For a regular player today, it has never been easier to just sit, and enjoy the journey offered by a videogame without any pressure, or over-thinking. The last God Of War (2018) is an open-world so tagged the player never feel out of the track designers have made. And that’s not a bad thing ! In our days, level design has evolved so much, everything feels more organic and natural. And since video game is a medium of narration through space more than time, guidance is an essential notion.
Back in the days, trying to find his path was a challenge in itself for the player. For example, first person shooters like Wolfenstein 3D (1992) or Dungeon Crawler like Might and Magic (1986) took place inside wide mazes. The goal for the player was to find his way through it, and get to the next stage alive.
For a player in 2019, it feels like a chore to play it: Did it was even fun in the 90’s ? The feeling of getting a little lost in a game like Doom (1993) is not the same as today : Designers now want the player to feel lost, not actually being lost.(Thanks to mini-maps and other compass…).
This is what it’s all about : One of the reason we enjoy playing games is for the feeling of freedom they offer to us. The designer dilemma is this one : “How can I guide the player to experience what I want him to experience, while making him feel free to do what he wants ?”
To ensure the player is going throughout designers path, even in open-worlds, the way of building their world has evolved. The Elder Scrolls Chapter II: Daggerfall (1996) was featuring a world of 45000 Km2 (the size of Germany !) with procedurally generated cities, road and forests. While this size feels promising for adventure, it also felt too artificial.
In a game like God Of War, the open-world is made of one big open area, the Lake of The Nine, which act as a hub. Every other area is linked to the Lake, and the player access them through taking some corridors, rivers, caves etc..(don’t it seems a little bit like… Ocarina of Time ?). This way, the player is evolving with a feeling of freedom, in wide but closed and controlled areas.
The Last of Us (2013) is delivering a very straight-forward, linear adventure, but it gives the player the feeling of freedom by making the “corridors” big enough the player never feels on rails.
On a deeper level, the last decade saw the emergence of a lot of smart tools and ideas, ensuring the player never feels the frustration of being lost (with successes and failures). Guidance can take a lot of forms : It can be by highlighting objects or areas so the player-eye is attracted by a door, platform,mechanism. Or it can be less elegant, with the use of a particular color, which is the “interaction color”, repeated the whole game. Sound has also proven to be a smart and useful ally on guiding the player : It can attract the player toward locations, or make him run from others.
With the evolution of graphical possibilities, which allowed for an increased view distance, soon came the notion of foreshadowing in level design. Inherited from cinema, foreshadowing is the trick of setting clues or informations which will be important further in the story. In level design, it means to show the player a destination, objective or landmark early in the level. It helps the player in his orientation and help him visualize his path trough. In linear game, they are here to set a clear, environmental goal : The Last Of Us is frequently using it (the game being sort of a “Road-Movie-Game”) because the goal of each level is often to go from point A to point B.
In open worlds, the use of foreshadowing is also present in the form of landmarks, which can be castles, mountain, temples, villages. They attract the player sight and entice him to go visit the location. By showing the player early his destination, it’s easier for a designer to define what he’ll find on his path. Feeling of freedom, but not real freedom again : It’s an elegant way of “forcing”, or at least predict, where the player will go.
Of course, markers on the UI, or arrows to follow are not going to disappear soon : they are still the most efficient way to guide the player, even if they are not the most elegant. But the dream of a natural, organic way of unroll the experience has been a long time dream for a lot of designers : in 1998, Dreamworks Interactive tried to make a game without any UI (the famous and doomed Jurassic Park : Trespasser). As we can see, we still have a long way ahead of us, but the time when we will be able to make procedural, interesting and guided galaxies is getting closer and closer to us. Otherwise, all of these tools are useful in one and only one condition : The world/level-designer need to know and understand what he wants the player to do, where he wants him to go. If the designer don’t, the player will feel it at release.