Most of the levels (for songs) in Four//Four were created over the course of 2-4 weeks, with a couple of days in between for iteration if needed. I say “if needed” because a lot of micro-iteration passes happened while I was developing the level itself. Each level was divided into a series of loops, and I pretty much worked on the loops in chronological order, starting from the beginning of the song and ending when the last loop was finished. This division allowed me to work pretty closely with the specific rhythms in each loop, and also let me quickly reference previous loops if I wanted to build on a “motif” or something similar for the rhythms.
A lot of the levels actually ended up building themselves rhythmically, because the rhythms that I wanted to highlight already existed. The primary concern during each level’s development was how to reinforce the rhythm visually. Again, my primary goals were to have the visuals reference the music, but not to an extent where the music was unnecessary. The two variables I used to deal with this were cube positioning, and cube movement.
Cube positioning was the primary variable, as juxtaposing the visual feedback in space created most of the visual motifs that I built on later in development. At first, I used a more complex layout in which I picked an axis (vertical or horizontal) and laid out an imaginary “keyboard” along that axis in which cubes would appear according to the pitch of the note in the rhythm. This was a pretty easy and fun way to convey the rhythm used, and worked the best when there was actually no percussive element in the song to draw from (i.e. “breakdowns” or “soars”), but it was very time-intensive to implement, and became boring when it was used too much.
I started using a more abstract positioning in the middle of Four//Four’s development when I realized that some rhythms I wanted to highlight had no pitch associated with it or was primarily percussive in nature. This relied less on the actual positioning of each rhythmic element and more on the idea that the player would catch on to each element if it was associated with an element in the song. For instance, I began to associate a single cube in the middle of each side with a kick drum, and four cubes on corners of each side with the snare. This idea was implemented not just on individual songs, but pretty much through every level in the game. This motif ended up being an edgier, more energetic one, and ended up being my favorite to implement at the end of the day.
I only use the word “motif” to describe a trend with the visual representations of rhythm in Four//Four, but really, most of the level design was pretty much translating the rhythm in the song to something visually salient in the game, and trying to tie it together with these trends. Usually, if songs were melodic in nature, I’d tend to use the first motif more, as the movement of the cubes implied long, sustained notes to me. With these songs, the presence of the cube is the presence of the note. More percussive songs tended to see the second approach, because matching positions to specific percussive instruments seemed to make more sense to me.
That’s what most of the level design in Four//Four was like! I’ll have more post-mortem-esque articles like these in the future.