The year was 1996, I just turned on my grandmother’s Sega Genesis and popped in a cartridge labelled Sonic the Hedgehog. Of course the first few levels I breezed through with ease, only leaving a blue blur and dust in my tracks. But then the unexpected happened, my Sonic career hit an abrupt end. I hit the dreaded and terrifying water level. Upset and defeated I drifted off into other genres, knowing one day- I would get my revenge.
Fast forward 20 years to my purchase of Sonic the Hedgehog 4- Episode 2. “It’s time to face my fears,” I thought. Maybe things will be different. Long story short- my revenge was not achieved. Yet, I was curious. I began to question why they even put water levels in Sonic games. In fact- why would any game include them, aside from games based around fish or the sea. It was then when something hit me and I just had to share my findings. Your game needs a water level: here’s why.
Small chunks of something different
Adding water levels allows you to add new mechanics. Some are basic ones that come to mind like the player’s avatar being able to swim or in some cases drown. Adding new mechanics keeps the game fresh but it is vital that the controls and mechanics are simple. Most games tend to stick to what is possible in reality such as swimming faster or being able to jump or climb out of the water.
The purpose of me writing this isn’t for you to make a game consisting of as many water levels as there are enemies in the game, this advice is for small chunks of your game. Water levels break up the action packed main game and allows the players a chance the analyze all the amazing things that just happened before this level.
Water levels can serve many functions. They could be a sport like in Final Fantasy X’s Blitzball, a method of transportation, or a way to break up land masses as seen in the early Pokemon games. They aren’t meant to over saturate your game; just to add something different the player needs to do so they won’t get bored of killing waves of enemies. Just think, if the action is cranked the max all the time then where can it go from there.
Dangers of the sea
It is common knowledge that things under the sea can be terrifying. A underwater level adds a lot of interesting and exciting dangers you could present to the players. Electric eels, killer whales, and great white sharks are just some that come to mind. If you have an interesting aesthetic and work the creatures to match, it could be truly unique and the enemies of your game could be the reason people come back for more.
Getting your players to explore should be one of the goals as a developer (at least for most games). You want the player to get curious and see what lurks under the sea. Here the idea of risk vs reward can truly dominate if you decide to take that approach. If you place treasures to find, it will be beneficial to the player for in game reasons but also for out of game reasons because you rewarded their curiosity. Kind of like the idea of the hidden skulls in the Halo series, not all the skulls are rewarding but the feeling of finding them is immeasurable.
I used to think underwater levels were there as an act of outright malicious intent on behalf of game developers. Yet I discovered, they are there so players don’t get bored of the main mechanics, or to reward players who dare explore what lies beyond the surface. Next time you create a game, take a second and think- should I put in a water level? If the answer to that question is yes, then now you have a couple of ideas to consider. Until next time have a great day!
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