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A recognizable subspace of the gameworld, which contains “ tasks that must be accomplished before the players can advance.” (Laidlaw)

A level is distinguished from other forms of spatial segmentation by the discontinuity in gameplay and space happening between one level and another—the more evident the discontinuity, the greater the notion of level. Often, the discontinuity is highlighted through the use of a transitional screen, intermediate animation, or cut-scene. However, that discontinuity cannot come at the expense of a loss of the necessary spatial relationship between the spatial segments. Another distinguishing feature is that levels are different from each other, because they represent different locations. Games such as Pac-Man, we argue, do not have spatial levels because the maze is always the same.

Levels, as parts of the gameworld, are often grouped together by representational themes, (such as “ice” or “lava” levels) or by particular aspects of gameplay (such as “flying” or “driving” levels).

The word level is inherently problematic when referring to games. For instance, level has also been used to refer to the degree of difficulty a player encounters. In this sense of challenge, the higher the level, the more difficult the game. In fact, in games such as the pencil and paper role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (TSR), the word level has multiple uses within the same game. In the case of our ontology, references to the difficulty are considered under challenge segmentation.

The tension between discontinuity and relationship between spatial segments can be resolved by exploring a series of questions.

  • Do enemies from one area follow the player to the next?
  • If the player fires a shot and it goes off-screen, can it kill an enemy in the next area?
  • Are any variables, such as health, enemy positions, etc, re-set when the player moves from one area to another?
  • Could the player draw a map of the areas visited and where they are located in relation to each other?

Answering yes to these questions would strengthen the notion of levels in a game.


Strong Example

Super Mario Bros

This title relies heavily on the concept of “worlds” and levels. Each world consists of levels, which are numbered as such (1.2, 1.3, 5.1, 5.2). The worlds and levels have different themes and challenges, including new enemies, obstacles, objects, and backgrounds. Some levels are underwater or in the sky, making the levels even more difficult. In the last level of each world, you enter a different castle. The challenges in these castles are different, increasing in difficulty as you progress through the game. You face a similar boss in each castle, but he becomes more difficult to defeat as well. You are introduced to a new world after you defeat the “Bowser”, or, the boss.

Donkey Kong

The game presents four distinct screens (referred to as Girders, Pie Factory, Elevator and Rivet levels (Butler "Donkey Kong Faq"); After clearing the first level (Girders), the player moves on to the rivet level, after which a new sequence of levels begins. The second sequence of levels is Girders, Elevator, Rivet; the third sequence is Girders, Pie Factory, Elevator, Rivet, the fourth one is Girders, Pie Factory, Girders, Elevator, Rivet; the fifth and all the successive ones is Girders, Pie Factory, Girders, Elevator, Girders, Rivet. Each successive sequence introduces a new level and re-visits previous ones in a more challenging way, e.g. by adding more opponents. These are considered levels because, as the interstitial animation of Donkey Kong shows, each is part of a skyscraper. Kong always escapes by climbing upwards in each of the levels, except the last, where he falls. As such, each level is a segment of a larger space.

Kirby Squeak Squad

This game has a very strong sense of levels in that each world consists of a number of areas that are numbered as such (1-2, 1-3, 4-5, 4-6). Each spatial location has a distinct theme (such as "ice world", "volcano world") and these themes are apparent in the individual levels by use of the design of the level as well as the objects found in the level. Additionally, certain enemies are "native" to certain areas and thus can only be found by re-visiting certain areas.

Starcraft: Broodwars

This game is a strong example of level play, each race has a series of levels progressing from very easy to difficult and each must beat in order to progress in the game. There is a multi player side to this game but the main game is based around level progression ie. campaigns.

Super Mario 64

This is a strong example of a game with levels. Every time Mario jumps into a painting, a new level begins, each with various goals, or stars, to complete. This provides a good segmentation of gameplay.

Katamari Damacy

Katamari Damacy has a very interesting form of Level. The player-controlled Prince of the cosmos journeys to planet Earth where he must roll things up in his Katamari until it is either big enough, or he has met the goal set by his father, the King of the Cosmos. The first location is a few rooms inside a house. As the player progresses in the game, the subsequent levels take place in the same space, but at a different level of detail. So, the first level is a few rooms in the house, the next level includes those same rooms (which now seem smaller) and a few more, and so on. Eventually, the player plays in the town, where the house, which had the rooms is located, then the town and surrounding areas. Each level is like a zoom-out of the previous one, with the last level being the entire planet.

Devil May Cry 3

Devil May Cry 3 is a very strong example of a game that uses a level system. The game is broken down into many missions, each one in a set game space. After missions, there is a cut scene relevant to the story, and a menu screen to start off the next mission. There is no way to cross over into other missions while in one, and the goal for a mission cannot be affected by other missions.

Bionic Commando (NES)

The game is comprised of several numbered levels, or zones, that the player must beat. The player has some control over the order in which he or she plays the levels, but some item requirements dictate a natural order to play them in. Each level has distinctive characteristics and obstacles that the player must successfully traverse.

Weak Examples

Ninja Gaiden

Ninja Gaiden has a weak example of levels for a few reasons. The game definately has levels. The enemies in the different stages of the game are of differing difficulties and are usually associated with physical spaces in the game. Also the different levels are differntiated by different maps and locations on maps. But you can also revisist these levels over and over again and many players have to so they can complete objectives.

Call of Duty 2

This World War 2 game is a good example of having levels as there is a beginning and end to each mission. It can be evidenced that the levels progress because the environments change for each level. Though all levels have the same enemies in them,r they possess different weapons and characteristics as you progress. There is also an evident loading screen in between levels which gives the player more of a sense of level progression.

Half Life

Levels are distinct spatially, and also thematically (depends on which area of the complex you’re in). There are eighteen levels are called Anomalous Materials, Unforeseen Consequences Office Complex, We’ve Got Hostiles, Blast Pit, Power Up, On A Rail, Apprehension, Questionable Ethics, Surface Tension, Forget About Freeman!, Lambda Core, Xen, Gonarchs Lair, Interloper, Nihilanth and End Game. In spite of the existence of spatial segmentation in the form of levels, it could also be argued it is a narrative division. The example of levels in Half Life is weak because the whole gameworld is presented in a continuous space, where the player can go back to the beginning he wants, with no constrains whatsoever to go back to previous levels.

Spy Hunter

The player takes part in a spy chase in a long road, which branches off and then gets back together again. There are no indicators of a new level beginning (no signs/black screen). The player, though, knows that the level has changed by the landscape—the road starts in a forest, then a desert, then a bridge over the sea. Each level also has distinctive enemies, e.g. cars that will try to make you crash by pushing you off the road, or cars with sharp blades that will tear your tires and make you crash. Power-ups – in the form of trucks your car has to get on to get an upgrade – appear once per level.

Relations with other elements of the Ontology


Spatial Segmentation

See Also


Laidlaw, Marc. "The Egos at Id." Wired 4.8 (1996).

Butler, Kevin. "Donkey Kong Faq". 2003. Txt File. 1.01. March 8 2005. [1].

Sonic & Knuckles. Hirokazu Yasuhara: Sonic Team (1994) Sega: Genesis.

Donkey Kong. Shigeru Miyamoto (1981) Nintendo: Arcade Half-Life. Valve Software (1998) Sierra Entertainment: PC Pac-Man. Namco (1980) Midway: Arcade Spy Hunter. Midway (1983) Bally Midway: Arcade Super Mario Bros. Nintendo (1985) Nintendo: NES Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. (2004) Rockstar: PS2