With words like stealth, shadows, espionage and infiltration, which Ubisoft game comes to mind? What about tight black spandex and green glowing goggles? Does that jog your memory?
Sorry, but it’s not Splinter Cell I’m looking for. The correct answer is the recently released Rayman Legends, in which players do their fair share of sneaking through shadows and taking down gun-wielding enemies in tight spandex. This stealthy, secret agent romp takes place in an underwater world called 20,000 Lums Under the Sea.
During the production of the Rayman Legends, I was the level designer in charge of overseeing the production of 20,000 Lums Under the Sea, taking part in prototyping, collaborating in level brief creation and designing over half of the levels present in the world.
In this column, I’m going to lightly illustrate the process of creating the world of 20,000 Lums Under the Sea from the ground up.
Before embarking on the journey of creating a world the team needed to lay down some preliminary goals, the first of which was simple: we needed to make the water world in Rayman Legends completely different from the water world in the game’s predecessor, Rayman Origins. The Sea of Serendipity in Rayman Origins was bright, happy, colorful and natural. In contrast, 20,000 Lums Under the Sea became dark, ambient, scary and tense, filled with garbage and enemies on the lookout for Rayman and friends. It’s literally a night and day contrast when looking at the two worlds side by side.
Goal number two was a small but significant deviation from the Rayman formula: the exclusion of visible lums in the levels. While every other world in Rayman Origins and Legends contains flying happy singing lum collectibles, we strongly felt that their presence would counter the mood and tone we were attempting to achieve with 20,000 Lums Under the Sea. Instead, we found ways of giving the player lums through other, more hidden sources.
In general, stereotypical gamers dread the thought of underwater gameplay. In Rayman Legends, we took a step back and thought, “How we can mix our mechanics so the player isn’t always swimming, but is combining underwater and above-ground gameplay instead?” Our solution? The world is set inside of an enormous underwater dome, allowing us to inject as much swimming as we wanted through flooded sections of the dome, while retaining the ability to have platforming underwater. This change made for a much more balanced experience throughout the world, and kept things from becoming too dull or repetitive for the player, as swimming became a refreshing change of pace, rather than a screeching halt to the normal platforming gameplay.
The downside to reducing the swimming, though, was the fact that the world’s unique gameplay focus was lost, and without one, it might have felt too similar to the rest of the game. A programmer on the team had been investigating a dynamic shadow casting system for the engine, and the prototype arrived just in time. We created a pile of level design prototypes that stress-tested the shadow casting system and made certain that it was a fun gameplay distinction that didn’t ruin the core fun of Rayman platforming. Ultimately we found our gameplay focus in something totally unrelated to water, but it ended up defining the world and making it one of the most memorable settings in the entire game.
We wanted 20,000 Lums Under the Sea to have a very distinctive theme to it that fit with the new focus for the world: avoiding detection through stealth, slowly descending into an underwater base and eventually destroying a giant mechanical creature created by a madman. It pretty much sounds like the story of a cheesy secret agent movie, doesn’t it?
We thought so too, and we loved it. So we decided: in this underwater world, the player was going to be a secret agent infiltrating an evil underwater base. From there, the spy references started to flow, and before we knew it, there were enemies wearing Sam Fisher’s trademark outfit from Splinter Cell, baddies repelling from the ceiling on ropes à la Mission Impossible, and a James Bond-style bass riff to score the whole thing. There was even a shark dressed suspiciously like a familiar Bond villain to top it all off. These references and parodies helped us strengthen the identity of the world, while at the same time injected a bit of humor into an otherwise uncharacteristically dark and serious environment for a Rayman game.
Inspiration wasn’t only taken in the form of character designs and story progression, though. A large number of the level design sequences were also highly inspired by stereotypical secret agent situations. One level contains a series of elevators the player must ride down with enemies constantly dropping in to stop them, while another level has the player turning off the power to the facility to pass an otherwise impenetrable electric fence, and even concludes with a dangerous laser room… because what secret agent romp would be complete without a laser room?
On top of all the secret agent goodness, the environment design – not to mention the name of the world – takes great inspiration from one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with its strong steam punk approach to the environment’s not-so-high-tech construction.
While it’s great to be inspired by a lot of different sources, without proper execution, the end result could feel inconsistent and sloppily made. Each and every idea was distilled to fit within the Rayman universe, while still retaining what makes it special and iconic to begin with, resulting in a strangely familiar, but nevertheless surprising experience.
WHAT’S THE STORY HERE?
Rayman Legends isn’t exactly known for having a deep storyline or a strong narrative presence, because that’s not the point; Rayman has always been about the gameplay. It might surprise you, then, to know how much attention was actually paid to ensuring a feeling of narrative progression in 20,000 Lums Under the Sea.
The player starts on a mysterious inflatable island in the middle of what looks like the Sea of Serendipity from Rayman Origins. They quickly find a chain attached to the island leading them into a dark hole in the ocean floor. Sentries are found in the murky depths on the lookout for intruders, and eventually the player reaches the guarded entrance of the underwater base. Once inside, they continue their descent through the residential quarters of the base, riding down numerous elevators until eventually landing in the fiery heart of the facility, filled with machinery and burning hot embers. Eventually they hit the flooded bottom of the base where they are chased by a long sea dragon, playing guard dog for the madman running the operation. Once the dragon is flushed away, the player finds themselves in the bright, beautiful, open core of the underwater facility, where they are quickly confronted by a shadow of the dragon they thought had been destroyed, now a robotic replica itching to fry them. They press a giant button activating the self-destruct sequence of the base, and attempt to destroy the robot as the base collapses around them. The player narrowly escapes and swims back to the water’s surface, and ends up right back on the island where it all started.
When taken as a series of eight separate levels, it can be hard to piece together the narrative being told throughout the environment. We never clearly tell the story outlined above, but merely push the player through the environment in such a way that, hopefully, subconsciously they feel the tangibility and consistency of the world. Just because there isn’t a script, doesn’t mean there isn’t a story to tell.
DESIGN VS ART
A few months back I wrote a column about the process of art vs design in the production of Rayman Legends. I won’t go too deep into it this time around, but it’s worth mentioning because even though level design typically took a back seat to artistic expression in Rayman games, when we began building 20,000 Lums Under the Sea, the designers were able to have a stronger impact on the visual direction of the world than before.
In the image above, you can see a clear example of a level being built with simple block-out shapes that establish a style of world construction using pipes. This was a proposal on our part, because it is drastically different from the organic structures in the rest of the game, and fit well with the idea of an underwater base. Once the design was made, an artist took a screenshot and painted directly over it, and in the end, the proper assets were made and the level was decorated properly. Designing the environment artistically was a stronger collaboration between the art team and the design team in 20,000 Lums Under the Sea, and through this collaboration we were able to strengthen the consistency between gameplay and artistic realization.
LET THERE BE LIGHT
One of the first and biggest improvements that was made to the UbiArt Framework – the engine built for the creation of Rayman Origins – was the inclusion of a dynamic lighting system that allowed the artists to simulate 3D lighting on 2D environments and character textures. The game remained, for the most part, fully 2D, but gained a feeling of 3D depth that was not present in Rayman Origins.
Through creative use of this lighting engine, artists were able to create a distinct visual aesthetic for 20,000 Lums Under the Sea, taking a silhouette approach which helped emphasize the playing-in-the-shadows feeling that we strived to convey in the gameplay.
The most interesting impact of the lighting system in 20,000 Lums Under the Sea, however, was the fact that many distinct ambiences could be created while utilizing the same graphical assets through the simple use of lighting. The above selection of screenshots is taken from different levels in the world, and each one has a completely different ambience simply because of its lighting set-up. While one is warm and industrial, another is soft and atmospheric through the use of light blue tones and strong depth fog. By adding some cloudy smoke and a simple network of pipes, a green lighting set-up results in a feeling of playing in the sewers of the base, providing a stark contrast to the rest of settings within the world.
AND A WHOLE LOT MORE
Unfortunately, one column can only scratch the surface of the process of creating a world in a game like Rayman Legends. Hopefully I was able to provide you with some insight into how our team approaches the creation of unique and inspired worlds, even in an old and well established franchise such as Rayman. Just because he has been around since 1995 doesn’t mean we can’t still find new and interesting places for him to explore.