Level Design Theory – Focal Points and Lighting

Following on from the previous blog post, I looked into using focal points as well as sound to drive pacing and anticipation.

Again from World of Level Design, they discuss that using focal points is very effective when it comes to building tension. Directing the player’s focus by using lights can be especially effective. Keeping the player’s focus on a specific object using lighting and such has two benefits:

You can have the player be drawn to a location, and have them approach somewhere as they keep their sights on it.

And, if the player is focused on one thing, you can begin introducing elements into their peripheral vision. A human’s peripheral vision isn’t good at making out specific objects however it is very good at noticing movement. Having something like a door open in their peripheral vision would be very effective at startling the player, heightening their tension.

As an example of using lighting to guide the player, I created a scene with a door at the end of the hallway, with a path then leading to the right.

Focal Points

As you can see, the scene is identical other than the light. In the screenshot to the left, the scene comes across as bland, and the player may go either way. In the scene to the right, the player should in theory go through the illuminated door, and as they approach said door, their anticipation of what may be behind it may lead to them expecting something bad is behind there, and begin to unsettle them.

I presented the above screenshots to 8 people, and asked: “In the screenshot to the left, which way would you go? And again, in the screenshot to the right, which way would you go?”

All 8 said that they’d go right in the screenshot to the left. However, in the screenshot to the right (The illuminated one), 6 said they’d go straight through the door. One said they’d still go right because they’d assume the door wasn’t working, however if it worked they’d go through it, whereas another commented that they’d be able to tell the door would be the way to advance the story, however they’d go right first as they tend to explore a level as much as they can before moving on.

This demonstrates how lighting can direct a player’s focus and lead them through a level – It is a very powerful tool available to the level designer.

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