“THE TAWDRY SURFACE IS GARISH AND ENTICING, PROMISING ENTERTAINMENTS AND ILLICIT DIVERSIONS, BUT UNDERNEATH THE LURID SURFACE, IT’S ACTUALLY AS VILE AND PITIFUL AS THE RUMOURS SUGGEST… PERHAPS EVEN WORSE.”
My name is Fredric Grapensparr, Lead Level Designer and one part of the multi-disciplinary team that crafted Darktide’s most recent zone for you to dig into. In this post I’ll be walking you through what that process looked like on a surface level and what you may expect from it. Without further ado, allow me to introduce HABZONE HL70-04, commonly referred to as ‘The Carnival’ by the citizens of Tertium.
Our work on The Carnival began with searching for a mood and backstory that differed from what you’ve previously seen in Darktide, while staying authentically Warhammer 40,000 and true to something you’d expect to find in the dark fantasy of a Hive City. What if we combine visual inspiration from Victorian London and its legends, with that of a Deep Hive? Toying with ideas such as a corrupted governor who would make The Adeptus Arbites look the other way while profiting off unsanctioned establishments, out of sight from the main streets. The overarching pieces fell quickly into place, making room for the expertise of Dan Abnett and our narrative team to flesh things out further and make corrections where necessary.
The Carnival is effectively a massive slum. Over-populated, close-packed and riven with poverty and grim conditions. As a result, it is semi-lawless. The disreputablenature of the place means it is a notorious area for entertainment: that’s its appeal. It’s the place you go for brief respiteand vice. It’s attractive in a very degenerate way, vividand dirty, promising transgressive thrills.
A skilled brawler may find their ticket out of poverty by participating (willingly or not) in fighting pits. The glory is short-lived however as blood lust corrupts. Another may strike gold with a lucky roll of the dice - though the chances of making it out alive with the winnings are slim, as The Carnival houses its own bogeymen and monsters stalking the backstreets. Bars are particularly
dangerous, pass out and you may find yourself in the hands of a devoted murdercult. Then there are the gangs looking to expand their influence. Visitors should expect to get mugged, or worse most likely.
With the worldbuilding foundation laid out in collaboration between the world team, Dan and the writers, designers and artists are primed to establish the current day state of the zone and its locations. The Traitor Guard have invaded and established defensive lines, and intelligence says that they’re cooking something up that would be a great detriment to Tertiums war efforts. What is their ultimate interest in the place and can we turn the tide in our favour? That is mostly for you to discover as we roll the missions out in sequence. But know that the stakes are high.
After the initial concept and narrative phase, Level Design is next up. We start off by deciding on key locations that fit into the theme and sketch the entire zone out with all of its missions, both in 2D and 3D, ensuring that everything fits together. This can prove challenging as things tend to change along the way in order to better fit gameplay, while still making sense from an architectural perspective as it is always important for us that gameplay mesh well with the artistic vision. During internal playtests we may receive feedback that a road is too narrow for interesting gunfights to happen, so in order to rectify that we need to move a building or three. Suddenly that same road is now a main road leading to a dead end, which is immersion breaking and something we want to avoid.
First iteration top-down sketches from two locations in the mission Mercantile HL-70-04-510. Certain things have changed since then, while others haven’t. Play the mission once it’s available and see if you can recognize them.
Much like our other zones, the missions of The Carnival are interconnected, perhaps even more so than previously. Gameplay space is not only packed densely horizontally, but vertically as well. In one mission you could pass through a key location, while in another you may find yourself in the basement of the same building. A keen eye may recognize landmarks previously visited while traversing a rooftop. Every room and all the different paths in and out should have their purpose from when the place was first built, up until its current state. Think of it as city planning to a lesser extent, except more chaotic as the city has already evolved over centuries when we visit it, with newer structures replacing older ones.
This interconnectedness also translates into the narrative, where there’s a larger plot unfolding within the zone that intersects through each of the missions. This is part of our aforementioned ambition to set The Carnival apart from what you’ve experienced in Darktide thus far.
With the refined narrative and playable 3D blockout in place, artists get to work iterating on the end visual product. We typically reference the enviroments of the established Warhammer 40,000 universe , but for environments where there’s little to no precedence it’s about working with Games Workshop to figure out what materials and architecture (spoiler: it’s often with several pinches of gothic) would make sense for the point in Tertium’s millennia long timeline in which the zone was built. In the case of The Carnival, we had to ask ourselves questions such as what a refectory and a brewery may look like, as well as other locations that you normally don’t see or hear about in the setting. What we can’t find within the vast library of official Warhammer 40,000 art and lore that has been produced over the years we work closely with Games Workshop on to define.
Early concepts of storefronts and brewery props.
At this stage in development we’re still communicating between each of the disciplines to ensure that we’re all aligned on the vision, making gameplay changes where necessary, optimizing performance, tweaking color grading, lighting and adding further worldbuilding through voice lines and ambient sound design - so be sure to pay close attention to that between the rock- and flamethrowing. It’s an iterative process through and through until we’re content with the experience.
Since the release of Darktide we’ve learnt a lot about combat (which has evolved in itself) and what makes for fun and interesting engagements. Our ambition has always been that all classes, playstyles and loadouts should be able to find their opportunity to shine. With The Carnival we’ve aimed to refine that further and we’re looking forward to hearing about your experiences with this latest chapter in Darktide’s history.