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  • A Three-Level Short Story: Level Design In Die Young: Prologue

    - Daniele Mascagna
  • SYNOPSIS - This article describes the process that guided me in designing the levels of Die Young: Prologue, and my attempt to translate a three-act story structure into level design. It covers a tutorial level (Act 1), a multi-path level (Act 2), and a boss arena (Act 3).

    [Note: Die Young (PC/Steam, 2019) is an open-world first-person action/adventure game developed by a team composed of 8-12 people, using Unreal Engine 4. The game is focused on free exploration and narrative. I was the lead designer. It is set on a Mediterranean island inhabited by an enigmatic rural community. As Daphne - a young woman who found herself trapped in a well, not knowing who kidnapped her and why - your ultimate goal is to escape the island.]


    In the last year of development of Die Young, the game director approached me with the idea of a free playable teaser to be released before the launch of the main game.

    There were only a few guidelines for the project:

    • Stand-alone (not a demo).
    • Showcase of the main game's mechanics (parkour, climbing, crafting, melee & ranged combat, fire weapons, AI interactions).
    • More action-oriented than the main game.
    • Short (a maximum of 7 minutes in a speedrun).

    At the time, the main game was in full development, but still lacked several key features, such as ranged weapons (namely, the crossbow), fire mechanics (torches, molotovs), and more advanced AI routines. This playable teaser was a good opportunity for the team to focus on those features on a relatively tight deadline.

    As the teaser was not intended to be a Die Young demo, new levels had to be designed. From a production standpoint, I did not want to waste artists' efforts to craft assets not included in the main game; on the other hand, I did not want to create anonymous levels just as "practice grounds" either. Also, since the main game was mostly a non-linear exploration game, I wanted to respect players' autonomy as much as possible, although on a very small scale.

    So these were my self-imposed guidelines:

    • Use ready-to-use (or scheduled) art assets.
    • Write a story to be set in the same world.
    • Add alternative/optional routes (but keep story beats consistent).

    The Outline

    Starting off from the script I was writing for the main game, and challenging myself to make sense of a teaser trailer of Die Young we published a few years earlier (when we did not even have a story yet), I came up with the idea of a Prologue: a stand-alone short story, featuring a new character and set on the same island a few days before the events of the main game. The plan was to have a three-act story structureone level for each act. The main character would struggle in a last-ditch attempt to leave the island alive, fighting her way through increasing obstacles and turns of events. To build the rising action, I wrote down the story beats playing with McKee's concept of "gaps" between expectations and results. This is the story outline:


    Environment: Community's island (sewers, harbor, abandoned dock).
    Time of Day: Twilight.
    Mood: Sense of mystery and dread.
    Timeline: Two days before the events of Die Young. The community's militia is dealing with a massive drug intoxication among their prisoners/workers, which caused riots and bursts of violence (the intoxication was set up by a group of infiltrators to create a diversion).

    Main Character:

    Name: Nehir.
    Background: An infiltrator of the island's community. Her task was to kill the head of the community and let one of their prisoners escape. The mission failed and now she is chased by the community's militia.
    Objective: Survive, reach the rendezvous point to find her way off the island.

    Main Enemies:

    • Militia (melee fighters, crossbowmen, trained dogs)
    • "Junkies" (drugged workers/prisoners)

    Three-Act Story Structure:

    ACT I - "The Sewers" (Tutorial Level)

    [cutscene] Chased by your enemies, you have just reached the entrance of a sewer system and shut the gate behind you, buying yourself some time for the escape.

    [gameplay] You walk deep into the sewers. The tunnels should lead to the rendezvous point, but something is wrong: a door that was supposed to be left open by your partner is locked instead. You must find another way.

    ACT II - "The Harbor" (Main Level)

    [gameplay] You have found an exit from the sewer. Far in front of you, you recognize a cliff with a lighthouse: your rendezvous point is just beyond that cliff. But there is a problem: the detour led you to a guarded harbor. You have to cross it to reach your goal.

    [gameplay] You sneak into the harbor. Something odd is going on: the guards have gathered the workers inside the fenced area where the fuel tanks are, and locked them in. The workers' behavior is erratic and aggressive, as if on drugs. To get past the harbor, you will have to confront both the drugged workers and the soldiers.

    (Note: here the player can choose from different routes and approaches, experiencing a different set of story beats; "ACT II" has its own three-act structure; more in the dedicated chapter below).

    [gameplay] After a climactic confrontation, you manage to leave the harbor and your enemies behind. You reach the cliff and spot a light near the coast: a dinghy in a shadowy bay not too far away - it must be your rescuer. This is your way out!

    ACT III - "No Escape" (Boss Fight)

    [gameplay] You walk down towards the bay. It is an abandoned dock, half-covered with overgrown vegetation. You find your way towards the sea, but you do not like what you find: your rescuer is dead, killed before he could force open the gate to the pier. The whole wharf is fenced. It is a dead end.

    [cutscene] Things get worse: enemies arrive from a tunnel. A trap. Among them, a big guy you do not want to mess with.

    [gameplay] You hide among the reeds but it is only a matter of time before they spot you. It is you or them.

    [gameplay] Against all odds, you are the last one standing. Barely. You search the big guy's dead body and find the key for the tunnel gate. A few meters into the tunnel, the lights go out.

    [cutscene] You find your lighter just in time to see a creepy guy punch you in the face. "Sweet dreams, kitty" is all you hear before passing out.

    [cutscene] You wake up tied to a chair in a cabin. It is morning outside. The creepy guy is rambling on about you and your partner. He wants answers, but you will not talk. He kind of likes you. He promises to get back to you after dealing with your partner. Then, you faint again.

    [cutscene] You are awakened by a folk song playing on a radio. You look around: the cabin is clear. Time to make an escape. The rope is tight, you are growing impatient, you fall. But you are almost free now. Almost.
    The creepy guy bursts into the cabin. He holds an axe. "Sorry, kitty," he says. "I have got orders."
    Words did not even have time to leave your mouth.



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