Push & Pull
The art of guiding players through an environment
Drive with goals & narrative

To perform an action (in our case, moving to a location) people go through the 7-steps process called “human action cycle” described here. The first 2 steps are “Forming the Goal” and “Forming the Intention”, which can be summed up as: “What do I want to achieve” and “Which tasks do I think will let me achieve that goal?”

This is of particular interest to us as level designers when it comes to both how to instill goals in players (self-driven player goals or imposed story goals) and how to allow them to form their intention.

Now, most often in our line of work we may feel like we don’t really let the player form any goals for himself, instead imposing ones from the narrative. While that’s true for some, there are player-driven goals being formulated all the time in games: trying to get to a hard-to-reach item, uncovering all of the secrets of a level, killing an enemy with a stealth execution, trying to perform a stylish sequence of actions, etc.

Player goals are very important to give players a sense of agency, even in an otherwise linear game. For example, I believe one of the most common critiques of games like the recent entries to the Call of Duty series lies in their limited room for player goals, which is the trade-off for pulling off a high-intensity action and cinematic, militaristic experience in this case.

But no matter the goal (story or player), it is absolutely critical that the player be the one who comes up with the intention. It’s commonly summed up as the rule “Tell the player what to do, not how to do it…” but I feel this saying lacks a key component used in many games “…but also lay out the tools needed for him to figure it out.”

I won’t cover everything related to the subject here (it belongs in an article about setups and puzzles) but let’s consider how it applies to guiding players through levels.

1. Provide and generate goals

Impose strong story goals and maintain them

So obviously it’s common to just impose goals on the player, and usually levels are designed around a sequence of main objectives dictated in large part by the story. It’s necessary in many games to give a purpose to the player and a theme to levels.

However, we all played some games where it’s too easy to just lose track of an objective because it is too disconnected from the minute-to-minute gameplay. Rather than adding the text in a corner of the screen, let’s consider more subtle ways to avoid those issues.

Communicating the reason for the goal is more important than phrasing the goal itself. It’s like at school: when you don’t understand what the purpose of an exercise is, it’s much harder to learn how to solve it. Provide the player with the formula that the goal derives from, so he can reach the same conclusion.

Make the player care about the goal. Make him like a character so that he’s keen on saving him. Make him hate the villain so that wanting to defeat him is natural. Then you don’t really have to drill the goal into the player’s head, and if his mindset or emotions led him to the goal, he has less chances of forgetting about it (as long as you don’t drag it out too long without providing enough reminders.)

Regularly repeat/reinforce the goal or the context that dictates the goal. The more obvious the reminder, the more careful you should be to give the player a chance to reach his own conclusions. For instance, it’s usually worth trying to make sure that the player is indeed lost before triggering obvious reminders (e.g. the hero saying to himself what he should do next.) Better yet, make it driven by the player, such as talking to their companion NPC to be reminded of the goal.

Acknowledge progress. Reinforce the player’s confidence that he’s doing what he’s supposed to do or moving in the right direction by showing him that he’s making progress. For instance, a “now saving” icon on the screen in many games means that you’ve done something you were supposed to, and are making progress. It also means sprinkling breadcrumbs that drive the player along the path forward, and clearing them as he moves on, to clearly differentiate progressing from backtracking.

Split up vague or complex goals into more simpler, concrete ones. But be very careful to not go down to such a low level that each goal becomes a task, because then you rob the player of forming his intentions. I’m not really talking about adding a sequence of sub-objectives in the mission log here though, as in my experience relying mostly on UI texts or dialogue can lead to hand-holding the player too much (e.g. climb up to the platform; talk to this NPC, jump through this hoop…) I’m rather interested in how a level can be designed to focus on one simple objective (or a limited amount of related ones) at any given time and place, rather than matching a long scenario (or even the whole level) to a vague overarching goal that players lose track of.

You may argue there’s not much difference in the end, but to me there is a subtle one. Pushing oneself to wrap each goal in a scenario or area leads to giving each one its own set of emotions, gameplay and tools, pacing and intensity, events and storytelling… and has the effect of streamlining or combining goals that were too weak to stand on their own.

The studios I’ve worked at so far used the classification of “Action Bubbles” for action sequences driven by one main goal, which usually come with their own environment or a specific kind of gameplay within a shared environment. They are sort of mini-levels within the level, which tend to push designers to think this way, splitting the level’s goals into unique, clear actionable goals that are well tied to the area they take place in. I understand that it doesn’t apply to all sorts of games and level design philosophies though.

Generate goals by presenting obstacles and threats

Goals that we make the player come up with by presenting him with a setup are more powerful than story goals in general. The simplest kind arises from the need to overcome or evade something: survival and evolution are very important driving forces that are easy to tap into. The point here is to make the obstacle or threat be the ‘goal giver’ itself, and if done well there shouldn’t be any need of extra helpers like dialogue lines or UI markers (unless time-pressure and threat are too high and the player doesn’t have time to reach his own conclusions.)

It’s actually often not such a great idea to reinforce those goals with actual UI objectives because it robs players from feeling like they dealt with the situation on their own. Be wary of patronizing the player in such ways, only do it when not figuring out the goal means getting stuck.

Generate goals through exposition

Whenever obstacles and threats are not enough to instill a goal, it’s worth to second them with some narrative events and ambient storytelling that can lead players to come up with the goal.

Here are some often-used tricks: 1) presenting someone who already has formed that goal (an NPC wondering how to open that damn door), 2) showcasing someone who attempted to accomplish that goal but failed (e.g. the dead body of an NPC who attempted to reach a control panel but failed, or a note left by someone before adventuring into a cave to slay a dragon), 3) providing a request or reason to tackle that goal (e.g. an NPC trapped and calling for help, or the bad guy fleeing and closing the door behind him.)

Of course, it has to be subtle, relying on too many NPCs clearly telling you the objectives is the same as directly telling them to players, with an extra condescending touch perhaps.

Generate goals by foreshadowing and baiting

Another great way to generate goals is to let the player see (but not reach so easily) a tempting item or an obvious target. This works if the bait is intrinsically interesting in the context of the game (e.g. upgrades, pieces of equipment, weapons and ammo, collectibles…) or the storytelling thus far paved the way for it to become interesting (e.g. the hero’s pet has gone missing and the player spots her…)

A bait in plain sight and direct access to the player is not really creating a meaningful goal though. You must add some obstacle or threat or convoluted way to get to the bait, so that there are intentions to be formed once the goal has been established (show the “what”, obfuscate the “how”.)

If your game establishes any sort of rewards for exploration, you can stimulate curiosity in players to make them go where you want them to go. For instance, hearing a repetitive noise (e.g. someone crying; someone banging on a cage, a water leak, a beeping sound coming from a computer…) will encourage players to investigate the origin of that noise.

This can be achieved through narrative, environmental storytelling, audio, effects, scripted events and characters, partly hiding baiting mechanics, etc. For instance, seeing the G-Man in Half-Life vanish into a room makes you want to get to that room and inspect it.

2. Let players form the intention

Balance context and complexity

In “Don’t Make Me Think”, Steve Krug brings up the idea of “Satisficing”, which I feel applies here. The idea is that depending on time-pressure and perceived threats, a player will either: 1) take the time to consider his options and make an optimal pick, 2) take the first satisfactory option he sees (“satisfice”), 3) pick at random.

There is certainly a place for designs that purposefully do not let the player take his time to create tension and a feeling of accomplishment in the face of adversity, but in general the more complex the tasks or sequence of tasks needed to accomplish the goal, the less the context should demand action and concentration, or players risk doing random actions when under pressure without being able to clearly form an intention.

For instance, epic boss fights usually provide regular breathing room for players to devise and revise their strategy, instead of constantly bombarding the player with threats and creating a constant state of evasion and survival instead of planning and action.

Lay out tools and clues

Whenever we face the player with a goal we intend him to take on, it’s our responsibility as level designers to spread around the tools and clues he needs to accomplish that goal on his own.

This includes, but isn’t limited to: weapons and ammo, health pickups, interactive entities, navigation opportunities, characters we can use or control, vehicles… any gameplay mechanic suitable to that scenario.

In the context of this article, doing so helps guide a player through an environment by letting him form an idea of how to tackle his current goal. It can also be quite effective when combined with composition in such a way that the goal is the center of interest and the tools are its satellite elements.

For example, present a mysterious locked door with a triangular slot in it and players will look for that triangle-shaped key. Place that key in view beyond a wall of flammable obstacles, and now the player is looking for a fire source. Put a torch on a high ledge and now the player is searching the environment for a way to climb up… This is partly how puzzles work, but that would be material for another full article…

Justify invalid options

While you are placing out breadcrumbs for the player to follow, it’s also important to communicate what tools you take away from him. For instance, an area is filled with flammable gas so prevents using firearms, or most doors being blocked by the sand that’s piling up everywhere…

Ideally the player should never have to guess, or think “Hey, why can’t I…”, because the environment and setup come with the necessary information and justification. This will let players focus on the available options when forming their intention.

Another variant of this point is to give a player hints that he has reached a dead-end and can turn back now or merge back with the main path. For instance, placing a pick-up of health or ammo at the end of a side path gives a meaning to this path, and closure to the player who wandered there. Games have so trained us this way that often reaching the end of a path but not finding anything puts us in a state of unease, as if we’re missing something obvious.

Filter intentions with urgency & emotions

In certain cases the designer will want the player’s forming of intentions streamlined, or to filter out certain options. For instance, making the player flee from pursuers, chase someone, or escape a collapsing structure, etc. In those situations you don’t really want the player to have to consider how to achieve the goal, you want him to instinctively follow your lead.

That doesn’t mean you should draw a line on the ground and tell him to follow it however, so even in urgency there is room for player problem-solving and intention making, it should just be instinctive, short-term, in-your-face and almost instant. For instance, do not introduce a new mechanic during such a sequence, because even if that mechanic is fairly straightforward, chances are the player is overwhelmed and cannot deal with it at that time. Instead rely on elements the player is already familiar with and understands at a glance.

Creating that urgency is usually done by triggering a high-intensity emotion in the player, such as fear, panic, anger, excitement… and channeling that emotion towards the goal. If for instance you want players to run away from a threat but many players feel like they can deal with that threat (e.g. waves of weak enemies), you’re not going to create that urgency so much as creating frustration and confusion (“Why do they keep coming? Do I really have to flee?”). Make it something that really overwhelms the player’s abilities and allows no “fighting back.”

While creating emotion is beyond the scope of this article, I’d just like to mention how important music is in those sorts of scenarios. The right music at the right time can put the player in just the appropriate mindset for that sort of high-intensity sequence, better than any dialogue lines and scripted event you could use (although combining the two is usually a good idea.)

Tap into the player’s knowledge

In real life, we are able to form intentions because we’ve learned how the majority of things in our world function and can make reasonable guesses as to how unfamiliar things behave thanks to them obeying global rules like gravity. In games it helps to tap into that knowledge to make the unfamiliar still comprehensible.

Coming up with the tasks needed to accomplish a goal relies on understanding enough of the world and situation at hand. So if you want the player’s goal to drive him through a level (as opposed for instance to challenge him with a puzzle to solve), it’s generally a good idea to use simple, understandable elements, that may be combined in complex ways but are in and of themselves easy to grasp and project the effects of.

Usually, that means re-using a language that the player is familiar with from our world or from other games (e.g. fire burns things, water puts out fire, red barrels explode…), but of course most games have to establish their own language for their specific needs.