Level design breakdown: Shadow of the Tomb Raider | by Ketul Majmudar | Nov, 2023


In this post, we’ll take a look at the level design of Challenge Tombs from Shadow of the Tomb Raider and try to create a 2D map of a tomb of our own.

The basic loop of this game consists of three beats: traversal, puzzle setups and combat. We will look at these three beats to define the flow and major sections of our tomb layout.

We’ll also talk about basecamps, vistas and the final mural room. At the same time we’ll talk about how these come together to form the flow of the level using traversal, foreshadowing, squeeze and release moments, other transitional elements and looping back to the start of the tomb.

Basecamps work as save points in the game and there are usually two basecamps the player comes across on their journey into the challenge tomb.

Basecamp 1: This is where the player starts. Camp indicating challenge tomb nearby.

Basecamp 2: Usually found at the tomb entrance right before the player jumps in and faces its challenges.

These camps are usually separated by a traversal section and potentially a puzzle setup. We’ll talk about those later. For now, let us go ahead and add a couple of small spaces for the start room and the second base camp area.

Circles represent basic rooms and stars represent basecamps or save points in the game

Puzzles are the essence of these tombs. Each tomb is themed around a puzzle concept like lifting counterweights, lining up mirrors, etc, that it builds upon and on solving the final puzzle, the tomb rewards you with a “Skill mural”.

There are usually two to three puzzle setups in the entire tomb. We will assume three setups for our very own challenge tomb and break it down as follows:
Puzzle 1: Concept introduction
Puzzle 2: Concept reinforcement
Puzzle 3: Final puzzle, adding more difficulty to the concept — especially blending the puzzle concept with traversal. This will the final mural room- the largest room in the tomb.

Concept introduction puzzle for counterweights tomb

Let us now make three more rooms for puzzles as labelled above. We’ll connect these later.

Add three puzzle rooms including the main tomb room with the final Mural as the goal

Now to break up the level a little bit and space out the puzzles for better pacing we can add some additional rooms to our level. These additional rooms can be exploratory areas or combat spaces.

Exploratory areas give an eerie feeling to the player, especially when entering a mysterious space like a tomb where anything unexpected can happen. These areas can have enemies ambushing the player, traps springing on the player or maybe nothing happens in this room. Sometimes a room where nothing happens can add to the atmosphere and scary feeling of the space as well. So we’ll add one room to our level, maybe before the first puzzle room, to build up atmosphere and make the player work a bit more to find the inner tomb.

Combat spaces are generally defined as areas where the player fights enemies, be it either a patrolling party or an ambush. Combat spaces and exploratory areas can overlap a bit since ambushes can happen in exploratory areas as well but these tend to be very small fights with maybe one or two enemies.

Tombs can have as well as not have combat. To understand all facets of a standard tomb design, we will include a couple of combat spaces. Also, each tomb only uses one type of enemy. This one can have wolves as the enemy unit.

Encounter 1: To be used in between puzzle rooms to break up the pacing of the level and add a sense of danger to the level before the player reaches the main tomb. The player will usually become more alert of the world waiting for the next enemies to show up.

Encounter 2: We will place this one in or near the final mural room. It’ll provide a perfect sense of impending danger as the player figures out how to reach the final reward mural. It’ll also be helpful in breaking up the pacing of the final puzzle room and making sure that a potentially long puzzle setup does not feel dragged out and the player loses interest. We always want the player to be engaged and breaking up long sections of traversal or puzzles with encounters is always a quick trick to achieve that.

Now let us take a look at our map after adding combat spaces and an exploratory room.

Added combat spaces and an exploration area to the map

We can define traversal sections loosely by the amount of time it takes to get through each section, how many mechanics the traversal beat uses and how much player skill does it require for a player to work their way across this blend of mechanics.

Simple Traversal: Basic walking, running and jumping make up this section.
Takes about 30 seconds to go through.

Moderate Traversal: Some basic platforming is added to running and jumping.
Takes about 1 min to go through.

Challenging Traversal: Includes a combination of platforming, timer based challenges, and other mechanics like ziplines, etc.
Takes about a 1:30–2 mins to go through.

Then there are actions like squeeze-throughs and cave crawls where the player only has forward or backward control of Lara. We’ll call these “Context Actions”. We can use them to slow down the pacing of the level, block an encounter space, foreshadowing and for revealing vistas.

If you want to know more about the use of these “Context Actions” in detail, then you can check out this older blog post of mine: Functions of Traversal Actions in Level Design

Now to update our map, we’ll start by adding some context actions to the area connecting the two basecamps. One right after the first basecamp and one right before the second basecamp. We can loosely define what these are for now, so we have some idea of the space when we start blocking out.

We can also add some traversal sections between the rooms on our map.

Light brown paths show traversal sections and dark brown paths show Context actions

Interior as well as exterior vistas work as great rewards for the player while they are still making their way to the final mural of the tomb. Revealing the vista properly is part of the reward. The feeling that the designers are trying to replicate is “reaching the peak or the top to look at the view”. These vistas make all the traversal and puzzle solving up until that point worth it for the player, just like how we would hike for a few hours or drive to the top just to get a good view. Even though they are not tangible rewards that will help the player progress in the game, they are emotional rewards which are sometimes more important.

Exterior of a challenge tomb
An interior vista that highlights the final mural room
Another vista for the final mural room in a challenge tomb

Based on this analysis, we’ll add a couple of vistas to our map.

Vista 1: First one will be to highlight the exterior of the tomb, so we’ll place this moment near the end of the traversal section between the two basecamps.

Vista 2: For the second one, I want to highlight the final mural room. And we’ll use a traversal action right before the vista for a nice squeeze and release moment.

Added an external vista and an internal vista to our level map

Let us look at certain foreshadowing moments to add more detail to our map and see how we can hint at traps, hazards and enemies early on in the level.

Foreshadowing traps
Foreshadowing enemies
Introducing hazards and puzzle concepts

Based on these notes, let’s mark some places on our map where we can add some foreshadowing moments to our level.

Added notes to foreshadow enemies and traps during the first two context actions of the level

On the way back, there is a rewards room that presents player with a bunch of extra loot and chests for finishing the challenge. This also makes the path back a little more interesting.

Now let us take a look at our final map after adding the path looping back towards the start and the rewards room.

Added Rewards rooms to the map with loot and chests

Last step is to figure out how to add a quick hidden way to the level that will easily take the player back to the start of the level, generally to either of the base camps so that the player can save their progress after finishing the Challenge Tomb. These looping back paths use quicker traversal options like slide downs or zip lines that do not require much effort from the player to get out of the tomb.

Final Map after adding the path connecting back to the initial areas of the tomb


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