Ghost of a Tale is an indie action role-playing game where you play as Milo, a minstrel mouse trying to find his missing wife. He has been taken prisoner by rats and he must also try to escape while avoiding the rat guards. It seems not many people are talking about this game. I had a great experience when playing it and I especially noticed its level design. Its level design is non-linear, and involves much backtracking into different areas on the map. You will talk to several interesting characters and receive several quests that will push both the story and exploration forward. The game was made by a very small team and much of it was made by one person. While the game does little that is new in terms of video game design, the developers seem to have understood the strengths of those design decisions and utilized them well. Most of the gameplay itself consists of you exploring the game world and trying not to be spotted by rat guards.
Ghost of a Tale is set inside, outside and under a castle on an island. The game has 7 different areas that the player can explore. When starting the game, you are in the Jail area. This is the most linear part of the game and serves as a tutorial. You will backtrack to this area several times, but it doesn’t feel like going back to a tutorial area. After managing to get out of the Jail, you enter the Courtyard of the castle. In addition to being the area where you will spend the most amount of time, it also functions as a hub area. Most of the areas of the game can be accessed directly from the Courtyard. The areas you are not able to directly access from here have shortcuts and secret passages that will make it fairly fast for you to access them.
There are many secrets and shortcuts in this game. What you do most of the time is move from location to location and look for certain objects. You also backtrack constantly. Having all these secrets and shortcuts in the game makes it more interesting to move around the environment. It makes you more observant of it, and finding a hidden shortcut that will save you 20 seconds of walking feels very rewarding. I mentioned earlier that going back to the Jail did not feel like going back to a tutorial area. Much of this comes from the secret passages that you find, which change how you navigate and use what seemed like a linear area earlier. As the game is mostly about navigating the environment, having all these shortcuts and secrets creates a kind of depth to it. When passing through areas that you have already explored, it becomes a game of optimizing the path you are taking. Often, there is more than one viable path, and you must guesstimate which will be fastest and which will be easiest when avoiding the rat guards.
In addition to having many secrets and shortcuts, there are also many more obvious paths and passages that the player can traverse. When looking at the number of paths available, one would think that it is easy to get lost. Yet, I rarely found myself being lost while traversing the environment. The exceptions were mostly in caves and hallways that looked similar, but I always had some grasp of my approximate location. The game provides you with maps of the areas, but they have limited information. When looking at level design, we can see that several things were done to make it easier to navigate. Each area has several unique points of interest (POI). Most of the POIs have branching paths that each lead to another POI. They also loop at times. The paths between the POIs are also often narrow, or at least seem narrow due to the environment’s art. Making the paths be ,or seem, narrow nudges the player to move forward. These two elements make it so that navigating is more about choosing which path to take, rather than struggling to get through a path. Whenever I chose a path, I either ended up at a new POI or a POI that I recognized.
Now that the player chooses paths instead of struggling through them, how do you make the player know which path to take? Ghost of a Tale did this in mainly two ways: making the entrance to each path distinct, at least for each POI, and using repetition, aka backtracking. Backtracking is often looked at negatively in many video games, but Ghost of a Tale uses it to enhance the experience. When backtracking in this game, you are still presented with rat guards as an obstacle, as you cannot permanently get rid of them. By always having the obstacles there, the player will also be improving their ability to avoid them. Often when backtracking, Ghost of a Tale also recontextualizes the path by introducing a secret or shortcut. By traversing the same paths several times, you memorize where each one leads you. This makes it easier to navigate later. If this was the case from the beginning, the player might be overwhelmed, but Ghost of a Tale introduces paths, secrets, and shortcuts at a good pace.
Ghost of a Tale is a game that knows what its strengths are, and plays on those strengths. One of the main ones is the non-linear level design, that allowed me to explore a small, contained world for hours without getting bored. The game has many paths, passages, secrets, and shortcuts that branch and loop into points of interest. Using several methods to make the player not feel lost creates a well put together environment that feels rewarding to explore.