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Shape Theory in Level Design

Shape Theory is a theory we all know apart about and we are aware of it subconsciously. Here I break down how it can be used for level design and how it is used to encourage the player to act certain ways.

Max Pears

March 20, 2019

6 Min Read

Hey Everyone,

Thank you for coming here to check out my article, I do appreciate it and I do hope that you come away from here feeling as if you have gained something. My intention for this article are two things:

  1. Help you see how you can apply Shape Theory to you levels moving forward.

  2. Encourage you after you have read this article to check out my video for you to gain even more Shape Theory Knowledge.

Now you know my diabolical intentions for you and your mind let us waste no time and dive headfirst into the topic!

Shape Theory has been around us for a long, long time, it is used in everyday life all around us. So much so that you might not have even realised consciously. This theory is not something solely restricted to game development, it is used in so many ways. (I am writing this article a week after Valentine days, still…no cards but I am going off topic) We can see how marketing use it to help sell you and your partner on such an event as Valentine’s Day, you may be wondering how?

What is the logo image for this yearly event? It is, of course, the heart ….

Not exactly what you are thinking about on this day, but this picture above is that of what a real heart looks like. Think about how marketing has changed this image to what a valentines heart looks like.


Why would they do this?

Simple! It is because of the fact this shape is far more inviting to us as people, the real truth does not scream romance, but by doing this it makes us get happy and more excited. So let us break this down.

  1. Overall this shape is very round and circular meaning it comes across cuddly, which means this shape is inviting to us.

  2. When a shape is more round we as humans perceive it as less of a threat and see it as more inviting.

  3. If you were to rotate this image by 90 degree, the point at the bottom would make this image look like an arrowhead, which then makes us think of Cupid and how we as people want to be hit by the arrow to find love.

  4. Valentine's heart is only one shape compared to a real heart which communicates how we want unison with our partner, when two become one.

  5. (This is more colour theory) It being a bright shade of red, remind us of roses and currently red is the most liked colour today.

A real heart does not provide that symbolism so I hope this short break down gives you a glimpse into how changing a shape can have a big impact on how we as humans perceive an object. One last example would be the fantastic character design of Maleficent.

Notice how she and her crow are made up of both pointy and sharp shapes. Making her scary, uninviting and not a trust worthy character. We can all feel this as soon as we the viewer see her for the first time. It is quite the opposite effect compare to that of the heart.

All of this is conveyed to us the viewer on how we feel within an instant just by us reading/seeing these shapes. You have now just had a quick crash course in some basic shape theory, there is much more to know to understand how it works (Watch the video down below) but you can understand how it works.

While this is very exciting it is not exactly level design, so let us break down how shape theory is used within level design.

Shapes can encourage us to explore/move within our levels/open worlds in many different ways, take for example Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This may have less active OW compared to most in terms of side missions or bustling NPCs to converse with, however, everyone talks about how much time they have spent exploring Hyrule.

You may be wondering well how did they encourage players to spend all this time within their ow if their ow did not have 100s of collectibles, side missions or world activates? Nintendo Devs actually revealed this in one of their presentations

It was by using triangles! I know you may be thinking triangles? But this is such an interesting idea. The two arrows are showing how players reacted when faced with this option, players would either head to the top of the triangle to get a better view of their surroundings or would travel around it. What is even better with this is it the perfect way to tease information to the player as you can hide a landmark or cool area behind a triangle but still show enough to peek the interest of the player. Even if we just take the picture from above, we can see tons of triangles.

In contrast to this we can take a game such as The Division, which is set in New York.

The shape theory of this is far more square/rectangular because of two reasons:

  1. New York is like that as everything is based on a grid so city map and tall buildings create that square feeling

  2. It is a cover-based shooter, the cover needs to be readable for players

With the fact that New York is a grid-based city combined with tall buildings, it gives a corridor like feeling to certain streets within the division. Rectangles communicate with our human brains differently.

They like corridors push or pulls us through space making us want to progress through, but also if surrounded by enemies (which is often the case in the game) you can feel trapped with a sense of being weak and outnumbered which fits perfectly with the narrative of the game. We as players will also move differently.

As you can see the diagram is different as players will most likely go around the square shape and the zigzag is that of the fire exits used on sides of buildings in New York, showing that getting to the top is not as a straight forward journey compared to that of the triangle.

Let me show you how many squares can be seen in the above picture as we did with Zelda.

You can now see that these simple shapes can really have a big impact on us as players as well as how we perceive and move throughout worlds within video games. This here though is just a taste of shape theory in Level Design, there is way more than just this.

I wanted to give you a taste of this, to show you how important this topic is, but as I stated in my mission for this article. Now that you got a taste why not watch my presentation within level design to see what other amazing ways you can use it in order to improve you levels.


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