Video games that contain good level design are bountiful, but great level design is rare indeed. But what exactly is level design? In this article, level design will be defined as the surrounding environmental aesthetics, stylization, and construction of inanimate structures found within the playable level. Judgement will be made based on important factors like intricacy, creativity, size, variation, originality, and transitional flow.
Games that have poor level design tend to make the game feel stagnant or overly repetitive, especially if players have to backtrack or frequent that particular location. The best video games have worlds that spring to life and feature level designs that complement the game’s mechanics. They should make the player excited to explore the game’s levels and areas, even if it’s not an open world game.
In this article, we’ll be taking a look at the Top 10 Games with Great Level Design. The #1 spot will be given to the best level design.
10. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
- System: Nintendo 64, GameCube
- Publisher: Nintendo EAD
- Developer: Nintendo
- Release Dates: October 26, 2000 JPN: April 27, 2000
A dark and powerful item called Majora’s Mask has been stolen from an enigmatic mask salesman by a delinquent, Skull Kid. The misuse of the mask has caused the moon to slowly fall from its place in the sky. Link has three days to save the land of Termina from colliding with the moon. Normally, this would be an impossible task for one person to accomplish in such a short amount of time, but Link possesses the ability to partially control the flow of time by playing songs on his Ocarina. Using this power, he must relive the final three days of Termina until he is successful in saving the lives of thousands of its residents.
The land of Termina is split into multiple regions; each different area has a distinctive theme to it, usually influenced by the culture of its inhabitants. Certain environments offer unique challenges that Link might not be able to complete as a human, but using his collection of magical masks, he can transform into a creature better suited for the job such as a Zora, Goron, or a Deku. These challenges serve to enhance a gameplay element, which is why The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask makes it onto this list.
- System: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, OS X, Linux, Android
- Publisher: Valve Corporation
- Developer: Valve Corporation
- Release Dates: October 10, 2007
Packed full of sarcastic wit, pseudoscientific euphemisms, and the allure of cake, Portal is a one-of-a-kind puzzle game worth playing. Chell, a human test subject, awakens in a strange testing facility known as the Enrichment Center, which is owned by Aperture Science. Forced to endure an automatic testing procedure run by a humorously sadistic A.I. named GLaDOS, Chell is exposed to all manner of hazards such as particle beams, acid, and neurotoxic gas.
Portal’s biggest strength is actually what any sane level designer would avoid: confusing the player. Using the portal gun can sometimes prove to be incredibly disorienting; soon you won’t be able to tell which way is up and which way is down! For most games, that would prove to be a fatal flaw, but in Portal’s case, it works because intentionally adding confusion to the puzzles simply increases the challenge, effectively making it more fun to play, and more rewarding to solve. The testing rooms themselves are usually quite simple, but because of the placement of the portal-reactive panels and the cleverness of the puzzles, the player is incentivized to explore every inch of the level. Another unique aspect of Portal’s level design is the opportunity to peek behind the curtain, so to speak, when Chell ventures out of the testing rooms and into the classified sections of the facility.
8. Hitman Absolution
- System: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, OS X
- Publisher: IO Interactive
- Developer: Square Enix
- Release Dates: November 20, 2012
The product of an insidious government program that trained children to become highly specialized killers, Agent 47 is now one of the best assassins in the world. But when his handler, Diana Burnwood, goes rouge, he is ordered by the International Contract Agency to execute her. He does shoot her, but as she lay bleeding out on the floor, Diana makes a final request to her longtime friend and co-worker. She asks Agent 47 to protect a young orphan girl, Victoria, from falling back into the hands of the ICA. Rescuing Victoria from the same assassin program that shaped Agent 47 was the reason that Diana betrayed the Agency in the first place. Agent 47 agrees and thus, Hitman: Absolution begins.
If you’ve never played Hitman before, one of the optional (and sometimes required) ways that you can kill your targets is by using the environment around you to make an accident happen. In fact, you actually will be rewarded more points for killing via proxy rather than using a firearm to kill them directly; this is where the level design comes into play. Whether you are walking around a Chinese New Year festival or infiltrating a seedy hotel, many objects found within the level present a variety of opportunities to kill discreetly. Clever players can even discover ways to mix and match!
7. Metroid Prime
- System: GameCube, Wii
- Publisher: Retro Studios, Nintendo
- Developer: Nintendo
- Release Dates: November 17, 2002
Famous female bounty hunter Samus Aran returns in Metroid Prime to continue her battle against space pirates and alien monsters. She is travelling across the galaxy when she picks up a distress call coming from a space station. After arriving and investigating this space station, she ascertains that it belonged to space pirates but has been overrun by space monsters. So, naturally, she blows it up after defeating the Parasite Queen. She then decides to go down to the nearby planet of Tallon IV and explore the Chozo Ruins, where she finds more aliens that need extermination.
Rich in a variety of settings, Metroid Prime has a multitude of environments to explore. Using new and old suit abilities, Samus is able to jump and roll her way across many levels, even backtracking through previously inaccessible parts of old levels. The level aesthetic ranges greatly depending on where Samus currently at but given the settings of ancient ruins to space stations, the player will rarely be bored of the environments.
6. Bioshock Infinite
- System: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, OS X, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
- Publisher: Irrational Games
- Developer: 2K Games
- Release Dates: March 26, 2013
Booker DeWitt, a detective with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, takes a lucrative but suspicious job retrieving a girl for his clients, who have promised to pay off his enormous gambling debt upon completion. After his clients take him to a strangely isolated lighthouse, he is strapped into a device that shoots him far up into the air where he lands on the floating city of Columbia, a steampunk-like city that has the technological ability to fly among the clouds. There, he must locate Elizabeth, a girl with mysterious supernatural powers and rescue her from her imprisonment to take her back to terra firma.
Columbia features breathtaking scenery and level design that never becomes repetitive or boring. Oftentimes, the player might forget that they are not at a beachfront or in a town square, but actually floating miles above the ground. The fact that the city is segmented into a modular system which allows for quick interchange of buildings expands the level by offering surprise changes to the setting. Interaction with the environment (skyline, tears, etc.) allows for fast paced, versatile combat permitting both melee and shooting approaches.
- System: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
- Publisher: Arkane Studios
- Developer: Bethesda Softworks
- Release Dates: October 9, 2012
When Corvo Attano, bodyguard to the Empress of Isles, is framed for assassinating the very person he was assigned to protect, he has no choice but to retreat into the shadows branded as a guilty assassin. Even though he is now a disgraced enemy of the Empire, he is contacted and helped by a rebel group hiding within the Empire itself. The group, known as the Loyalists, seeks to incorporate Corvo into their ranks with a mission of destroying corruption in the Empire and reclaiming the city of Dunwall. Corvo aligns himself with the Loyalists to clear his name and ensure the protection of the rightful heir to the throne, Emily Kaldwin.
Rocking a Dieselpunk theme, Dishonored fills its levels with smoke-and-metal industrialism. Missions will have you scaling monolithic bridges, infiltrating massive buildings, sneaking through sewers, as well as leaping from rooftop to rooftop. The level design is excellently stylized and the building architecture allows you to make most of Dunwall into your own personal playground.
4. Dark Souls
- System: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
- Publisher: FromSoftware
- Developer: Namco Bandai Games
- Release Dates: October 4, 2011 JPN: September 22, 2011
After a voyage to a strange and bleak land, the main character searches for an item, Humanity, to reverse being turned into a zombie-like creature called a Cursed Undead. In order to beat the game, the player must mow through constant hordes of monsters, mini-bosses, and level bosses while enduring the unforgiving difficulty. The game mainly focuses on the gameplay since it has a rather minimalistic plot.
The world of Dark Souls is crafted to reflect the overall tone of the game, which, as noted in the title, is dark. The overall feeling of the domain may be bleak and gloomy, but it is also impressive nonetheless! One cannot help but admire the towering Gothic architecture found throughout the game; in contrast to your own character’s size, it really helps to compound how small and insignificant you are. The map is so big that it takes many hours to explore it in its entirety! This game’s level scale and design give it the appropriate rank of fourth best on our list.
3. Dead Space
- System: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation, Xbox 360
- Publisher: EA Redwood Shores
- Developer: Electronic Arts
- Release Dates: October 13, 2008
While investigating a distress signal from Planet Cracker class starship Ishimura, the starship USG Kellion has a malfunction of its guidance system, stranding the Kellion’s crew on aboard the Ishimura with no chance of returning to their own ship. Having no choice but to continue into the depths of the seemingly abandoned Ishimura, the crew discovers that horrific organisms dubbed Necromorphs have invaded the ship, killing and consuming a majority of the crew in the process. Engineer Isaac Clarke is particularly involved because his girlfriend, Nicole Brennan, was serving as the Medical Specialist on the Ishimura. Dead Space follows Isaac’s investigation into Nicole’s fate in addition the events leading up to the current state of the Ishimura.
Fans of sci-fi horror will love the overall design of Dead Space because it was directly influenced by the hit 1979 film, Alien. The game takes place entirely on the Ishimura, but the ship is so vast that you rarely ever visit the same place twice. The level designs are spectacular, with each chapter of the game corresponding to a deck of the ship: Medical Deck, Mining Deck, Hydroponics Deck, etc. Necromorphs can come bursting out of fan vents or utility access panels at any moment, which really helps to keep the player on his or her toes. The level design also keeps most areas relatively cramped, adding a sense of claustrophobia. Better yet, the tight corridors aren’t the only place for the Necromorphs to terrorize Isaac, as they are also known to burst into large, open rooms as well. The message is that you aren’t safe anywhere! The Ishimura’s design creates a near flawless setting for a sci-fi horror game and qualifies it for this list.
2. Thief (2014 Reboot)
- System: Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, OS X, Nvidia Shield
- Publisher: Eidos Montreal
- Developer: Square Enix, Feral Interactive (OS X)
- Release Dates: February 25, 2014
In the game Thief, you assume the role of a Master Thief called Garrett. When he is contracted for a big job, he teams up once again with a former partner of his, a woman by the name of Erin. During the heist, the job goes terribly wrong when the thieves interrupt a magic ritual performed by a secretive cult, and they both black out. When Garrett awakens, he discovers that a year’s time has passed and that he has no memory of it. Stranger still, he learns that he has gained some unexplained supernatural powers. Making his way back home, he returns to an entirely different city than he originally left- a deadly plague has spread throughout The City, famine is running rampant, and Erin is nowhere to be found. Determined to uncover the truth, Garrett must now use all of his underground connections, thieving skills, and supernatural abilities to set everything right again.
Since the game is free roam, the player may explore the surrounding city to their heart’s content. The City is full of rickety Gothic architecture and has a distinctive Victorian feel to it. The building layout is well crafted, with many buildings crammed into odd spaces and alleyways; mimicking the way buildings would appear in an almost steampunk, industrial fantasy setting of Europe. While it might not be appealing to the residents living in those domiciles, the nook-and-cranny structural design is the perfect environment for a thief. The level designers really went above and beyond what most people would expect; even if you think you’ve explored an area to the fullest, chances are that there are still several spots that you have missed! Undiscovered loot hides in numerous pigeonholes, many dead ends are more accessible than they may originally seem, and cryptic puzzles await only the most eagle-eyed of players. Truly, the amount of planning and attention to detail put into the level design is masterful.
1. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
- System: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Linux, macOS
- Publisher: Eidos Montreal
- Developer: Square Enix, Feral Interactive (Linux and macOS)
- Release Dates: August 23, 2016
A prequel to the original Deus Ex, Mankind Divided is set in the year 2029. The game’s protagonist, Adam Jensen, is now part of Interpol Task Force 29. Its main objective is to stop a group of terrorists with cybernetic augmentations. Adam is torn between Task Force 29 and his secret membership to a hacker group called the Juggernaut Collective.
It is easy to become fully immersed in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided not only because of the stunning, high quality graphics, but because of the execution of its realistic level design. There is so much detail crammed into the available space, almost cramped, but it still manages to look natural. If you love cyberpunk or even just sci-fi, you’ll be excitedly wondering what every little device does and because there are a high amount of interactive prompts, you just might be able to use it as well. One of the best parts of the level design for this game is the inclusion of environmental options that enable different approaches (stealth, combat, hacking, social interaction) for each objective. For example, if you can’t hack the lock on a door, it might be possible to travel around it by crawling through a ventilation system; alternative options always make for a more enjoyable playing experience. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided shows excellent attention to detail, variety in layout, and consideration of player choice in the game’s level designs. These factors contributed to its position of first place on our list.
Level design can make or break a game, regardless of how good other elements of the game are. That is why great level design is critical in producing a video game worthy of the player’s attention and time. Although many games feature good level design, very few can be designated as games with great level design.
What games would you have liked to see on this list?
In your opinion, which video game has the best level design?