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I've always been a fan of the Metroid series, and more generally nowadays, the metroidvania genre. One thing that I've loved, and most others have praised highly, are the unique and diverse environments and levels you can find in such games. Being able to tell exactly what room someone is in from a simple screenshot is a prime staple to such things.

I have been working on a 2D metroidvania game that's intended to be kind of my personal tribute to the genre, but I feel like I may have put myself in a bit of a corner conceptually. The game takes place on a barren, lifeless planet that's being harvested for resources by a sprawling autonomous mining/factory complex. Throughout the game, you travel throughout the complex, visiting each of the sites that make it up and gaining upgrades to become powerful enough to take down the AI at the center of it all (yeah, original, I know).

So, the conceptual corner... I'll be blunt. As you can probably tell from the title, and the setup in the first paragraph, I'm seriously worried that the areas in my game are going to feel too "same-y" and repetitive. I mean, and it's justified too: my selections of environments are "lifeless, rocky landscape", "lifeless, rocky caves", and "industrial metal corridors", and my selection of enemies consists of "robots", "more robots", and "different, bigger robots". I mean, it's hard to have different environments when the setting you're in has no life to support an "environment". But, I know it can be pulled off. Just look at Hero Core. It manages to pull off distinct and unique areas with much of the same restrictions I have, and with only just two colors to boot!

In closing, and yes, this is just basically an expanded restatement of the title, what are some things I can do to make the areas in my game feel markedly distinct from eachother, despite most of them having a common overarching aesthetic?

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A very simple method to add an unique look and feel to an area without spending a lot of development effort on asset creation is to use a different color palette for each area of the game.

In a 2d game, you can achieve that effect by doing a palette swap of your graphic assets. Just slightly change the colors in your preferred image editor. Or if you want to keep the asset size small, see if your game engine can do that for you at runtime.

In a 3d game, this is easily achieved by using different light colors or a different color-grading post-processing effect for each area.

Don't be afraid of being brave in your color selection. Caves don't need to be brown and metal corridors don't need to be grey. The classic Super Metroid on the SNES is actually a great example of this. If you compare screenshots from different areas of the game, then you can see that many use the same tiles but with different color palettes. They were very bold in their color selection. The effect of the unusual colors makes the caves of the alien world of Ceres look, well, alien. But you also see a couple tiles which are unique to specific areas. This can also be used to give individual areas an individual aesthetic.

In addition to changing the visual aesthetic of each area, you can also try to aim for different aesthetics of play for each area. Try to have each area focus on a particular challenge of your game. Some examples of gameplay themes you could give to an area are:

  • Precise jumps
  • Well-timed jumps
  • Well-timed running
  • Lots of weak enemies
  • Few but powerful enemies
  • Enemies encountered at close range
  • Enemies encountered at long range
  • Enemies which surprise the player by appearing when the player wouldn't expect it
  • Moving hazards
  • Traps
  • Predominantly vertical traversal
  • Predominantly horizontal traversal
  • Lots of secret passages
  • Lots of puzzles, preferably of the same general theme
  • Focus on one specific special ability of the player (very useful if the player just obtained that ability)
  • ...and more...

I am looking forward to playing through all the different areas of your game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Nice answer, but I disagree with "Enemies which surprise the player by appearing when the player wouldn't expect it". This can lead to frustration. \$\endgroup\$ – Evorlor Feb 26 at 2:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Evorlor Probably depends on how it's done. I don't think having an area with surprising enemies on it's own is a reason for frustration. If they were unfairly surprising, that's going to bug people; but if the enemy is balanced with the element of surprise in mind, I don't see why it would frustrate the player. If you're getting jumpscare-instakilled, yeah, that's going to frustrate players; but having enemies pop up when you don't expect them can be fine as long as the player has a fair chance to deal with it. \$\endgroup\$ – JMac Feb 26 at 19:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ceres? You mean Zebes :P Don't hold your breath for my game; it'll be a bit before it comes out. But this was all very helpful, nonetheless. \$\endgroup\$ – ZarHakkar Feb 27 at 9:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JMac Or subtle environmental clues that "an enemy is likely to pop out around here" (e.g. if they pop out of containers, then a row of lockers on a wall means "proceed with caution") - then the player can get a feeling of victory when they successfully predict & counter an ambush \$\endgroup\$ – Chronocidal Feb 28 at 12:49
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Aside from Philipp's suggestions, you can also push your environments in different conceptual directions, and maybe imply a bit of history too.

Lifeless, Rocky Landscape/Caves: Dusty rocks can make one area, sure, but you can also have crystal caves, areas with lots of geysers and islands floating precariously on alkaline lakes, areas that have already been strip-mined, places that are currently experiencing powerful storms.

Robots, Metal Corridors: If the AI has been here for a while, there can be a whole history to the AI's continual development and refinement of its minions. Broken-down robots and corridors in the areas where it originally landed, sleek new robots and corridors in some of the newer parts, and robots that incorporate crystals into their designs after the AI started getting corrupted by the planet (or whatever).

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The game takes place on a barren, lifeless planet that's being harvested for resources by a sprawling autonomous mining/factory complex.

Every building has a background and a history that should be reflected in the design of your environment. Think about castles in video games. Good castles don't look like a generic video game castle and stick in players' memory. The same goes for every classic environment: town, forest,...

For example,

  • your factory has a main mining area for resources
  • resources need to be refined and/or transformed
  • there should be a maintenance area to repair the robots
  • a place where robots that can't be repaired are destroyed (imagine a long conveyor belt where drop hammers regularly crush defective robots)
  • transportation area where resources are sent out of the factory
  • maybe a refrigerated area, or furnaces

Also, events that happened in the complex can change the aspect of an area. For example, most of Metal Gear 2 happens on an oil platform that consists of two hexagonal parts, each made of 6 rooms. Pretty boring premise. But, since each room has a different purpose (arsenal, storage, computer room, lounge, entrance,...) in the platform, and events occur in there (one is flooded, one has hostages,...), it gives new challenges and experiences to the player. In your factory,

  • an area could be flooded
  • robots in one area could have gone rogue
  • your character infiltrating the complex will not go unnoticed for long. After some time, more security robots (think emergency task force) will be activated and put your player under a new threat.
  • the factory is under alert! Some doors are locked, forcing the player to explore the same areas under different conditions.

To sum up, you can flesh out the history of your environment to give it more depth.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Honestly, this is a great answer, and it was a hard choice between this one or the top voted one to accept. I'll definitely be using some of the stuff in here though as well, thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – ZarHakkar Feb 27 at 9:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ZarHakkar: thanks. This is my answer here so I appreciate the comment :D \$\endgroup\$ – Taladris Feb 27 at 12:04
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Foxwarrior had a good idea about history of the place. Unfortunately they didn't go where I thought they would with it.

One thing that people like are "quirks" that come up unexpectedly, in a good way. Not enemies, but mysterious (and sometimes completely unexplained in game) ruins, artwork, geological formations, and things that seem out of place, but not necessarily out of character for the game.

It could be an easter egg in the form of an Easter Island stone head in the middle of your barren desert. Why is it there? Maybe there's a plaque to be found buried in the sand at the foot of it that explains it, maybe not. Maybe there's rock band style posters all over one hallway of your base. Why? IDK, but all of them are fake, except the Motley Crue poster that's a side quest to find. Maybe there's a mirror that never shows the player, even though it shows what's behind them and any weapons they carry.

Or it could be something completely normal, but extremely out of place, which is explained later to be completely normal. Maybe a baby stroller with a skeleton in it in an abandoned and contaminated nuclear facility happens to be left there by a family that was taking a tour right before the accident and they had to leave it behind, but everyone made it out safe, and the skeleton turns out to be a raccoon. The player can find a body found half embedded in a trash compactor, which turns out to be a mannequin.

You can even turn one of these things in to a major quest. The player has to figure out the code on the plaque next to the Easter Island statue, press a hidden button the code explains, and the statue opens it's mouth to reveal a door, a required gem, a "god weapon", or something silly like a pool noodle.

Maybe you make a geological formation look like a famous building or skyline. In the hazy/foggy distance, it looks like the Seattle Space Needle, but up close it's just a weird rock spire that simply looks nothing like it except for the 2D outline. Sort of like those shadow sculptures that don't look anything like the silhouette shadow they leave on a wall from a specific angle.

It's the attention to detail that often comes out to make a game memorable. Having a great cause, a great story, great game play, awesome weapons, and an amazing character all run towards a memorable game, but take a lot of time, which is why big corps are usually behind those games. But you can get into the "cult classic" category simply by having a great set of quirks.

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A textured background might do it. Think desert, ocean, and forest backgrounds from Afterburner. Of course, you're not dealing with deserts or oceans, but you should be able to design unique backgrounds for each level. And because of the repeated nature of background images, it shouldn't take an unreasonable amount of work.

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Some variations to distinguish different areas (some of these have been listed in other answers):

  • Clear skies / Dust storm / Night time / Strong winds
  • Underground / High up on some cliffs or crags / plains
  • Natural Rock formations / Abandoned tech buildings / The inside of a fallen spaceship or large robot

  • Horizontally laid out / vertical (like Phillip said)

  • Wide open spaces / Tight corridors

  • A level on a moving object (think of how old school beat-em-ups always have a level on a moving train or elevator or something)
  • If the player controls a person most of the time, have a level where they temporarily control a tank/mech/other person.

  • a dark level where you need to turn on lights (or use a flashlight)

  • since water would be habitable, maybe tar or some other liquids could mark an area?
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