Level design: Tricks of the trade
Level designers are usually tasked with creating environments that are both engaging and also provides relevant information to the player so they can navigate a space. A level should ensure that players understand how to overcome the challenges set before them without explicitly being shown. There is a multitude of different ways that this can be achieved and it typically requires the use of multiple level design techniques. These techniques are quite broad and how they get used differs among designers. However, they are ultimately used to achieve the same end result, creating an engaging space that communicates relevant information to the player.
“Good player navigation should never take control away from the player, levels should be intuitively designed so that players understand what they have to do and how they can achieve it using the mechanics they have available."
In my previous post, I discussed good player navigation and understanding a level. Well in order to achieve a navigable level it helps to understand the tools and techniques available to level designers and how they can be used when designing a level. Once again the things covered here aren’t by any means gospel but more of an overview of some of the techniques available and how they can be used effectively.
Level Design Techniques
The techniques that will be discussed here all share the same primary objective of helping to communicate to players where they have to go or what they have to do within a level. This information can be used to convey design intent, reveal where the player has to go, highlight important level aspects and even provide a frame of reference for the player so they always know where to go. We will look at the more visual based techniques that you can use to convey your design intent such as colour coding, lighting, signposting and implicit storytelling.
The use of colour within a level can be utilised to very easily to bring things to the player's attention whether that be revealing to the player where they have to go, the current state of an object or when something is dangerous. When deciding to use colour coding it is important to assign a meaning to each of the colours that you will use, that way it is easy to understand exactly what each part of your level represents it also makes it easier to recognise patterns. Establishing patterns within an environment can be really useful for a player as it helps them to understand when they’re going the right way or making the right decisions. Maybe every door they go through is identical or coloured the same. This will naturally begin to draw players through an environment as you intended. Patterns can be established in many ways within a level but colouring is probably the most obvious.
When colour coding is been considered if you factor it in early on you can plan for it to be incorporated into the game art and textures used to build out your levels. This will allow for things to appear more natural within the game and not look completely out of place which will help you to more naturally lead players through an environment, creating a more immersive space.
Lots of games use colour coding to some degree whether you realise it or not and some use it more than others. In most games you find things like climbable surfaces are all highlighted using a coloured texture which not only indicates that they can be climbed but it also highlights the path that the player should climb. Rime, God of War, Tomb Raider and Uncharted all do this to help guide the player forwards.
Mirrors Edge is a good example of how colour can be used to encourage how players traverse a space in a specific way. The Use of colour is a lot bolder in ME and is effectively incorporated into the game world through the artwork and textures. I recently started playing Mirrors Edge catalyst and couldn't help but notice how colour coding was used to lead you through spaces. A good example was the “Benefactor” mission where you have to climb the Anasi Emporium tower. As you climb the tower the way forwards is clearly highlighted using the colour orange where all the jumps, ledges and climbable surfaces you need to use in order to proceed are orange.
This doesn’t look out of place because it is incorporated into the wider art too. To further help guide the player the way forward is also well lit while other areas in the same space are in shadow, creating contrast within the level that helps to more naturally lead the player forwards.
In level design lighting can be a powerful tool when it comes to communicating to the player where they have to go or what they have to do in a given area. Lighting can also be used in conjunction with colour coding very easily by simply tinting your light to help create contrast within a level. It is also an effective way to reinforce positive and negative actions.
Establishing contrast can help to more naturally lead the player through a level as people tend to be drawn to the brightest point on the screen. This can be as apparent or subtle as you like, it can also be easily incorporated into the rest of the games lighting design so it doesn’t look too abrupt to the player. You might think that the more explicit or intense the light is the better but, that isn’t always the case as if you make areas too bright it will break the overall look and feel of the game and come off a lot more hand holdy than you might want. Remember you want to show the player what to do or where to go not explicitly tell them. This also helps to maintain a strong sense of player agency within your level as players will feel like they have more control if they feel like they’re the ones figuring out where to go. Lighting is used for a lot of things in games but it is a great tool for level designers to use when it comes to player navigation that can be very easily used to complement other techniques.
Signposting & Foreshadowing
When building a level it's important to think about signposting so that the player can quickly and easily orientate themselves within a space. This is usually achieved by setting up structures throughout a space that can serve as landmarks for the player. These landmarks help to highlight exactly where the player has to go, signposting objective locations for the player, making it more obvious whether or not the player is actually progressing towards a goal. Likewise, it helps to have landmark structures placed along the path the player has to travel down so that they can easily work out where they’ve been if they get turned around. This is more important in open world games where it is more likely that a player might go off on a tangent.
Placing basic structures at key locations throughout a level is a quick and helpful way to start breaking up a space and break line of sight where needed while also establishing a navigable path for the player. When using signposting in a level it is still important to follow the concept of “Show don’t tell” which should really be applied when designing any challenge for a player including navigation. So in terms of signposting the player should always know where they need to get too but the steps that they take to get there are for them to discover, creating part of the player's journey.
With the basic concept of using landmarks, you can choose to very quickly plot out the flow of a space and then start to fill in the gaps between each destination that will inevitably start to form a path to the players objective. A common use found in most games is to foreshadow the players overall objective, whether that be an important location that they have to work towards or an enemy they see travelling to a destination just out of reach. Both of these elements help to inform the player about where they should be heading and provides players with their initial orientation within a space.
When you design and build out levels you will typically have a good idea of where your level fits into the overall game which will inform the location, current state of an environment and any characters that you might encounter. With that in mind, you can even use storytelling to help inform where the player has to go. How this is applied within a level is entirely dependent on the type of game you’re working on but it's worth considering what options you have available to you.
In games, you have multiple storytelling techniques at your disposal and you can leverage these in level design to help communicate information to the player, and better justify more explicit methods of directing the player. Some games may have devices or technology that the player character is equipped with that gives context to any in-game UI that gets used to direct the player around a space. This allows you to take a more diegetic approach with any navigation assistance you might want to provide for the player. In Dead Space Issac’s rig would project a line that leads players to their current objective, this is a nicer approach as it blends into the game world and doesn’t just add UI overlays which can be slightly immersion breaking.
Similarly, In Mirror’s Edge Catalyst players are given an ability called runners vision which highlights climbable objects in red, and also highlights the path to an objective with a red line projected in the air. This seems a little bit heavy handed but it operates almost like a sat nav that leads the player to objectives and waypoint markers throughout the game world. Right out the gate, the player is given a justification for why and how this works when they’re given a contact that gives faith a HUD overlay that presents real-time information about the world.
Environmental storytelling is a good and interesting technique that can be used to help guide a player through a level. This is more of an implicit method that doesn't explicitly call things out through speech or text but instead conveys information through the environment. When trying to tell stories through a level environment it's important to think about what’s happening within a given level. If the player is tracking something or following someone it makes sense to have some kind of trail left behind that player can follow. This could be a trail of footprints, scuff marks, destroyed structures or some kind of anomaly within the level that will be noticeable enough for the player to pick up on and follow. Implicit storytelling can also be used quite well for cause and effect events, where the player does something and they can visibly see the effect it has on the level environment. Cause and effect can be used on both a small a big scale, it can be something as simple as unlocking a door from a control room to destroying a large chunk of the environment ultimately revealing the way forward for the player.
These are just a few of the level design techniques that you can utilised to help lead players through level environments but they’re effective and can be easily adapted to suit your design needs. Think about what it is you’re trying to achieve in a level and what the player needs to do, then you can identify which techniques can be used to effectively communicate that intent to the player.