Dusk is a throwback first-person shooter that released earlier this year. Comparing it with another shooter, Strafe, shows that one of the most important factors in recapturing classic FPS magic is memorable level design.
Dusk has everything you’d expect from a Doom tribute game: chunky shotguns, secret rooms, and waves of demonic monsters eager to rip your head off. I played the game last night on my Twitch channel and had a damn good time. The levels are full of blood red skies and witch filled tunnels. Each level feels packed with handcrafted moments meant to scare or challenge the player.
Strafe, which released last year, is another game that seeks to capture the feeling of old-school shooters, but with one modern twist. It uses procedural generation to create new levels every time you play. Using a collection of room types and interchangeable enemy arrangements, Strafe assembles a new level with every playthrough. In some ways, that’s fine. Strafe keeps players on their toes and never allows them to get completely comfortable with the world around them, creating a sense of hostility. If you never know what’s around a corner, you have to assume that every corner could be deadly.
However, because Strafe has a limited amount of room types and ways to snap them together, the experience starts to feel monotonous in some ways. It doesn’t really matter what’s behind a locked door if it’s only one of so many possible designs. You are always aware of the cold, automated process that created each new space. Strafe’s unknowable enemy placements might feel dangerous but the levels themselves blur together, unable to exude the raw charisma of more directed experiences.
I can’t recall individual moments from playing Strafe but there are moments in Dusk that stand up among all of the bunny-hopping. The game’s second level pulls a particularly cruel trick.
Once the player finds a key, they can attempt to open a locked door that actually has a trap opening right before it. They drop into a pit where wizards toss fireballs from small nooks up above. These nooks have explosive barrels that the player can blow up to quickly overcome the ambush. After opening another door and blasting more enemies, they hit a bounce pad that takes them up to a cramped garage full of chainsaw-wielding goons and another key. If players survive, they can grab the key and return to the rest of the level. It’s an action-filled loop with distinct plot beats: the sudden betrayal as the player falls into the pit, the clever reversal as they blow up the barrels, a triumphant rise upwards on the bounce pad, and one final coda of action before they slip right back where they came from. The moment last no more than a minute but you can break it down into uniquely crafted parts that feel much more considered that Strafe’s randomly assembled encounters.
Levels, even multiplayer maps, work best when telling crafted stories. Doom’s E1M2 starts with a dangerous climb up some stairs to get the red key before contracting as the player moves through a maze of computers, ending with a bloody descent into a pit of imps. Overwatch’s Eichenwalde is an uphill trudge toward castle gates that gives way to tightly packed corridors. Perfect Dark’s ‘dataDyne Central: Defection’ is a constant spiral downward into a dangerous corporate headquarters. Action expands and contracts, finding specific cadences as the player moves from room to room. In its best moments, Dusk captures a sense considered pacing on par with the classics because it tells specific stories.