Erin Louise Harrison gets to create some of the weird and wonderful worlds and levels that you see in Dreams. Most recently, she was working on the DreamsCom hall locations and adding fun secrets for you to stumble across. When she’s not making games, she’s still thinking about them, or reading about great level design. Here, we chat to Erin about game making software, getting to grips with Dreams, and the differences between Professor Layton and The Last Of Us.
Hi Erin! What do you do here at Media Molecule?
I'm a level designer, which is kind of self-explanatory, but I design levels! At the moment I'm doing a lot of practice work and content curation on things like DreamsCom, whilst dabbling in my own personal projects. I'm still getting used to working in Dreams professionally, so DreamsCom was my first proper 3D level design project, which was pretty wild. I joined Mm last November, so I’ve been here almost ten months [at the time of the interview].
If this is your first time working with Dreams professionally, what kind of game engines did you work with, or game design did you do before?
So back in my first job, I was working in Unreal Engine and also using Photoshop, doing 2D level design for an indie game called The Siege and the Sandfox(opens in new tab) by Cardboard Sword. I was using their in-house 2D level maker and it felt like sketching or graphic design, because I could draw the levels out in Unreal. And that was very starkly different to what I'm doing now, where I'm less precise and I'm in 3D and it's all about being quite freehand and just quickly blocking out spaces to get a feel for the environment. And that's what I'm practising to do right now, just because it is such a switch that it can take a while to get the hang of it.
Have you noticed a big difference with using a bespoke engine like Dreams compared to either Unreal Engine or proprietary engines?
It's like a complete U-turn, because Unreal Engine is quite strict and almost serious. You know, if it was personified, it would be a business man in a business suit and he's very serious and he knows exactly what you want. If you don't do exactly what he thinks you want to do, then that doesn't compute. Whilst Dreams is very much like Miss Honey, [from Matilda - if you know, you know] very happy, kinda funny, kinda artsy. You can do things this way or you can do it that way. But either way it works. From 2016 to 2020, and then from 2020 all the way to 2021, I was working in Unreal Engine trying to make sense of it, trying not to make mistakes, trying to find a way to overcome a specific challenge. To go from such a serious work format to something very freehand and creative and intuitive is really nice. It feels like you know exactly what you want, and more importantly that you already know how to find it, because it's set up in a very user-friendly way.
Since you've been at Mm, what's been the most fun thing that you've worked on?
I think learning the systems when I first joined was really fun. When I first started I had about three months of onboarding and my main task in that period was to basically recreate my design test, taking what I had made in Unreal and building it in Dreams. And that was really cool just because it was nice to see how quickly I was picking up the skills, and seeing what I had made in Unreal with a very specific skill set recreated in Dreams. In Unreal I had to make sure everything was measured properly and precisely, and I was able to go from that to making it really freehand, letting go some of those very specific perfectionist styles of working.
Do you have a particular level design philosophy or approach to level design?
Originally I decided to get into games because I wanted to be a writer, as I love story-driven games so I wanted to be a narrative designer for the longest time. But I ended up studying game design because I figured I could either study writing and learn how to be a good writer or I could learn more specifically how games were made. As I had one chance to go to uni I thought it would be more important as a game writer to understand how games were actually constructed. Eventually I found myself in love with design and I ended up specialising in it and sticking with it into my Masters degree.
But I still approach design from a narrative point of view, rather than a technical standpoint. I ask questions like, 'Why am I in a space? What's happening here? What am I looking at? Where's the setting? Who is this person? What's the journey through the space?' So now I'm working on improving my gameplay creation skills because I find that I don't intuitively think about the gameplay interactions as much. I'm really interested in a gameplay space itself. And what's happening in the space story-wise and what the flow is going to be. So there's a bit of a balancing act that has to happen.
So what got you interested in working in the games industry, and then how did you end up at Media Molecule?
I’ve always loved writing stories, so at first I thought I would study English and creative writing. But then the summer before my A-Levels, I stumbled across like a PewDiePie Let's Play of The Last Of Us, and it was the first time I'd seen story-driven PlayStation games. At the time I only had a 3DS, so I didn’t really connect that there's people out there making these massive big budget games. It was so real, unlike anything else I’d seen, and a million miles beyond the cartoony style of something like Professor Layton.
Then I watched him play Beyond: Two Souls and my mum, without me knowing, was seeing this interest blossom and decided to save up to get me a PS3 when the PS4 dropped, because then it was significantly cheaper. It was my 2013 Christmas present. Unsurprisingly, when I went to do my A-Levels I tried to do everything games related, taking film, English and business studies etc. Then I went to study at Brighton and tried to do games programming and computer science, but I was terrible at it, so I left after Christmas and had a gap year, and then went to the uni that I ended up actually graduating from: Pearson College in London.
This course was structured in a different way, and meant that I was learning in smaller environments, so it was almost like going to game school because there were three classes: special effects, games, and animation with about 20 to 30 people in each class, and one tutor and you just learn to make games for three years. And it was great. But there were challenges that came along with each year that I had to deal with, both from learning and personal stuff.
To try and help, I got really into networking because I figured if I'm struggling in this degree, I wanna do as much as I possibly can to ensure that I'm gonna have a job at the end of this. I came from a pretty low income background, and there was no back-up plan here if I don't get a job at the end of my degree. So I started networking in my second year, going to free, smaller independent events with lots of professionals, and trying to go to as many things as I possibly could. I'd go to these events, talk to people, network, try and grow my Twitter, and essentially brand myself. I spent two years doing that, which was great because the pandemic hit during my Masters, so I wouldn't have been able to do that afterwards or during that lockdown year. Then a year ago Mm got in contact and I'm here now.
Do you think that going to university was helpful to you?
It was helpful because it felt like having a studio experience from the get-go, and I was able to use their free software and computers which I couldn't afford at home. Plus, I was able to network in London, where a lot of the studios are, therefore where a lot of the developers are socialising. So many jobs can be found just by socialising, and the emotional learning you get by working in grouped spaces like a uni studio environment is really pivotal to understanding how to work in a team well. So I would say yes, as a designer, I would encourage university. I feel like for different roles there might a different response, but I think if you have the urge then I think you should do it.
Do you have any advice or tips for anyone looking to get into level design?
Start making projects as soon as you possibly can. Even if they're bad, start testing and making stuff. Because very quickly you're gonna finish something and almost immediately be able to make it twice as fast and be able to exactly see where you've gone wrong. Make a project, analyse it, pull it apart, record each of the different steps of the project, talk about what went wrong, talk about what went right, talk about what you would do in the future. Seek out as much accessible media that you can, like YouTube videos, I used Pete’s [Field, Principal Designer at Mm] talk that he did for IntoGames to do my design test, and that was just an hour long and I made, like, a 20 point list of all the key things in this video. And when I was doing my design test I tried to make sure that I hit each of these different points that he talked about in my test.
Some great advice that I've had is to look at your favourite game and maybe try remaking a level, or making that level and seeing how you can change it up. One that I tried to do was looking at an Uncharted level and trying to remake it or trying to make a level that would fit in that universe. I think that's always a good idea because people know their favourite games, so I feel like that's like a good way to start. I’d also say, play a lot of games. And even if there's stuff that you don't like, play it and think about it. And if you have the means to, remake it yourself for a portfolio piece. Exploring what you didn't like in the level and how you would change it shows you are critically thinking about the design elements.
Mm staff seem to have a lot of interesting items on their desks. What's on your desk at the moment?
I used to work in a bookshop, where I sold magazines and we got a lot of free magazines. So I have a giant collection of old mags for scrapbooking. I also have a lot of books I'm gonna read about game design and architecture. And I have my entire PlayStation collection. You know, like my original copy of The Last Of Us that I played, and I have my full Professor Layton collection. And it's in chronological order because if it's not in the right order timeline-wise, it messes with my brain. I also have the annotated Get Out scripts which I’m reading, as I really want to rewatch the film and read it at the same time. Oh, and finally I have my DS that kick-started everything.
So to wrap up, what are your favourite Dreams, and are there any that you'd like to recommend?
When I was judging the Impys last year, which was really fun, I found this piece of art that had been nominated called Lullaby for a Beagle by ghostfruit64. I just love it because I had never really thought about Dreams just being something you can make 2D art with before. But he did exactly that, and I love that he did! I also love another piece of art that he did as well called Rose.
Something that I recently found on Twitter were some creations by Solid1156 who does highly detailed pieces of art that don’t even look like they were made in Dreams. And they're incredible, and I just want them to be games. The two that I really like are Mainframe and Out Of Control.
Oh yeah. In terms of horror games my tastes are quite basic but I really like The Backrooms game (by Syntronic_ and Robytic). I've probably played this game more than anything else in Dreams. Dreams is such an awesome playground for horror titles, as it's a really good tool for making unsettling environments and worlds.
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