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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