Clement Melendez Experiences Games Mods Essays Resume
Experiences Games Mods Essays Resume
Push & Pull
The art of guiding players through an environment

1. Foreword

Whether you call that signposting or telegraphing or whatever else, the concept of allowing intuitive navigation and understanding of an environment has gained more and more momentum in recent years, and it is a subject that fascinates me. I love to dissect games to find all of the tricks used to guide to a destination, lead along the critical path, and communicate without words.

This article lists and categorizes many different ways to tackle navigation aids in games. While the point of view is that of a level designer, level design is so central to the development of most AAA games, that I have to bring other fields into the discussion too, like art, storytelling, cinematic design…

However, intuitive navigation is commonly associated in people's minds with the ‘dumbing down' of modern video games compared to previous generations, so I feel like I should touch upon that subject first.

2. Accessibility in modern game design

Understanding why a publisher/higher-up wants something is often key to figuring out a better solution to the problem, so let's start by bringing up some of the reasons the industry is currently seemingly obsessed about accessibility.

This evolution isn't a bad thing in itself of course! Making our games more accessible, fairer, and able to reach people far and wide is a noble goal, and a journey that most mediums have gone through before us. I'm not talking about dumbing down at all here, but figuring out what was wrong before that people were putting up with because it was all that was offered to them, and how to turn that around into positive elements or swapping it for adequate replacements. Just because these guiding techniques are used alongside other tropes and mechanics the industry has become obsessed about, misused, simplified… does not mean that they should be put in the same basket. There is merit to smoothing out the navigation of most games, if only for the fact that it lets other parts demand more of players.

With all that said, there is still a tendency in modern AAA development to go too far down the path of accessibility, and to follow the right mindset but use the wrong methods (e.g. relying on taking control away from players to show them every little event.) This can lead to robbing players from the joy of discovery, of figuring things out on their own, of mastering systems, etc.

From my experience and that of other developers I've met, it is too often the case that respect and trust in the player's ability to piece things together on his own takes a serious hit at some point during the development of a AAA game, sadly often for the wrong reasons: because some players get lost or confused. Well luckily that's something that we can take efforts to address with some of the techniques in this article, and hopefully strike that balance between asking too much and too little, between frustration and hand-holding.

The purpose of this article is to research and educate myself and others about all of those techniques at our disposal, so we can use them, when suitable, in both our own interests as designers, and the interests of players going through our levels.

3. Why should you care about these tools?

I've chosen to present those methods from the least intrusive to the most hands-on, because in my opinion the heavy-handed options should be considered when all else fails, or when dictated by the complexity or vision of the game (e.g. open-world or story-heavy games). They should not be the de-facto solutions for getting players through a game.

This is just a list of many available tools at your disposal, to use or to ignore. Depending on the situation, not all tools will do the trick, and abusing a certain tool can do more damage than good. Only pick techniques that both fit, and are necessary for your level or game.