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Uncharted: 'A Stolen Fortune'

Uncharted-inspired solo blockout project I worked in Unreal Engine 5 for the CGMA's "Level Design For Games" course by Emilia Schatz (Principal Designer at Naughty Dog) and Max Pears (Senior Level Designer at CD Projekt Red) as instructors. Throughout the design process, I drew inspiration from the gameplay and narrative of the Uncharted series, incorporating elements of exploration, combat, cinematics, and traversal.

To see the full gameplay video, click here!

Goal:
  • Design an entire small-scale environment that follows a predefined narrative and pacing using the voice of archetype concepts such as a ‘Herald’ or ‘Mentor’ to represent design choices that help guide and communicate to the player.

Project Details:
  • ENGINE: Unreal Engine 5

  • LANGUAGE: Blueprints

  • DURATION: 2 Weeks

  • TEAM SIZE: Solo project

Learnings:

1. Practicing the multiple voices of archetypes in Level Design
2. Use of height and elevated spaces
3. Use of path junctures to guide the player to a goal
4. Use of contrast between spaces to invoke emotions in the player
5. Practicing the use of shapes and leading lines to better frame the scene
6. Designing engaging combat spaces using low and high covers

7. Cinematic implementation with Unreal Engine 5 Sequencer

8. Audio, music, and voice-over implementation to create an immersive and gripping narrative experience within the level's storyline

Assets Used:
  • IWALS by Jakub (Programming)

  • Blocking Starter Pack (Art)

  • Low Poly Viking World (Art)

  • Good Sky (Art)

  • FX Variety Pack (Art)

  • Visual Effects Pack (Art)

  • The Bazaar (Art)

  • Assets Provided by CGMA Course (Art)

Level Design Process

For the design of this Uncharted-inspired level blockout, I aimed to showcase some of the concepts learned throughout the CGMA course while also venturing into new areas in Unreal Engine, such as cinematics, scripting events, animations, UI, and audio implementation.

To see a specific topic of the design process, click on one of the sections below:

Research and Design Ideas

This moodboard showcases all the reference images I used to design the environment, along with a document that helped me visualize some of the design concepts and sequences I wanted before starting the blockout process.

Paper Designs

These are the paper designs I initially sketched to determine the player path. It served as an initial idea to start building the level

In this initial sketch design of the Bazaar/Market district, I focused on establishing some of the NPC vendors' locations while providing an open space for player's to explore.

The first enemy encounter at the warehouse serves as an introduction to some of the available combat mechanics. I aimed to keep this encounter relatively easy by limiting the number of enemies. Various cover options are strategically placed, providing multiple entrances to reach the goal at the end.

While sketching the jungle environment, my goal was to provide the player a sense of exploration and while also giving multiple vistas, platforming sections, and additional environmental storytelling.

In this final enemy encounter of the level I wanted to offer the player a challenging experience while maintaining it fair. I opted for creating multiple paths, where players can reach the goal and strategically hide and attack the enemies. Some of the containers can also be used for verticality.

Layout and Development

From the start of the project, I wanted to design an immersive experience, similar to what Uncharted achieves.

The sequence of the level unfolds as follows:
 

  • Exploration (Bazaar/Market district)

  • Small Combat encounter (Warehouse combat)

  • Exploration (Jungle)

  • Major Combat encounter (Port combat)

The level begins with the introduction of the Bazaar/Market District. As players embark on this adventure, my intention was to evoke curiosity through the environment. To establish the main objective right away, a short cinematic sets the stage.

Following a brief cinematic involving one of the NPCs, players encounter the mention of the Mercenaries for the first time, providing them with a clue about their identity and potential motives within the setting.

Multiple views of the Bazaar/Market District

Once players leave the bustling Bazaar, they are introduced to a variety of traversal mechanics, such as ledge climbing  and crouching, which they will employ repeatedly throughout the level. To enhance immersion, I entice players with the introduction of explosive barrels, encouraging them to experiment with them when they spot them in the environment. Subsequently, players encounter a scene depicting fallen local militias, leaving a profound impact and interweaving narrative threads that inject a sense of urgency into the level.

Dead local militias inside the Bazaar/Market District. This serves as environmental storytelling

Warehouse raided by the Mercenaries

After leaving the warehouse, the player becomes entangled in a chaotic gunfight between the local militia and the mercenaries. In this section, the level design aims to evoke a profound sense of vulnerability and a need to avoid detection. After escaping the gunfight, the player seamlessly transitions from a cave to an open jungle space. This section of the level, provides players with a momentary respite, allowing them freedom and a chance to briefly relax. Multiple paths lie ahead of the player, requiring them to decide between continuing exploring or progressing towards the objective of finding the treasure chest. My goal with this was to employ the concept of Path Junctures, deviating the player to a side path.

LD_Design_Analysis_04.png

This lookout helps players stay on track, maintain a strong sense of direction, and remain focused on their goal

Jungle environment. First image shows the encounter of the local militia fighting with the mercenaries

After the player leaves the jungle and survives a fall that transitions to a slide, they find themselves reaching the port. Here is where the final combat happens between the player and the Mercenaries. In the face of danger, the player must balance between feeling vulnerable by not taking cover and reaching high places but at the same time having multiple paths to transition around the map and take out everyone in stealth. By making sure this worked, I offer the player an adrenaline-fueled and satisfying gameplay experience.

Port section being under control by the Mercenaries as they transport the treasure chest out of the area

Iterations

In the initial design of the level, I prioritized the implementation of combat and traversal mechanics due to a tight seven-day deadline for the class. After finishing the class, I decided to add cinematics, NPCs with animations, music, and dialogue. Recognizing the importance of player engagement with the narrative, I invested additional time in crafting dialogues to convey the story and mission objectives effectively. Furthermore, to enrich the player's experience, I added additional environmental storytelling sections and introduced elements of verticality to the level. These adjustments aimed not only to provide exploration but also to elevate the overall narrative and design impact of the level.

In future level iterations, my goal is to incorporate more sections with
verticality, encouraging players to freely explore, while also providing additional options for engaging in combat.

Conclusion

Through careful attention to player emotions, the seamless integration of traversal mechanics, smooth transitions between the multiple level areas/sections, and strategic placement of narrative elements, this level design aims to transport players on an immersive adventure. Drawing inspiration from the Uncharted series, my objective was to create an experience that is both visually captivating and emotionally resonant. From tense yet intriguing exploration sequences to heart-pounding combat encounters, every element was carefully crafted to engage players and leave a lasting impression. The development process of this level was a tremendous learning experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed every step of its design.

LD_DesignLayout_02.png

Final level design layout, featuring some of the events and items that can be found throughout the level

Design breakdown of my level Uncharted: 'A Stolen Fortune'

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