Neon Struct and Expressionist Level Design

In one of the levels from Neon Struct, a lightweight stealth game by David Pittman in the style of Thief and Deus Ex, the player is tasked with breaking into a vault in their character’s mind. This level, “The Mind of Jillian Cleary” is an expressionistic design similar to parts of Psychonauts, Curtain, Barista 2, Radiator 1-2, Souvenir, and even more mainstream things like the dream sequences in Mass Effect 3.¹ This expressionistic approach to environmental storytelling is my favorite kind of level design, and I was glad to see Neon Struct explore it as well. Before I talk about the specifics of “The Mind of Jillian Cleary,” though, let me clarify what I mean by this approach to level design. The examples I listed above fall roughly into two categories.

In the first, there are games with developed characters that use subjective sequences, often framed as dreams, to give the player more information, or to help deepen the player’s empathy. These levels are exceptions from the rest of the game, and they rely on context from outside of the subjective sequences.

This is how the dream sequences in Mass Effect 3 work. Shepard wanders a dead forest, sees ghost-like shadows, and hears the voices of dead characters while following a child she saw on Earth. The dreams are humanizing moments that strip Shepard of her career-military, savior-of-the-galaxy, video-game-badass invulnerability. It makes galactic doom feel personal, and the return to Earth feel like a sacrifice. These recurring dreams lend their tone to the rest of the much-less-subjective game that contains them, and they give the player new ways to think about their character and their actions.

This is also how expressionistic design works in Psychonauts. Each level takes place inside the mind of a different character around a summer camp hub world, and once the player understands this structure, the player can usually guess in advance what a character’s mind will look like. The combat-fatigues-wearing Coach has a battlefield for a mind. The German secret agent, Sasha Nein has an organized cube for a mind. As the player proceeds through the levels, they learn about how the characters perceive themselves, and how that constructed identity differs from reality. Milla Vodello’s level is a dance party where the player learns how to levitate, but a room to the side hides demons and memories of an orphanage burning down. In another level, the player enters the mind of a mutated monstrous lungfish, to discover that it also sees itself as a monster. Some of these levels are more serious than others, but they all give the player a way to understand characters in ways that the player couldn’t by interacting with them in the hub world.

The second category are games that exist entirely within their subjectivity. At the start of these games, the player has to quickly determine who they are, where they are, and what the game expects of them, which can be overwhelming.

From “Handle with Care”

Robert Yang’s Radiator 1-2: “Handle With Care” solves this by opening with a first person cutscene where a marriage counselor addresses you as James, and then asks a man sitting beside you, Dylan, how he feels. From this, the game fades to white into a small room captioned “Internal Repression Service (IRS).” The room’s architecture and an insignia on the floor make the space feel like the lobby to a government building. Waiting room magazines to the side expose the character’s id (one of the magazines is literally titled “Id.”). After these observations, the walls descend, exposing a room with shelves filled with fragile crates along the walls. On the monitors attached to one wall, the marriage counselor addresses you, then turns to your husband in the screen’s periphery to address him, in a dialogue loop. All of these details establish the context for the subjective world, and once the player has had time to understand what they’re seeing, memories emerge from a chute, allowing the player to shelve them (locking them away forever), or break them (causing the player to briefly relive memories that may be real or imagined). This expressionistic level design lets the player delve within their character’s motivations in a way that is usually off limit to games. It is very cool stuff.

Part of the difference between these two categories of expressionistic level design is how their games handle the distinction between player and avatar. Whether the player fills an authored role, crafts the role they want, or exists as their self in the game, each has its own challenges.

(On a side note, Bioware RPGs work as well as they do because their distinction between player and avatar is a combination of the first and second approach. In their best moments, Bioware games become negotiations between the player and their character, such that the player leaves the game feeling like they know more about who they are while also feeling like their character is believable and compelling. I don’t play as Shepard, and Shepard isn’t me; her character exists in between, somehow.)

So how well does Neon Struct’s level, “The Mind of Jillian Cleary,” fit within all of this?

A sloppy playthrough of “The Mind of Jillian Cleary”

The level presents a vault to break into by playing a series of notes on an oversized keyboard. This requires the player to activate a generator to power the keyboard and discover the correct sequence of notes (“FACADE”, it turns out) to open the vault. The building in the center of the level is a U shape, with the vault in the center and the preliminary goals in each wing. The entrance through the roof (the only alternative to the guarded front door), places the player above the vault, so the player moves through the level by exploring each wing, and then returning to the vault area. The building’s walls are mostly transparent, which would normally allow the player to plan a route in advance, but since two of the objectives (the vault and the generator) are recessed into the floor and the third is a small note on a table, the player instead has to improvise along the way.

The generator room has nice wet-floor footstep sounds, giving the room a kind of dark dampness that may place it as a sort of subconscious power source for conscious parts of the mind (or this may have been an arbitrary choice). In place of the prior levels’ police and guards, “The Mind of Jillian Cleary” is patrolled by demon-headed women with names like “Resentment” and “Anxiety.”

The center puzzle involving a keyboard is also interesting. In the level before this, the player stopped by some old friends’ apartments to hide from the Agency. While waiting for dinner, the player has the opportunity to interact with a (normal-sized) piano in the apartment. The series of notes Jillian performs when the player continues to interact are in key, which may say something about Jillian’s character. In Dishonored, as a counter example, if Corvo interacts with the piano in the Boyle estate, the series of notes clash, implying that Corvo can’t play piano. So the return of the piano and the music puzzle at the central of Jillian’s mind may hint at a life before her work as a spy.

But that’s as far as the level (and the game) goes in exploring Jillian’s character. We know she is a spy on the run, and we might infer that she’d once had piano lessons. It doesn’t feel like the design went far enough. There is no context for Jillian’s inner demons, and they also don’t feel like a response to the player’s prior actions. If this was Dishonored or Deus Ex, we could imagine “The Mind of Corvo Attano” or “The Mind of J.C. Denton” reflecting the player’s approach to earlier levels, the choices they made, how violent they were. But because Neon Struct focuses on stealth there isn’t much in the player’s actions other than the degree of mastery for “the Mind of Jillian Cleary” to reflect.

In this way, “The Mind of Jillian Cleary” feels a little like Inception. It is entertaining and well crafted, but a little too clean to effectively represent dreams or the subconscious.

Later in the game, the player enters the “struct,” a tool for visualizing databases as a 3D space. Visually and structurally, it is similar to Mass Effect 3’s Geth server level, or the confrontation with SHODAN at the end of System Shock 2. Through the struct level, paths open and close when the player isn’t looking, and walking around a corner sometimes has the same effect as climbing a staircase, somehow. This impossible architecture and dreamlike incongruity is something that “In the Mind of Jillian Cleary” could have used more of, even if that meant removing all of the NPCs and making it a wholly atmospheric level.

Now, despite completing all of the missions in Neon Struct, I have a hunch there is another layer I’m missing, or that there are at least more secrets to find. The “stranger” characters were never explained in my playthrough, the visual similarity between the game’s “reality” and the world presented by the Struct might mean something, and Vinod’s story had no resolution. (And why do some of the doors grumble when you use them? This isn’t just me, right?)

The following probably says more about me than it does about Neon Struct, its level design, or any of the games I’ve mentioned, but I would like to see expressionistic level design pushed to its limits. I want these worlds collapsing under their own weight. In film, there are works like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, or Kubrick’s 2001, or (nerd alert) like the end of Neon Genesis Evangelion, or even what Christopher Nolan tried to do with Inception. On its surface these are about boring old solipsism, but when handled successfully they are about facing the boundaries of understanding: the limits on our ability to understand ourselves and on our ability to understand each other. One of the possible endings in Radiator 1-2 gets damned close to this, and the end of Mass Effect 3 is up there too (if you ignore the stargazer sequence), but most of my other examples resolve too neatly. This is an area I would like to see level designers keep pushing.

It’s rare to see games approach this style of level design at all, though, and these two levels in Neon Struct were high points in my playthrough. If you like this kind of design too, then you’d probably enjoy checking the game out.

It also sounds like an expansion pack is in the works, and if the expansion for Eldritch (David Pittman’s previous game) is any indication of what to expect, this could be very cool.

Thanks for reading.

Footnotes:
¹ By expressionistic design, I mean that the level is trying to replicate a character’s subjective inner world instead of replicating the objective outer world we live in. I’m borrowing the term from German expressionism, which borrowed the term from the expressionist painters (a splinter from impressionism in late19th century painting). Expressionism isn’t boolean, however, and a work can signal this intent in many ways; film noir, for example, drew a lot of its style from German expressionism (Fritz Lang directed films in both styles), but its techniques are more about making the audience feel a certain mood or atmosphere than making the audience question the truth of what they are seeing. Some of these techniques, like dream sequences, are now fairly common in film. If you are still reading this footnote with interest, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay on David Lynch where he interprets Lynch as a modern expressionist, and unpacks a lot of what expressionism means now.

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