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Level Design Contest
Judge's Comments

Below are Jacob and Tobin's comments as to why they placed each mansion as they did. (Vern agrees with everything here, so he didn't write up his own comments, since they would've duplicated what is below.)

Tobin's Comments:

First Place: Castle Basano

The good: Castle Basano has all the characteristics of a classic Midnight Mansion level, with clear, attractive room design and solid, wide-open areas to explore. The new expansion features are used rarely but effectively, and there are plenty of nooks and crannies filled with treasure to collect. It really feels like a big, solid, spooky castle full of monsters and treasure. What's really great is the way the castle opens up as you play - you start out in a small locked-up area, but before long, you have the choice to traverse several large areas, all of which are divided up into smaller goals. Each key really feels like it's worth something, since it will finally open up another big section of mansion to explore. Lots of fun.

The bad: Most of the rooms follow a simple "three floors with some ladders" pattern, so it can feel repetitive sometimes. The author played it pretty safe, so there's nothing here that feels particularly exciting or new. There are some strange graphical choices occasionally, such as the shadows on paintings that make them look like they're floating in mid-air. EVERYTHING has shadows in this mansion, to the point where it start to look a little silly. There are probably too many signs explaining what everything in the mansion is. The mansion is designed well enough that those aren't necessary. If it looks like a storage room, you probably don't need to tell us it's a storage room.

Overall: A good, solid, fun mansion. Our unanimous choice for first place.

2nd Place: Trigger Island

The good: This mansion is built around an interesting story with a nice sense of drama. Jack sails to a mysterious island and delves deep underneath the waves to a sunken fortress. The background tiles are often used in interesting ways, which gives the level an exotic feeling, like Jack is really going to a strange, out-of-the-ordinary place - and the look of the mansion just gets more and more wild as Jack goes deeper and deeper into the abyss. It's the strength of that story, more than the technical aspects of the mansion, that make Trigger Island fun to play.

The bad: There are quite a few technical problems. It's easy to get killed unfairly by monsters that are too close to an entrance, or by an unexpected pitfall. It's possible to get stuck in a number of places when you accidentally leave behind a required key. Important objects are often hidden behind layer-6 tiles, sometimes in strange ways - a closet might show up in an underground cave, just to hide a ladder, for instance. And there are a few things - like moving snakes, or conveyor belts hidden in the ground that are supposed to be quicksand - that just shouldn't be in an official expansion pack mansion. Game objects shouldn't be shoehorned into roles they can't fill. They work fine as what they are. Finally, the graphic innovations sometimes tip over the border into chaos, where it's hard to tell what objects are supposed to be.

Overall: The problems in Trigger Island are mostly superficial elements of gameplay that are pretty easy to fix. The mansion tells a cool story and has some interesting places to explore, so if the graphics are cleaned up a bit and the bugs are playtested out, this will be a really good mansion.

3rd Place: The Caves and the Castle

The good: C&C, as I will call it from now on, is a different kind of level - a more cerebral kind of level. Like the now-classic Midnight Mazes and Monsters, it is more like a collection of puzzles than a mansion. Whimsical rhymes on signposts accompany the various riddles, and the room design really challenges you to think about every move. Once you get into its quirky groove, you can have a good time here.

The bad: There is almost no attention paid to the graphics or the look of C&C. Most backgrounds consist of some random stripes of tile (which are, to be fair, sometimes clues to the current puzzle) and a few stalactites. This may have been a choice the author made to keep the player's attention on the puzzles, but it still looks dry and unappealing. There are also a handful of situations where an important platform is hidden behind some tiles in a way that forces the player to jump experimentally to his death while trying to find solid ground, and that's never fun.

Overall: This mansion may need to appear in an "Extras" folder for the expansion, just because the way it works is so different from the normal mansions. And it would be much more involving with some nice backgrounds. However, it has a strong individual character and some thoughtful puzzles, and it feels like a cohesive offbeat adventure, like the Alice-in-Wonderland of midnight mansions.

Jacob's Comments

Castle Basano
Why it deserved to win:
Castle Basano made great use of classic elements that made Midnight Mansion so popular in the first place. It is full of polish, well-executed puzzles and thoughtful pacing. The designer chooses a theme and sticks to it (both narratively and graphically). Despite being very heavy on older MM elements, it maintains a fresh feel, and the level of polish helps it shine above all other entrants.

Castle Basano had very few technical problems. There is a design flaw in the "cave" section that makes it impossible to proceed, but this can easily be fixed. One thing that CB would be dinged on is the lack of variety in tile choices. 2/3rds of the mansion consist of the same grey stone tiles. It would have been nice to mix up the different sections with different tile patterns or colors. Another thing CB lacks is innovation. It seems to rely too much on previous MM ideas, which is fine but doesn't really help the mansion step up to the level of "Expansion Pack." However, the elements it does use (hidden triggers, bat platforms, etc) are used extremely well. However, I would much rather play a well polished, thoroughly tested mansion that looks rather plain than a mansion that is randomly assembled, hard to play mansion that looked unique.

Trigger Islands
Why it deserved 2nd place:
Trigger Islands had a very nice premise for a mansion (a hidden maze underneath a tropical Island). It may have quite a few technical problems (cheap deaths, easy-to-get-stuck situations), but I liked the graphical style. It will need to be adjusted for consistency, but overall its very playful with tiles and some rooms look almost like they were painted with the tiles. Sort of the converse to CB, TI is a quirky, fun and tongue-in-cheek mansion that, with a little bit of polish, could really shine as a great Expansion Pack mansion.

As I stated earlier, TI has a lot of technical problems. On my first playthrough, I got stuck on the island without any keys, and there was no way to get back. There are lots of situations that cause Jack to have to fall to his death, or be stuck with no way out but death. These are all details that can't make it into an official level, so a lot of play testing and modifications will need to be made to make sure these things are taken care of. I generally don't approve of unorthodox designs like "quicksand" or moving snakes in official mansions, since they break expectations the play may have. TI also relies a bit too heavily on hiding things like ladders and doors behind layer 6 tiles. This is okay as a design choice as long as the player never feels like they have to randomly duck to try and find the ladder. Again, I love some of the rooms and their playfull use of tiles, especially the first few island rooms. There are issues like Jack appearing in front of columns, or not using enough layer 6 tiles to cover the ceiling (i.e., when you jump you can see Jack's head pop out of the ceiling). Also, some tiles are just used incorrectly and look "wrong." But, with some graphical polishing it could look great, and with thorough play-testing it will play great also!

The Caves and the Castle
Why it deserved 3rd place:
Caves and the Castle is definitely the wildcard of the entrants. It features unique puzzles, creative use of signs (the poetry is often cute) and a general surreal feeling about it. I picture it being built by some Riddler-type character, leading Jack on a wild goose chase, following ambiguous clues left in the poetry. It has a lot of graphical/design issues, but the overall structure and gameplay is worthwhile. It will take an incredible amount of work and room redesign and play-testing to make it polished enough for a "Map Screen" mansion, but with some polish it is definitely worthy of being in an "Extra Mansions" folder. It was fun enough to keep me playing, fighting through the frustrating puzzles and odd design choices. This mansion has a lot of potential.

CC consists of lots of disjointed puzzles. A lot of these puzzles involve blind leaps of faith or tricky moving-platform jumps. These can often be frustrating, but this can always be tweaked with play-testing. Overall the mansion has no identity. A lot of rooms are disjointed in design and style, and they don't flow well together at all. It lacks design polish in that a lot of rooms look literally like the designer picked a brick pattern and drew random lines in the room. I would prefer a more structured or organic look, to make it look more like a cave or a castle. The design choices are very utilitarian, with just enough bricks to let jack walk and jump where he needs to go. I would like to see all of the rooms overhauled to look great together while still maintaining the original intentions of the designer. It will take a lot of work to make this Mansion seem polished enough to be an official MM mansion.s