To inspire more creativity, we looked into experimenting with our work and ideas more. Experimenting and trying new things is a great way to learn more techniques, processes and come up with more creative ideas. As a guided creative experiment, we researched and planned out an experiment based on the theme of fear. Before we planned the project, we had to have a question in mind to answer with our experiments and research.
Question: How can I use level design and gameplay techniques to evoke FEAR in the player?
To answer this question I will first need to research into level design and horror games. A recent “horror” game with great level design is Doom (2016). Lots of effort has gone into the level design of this game as it is one of the main features of the original 2 games. The oldschool shooters are mainly focused on level design as they have limited gameplay elements to work with. As this is a revamp, they decided to take one of their core features and bring the game back to its roots.
The different environments in Doom (2016) have specific design choices and designs to create diversity and character. The main heavy industrial sections have a yellow, orange and black colour scheme. The environments look dangerous with lots of machinery and fire. One of the inspirations behind the scenery was bones and ribs so that you get the feel you’re inside the belly of the beast which is UAC. A contrasting environment is the clean white laboratories. These areas are usually less combat intense to contrast with the violence and action of the industrial areas.
The game has down-time in between the fights to stock up on ammo and health and regain your bearings. This can help to build suspense too. There are multiple techniques used in Doom (2016) to evoke fear. Some examples are seemingly empty rooms that will open hidden walls with monsters behind to ambush and scare the player. The settings are also used to make the player fearful such as the hellish settings of huge demon skulls.
I looked further into the original Doom and how it used level design elements to make the players feel fear. Doom (1993) relies much more heavily on level design rather than environmental scenery and cutscenes so this would be better to study as it fits my focus of level flow and design.
In the ‘Devs Play’ episodes above, John Romero gives commentary of the first levels of Doom (1993) and what design choices were made in the creation of the levels. This series is very interesting to watch as it gives an in-depth analysis of one of the first 3D games, so all of the level designers and developers were exploring new ground and experimenting with what they could create with this new (but limited) technology. Some of the design choices and techniques John described included;
- Creating U-shaped spaces. This design for rooms corridors and even the entire level make the environment more interesting by directing the player around the space instead of the player just going in a straight line. Having the level loop back on itself makes the level much more enjoyable and fun to explore.
- Having the player be constantly bombarded with enemies (as long as they are advancing) and have some monsters react to sound so they seek out the player. This will make the player feel in danger and will keep them in the action. Spacing out enemies to hold different angles is good to keep the player on edge and to make combat encounters last longer.
- Having monsters make sounds so that the player can hear and identify them. This could be used to build up suspense when the player is anticipating certain enemies. Alternatively, set the monsters to make no noise so that it is a surprise when you see them.
- ‘Monster closets’ are a common feature in Doom. These are sectioned off rooms full of enemies with a hidden door that will open to catch the player off guard and ambush them. This can be used to scare the player or to repopulate areas with enemies to avoid boring backtracking.
- The most fun battles in Doom are the close quater fights. Have enemies around corners and hidden from open spaces to avoid long-range combat. This will make the battles more fun and intense.
- The use of lighting is very powerful, darkness or flickering lights evokes fear and makes the player unsettled. Darkness can hide monsters inside which is another way to surprise the player. If there is no monster in the darkness, the player doesn’t know what to expect or when which adds suspense.
To experiment with these techniques I have learned, I have decided to create the layout/blueprint for a Doom (1993) level. I will use the list above and more techniques to try and design a level that will make the player feel fear. I will need to keep in mind the games engine limitations like not being able to have any overlapping corridors above and below eachother. This is useful as I am creating a 2D level on paper and will not be able to show different levels if they were stacked on top of eachother.
I decided to use the original Doom as the main focus of all the gameplay is in the level design. Other advanced engines and in-depth games have more gameplay focused on the mechanics and story to create fear but Doom (1993) uses the level design and world layout for most of this.
Here is my final layout sketch I have created. As you can see I have used many of the researched techniques described above in this level. You can notice many U-shaped areas in the level, use of darkness, monster closets, close quaters combat, and some instances of enemies from multiple angles. Other techniques I used that do not create fear (but create an enjoyable level) are verticality, use of mechanics such as lifts and keys, contrasting areas (interior/exterior), contrasting colour, secret rooms and pickups that reward exploring.
From my Photoshop render you can picture the environment better. The use of Doom textures helps show the colour scheme of the level and how they contrast from science labs to an industrial acid pool to the building exterior with an open area. I was able to show the lighting better too with transparent layers of black to shade the dark parts of the level. I also used this technique to show where the level raises up and sinks down (such as stairs).
This level design uses the methods of: Suspense, Urgency, Surprise, Setting and Sound to create an environment that makes the player feel fear. I used lots of techniques that I discovered through my research so that I could learn the best methods. The tight corridors lead to close quaters combat that can be startling but fun. I created 3 main contrasting areas that have a different setting, colour scheme and layouts. I feel I used space very efficiently as the whole level fits into roughly a rectangular shape. I used the A4 paper as my boundaries to create the level within so that I could challenge myself to use as much of the space as I could.
This experiment was interesting to design a level for an older game. The main focus of the classic Doom games is the level design so analyzing the levels and the methods/techniques used to create them was informative and useful. Building within the technical limitations of older games is a good exercise to challenge yourself to build within boundaries and follow a unique set of rules.
Question: How can I use level design techniques to enhance the players NAVIGATION through the level?
This experiment focuses on level flow and directing a player through an environment. Using level design techniques I will direct the player through an open area to follow a set route. I also want to contrast a normally dull and boring area and turn it into an interesting place to explore. some examples of open, accessible and normally bland environments include: an office, an underground train station, a hotel or a library.
In this video by Mark Brown, he describes many techniques and design choices the developers of Uncharted 3 made to make the player always go the correct direction and follow the route of the level without failing the goal repeatedly. Well-designed levels use “subconscious clues”, “navigational aids” and “tricks to grab your attention and guide your eye”. There are surprising amount of techniques used in just this short game sequence.
Light is one of the many techniques that will guide your eye to areas that pop out or look more safe. Players will be drawn towards light and will usually pick that over the darker path. Colour is a similar tool that is used to make important things pop out and also make the player associate different colours with different feelings, emotions and mechanics.
Composition of the scene is an important technique that is harder to pull off as the environment is interactive and can change angles. Negative space or framing another area in a large gap will draw the player in. Guiding lines are an interesting technique used in photography and paintings to all point toward a main focus or path. Arrows are another important tool that are similar to guiding lines but more obvious.
Motion will immediately catch your eye as it’s hard to ignore. You will notice it even if you’re not looking directly at it. Moving objects and effects such as sparks, flags and flickering lights should be used to draw the player in and lead them in the right direction.
Affordances are an interesting tool in level design. This is an object that implies the possibility of an obvious action. For an example in the video, the ramp is there to be jumped off. A lever is there to be pulled and a ball is there to be kicked.
Navigational aids that can be seen from many different locations from far away are a good technique to use. Tall buildings, structures and mountains will help the player navigate around relative to the landmark. These are often used as a goal or foreshadowing to your destination in games such as Half-Life 2, Dear Esther and Journey.
This video has been very informative and has listed a lot of useful techniques and tips for me to use in my future levels and maps. I will use some of these techniques in my experiment to see how effective they are and to get experience in using them.
This level of Left 4 Dead 2 takes an open and simple environment (a hotel) and adds detail/gameplay elements to make the basic space more exciting. Having a level which is just a series of winding corridors and rooms is boring and also unrealistic for such buildings to exist. By taking an existing environment and adding blocked paths, it creates a believable space that is more exciting to explore.
The hotel is burning down which adds a sense of urgency to escape. Some first examples you see is the many optional hotel rooms that the corridor can lead to, these reward the player for exploring the map with weapons and utilities. You can also close doors to delay the zombies behind you and to lock them in the rooms.
There are many areas where the hotel furniture is used to block the path of the players, this could be from people from the hotel barricading their rooms which adds some subtle story to the level. The blocked paths reroute the player through the normally simple-to-navigate environment to add more game-time and a larger play area.
There are multiple examples of fire dynamically moving to block the path, this is to startle the player or to make them rethink their route through the building. The characters in-game will often point this out and say things such as “this way’s blocked”. These are other methods of blocking the path which again will force the players to take longer paths.
The players are occasionally forced to walk on the outer walkways outside the windows, this adds a contrast from the more closed interior spaces and makes the player feel more in danger by forcing them to take drastic measures to escape an already hazardous building full of fire and zombies.
Instead of a single set of stairs to a lower floor, the level is designed to lead the player to some more back-end maintenance stairs that would normally go to the bottom floor, although they are blocked by burning rubble and furniture 1 floor down. This helps enforce that this is an actual realistic place that would be believable rather than just some linear route in a building that has no thought put into it.
The lift sequence is a short timeout for players to give them a break from the action. It is also a checkpoint-style area that will force players to regroup and wait for everyone to make it that far. It’s a one-way ride so that the player cannot return upstairs to the smaller fires, spoiling the illusion that the building is burning down.
Once out of the lift the player is left to deal with the entire burning ground floor, a zombie horde is summoned by the game and the player must frantically navigate to the end. The fire acts as another obstacle that will reroute the player while making the entire sequence much more urgent than before. Once out of the fire they are presented with a clear and simple reception room that leads the player directly to the safe room where they continue to the next area of the campaign.
I will plan and create an office building layout for a single player game and then add details and techniques that I learned from Mark Brown’s video and Valve’s Left 4 Dead 2. I will be using a basic office because it is a dull and simplistic area that has a mainly open layout. This will benefit greatly from a more set path and navigational aids and hints everywhere in the office.
For my experiment I will draw my office design on several acetate sheets so that I can layer them. Each sheet will show a different mechanic/technique that will affect the overall gameplay.
This shows the basic layout for the 1st floor of an office building. You come up the stairs on the top right to be presented with this layout. The first thing you will notice about the layout is the long corridor with a door at the end, this could act as a main goal or waypoint for the player. The room layout is set up realistically so the player can believe the space could exist. I tried to keep all the rooms as unique as possible and not just use the same square room, this variation makes the space more enjoyable to explore. The fire exit stairs at the back create a way out that avoids boring backtracking through the building.
This sheet shows the details and obstacles in the office. Most of it is furniture that will fill the rooms and give them a theme to make them unique and to look like they’re used for different purposes. The large room at the bottom has been filled with office cubicles forming a U-shaped space which I learned from my last experiment.
Some of the main corridor is blocked by crates and desks, this uses the technique I learned from Left 4 Dead 2. The corridor being blocked makes the door at the end visible from the start but adds obstacles and a small challenge in the way. The placement of the blockages force the player to zig-zag through the rooms if they want to access all the rooms and reach the exit.
The loot in this level is a gameplay mechanic that will draw in the player and reward them for additional exploration. The loot in the first room could be an audio log or some text used to explain some of the story in the game or of the building it’s found in.
The darkness will add immediately contrasting areas between rooms. I decided to make the main corridor darker so that the player would pass through dark and light rooms more often. The second room from the start is made dark too to guide the player into the lit room first so that they will uncover story before continuing. The light at the end of the room will also guide the player through. Above the fire exit there will be a green lit sign with an arrow. This uses the techniques of lighting and arrows to get the players attention and acts as a waypoint or destination for the player to reach.
The desired route is displayed above, it is not a technique like the rest of the sheets but is used to show how the player is most likely to navigate the 1st floor layout. This route is definitely affected by the other sheets as the removal of any one of them may change the player’s choices.
These are all of my sheets layered on top of another to show all the gameplay elements at once. This shows how they all work together really well and you can see more clearly why the desired route is this shape. Something to note is the secret room near the center, this would be unlocked with the key towards the end, it is hidden in darkness too to make it more secret (rewarding players who explore). This wouldn’t be discovered by most players so I left it out of the route.
The office appears to be empty after some kind of disaster which is why there is a mess of blockages everywhere and some broken lights. The story would be explained further in the game which would possibly make the player feel fear or sadness.
I have succeeded in turning a boring bland office layout into an exciting-to-explore environment that experiments with lighting, detail, story, collectibles, guiding lines and waypoints. The office could be an optional building in an open area or I could make it the required path for a more linear game. This experiment has been very informative and has helped me learn some new techniques that I will use countless times.
The Gruesome Level Design of Doom – Game Informer 2016: (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARPA6aQ6dcQ)
Devs Play Doom Part 2 – Double Fine 2015: (www.youtube.com/watch?v=rV6HlBa88js)
Devs Play Doom Part 3 – Double Fine 2015: (www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAoDeRXWXw4)
Why Nathan Drake Doesn’t Need a Compass – Mark Brown 2016: (www.youtube.com/watch?v=k70_jvVOcG0)
Left 4 Dead 2 Dead Center Walkthrough – Game by Valve 2009/Video by me 2017: (www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5J_Om9Gr0I)
Doom 4 Skull Screenshot: (i0.wp.com/cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/20160517144432_1.jpg)