cellar.
The Wine Cellar
The wine cellar is a dark and narrow space. As the player enters, they will see some light behind the kegs to the right and on closer inspection will see two enemies on the other side. Up ahead after descending a small flight of stairs another enemy is standing with his back turned next to two spike boards. None of the three enemies will notice the player at first, giving the player a chance to take them out stealthily.
The wine cellar offers little maneuverability in combat and the player is outnumbered, making this a difficult encounter. The player does have the element of surprise on their side, as well as the two spike boards, which I want to encourage the player to take advantage of. Following the combat encounter, the player enters another decompression zone in the form of a corridor which leads into The Main Hall.
An image that preceeds unfortunate events.
The Main Hall
The player arrives in The Main Hall through a small side door. They will need to pass through here to get to the dungeon.
To the right is an enemy standing with his back turned next to some wooden scaffolding. Some crates and barrels lie on top of it. The player is introduced to the scaffolding mechanic. Attacking its two support pillars will cause them to break, causing the crates on top to crash down and hit any enemy standing nearby. This enemy is easily killed using stealth, a so-called snack kill, if you will. There is some more scaffolding, as well as a spike board, both of which can be useful in combat.
It’s a large space with a lot of nooks and crannies giving the player a lot of freedom of movement in combat. Not counting the snack kill, there are three enemies in total, one of which is patrolling.
There are a number of throwables in the area, but they are all located on the two elevated platforms above that are connected via an overhead walkway. Another elevated position is the mini balcony near the far end of the hall where an enemy is standing watch. Below one of its three pieces of destructible railing is another spike board. This as well as the four barrels that can be found here, makes it a powerful position for the player to utilize in combat.
The player reaches the other side of the hall, a final decompression zone before the last segment.
The player finds the dungeon crowded with five enemies. Vastly outnumbered again, the player is going to need to utilize the environment to defeat them all. Fortunately, they are all busy preparing the ritual, meaning the player again has the element of surprise.
The dungeon can be divided into three different lanes. I will refer to them as the right, middle and left lanes. The right and left lanes are slightly elevated and connect to the middle lane via stairs.
There are a total of nine throwable objects and they are all located in the left lane. The three pieces of destructible railing make for a good place to knock down enemies. Underneath one of them is a spike board. Any enemy who falls down on top of it will meet a gruesome fate.
To the right there are two spike boards facing each other. The passage in between is extremely tight making it an ideal place to kick enemies into them.
The middle lane is left uncluttered, but in the ceiling is a chandelier that has been strung up and tied to a pole next to the stairs leading down. If the rope is cut, the chandelier will swing violently back and forth and strike down anyone in its path. It is a very powerful weapon but the player needs to pay attention as to not get struck down by it as well.
Having killed all enemies, the player can then proceed to the portal altar and end the level.
I had a lot of fun creating this experience. It was both exciting and challenging since it’s a type of gameplay I haven’t designed for before. Coming up with individual combat encounters was rather easy once the basic layout was blocked out. What I found more difficult was to tie these individual encounters and “wow-moments” together into one comprehensive experience.
I found that the gameplay worked best when used in smaller spaces with few enemies. I’m especially pleased with the wine cellar. I think it works so well because it strikes a good balance between gameplay, space planning and aesthetics. In hindsight I would’ve focused on more smaller spaces as opposed to the two bigger combat areas found in the final blockout.
I wish I could’ve worked on it for a longer time as it's still a bit rough around the edges. Nevertheless, the final blockout works well with the template and contains quite a few cool moments that I am very pleased with.