Why Developers Struggle To Get Water Levels Right In Video Games

We all hate water levels, right?


For many of us, the thought of a water level sends a cold shiver down our spines. Horrible flashbacks of being surrounded by unfairly nimble fish, last gasps of air, and difficult to navigate stages.

Some games even topped off these cruelly designed levels with equally devilish elements, such as Sonic 2’s sweat inducing sound clip that indicates drowning, causing a nail-biting rush to safety, only for many to fall short an inch from escaping.

Dreadful. Heartbreaking. A bloody awful mechanic. Thousands of smashed controllers in momentary blind rage – most of them my own, probably.

Yet, decades after the first water levels graced our screens, some developers are still getting the formula wrong when the path to failure has become so well-worn that the cracks should be almost unavoidably large.


Far from watertight design

Super Mario bros swimming
Source: tenfey.wordpress.com

Go back to the late 80s and you had some earlier examples in the Super Mario Bros series. Both the first and third title had long laborious water segments that, in contrast to some of the games to come, were not that bad, but started genre conventions that sent ‘waves’ across the industry.

These poorly designed stages slowed the otherwise quick tempo to a snail’s pace, transforming the previous on land stage’s frenetic action into a cumbersome chore of avoiding bug-eyed fish or falling into holes by repetitively hitting a single key to bob upwards through the water.

The stages were frustratingly clunky in games that otherwise set the standard for taut, precise controls and varied stage design. Even worse, these levels seemed to take comparatively longer to complete.

However, even as early as the 1989 released third game, a potential solution was introduced in the form of the frog suit, an item that enabled Mario to effortlessly glide through the water, dodge enemies and head towards the end goal at a quick pace.

Similarly, within the next few years there were examples of games that took place entirely under water that managed to work well such as Ecco The Dolphin (1992) and The Little Mermaid (1992). Both allowed the player to move through water quickly and easily, offer helpful maps and were colourfully designed.

Yet even though these titles showed that there are a variety of solutions to making water levels more fun, most developers continued to stick with cumbersome gameplay mechanics and confusing level design.


There were plenty of fish in the sea – just not many good ones

The mid-nineties ushered in 3d graphics through the PS1, Sega Saturn and N64. At first, clumsily, but then slowly beginning to utilize 3d space effectively.

Yet, while games like Mario 64 entertained players with the ability to nimbly navigate 3d space, including climbing up walls, narrow crevices and even flying, water continued to be an issue – only avoided when Mario dons a metal cap which enables him to move through water much like he could on dry surfaces.

The switch to a 3D space added a new type of frustration: the player can now move in any direction, rather than just up/down, forwards/backwards. This meant that players had to have a positional awareness as levels made use of caverns, cracks, and secret rooms that could be located above, behind, or at an angle, as well as fighting against fumbly controls that made movement difficult.

Suddenly, rather than just moving backwards to retreat previous steps like you would in a 2d game, a previous room may be at a 90-degree upwards angle to the right, directly below or above you.

Perhaps more than any other game this could be felt in Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple where players not only had to occasionally battle against the water flow, getting lost in maze-like environments, but they also had to keep changing the water levels to find keys.

If the water level is set incorrectly, players will have to go through the whole process of trekking through previously explored rooms until they reach the right switch. Incredibly time consuming and boring.

This issue was maddeningly exacerbated in the follow up Majora’s Mask. Rather than dropping the dynamic of meddling with the water in some form that pissed many gamers off, switches now changed the flow of the water rather than level – more annoying as Majora’s Mask’s pipes were far less varied than the rooms you had to enter in Ocarina of Time.

There were numerous other popular examples including Crash Bandicoot, Tomb Raider and Banjo Kazooie that were otherwise great games plagued by a poorly implemented element.

Similarly, the next two generations brought titles such as Kingdom of Hearts, Sonic 2 Adventure, Super Mario Galaxy, and Monster Hunter 3, that all failed to straddle the line between recreating the experience of being in water and producing interesting gameplay.


Changing the tide

Things have become somewhat better over the last couple of years. There are a handful of examples that have done water well such as Shovel Knight and Rayman Legends where they play more or less like any other stage, the nimble quick movement of Call of Duty or Uncharted 3/4.

However, it has become apparent that a lot of games are not featuring water either heavily or at all any more. Whether this is due to the difficulty developers experience while trying to utilise this element or because they consider It more of a passing fad that should have gone away with fire or ice levels isn’t clear.

What is clear, though, is that these levels have been done well previously and it would be a shame if gamers were deprived of well-made water levels.

Tools such as directional arrows, signposting, or an ability to speed up a character’s movement would make these levels either more bearable or potentially enjoyable. Similarly, depriving the player of abilities they had on land without compensating with something equally enjoyable is likely to diminish from the overall experience.

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