The synthesis of all of these techniques could in theory be imagined as a map where each path or element has a certain attraction/repulsion factor. If you’ve ever played Chu-Chu Rocket on the Dreamcast, well it’s a similar idea, with the mice being the players and the blocks used to guide those mice being the tools described in this article. If you were to draw that map, points of confusion would become apparent (e.g. a path leading back to the origin of the level is more inviting when coming back from this optional dead-end path than the path leading to the destination; a repulsive mechanic is placed in the critical path and makes players look for a way around that doesn’t exist…)
To be clear, I’m not advocating that anyone does draw such maps, but I find it a useful concept to keep in mind to figure out what parts of the environment need tweaking, what to look out for, and sometimes to understand why players are getting lost or confused. This is particularly suited I think for games that try to have a critical path but also lure players to wander off with collectibles and side-quests, which adds extra challenges when it comes to signposting the critical path.
So let me reiterate: no-one is supposed to try and apply all of these techniques to a single level or even game. Almost each game development comes with its own learning process because with new designs, situations, requirements and limitations come different ways to tackle problems, including some not listed here. Some games will also deliberately want the player to get lost and concentrate on the navigation.
I hope I managed to introduce you to or refresh your memory about certain design principles and tools at a designer’s disposal. However, theory is nothing without practice: in my mind, the purpose of theory is to guide one’s approach and to allow dialogue among designers, whereas practice will trump theory when it comes to actually building something. That means you still have to convert theory into practice at one point or another in your career for it to become second nature, to vary up your tricks and develop your toolbox.
Another thing worth mentioning is that following a formula like that too closely can lead to an ordinary game. Part of what makes games interesting is having to react to a variety of situations and challenges, and learning how to deal with those. Don’t forget to surprise players and introduce confusion from time to time to keep it interesting. Toy with your players’ instinctive reactions, add twists that affect mechanics and visual language, etc.
Knowing the theory is good, but being obsessed about it isn’t. Going too far with those techniques could also result in your environments looking artificial, and unless that’s justified by the theme of the game, it’s something you (or the art team) probably don’t want. Portal can afford to feel artificial because it’s made of test-chambers, Mirror’s Edge wears its highly-readable art style with pride, but that won’t fit in every game.
Still, in my opinion intuitive navigation is a noble goal to achieve in most (modern AAA) games, especially if it can replace superfluous cut-scenes, intrusive UI, obnoxious characters telling you what to do all the time… As Donald Norman puts it: “When you have trouble with things—whether it’s figuring out whether to push or pull a door or the arbitrary vagaries of the modern computer and electronics industries—it’s not your fault. Don’t blame yourself: blame the designer.“
Finally, here’s a video I made a few years ago when I wrote an article about the guiding techniques in F.E.A.R. 2, which has evolved into this article. Although it won’t point out every single technique, it highlights some of those tricks the designers have used to make navigation intuitive.
Level-Design.org Reference DB
I didn’t have much time to play games to capture screenshots to illustrate my points so Mateusz let me use some from his database. Around half of the pictures are from his collection, so many thanks!
Dead End Thrills
I also used a handful of pictures from DET that were handy to illustrate a point. Thanks for your awesome work!
I hope you enjoyed the article, and thanks for reading!
Mateusz Piaskiewicz (Level-Design.org) – Composition in Level Design
A brilliant piece on composition which goes much deeper into artistic techniques rather than focusing on navigation as I did here. Much recommended if you haven’t read it yet.
Brendon Chung (GDC) – Level Design in a Day: Wayfinding & Storytelling Techniques
An informative talk about general techniques for allowing players to find their ways through a 3d environment.
Mark Brown (Game Maker’s Toolkit) – Why Nathan Drake Doesn’t Need a Compass
Mark Brown (Game Maker’s Toolkit) – Following the Little Dotted Line
The first one is a good introduction to the concepts described in this article. Without going much in-depth, it does a good job of presenting a panel of tricks used in famous AAA games. The second discusses how maps, gps trails and other UI elements can take away from a game world if abused or if environments are designed to rely too much on those UI tools.
Turbo Button – Playable Cinematography: Video Games and Visual Language
Another video about the importance of framing and how games circumvent the problems of giving control of the camera to players. Some of it doesn’t really rely directly to level design, but it’s a good overview.
Turbo Button – Level Design: Metal Gear Solid V (Ground Zeroes)
Dan Taylor (GDC) – Ten Principles for Good Level Design
Not limited to the concept of navigation but brings up quite a few interesting points about trusting the player and providing excitement.
IGN First – Ex-BioShock Dev Shares ‘Welcome to Rapture’ Secrets
A playthrough of the opening of Bioshock with one of the developers, which highlights some of the techniques used to guide the player around and introduce the game’s language.
MaxBarnyard (Great Levels in Gaming) – The Hall of Ascension
MaxBarnyard (Great Levels in Gaming) – Half Life 2
Two videos particularly relevant to this article, out of a panel of great videos in his channel.
Donald Norman – The Design of Everyday Things
A critical book for designers of all horizons, about the philosophies of making objects/devices usable.
Bobby Ross – The Visual Guide to Multiplayer Level Design
Well presented guidelines for multiplayer level design, with some parallels with what I was pointing out here.
Herman Tulleken – Color in Games
An in-depth look at how color is useful in games.
Mark Saltzman – Secret of the Sages: Level Design
Series of opinions from famous designers about what makes a level great.
Mike Stout – Level Design: Views and Vistas
An article focusing on vantage points and vistas in level design.
Chris Solarsky – The Aesthetics of Game Art and Game Design
Another look at composition in games.
Salvatore Garozzo (Volcano) – Design philosophy de-train-ve
Valve – Re-introducing Train
While Volcano’s redesign of de_train for Counter-Strike Global Offensive failed somewhat due to imbalances in the level, his philosophy lives on in the remake by Valve, which shows the importance of streamlining navigation in a competitive MP game.