I designed this graybox level of Question’s The Blackout Club to create spaces for emergent team gameplay. The level has four zones: The house upper level, the house lower level, the chords (in the maze), and the magnet (in the maze). I chose a contemporary McMansion style home to re-use The Blackout Club’s existing art assets and drew layout references from other mansion levels in immersive sim lineage games, like the Boyle Mansion in Dishonored, a smidge of the house in Gone Home, and Lord Bafford’s Manor in the original Thief.
I also drew from Thief’s light maps and sound muffling terrain for where I placed these elements in the level. Grass and carpet (purple in this graybox), overlap dark areas where enemy paths meet, giving players an extra advantage where they are more likely to be detected.
Verticality was integral to the layout. In my experience playing The Blackout Club, high spaces meant a briefly safe place to scan the environment, change tactics, or take a small break (which is important in an online game that can’t be paused). These moments are important to break up the player’s tension curve and keep them invested in the level rather than being intimidated or bored. The pool umbrellas provide this escape, while also creating another access route to quickly traverse the house. They can be jumped across to access a far window, or the player can jump down to the bottom floor. This element is important for both loud but fast and undetected playstyles, as well as opportunities for players with the grappling hook to make new paths or crossbow players to get a good overhead shot.
I began making this level by drawing partis – small shapes of spaces that I though made aesthetically compelling playspaces. From there I drew up a layout in photoshop. I chose photoshop so I could put each section of the level in a group with its features (like AI paths, light/sound maps, chest locations, etc.) on different layers. I made the bulk of each section’s graybox in maya so I could easily make irregular shapes and texture map the carpet locations. I exported each section, divided into house upper floor, house lower floor, the chords, and the magnet into unreal and organized all the interactive features to groups with their section so I could easily turn off layers of the level for access to lower levels. This also made iterating the graybox easy, as I could make changes in maya and re-export into unreal without having to re-align any geometry.
In addition to Bertoia’s work, the Blackout Club’s maze often reminded me of James Turell’s light sculptures, which inspired the light mechanic here. The ceiling is brightly lit, illuminating the Magnet (lowest area) except directly under the suspended platforms. Each platform can be moved along one axis, changing the location of the shadowy hiding places on floor below. A single player can scope out a path from the platforms, moving them create a path of shadow before executing a plan. Multiple players can send a single player down into the fully lit lower floor while teammates dynamically move the path from above. The platforms can also be moved to quickly traverse across the wide space, beneficial to loud and fast playstyles.
This level was designed to accommodate the blackout club’s many objective structures. The level’s current objective is to steal or pickpocket an evidence bag from a lucid deep down in the maze, but the level includes other hotspots for procedural objectives. Placement points for chests, speed traps, posters, evidence, pickups (which is why the mansion has a foyer) are littered throughout the level.
The coiling structure of the maze area, the chords, is meant to impart a sense of dread. The deeper the player descends, the fewer hiding spots. This brings the player to most difficult, and scariest, part of the level: the exit.
Since the mansion’s only CHORUS panel entrance is at its lowest point, exiting the maze here is more difficult than in other locations. Additional exits to other maze areas in the lower section mitigate this, as well as allow players to complete other objectives in other parts of the maze. When the player does exit through the mansion’s CHORUS utilities panel, their position increases the difficulty of the last part of their mission, creating a naturally more difficult back half of the session. The pool has the most overlapping enemy patrols. To enter the maze here, the player could simply jump into the pool from above at the right moment. From above the player can see all the enemy paths, giving them more control. However, from inside the pool, the player cannot possibly see all the enemies at once.
A friend must scout from above, or the player must cause a distraction, or come up with their own unique solution. Moments like this force players to engage meaningfully with the environment, their tools, and their friends in unique emergent ways, which is a core reason why The Blackout Club is so compelling.