The Isle of the Dead is a DLC dungeon area in the game of Elden Ring. In this area of the game, the player will explore the mysterious place called the "Isle of the Dead", fight two bosses, and learn about the reason why he/she is able to resurrect upon death. On this journey additionally, the player will encounter an NPC with his own questline.
The original inspiration for the level came from my experience listening to Sergei Rachmaninoff's symphonic poem of the same name, "Isle of the Dead". I later discovered that Rachmaninoff was inspired by a black-and-white version of Arnold Böcklin's original painting "Isle of the Dead". The eerie and mysterious atmosphere of the island, as well as the alluring darkness surrounding the forest all quickly became the initial creative spark for the level you are looking at now. Enjoy.
Learnings from the last project &
How this level came to be...
If I have to pick only a couple of things I learned the most from my last "God of War" level, it's that for personal projects and portfolio pieces, smaller, tighter levels that are around 10 min in length are much better at showcasing level design thinking and affords more flexibility in iteration and polishing than bigger levels with an estimated gameplay time around 40 min.
Another thing I learned from creating the "God of War" level is the importance of 2D overhead maps. During preproduction of the "God of War" level, I intentionally did not draw any 2D overhead map when planning out the level as I wanted to try out and see if Naughty Dog's approach to level creation could work for my level. These 2D overhead maps are put together before the blockout phase begins and contain callouts to where combats, traversal, shortcuts, etc. are. Not every studio in the industry works this way. Level design at Naughty Dog for example, as Evan Hill put in "Making The Last of Us Part II's Best Level", starts right away with the blockout phase in MAYA. At the early stage, a couple of story and narrative briefings are the only pillars driving the level creation process. They deemed this approach to be the most efficient as it allows them to test out the level from the get-go.
What I learned from the "God of War" project was that the way that works best for me is to start the level creation process with a rough 2D overhead map planning out the major combat, traversal and shortcuts. This approach allows me to spot mistakes and ill-advised level decisions early on, preventing on-the-spot level planning, as well as being the cheapest way to test out the validity of early concepts and visions of the level.
Therefore, before any blockout in MAYA, I gather art references and drew a rough level sketch in Procreate to pitch the level to myself as well as early playtesters:
In this overhead map, I planned out the locations of some of Soulsborne games' most important elements: bonfires, shortcuts, enemies, traversals, etc. The multi-layered underground structure you see in the video was also part of the overhead map above (the act of going deeper and deeper into the ground fits the theme of death very well).
Another new thing that greatly aided the level creation process was the discovery of the magical Unity + MAYA pipeline. The blockmesh you see above is the native MAYA level geometry file imported right into the unity project. Any changes to the level geometry in the native MAYA file can be instantly updated and reflected in the project. This allowed me to quickly conduct playtest, gather feedback and iterate on the level geometry. With this pipeline, I do not need to jump back and forth constantly between MAYA and Unreal 4 like before, which did not offer much flexibility or agility in playtesting and iteration.