Arkane Lyon, creator of the Dishonored series and Deathloop, is a studio known for level design. Immersive simulators work because of the quality of their levels, because they are playgrounds that offer you multiple routes and therefore game choices about how to go through them. They need to keep you curious and experimenting, while at the same time telling you a story without feeling like they’re telling you a story. Frankly, this is an art, and there are hardly any better than Arkane.

How does it do this? Let me introduce you to the hourglass principle. It’s a principle explained to me by Arkane’s master level designer Dana Nightingale, who is currently the studio’s campaign director and works on whatever the studio is currently working on, she was tight-lipped. Redfall, remember, is being created at another Arkane studio, Arkane Austin.

Dana Nightingale is known for being the mastermind behind Dishonored 2’s Clockwork Mansion, though she obviously had a lot of help; and she’s the person who laid out the critical path in Deathloop — like who to kill and when — and helped figure out how to track it all and bring it to you. Given the cyclical nature of the game, this is no small feat. In other words, Dana Nightingale knows her stuff.

And she’s the one who tells me, in a podcast interview that’s available everywhere now (and covers a lot more), all about this hourglass idea. And it all starts, she says, with what the studio nicknamed the “white rabbit.”

I meet Dana Nightingale. Behind her, on the bookshelves, is a wonderful array of keepsakes and souvenirs.

“That’s what gets the players’ attention,” she explains. “Whatever it is in the environment — or it’s a specific enemy, that’s what they want to get, that’s the door, that’s the clue in the story — that’s what puts them on the right path.”

After that comes the infiltration phase. “We always have this penetration phase,” she says, and that’s where you usually find some sort of barrier—physical or otherwise—blocking your way. You have to figure out how to get through it. “The classic example of this is ‘I want to get inside this building.’ There is one way and several ways you can do this. Which one to choose?

“Then, of course, there’s the interior map — it’s our big sandbox playground. Everything can take a very free form here,” she says. And I can think of a few similar spaces in both Dishonored and Deathloop — large buildings or open spaces that you need to clear or move around, all in their own way.

“But then it has to be narrowed down to … we call it the ‘last meters.’ And this is where the design becomes more individual depending on what you are trying to achieve at the time. Nightingale gives some questions as an example: “What is the player’s main goal for this whole space? What did it all lead to? What is the special challenge to overcome? What does the player get after winning the challenge?”

You may encounter one of the Visionaries in Deathloop, such as in this final confrontation with them. Or it could be an assassination target in Dishonored. This is the climax of the level. But it should never end.

“After that, we always want exfiltration,” she says. “We don’t want to end it immediately after the goal is reached. There’s always a point where you’re retracing a space you’ve walked, or going in a completely new direction, but you’re still escaping the script.”

And then finally, “the very player-signaling moment of departure, when the player decides to say, ‘Yeah, I’m done. Yes, I’m going.” Think of the exit door in Deathloop – and Dishonored, come to think of it. They are there to double check that you are done and ready to go.

So this is the “dry skeleton” of how Arkane Lyon designs the map, but it’s not the full hourglass philosophy. “It’s just the top half of the hourglass,” says Nightingale. “I still need to explain two more things.


Imagine that you can only kick in the game. Oh, Jan.

“The hourglass pinch is really about the gameplay loop,” she continues. And the loop is about what the players feel in each moment while playing the game. A sense of understanding is crucial for this.

“We want the player to be able to watch the scenario and understand the objective, the obstacle, and what they’re going to get after that. And then he had a moment where he could make a plan, execute that plan, and if it’s so bad and they fail, try again.”

In other words, you don’t get excited about something you don’t understand. You consciously, purposefully manage actions.

“And then in the bottom half of the hourglass—and now we’re getting into the actual theory—is the idea of ​​accessibility and intentionality,” she adds. “Accessibility can mean a thousand different things. But as a designer, I need accessibility to be able to design the entire game in such a way that the player understands that this is a world that operates according to rules, and those rules will be consistent. And if they understand a quarter to a third of the rules, the rest will be clear.”

Affordance ensures that players understand enough of how the game works that you can take them into a completely new situation without them feeling confused about how to play there or what to do. They know enough to get stuck.

“And then the intentionality is that the player is always doing something on purpose and doing everything with a purpose,” Nightingale says. What Arkane doesn’t want, strangely enough, is for players to say to themselves, “Okay, I’m in space, these things are interactive, these things can be destroyed; I’m just going to do random things and see what the game does.”

As she says, “It’s a game without intention. And there’s a lot of fun and value in that kind of play, but that’s not really what we’re trying to do with our cards. We want the player to always remember, “I’m trying to achieve it.’

Arkane wants you to always stick to a plan—a plan you’ve made based on your understanding of how the game works. In other words, “The game behaved as I expected, and I accomplished the goal.”


Here’s a nice video from Johnny a few years ago about why they loved Dishonored 2.

And it’s Arkane Hourglass, as taught to Nightingale by Christophe Currier, who was the campaign director before it, and with some embellishments from Joachim Davio, who was the lead level designer there. By the way, Carrier and Davio are no longer in Arkane Lyon, but in Weird West is developed by WolfEye Studios with former Arkane founder Rafael Colantonio.

So, given Nightingale’s background in level design, it’s easy to imagine that she’s very critical when playing other people’s work. And, well, it depends.

“I’m very happy in level design when, first of all, I’m not thinking about level design, I’m just enjoying the game,” she says. “But I’m always looking for that combination of accessibility and focus. Do I understand the tools the game gives me? Do I trust the game to be honest with me? Am I going to go from one scenario to another and the Tools the game gives me will behave differently? This is a very big red flag. Do I always understand what my purpose is? Do I always understand my obstacles? These are the kinds of things I’m looking for.

“And if it all works at the level of, let’s call it good-great, it all just melts away and I stop being aware of it,” she says. “When it gets to the sublime and the phenomenal, I think about level design again,” she laughs. “At this point I’m like, ‘Teach me, teach me!’

And there is a recent example of a game of such a sublime or phenomenal level. She doesn’t even have to think about it when I ask what it is. “Outer wild places,” she says. “Some of the best level design I’ve ever seen… We can learn a lot from how it’s all set up and using curiosity as the primary motivation for the player. The main way to interact with the whole world was so great. “

As I said, the full podcast interview with Dana Nightingale is now available everywhere, where we talk about the making of Deathloop and Clockwork Mansion, as well as the broom that saved Dishonored 2’s Death of the Outsider expansion from breaking and not being able to send to everything . We also talk about her cool path to gaming and why she loves level design so much in the first place. I love her response to this btw. She says that maps or levels are vehicles or vessels that contain everything you do in the game. Cool huh?

I hope you enjoy the podcast if you listen to it. IS a complete individual archive of similar podcasts if you want more