Month: October 2015

Level Design Theory – Clichès and Pacing

Level Design Theory – Clichès and Pacing

In this blog post, I want to focus more on horror within level design, bringing in some aspects previously talked about and mixing some elements of more conducted research.

Across the years, through various mediums, there have been many used tropes to convey fear to the audience – Such as flickering lights, abandoned asylums, fog and more. Due to their excessive usage, these have become cliches.

What’s a cliche?
A cliche is a technique that has been used so often that it has lost most of the potency and novelty behind it. The audience has come to expect how they play out and are no longer unpredictable.

Using cliches
The thing is, cliches can still be effective if iterated on and if you add your own spin on it. For example, Valve’s Left 4 Dead, a game where you and 3 other survivors are up against a horde of what are essentially zombies, twisted the typical zombie game trope. Instead of being the living dead, they are in fact just humans that have been infected by a virus. On top of that, instead of being the slow, shambling horde that make their way towards the player one step at a time, these are very agile and quick – Very unexpected and scary.

“Using cliches is easy; making the player remember them is hard.” – World of Level Design

According to World of Level Design, clichès should be used to introduce a setting or an element to the player or audience, but then it is up to the creator to subvert it and take it from there, breaking away from the norms.

Pacing and anticipation

Two very important factors that go into both games and films alike are pacing and anticipation. The speed at which something is revealed, and the expectation of something to happen.

An article on World of Level Design uses a rollercoaster as an analogy. Saying as how you wait in line to get on the coaster, you hear it moving through the tracks and hear the people screaming. As you get closer, you see people getting on it and vanishing in front of you, raising your heartbeat and the tension. Finally, you board it and enter the point of no return – Where everything starts happening.

They illustrate it with this image:

Courtesy of World of Level Design, accessed October 29th, 2015

Courtesy of World of Level Design, accessed October 29th, 2015

Incorporating film

One of the pieces of feedback I got from giving my first presentation was to think about looking at how some films handle horror, not just games. Many films within the horror genre are written around a final “point of no return”. A glowing example of this is Ridley Scott’s Alien, where the Alien itself does not appear until very far into the movie (Over half way through), leaving the rest of the film with character development so the audience develop a connection to the protagonist, as well as allowing the film to build up anticipation all the way through, so that once the Alien does appear, it amplifies the feeling of dread.

Build things up slowly, and do not play all your cards at once. Make use of a “Calm before the storm”, lull the player into a false sense of security and then set everything in motion.

Thanks to the following article for the valuable information:

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Creating a scary situation

Creating a scary situation

Following on from my previous blog post, I want to look into how to create a scary situation so that I can translate that information into my level designs, and finally into playable levels.

Continuing on from Mike Birkhead’s piece on Gamasutra, he states that during the presentation of the level, there are two main concepts; Something that is unsettling and something that is threatening. Something unsettling being something that is close to normality, however distorted in a fashion to throw the player off; Whereas something that is threatening is a hazard, such as enemies, dangerous environments and the like.

My thoughts on this: It seems that focusing on the unsettling would be more effective in evoking fear in a player than focusing on something threatening. My justification for this is that in a threatening situation, the player would generally have an immediate response or reaction to something: For example, say the player finds a scary enemy. The player is scared for a brief moment before realising that they either have to deal with the situation there (By either killing it, hiding or escaping) or be killed. It’s a situation that can be “solved” quickly in most cases, whereas something unsettling would remain with the player, potentially evoking other emotions that together could stress them and increase the tension in the scene.

There are many methods of creating a scary situation:

Building suspense – The perception of danger even though there may be no actual danger. This can be established by unexplained occurrences, such as a previously open door in an otherwise empty room suddenly being found closed.

Startling – The easiest way to creating a scary situation, these encompass jump-scares, things like lights going out, sudden sounds and so on.

Tension – When a player struggles with what choice to take when faced with a threat. If something is coming after the player, does the player run and hope to get away? Does the player fight, with the risk of their attack going awry? These stressful decisions cause tension and keep the player on edge.

And finally, as mentioned earlier, having an empathic connection with the character/protagonist – Having the player care for them, intensifies these feelings. This is useful to know, however developing a connection with the character will be beyond the scope of this project as I will be focusing explicitly on the level design aspects of this.

Thanks to the following articles for the valuable insight:


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How do you scare a player?

How do you scare a player?

Seeing as my research project is about creating the ideal scary level, it goes without saying that I must look into what techniques and elements come together to scare someone. Admittedly, last week I jumped the gun looking into lighting in level design.

Firstly, I feel it’s important to collate and distil various factors people consider make up a scary level. My reasoning for this is that if I can discover these individual factors, I can create a survey displaying these elements, and ask those who take the survey to rate, from highest to lowest, what scares them the most in games. With that knowledge at hand, I’d be able to use the information as a framework and integrate more of the scarier aspects into the final level.

“Create scary situations for an Avatar with whom the player feels an Empathetic Connection.” – Mike Birkhead, Lead Designer, Section Studios

In an opinion piece written on Gamasutra, a respected Game Development website, Mike Birkhead compares horror games to horror films, and explains that something horror games rarely get right compared to films is that horror games rarely manage to successfully create an emotional connection between player and character, and as such players may not fear for the protagonist/their avatar and their protective instinct may not necessarily kick in.

Birkhead then argues that the feeling of fear doesn’t come from the location or a character, but rather from the situation the player/protagonist would find themselves in and the overall context of the situation, and presents an aquarium as an example. He says that you may be staring through a window, looking at sharks in the shark tank, and all is well and normal. However, if you found yourself on the other side of the window and bleeding, knowing the sharks would be drawn towards you, the entire mood would change though the setting remains the same. It’s an interesting way to think about it, and as such I’ll have to investigate how to create a scary situation.

Thanks to the following pages for the valuable insight:

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Level Design Theory: A look at lighting

Lighting is a very complex discipline spread across many medias, not just restricted to games. Art, theatre, film and games are just some mediums that highlight the importance of lighting, and lighting alone could be the focus of an entire research project due to all that goes into it. However, as this project is looking at the overall elements that go into building a successful horror level for a game, we will try and narrow down specific points and analyse them.

Creating effective lighting

Before looking into other aspects (Such as guiding a player with lighting), it is important to understand how to create a level with “nice” (Or effective) lighting. Lighting can make or break environments, and is one of the most important tools available to a designer to set the mood of a scene.

Light sources

More often than not, to create a believable environment (To create a more immersive experience for the player) one of the key elements is for a light to always have a light source. To demonstrate this, I’ve created two test scenes in Fallout: New Vegas’ editor, the Garden of Eden Creation Kit (Developed by Bethesda Game Studios and Obsidian Entertainment), using exactly the same pieces and the same shape, except one has light sources:


(Screenshot from within the editor)

And the same scene rendered in real time within the engine:

Hallway with light nodes placed, however no light source meshes used.

Hallway with light nodes placed, however no light source meshes used.

The same scene, however light sources have been added (However the actual light emitters themselves are the same and have not been edited)

The same scene, however light sources have been added (However the actual light emitters themselves are the same and have not been edited)








Colour variation

We have lights and light sources, however the scene is still rather bland. Having the same colour light throughout results in a repetitive level and could lead to the player becoming bored, or end up hiding important details in the level. With this in mind, mixing colours throughout a level is a fantastic way to draw attention to specific areas, or simply create a more engaging environment. Equally, however, you need to take care not to “overdo” it, as too much colour could result in a lack of cohesion and result in a jarring scene.

The same scene with different lighting setups,

The same scene with different lighting setups.

I went ahead and created two variations based on the previous environment, with different lighting setups. I presented the image to various people and asked: “Which scene do you feel presents the best lighting?”

The majority preferred B (As expected), with C being second and A being third. However, a very good point was made about A. One person stated that were the lights slightly brighter in A, they’d prefer that, as the alternating lights didn’t seem realistic and in fact went as far as breaking potential immersion. Expanding on this, it seems that the lights must serve some sort of (perceived) purpose in the scene as opposed to just being placed, such as complimenting props.

Thanks to the following articles for providing valuable insight:

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Software Usage

Software Usage

As discussed in the first presentation, as my research project will be focusing entirely on the design of a level (And not asset creation), I will be making use of existing game assets, giving full credit to the owners of said assets. The way I’ll be doing this is creating my levels as mods (Or, modifications) for Bethesda Softworks’ and Obsidian Entertainment’s Fallout: New Vegas.

By creating a mod, I won’t have to spend time setting up core mechanics or creating assets as I’ll be able to build off the existing game. The only drawback to this is that the mod(s) can not function as stand-alone builds, and must be run from within the game. Additionally, due to the nature of making a mod, some game functions may be hard-coded and I’ll have no control over them, however as I will be focusing solely on level design, the impact of that will be negligible.

With that said, the software I’ll be using is:

  1. Fallout: New Vegas, where my levels will be run from.
  2. The Garden of Eden Creation Kit, the content creation tools for Fallout: New Vegas, a free tool available to everyone that owns a copy of Fallout: New Vegas.
  3. Nvidia Shadowplay: Screencapture software to record footage of my level. As I won’t be able to submit a build (As that’d require the game too), I’ll have to record it.
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