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Conceptual Grandness

Level Design Article


We see good maps and map packs released all the time - but how often is it that a map or map pack is truly awesome and leaves a lasting impression? I would argue that packs such as our own Déjà Vu - Gryphon Revisited v2.01 contain several maps that are genuinely really well designed and built, but at the end of the day they just plain aren't that memorable. Why that is, and what separates them from the crême de la crême of single player maps such as those designed by Hourences and El Chicoverde, is the burning issue at hand in this article. It is a concept that has never had a name before, but as a mapper who has continually failed to grasp it until now, I think I finally understand it - and I'm calling it Conceptual Grandness. Read on to find out more.

What is Conceptual Grandness?

Conceptual Grandness is a hitherto unnamed concept that has existed, in one form or another, since the days of id Software's Quake. Quake was a FPS with a then revolutionary engine that was the first to bring true 3D environments to our PC screens, as opposed to its immediate 2½D predecessors, Doom and Duke Nukem 3D. The detail of the levels was impressive, but most were brown, soggy dungeons, and something was clearly missing. What Quake had lacked quickly became apparent when its first mission pack, Scourge of Armagon, was released some months later.

Scourge's maps were, by Quake standards, immense in scale and space. The layperson coming away from the game might say that it was simply more detailed, but the poly count was not drastically higher. Instead, the designers had chosen to move away from the cramped, indoor confines of the original game and think "outside the box" (a term particularly applicable to level design). Maps such as The Black Cathedral, The Lost Mine and Tur Torment featured an epic scale to which only the very best maps from the original game - perhaps Ziggurat Vertigo and The Ebon Fortress - could come near. Scourge of Armagon had grasped Conceptual Grandness, an elusive concept that its successor Dissolution of Eternity didn't achieve to quite the same degree, although it had its moments. Scourge of Armagon remains a standout release in Quake history, and the factors that made it great still apply to modern Unreal level design. By way of example, I shall present several single player maps made for Unreal and Unreal Tournament, showing the differing aspects of Conceptual Grandness and Build Quality, and how at the end of the day it's the Conceptual Grandness that has the greatest impact on the place a map has in the memory of the player, and not the level of detail that a less imaginative mapper might have stuffed into their closely defined spaces.

Conceptual Grandness is, of course, not confined solely to the physical scale of the map being considered, although scale and scope remain important factors. Scourge of Armagon introduced not only impressive architecture, but special effects such as lightning and scripted set pieces (limited as they were by the confines of the Quake engine). Conceptual Grandness also expands to include such aspects of design as the use of special events, foreshadowing and a guided non-linear layout. A map that is truly Conceptually Grand doesn't confine the player to a single, set path through the level that is the same every time. It creates a real, living, breathing location that the player can believe in, where other characters have their own stories to tell and clues are given as to what lies ahead, just as in the real world.

Maps that Fail

Before I can describe the best of the best, I must first show how maps can fail to achieve Conceptual Grandness by possession of the opposite property, which I like to call Conceptual Blandness. A map that is conceptually bland can be as detailed as you like, but there will always be something missing from the finished product. The following four examples all suffer from Conceptual Blandness, resulting in a relatively forgettable map that just doesn't stick in the player's memory like those more Conceptually Grand maps do.

My first example is one of the conceptually weakest maps I could think of. The difficulty I had choosing maps that are well built but conceptually bland is testament to the effect on a map's memorability that a bland concept can have.

There's no denying that Inoxx is a mapper who is capable of grand concepts. His work on UT's Facing Worlds, The Cranes and Kosov Canyon is testament to that. However, when presented with the opportunity to make the Skaarj MotherShip in Unreal (presumably as a less experienced mapper), he squandered it. What was constructed was a generic, high-tech maze with no sense of place or indication that you really were inside the giant, donut-shaped vessel that looked so promising from Pancho's Demon Crater. Where we should have been presented with soaring, alien chambers full of Pupae webbing, instead we got a drab and uninspired attempt at an alien vessel that could just as well have been a landlocked installation or a Quake map - although the levels Skaarj Generator and The Darkening went some way to compensating for this.

The MotherShip Lab is not an ugly level - it's reasonably well detailed, but it's a classic example of detail failing to compensate for an uninspired concept. To make matters worse, parts of the MotherShip Lab are linked by teleporters and are completely cut off from the rest of the map. Granted, the MotherShip was a combat-centric unit, but for an area of the game that was so lengthy and so important, it should have been built with greater imagination, not only in scale, but in layout and combat too.

As my second example of a conceptually bland level, I offer my own opening map from Déjà Vu - Gryphon Revisited v2.01. Back Again is set in a tract of land on the cliffy Nali planet, with several open areas connected by rock tunnels. Since the map was set entirely in the terrain, I made an attempt at an imaginitive design, introducing various design elements such as new Nali houses, planks over squid-filled water, changing levels of ground and, near the end, a river canyon. These amount to the loose elements of what could have been Conceptual Grandness (if the map had been made by Chicoverde). However, the simple, human scale of the outdoor environment meant there was nothing truly memorable - as opposed to the vast, contour-filled terrain of, for example, Chicoverde's Nak'halinra Peak, that could have made this map truly special.

While there is no doubt that Back Again is nicely built (details such as the rotting fences, new houses and complex lifts provide decent architecture, and the new lighting job in the second version of Déjà Vu helped no end), its lack of vision in conceptualisation and construction rendered it pretty forgettable. Accordingly, Back Again failed to secure a vote in any category in the Déjà Vu v2.01 Critic's Choice Awards following the mod's release. Compare Back Again even to Pancho's NyLeve's Falls, and you'll see where it falls deficient.

Myscha is no weak mapper. In fact, Myscha's largest map Bluff Eversmoking was possibly the most conceptually grand map in Unreal. The Dasa Mountain Pass was designed with impressive scale, and his Chizra sequence was imaginative with its heavy presence of water, broken-down architecture and submerged passageways and vaults. Cellars at Dasa Pass, however, is a classic example of a conceptually bland level.

Cellars at Dasa Pass is nicely detailed in its visuals and the combat, which once again is the true focus of the map, is well designed. However, much of the map takes place in the same stone hallways, and there is no dramatic centrepiece. There were some nicely designed multi-level rooms, but no real reason for the cellars to exist as they were and therefore no real sense of place. Dispensing with the story altogether didn't help; in this map, there are no Nali and no translator messages. While the combat may be gratifying, it remains a relief to escape the Quake-style environment and escape once more into the Unreal world with Serpent Canyon. Cellars alone should demonstrate that no level of pleasing visual detail is a real substitute for an imaginative and inspiring concept.

I half expect to hear roars of protest for apparently disrespecting Matthias Worch's charming two-map segment for Return to Na Pali - in fact, I'm somewhat in protest against it myself, having been thoroughly immersed in the level the first time I played it. There's no denying that Glathriel Village is atmospherically built, if a little cramped, but the end of the day it doesn't really stick in your memory after playing the mission pack. Segments that you are more likely to think of include the UMS Prometheus segment, Nagomi Passage and Gala's Peak; or at least, that's certainly the case for me.

This is because Glathriel Village, whilst beautifully crafted, is based on a very domestically-scaled design, with nothing really in place to surprise or stun the player. The map redeems itself to a certain extent with the more memorable opening boat ride and arrival at the town, as well as the melancholy story of the nightstalkers and the Nali hideout, but it lacks that "awe" quality that will make a map stay with you. For the same reason that, love it or loathe it, Waffnuffly's Palace of Chizra is one of the most memorable segments of Déjà Vu, certain maps just have that edge. The memorable edge comes from a map's Conceptual Grandness, the best exemplars of which I shall now illustrate.

The Best of the Best

The very best maps out there combine Conceptual Grandness with high Build Quality. At the end of the day these are the maps that will stick with you for the longest. When choosing examples of the very best in mapping it also quickly beomes apparent that one or two mappers really have the monopoly on Conceptual Grandness, and future maps should all aspire not just to recreate their level of visual detail, but the imagination and originality of their concepts as well.

I thought I'd begin with an older map. For many people, Myscha's Bluff Eversmoking is the most memorable map from the original game. There are strong competitors from maps such as The Sunspire and Na Pali Haven, but Bluff Eversmoking really has a certain je ne sai quois, or at least until now - when it can be defined as having great Conceptual Grandness!

But what makes it stand out? The answer is simple. It's not just the immense scale of the map, although that is considerable. With Bluff Eversmoking, Myscha wove together an intricate and truly complete location. Not only is there a monastery perched precariously atop a rocky bluff, but down below the bluff a fully accessible mountain lake with a bell tower, hydroelectric power station, sewers and dungeons. There are subplots with sympathetic characters (Kira and Kruun), and even some musings from the bad guys (jailer Hrang). The map is non-linear, but a finely crafted paper trail of translator messages makes it hard to become completely lost.

Bluff Eversmoking stands triumphantly amid Unreal's lesser offerings as a grand concept of a soaring and diverse location. All Unreal maps should aspire to be as imaginatively configured as this one. Even if the world of detailing and lighting has moved on since Bluff Eversmoking was built, it's still an exemplary and immersive map that perfectly illustrates what great Conceptual Grandness can achieve.

Hourences' Derelict Underground and Derelict Surface from Xidia Gold well and truly demonstrated that Skaarj themed maps don't have to be cramped and generic like the MotherShip or bombastic like Jeremy War's colourful Outpost 3J. Instead, Hourences crafted a slow-burner of immense proportions, that manages to be just as creepy as the most atmospheric ancient locations.

With architecture of a truly dramatic scale and then-revolutionary use of sound, Derelict Surface is truly original. With the centrepiece of the map, the immense lift shaft and loading bay illustrated above, along with set pieces such as the dramatic explosion of the upper tunnel and collapse of the lift, Hourences harnessed Conceptual Grandness in a way that these days one expects of him as a matter of course. With no disrespect intended to any of Xidia's other quite remarkable maps, it's the Skaarj Derelict that really endures in one's memory of the map pack.

If you're looking for imaginative ways to design Nali temples, Chicoverde's maps are a good place to start. All of his temples, from the ruined underground temple that was the centrepiece of Shamu Quest, through the dramatic temple exterior in Valley of Eelhandra to the two-map Lost Sanctuary of Kalish'ra from Operation Na Pali, have captured a unique scale and design methodology that no other mapper has yet managed to rival. The Lost Sanctuary of Kalish'ra, a temple broken down by lava flows from a nearby volcano, is merely the most recent example.

Conceptual Grandness seems to be Chicoverde's watchword. The Lost Sanctuary of Kalish'ra is just one of his many temples full of ornate columns, torches and spires that tower into the sky and dwarf the player. Chicoverde doesn't always make the best gameplay (Temple of Eelhandra) and his maps aren't that kind to the BSP tree (as DavidM would no doubt testify), but they show what can be done with a theme that can also easily end up as boxy, torchlit rooms if not done correctly. Chico's temple maps are lengthy, grand designs with interiors and exteriors, helping to bring a true sense of place to the game that weaker maps can't come near.

After the disappointing Escape from Skaarj Base in the early stages of Operation Na Pali, expectations weren't too high for the map pack's second shuttle flying map - however, what we were given was a truly awesome experience that completed the triumphant, three-map centrepiece that was NP19 with flying colours. Thinking about it, of course, what would one expect from a map built collaboratively by Chicoverde and Hourences?

Wipeout's great Conceptual Grandness is enhanced by the fact that all the awesomely scaled architecture passes by the player at high speed. There's so much going on that it's impossible to take in every detail - which, in the case of a map like this, is nothing less than a good thing. Wipeout is over quickly, but there are a lot of mapping lessons to be learned from it. It's a slick combination of visuals and gameplay that is truly brought to life by the number of moving objects surrounding the player, firing rockets at the shuttle as great metal doors close in the vessel's path. Truly the epitome of Conceptual Grandness in level design.

Grandness over Build

Having hopefully convinced you of the merits of Conceptual Grandness in level design, I must now try to show once and for all that Conceptual Grandness is actually more important than visual detail in making a map memorable. In the first section of this article I showed you a few nicely detailed maps that were based on rather bland concepts and therefore weren't memorable. With my final four examples I shall now do the opposite, showing maps with greater Conceptual Grandness than visual detail, and I hope you will agree with me that these maps are more memorable than those that are conceptually weaker, even if their visual detail is lacking.

Looking at the above screenshot, you'll see that Jaspos' Make Something Unreal contest entry The Elder is actually not that detailed, but I think many would agree that it is far more memorable a map pack than many maps of its era, and its original review here at UnrealSP.Org gives it an eight out of ten.

Why is this? Why does The Elder stand out as a map pack even if it is relatively unadorned, visually? It's because, if I may quote, "Jaspos was designing to impress". The aforementioned temple and the Skaarj ship at the end were both sweeping, soaring structures that used big, bold brushstrokes to make the point without a criminally high poly count. The Elder is one of that rare breed of maps that is more than the sum of its parts.

Gala's Peak from Return to Na Pali is awesome. It's always been awesome. It's also fugly as heck, and has been ever since it appeared in the pre-release screenshots - I mean, have you seen that exterior lighting? When you finally slither your way up to the fortress, the iterior is disappointing as well - a maze of boring hallways and finally a big central room with a teleporter in it. This map definitely looks like it was put together in a rush.

So how does it get away with it? Simply because the concept was new and impressive, and hadn't been done before. In concept it is huge, but in practice Gala's Peak is a very poor man's Bluff Eversmoking. Its Conceptual Grandness may be far from that of the latter; Gala's Peak lacks the completeness of the Bluff Eversmoking, with the floor of the abyss completely inaccessible and the unimaginatively laid out fortress being pretty much "it", and gameplay is brief and, apart from the opening cave and slippery causeway, uninvolving. However, the map's large scale and unique theme still stick in your mind, affording it a memorability that it would otherwise fail to earn. This map should also illustrate that grand concepts inspire grand music - Gala.umx is a corker.

More howls of protest! The Sunspire is one of the most loved maps in Unreal, although not so much by the coop community. The concept and implementation of the spire itself is amazing, stretching for hundreds of metres above and below the player as he steps through the gates, but the interiors are extremely repetitive in design and very blandly lit.

Somehow, The Sunspire overcomes all this, and it can only be because of the Conceptual Grandness involved in the design. Ascending through the former Nali haven one really feels on a mission to purge the Sunspire of its Skaarj infestation and reach the fresh air at the top... aided by the sombre translator messages, creepy dark areas and emotive musical lead-in from the Spire Village before it, The Sunspire stands out, a landmark in more ways than one, even though its interior design is extremely primitive. Nobody who was played Unreal from start to finish can deny that The Sunspire is a very memorable map, both in concept and its place at the centre of the limited storyline.

This much older Chicoverde map is a good exponent of a mapper's imagination exceeding their skill and experience. The performance of Shamu Quest map one is very poor and the lighting unrealistic. The buildings lack trim and the combat is unbalanced. However, the scope of the map is considerable, based on a large expanse of moonlit terrain, with the entrance to a grand temple perched precariously on the cliff across a red-hot expanse of lava. By virtue of the map's layout, the following map set in the ancient temple is foreshadowed throughout, also helping it to score Conceptual Grandness points.

Shamu Quest Map One, or SValley2 as it is actually known, sticks in one's memory because of its scale, scope and interesting layout, but the actual build quality is very poor. This just goes to illustrate how important Conceptual Grandness is to the memorability of a map. Of course map two, SAncient1, improved the visual detail no end and the result was much more impressive - Conceptual Grandness isn't everything - but without Conceptual Grandness in the design, a map will never realise its full potential.

A Word on Map Packs

Obviously, one of Unreal's charms was its variety and diversity of locations. One went from the cramped confines of the wrecked Vortex Rikers to the jaw-dropping cascade of NyLeve's Falls, then into the gloom of Rrajigar Mine and out once again into the light, airy spaces of Sacred Passage.

This variety and distinct quality of individual locations is not something that should be lost in the quest for Conceptual Grandness, but it is still something that should be strived for in every map where possible. If you've just had a Nali town, then it might well be appropriate to follow it with some tight, gloomy cellars.

"So how do I introduce Conceptual Grandness into a set of cellars?" you might ask. Well, who's to say that all cellars need to be dull, square rooms and dusty stone tunnels? Perhaps in tunneling out the cellars, the Nali who made them came upon a vast underground cave with tarydium crystals, a great waterfall and a deadly, rushing river. You can incorporate this idea into your map any way you want to, whether you simply cross it on a bridge, or whether you actually emerge on the floor of an even larger cave, where a stack of barrels is stored upon a rock island in the middle of an underground lake. You cross a wooden bridge and step onto a raised podium, where lanterns suspended from a brick framework light up the barrel store while the tarydium crystals and fireflies twinkle around you, after which you wade through a stream to take a smaller cave route to the next area.

Alternatively, as done masterfully by Lightning Hunter in Cellars of E'Nara of Déjà Vu v2.01, a different kind of Conceptual Grandness can be implemented by lacing the more basic environment with a great deal of interactivity via scripted events. The battle against the Cave Slith was a conceptually grand set piece if ever there was one.

The point is that any map can be given one or more dramatic centrepieces for instant Conceptual Grandness. Cellars no more have to be uneventful, square chambers than Nali villages have to use the same old Nali huts that we've been seeing over and over since 1998 and all Skaarj have to be crouched on the floor inspecting their claws. With a bit of imagination, any map can be made original.


As a mapper, I feel that the critical factor of Conceptual Grandness has too often been missing from my designs. In fact, the force of the idea I have tried to convey to you here has been sufficiently powerful that I have decided to completely abandon my work to date on Pan'thali Haven, the frosty Nali town for Battle for Na Pali, and re-plan it from scratch. I am also considering Conceptual Grandness in the plan for an ambitious UT multiplayer map that I am giving strong consideration to building.

If one thing is certain, it's that the key moment for Conceptual Grandness is the planning stage. Only then can you create a map with impressive scale, strong visual foreshadowing and a non-linear layout that flows well and crosses back over itself, enhancing the sense of place and making the suitably guided player really "believe" in the location. It's no good making a boring, pedestrian plan or, worse still, no plan at all, and then saying "Okay, how can I make my map conceptually grand?"

Conceptual Grandness is so-called because it relates to the very concept on which the map is based. If you've created a detailed map plan and it's conceptually bland, then you're better off searching for inspiration and then starting over than you are sitting in front of your old plan and struggling in vain to inject some inspiration into it. If your concept is uninspired, then no degree of 1337 mapping skillz will turn it into a level that people will truly remember for years to come.

Conceptual Grandness is the future of Unreal mapping. In my opinion it is crucial for new maps to be conceptually grand if they are to be remembered and re-played. From now on, Conceptual Grandness must no longer be the domain of the masters. We should all strive for it in our maps, even if our skills aren't as advanced as the makers of Operation Na Pali and Xidia Gold. Among the less experienced mappers, Let there be more Shamu Quests and The Elders, and less tiresome room-corridor-room designs that the player forgets as soon as they leave.

Thank you for reading!