Creative Research Blog

All my blog posts for my third year Creative Research module – A study into horror level design, and the creation of a level.

Project Reflection

Overall, I am happy with how my research project went. I feel I have very much improved my level creation skills. Admittedly in the past, when it came to designing and creating levels it was a case of “I’ll just put this here, and that there, and that looks good.” This project forced me to think carefully of level layouts, flow and pacing.

Everything in levels are placed in a certain way not because it “looks good” but because it serves a very specific purpose. Considerations have to be made for what the player will be thinking in each area and how you could manipulate that in order to convey emotion, story as well as simply guide the player in an intuitive and fun way.

On top of that, I feel like I have learned a great deal of working with the horror genre. It is definitely one of the most challenging genres to work with due to it’s focus on manipulating player emotions (Which on top of that are different for everyone), very tight and concise level design, strong control over flow and pacing, as well as a strong focus on tension. I also learned a great deal through the surveys I created about player preferences, what elements are very powerful and what should be avoided, as well as a greater understanding and appreciation of how to work with large amounts of data, including inconclusive data.

This has been an enjoyable learning experience, and I am strongly considering taking this further in my fourth/honours year.

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The final presentation

The final presentation

The final presentation was submitted to Blackboard on the 11th of April, and I gave it yesterday.

Unfortunately, David said that I was being too general and that I wasn’t presenting what I found, only general information even though I feel like I was talking about my findings. Admittedly I didn’t include stills from my level as I don’t feel I had space for it and the focus of my research was on the level design theory.

Here are the slides, for reference:

Slide1 Slide2 Slide3 Slide4 Slide5 Slide6 Slide7 Slide8 Slide9 Slide10

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Self reflection on the level

Self reflection on the level

After having four different people play through the level, I’ve been able to gather feedback and see what worked and what didn’t work. Individual videos were posted in the prior blog, however here is a mashup/multicam of the four different perspectives at once:

The usage of focal points seems to have been effective – All players focused on intentional areas – The skeleton hanging in the first room, the lights individually illuminating the long hallway, the lightbeam shining on the eventual creature, the creature/light switch at the end of the room with water. I was very pleased with hos this turned out, and I think I’ve been able to use them effectively.

In terms of pacing, while players said they could see where or what I was going with however they said everything started happening too quickly – I think this is primarily down to the length of my level and a problem I didn’t anticipate. I was trying to cram a lot of information/elements into a single, short level rather than a more extensive one (Or even an entire game). As such, it had a knock on effect with being a bit dodgy with the tension I was trying to create for the player.

As far as the setting went, I think I was successful in my choice – I was able to start off the level in a deceptively peaceful environment and progressively make things worse, creating scenes that players said were tense, visually engaging and scary.

Overall with the lighting, I feel I did a good enough job with guiding the player to where they had to go, except for when players were presented with the two door switches – When the player triggered one, they didn’t know where the open door was. I’ll need to work on/figure out a way to make that clearer rather than just the text I provided.

As far as the pursuing creature goes, all but one said that it was effective at first, however it quickly got boring once they figured out it simply followed the player and could easily be outsmarted. I did fail here, I should have made the creature more unpredictable and allow it to pop up in unexpected places and behave differently. I should have played on the unknown, and have the player not know what to expect from it.

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Player feedback

I’ve managed to get four classmates to play my level, and recorded the gameplay of them doing so. The four different videos are available below.

The reactions I recieved were mostly positive, with the biggest criticism being the creature’s behaviour – Once players figured out that it followed the player endlessly in a simple straight line, they found it easy to avoid and dodge. Thankfully, they agreed that the pacing was good (Considering the level length), the audio use was good and the level was interesting and eyecatching.

Something I noticed myself, however, is I need to work on better informing the player on where to go – The two switches in the specimen storage area sometimes threw players off and I had to tell them that they could go back and use the second switch later on – I feel I was successful in guiding the player in all other areas, however.

I also managed to provoke (scared) reactions out of three of the four players, with the fourth not being affected at all. However, the fourth player informed me he knew what he was getting into before hand and as such wasn’t expecting to be affected anyway. The fourth player did suggest I use the water in the generator room a bit more, such as have the room flood to cause the player to panic and have to leave immediately.

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Final level – Layout, lighting, focal points and level walkthrough

I’ve built the level from the earlier paper designs I made (With some minor alterations). For clarity’s sake, here’s a top-down view of the level in its entirety:

Annotated Floor Plan

I’ve marked out the areas with colours corresponding to what I anticipate players’ stress and anticipation levels will be as they play. Green is calm, yellow is anxious, orange is worried, and red is scared. As a remainder, the player has to get from the reception to the level finale area.

Reception area


To attempt to subvert the player’s expectations, I’m keeping the reception fairly neutrally lit, to try to lull the player into a sense of security. The door on the left is jammed, hence it being left in darkness.

Hallway to Office

Hallway to Office

Just passed the reception is the hallway to the office, where things begin to go awry. Note my use of focal points: I’ve added a red glow to the door at the end of the hallway, to draw the player in to that location.


To attempt to foreshadow what comes next, I added a puddle of blood right under the door. Upon opening the door, a skeleton will fall in front of the player.



As it’s still a part of the reception area, I’ve maintained the neutral lighting, except for the red light on the ceiling, drawing attention to the skeleton hanging from it. Once again, I’ve been trying to make effective use of focal points, and hope that the stark difference here will add to it. I’m also aiming for the fact that, with the scene having such normal lighting, even though there’s a disgusting mess, it’ll unsettle the player morseo.

Hallway to the lab

Hallway to labs

Now that the player knows something has happened, I start to use more ominous lighting. On top of that, I’ve made use of a typical trope here – The lights will turn on one by one, illuminating an otherwise pitch-black hallway. The lights are arranged in such a way to hopefully show the player which way to go – forward.

First security room

Security room - unlit

As soon as they clear the hallway, they’ll come across the first scare I’ve planned in the level – As the player passes the doorway, a sound will trigger of machinery in the background, and a light will turn on revealing a skeleton:

Security with lights

Lab hallways

After clearing the security room, the player enters the lab proper. The hallways are dark, cramped and in disrepair, with each light casting a blue, ominous lightshaft, cutting through the mist:


My hope with the very bright lighting between patches of extreme lighting is that the contrast would add to the overall tension of the level, especially when there are extended periods of darkness.

The junction

The junction

Just down the hallway is a 3-way junction. Using what I’ve learned from my previous survey – I want the player to go left to the specimen room. The right, to the generator room, is locked until the player uses a switch in the specimen storage room.

Specimen storage

Here is where I reveal the creature the player will be facing later on – Or rather, multiples of them. As the player steps into the room, a multitude of creatures in stasis tanks are revealed, immobile. I’m hoping that the sudden view of all of them will startle the player and make them hesitant to continue:

Specimen Storage

Once again, I’m trying to make strong use of focal points here. The two switches the player needs to activate are illuminated on the left, while the creature that will then start following the player is illuminated in blue at the back.

In order to progress, the player will have to flip one of the switches (The other will be inoperable) to unlock a room on the right – The generator room.

Generator room

Generator room

Here’s where another scare takes place. As the player opens the door, they’ll be granted to the creature standing at the end of the room. It’ll take a few steps towards the player and then vanish, leaving the control panel the player has to activate illuminated in the back, again using focal points to draw the player to their goal. However, once the player flicks the switch, the creature is then unleashed on them properly, and will begin following them.

The player will then have to return to the specimen room to flick the second switch which now works, and that’s where the player will notice that the creature is out and free – It’ll be missing from the stasis pod it was in earlier. When they flick the switch, they’ll be able to progress up to the surgery area.

Surgery area

The surgery area, highlighed in red in the first image, is made up mostly of hallways with a similar lighting scheme. The main aim of this place is for the player to get lost and make them more anxious – I hope to accomplish this due to the fact that in this area, the lighting doesn’t highlight particular areas. The player is left to their own devices.

However, they will eventually reach this hallway:

Pre escape hallway

Again, taking a cue from my previous survey – For the player to reach the level end, they have to get through a door at the end of this hallway. However, to open the door they need to use a switch, which is behind the door to the right, by the illuminated window. Again by using lighting to create focal points, I’m hoping that it’ll “lure” the player into that hallway and for them to notice the switch.

Once the switch is flicked, the end of the hallway will light up, revealing that the player should then go there:

Second last doorway

Level finale:

Finale forshadow

Before entering the last room, the player will have to go passed this door – highlighted by the red ominous light. The level ending isn’t a happy ending, and hopefully that’ll foreshadow that. After the player passes through there, they’ll be greeted by the sight of daylight through a partially broken door:


The level will then fade out as the player is immobilised, and surrounded by multiple creatures.


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Building the level

It’s time to build the playable level in-engine. As I mentioned right at the beginning of the research project, I’ll be building it as a mod for Fallout: New Vegas using the tools and assets made available to me to allow quick prototyping, as this project is focused on the theory rather than assets involved in making a horror level.

The way assembling interior levels works in the New Vegas editor (Known as the Garden of Eden Creation Kit) is that all assets are modular, with the editor giving you meshes for straight hallways, corners, room walls, floors and more. It all works as a kit that you can put together, and due to that, it allows for quick level creation (Compared to other workflows where you must model an entire room before hand and import it in full into a game engine, which is time consuming and prone to lighting issues and more.)

First, I’ll start off by building the reception area of the lab. This area will seem fairly normal, with nothing out the ordinary, in order to play with player expectations.

Screenshot 2016-04-13 00.13.48

Unlit and mostly unfurnished. The very left will be where the player starts the level, with the doors behind them locked. The rubble pieces are there to foreshadow the coming ruined facility, and stop the player from going in unintended directions.

Furnished Reception

Here’s the reception, mostly furnished and done-up. Fallout: New Vegas is set in a post-apocalyptic environment and most of its assets reflect this, so I’ve had to use the least-ruined assets I could find, however I believe I’ve done a good job at it.

Ruined office

The next room over is where the tension is introduced – The player will be presented with a ruined office scene with blood and skeletons plastered around, showing that something horrible has happened here, however the player will know that the only way they can keep going is forward.

Lab Hallway

This is the hallway that leads the player into the lab proper – Built in a similar way to a previous hallway I made several blog posts ago when doing light tests (We’ll come back to lighting in this level in the next blog post)

This is where the main puzzle solving will take place. This area is freeform and serves as the “Calm before the storm” point of the level. The player has to make their way left to eventually escape, but will find a locked door. They will need to activate two switches before they can open the door preventing them from moving on to the next area. On activating the second switch, the creature starts following them.

Surgery Lab Area

By the time the player enters this area, they’ll be being pursued. Due to that, the zone is made up of various hallways that run in circles, to that the player is able to trick and get away from the creature to buy themselves some time. Ultimately, the player wants to get from the very right to the very left (Which is closed off by another locked door they need to find a switch to pass through), and onwards to the ending area.

Final Area

After passing through the locked door, the player will have to progress through this final, linear section, getting to the left. Once they reach the left, the level will fade out as the player is surrounded by multiple creatures.

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Paper Level Designs – Level 3

I’ve finished my 3rd level design for my potential final level. This one’s much less complex and sprawling than the second one, however it has two major ways to get from A to B. The entire level is made up of hallways and rooms that double back on themselves to give the player plenty of opportunities to avoid the creature. There are no rooms that serve as “off-shoots”, they will all be passed through by the player (depending on the route they take), and hence the level wouldn’t feel like it has “filler” content. Here’s the design:

Concept 3

I am happy with it, especially since there are less chances of the player getting lost in this level compared to the previous one as it is simpler. However, as a consequence I worry that I may not have many chances to play with pacing (due to the length of the level), as well as introduce a few scripted sequences to scare the player, as I won’t have much space to work with.

After thinking about it, and weighing up the pros and cons, I’ll be taking forward by second level design and be building that up as my final playable level.

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Paper Level Designs – Design 2

I’ve been designing another level, iterating on the concerns of the previous one.

Here’s the second design:

Concept 2

Once again, the aim is to get from the circled “x” to the uncircled one. To combat the issue of the previous level, with it being too linear while also having too many pointless rooms, I’ve added a few alternate paths for the player to be able to take, and added an actual purpose for players to get into certain rooms.

If you look at the central area, you’ll notice that there are a few hallways that double back on themselves and create a circle-like shape. I intend for these to be areas the player will use to pull away from the creature that pursues them.

There’ll also be very few rooms that won’t have a purpose – Since this level has paths doubling back on themselves, I could introduce some basic puzzle elements, such as switches you have to find to unlock certain doors, while under pressure from the pursuing creature. I very much like this level, but I’ll give another design a go first and see where it goes.

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Paper Level Designs – Design 1

Following the survey results, I’ve now decided to get to work creating some level designs as I mentioned I would in my previous presentation. As I said, I’ll be creating them based on a research lab-like environment.

Here’s my first level design:

Concept 1

I’m not too happy with this one due to a variety of reasons. There’s a lot of pointless rooms – Not so much the amount of them being a problem, but rooms you’d never have to go into. Creating all the rooms in the playable area would be very time consuming, while simply cutting them from the design would leave the level feeling very empty.

Additionally, there aren’t many fun opportunities to be able to get away from the pursuing creature other than running into a room and running in a circle within it, which would become tiresome quick.

On top of that, the level is very linear. While there may be many rooms, the path to get to the final area is through very few straight hallways with no different paths to go on to explore. I will not be using this design.

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My level’s gameplay mechanics

Just a quick post discussing what gameplay mechanics my final level will have. As my research project is focusing exclusively on the level design aspects as opposed to gameplay, I’ll be having very shallow gameplay mechanics – Just enough to have the level playable.

Player movement

Movement will be your standard 3D game controls, with WASD to move around and the mouse to look around.

Player interaction

There will be no inventory management or combat for the player, they can only move around. As far as interacting with the level, they will be able to open doors and flick certain switches to unlock new areas.


As per the survey results, a creature will eventually begin following the player through the level, attempting to hunt them down and kill them. All the player can do about this is attempt to stay away from it. It’ll move slower than the player to give the player a chance, but if they stay in an area too long, it’ll catch up with them.

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