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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Second survey – Analysis of section 4

The final section of the survey was focused on giving general horror tropes as statements, and having those who took the survey rate which they found scariest. The survey results are visible here.

Overall, the majority of people found being unable to defend themselves scarier than having a limited means of defending yourself (Lending to the cliche)

All but 1 found the constant pursuit of enemies scary, though 33% were indifferent to it, so I should take care to use that technique in limited capacities.

The majority of people found knowing there are enemies, but not knowing what they look like very scary – Adding to the theme that the unknown is a very powerful tool. Bundled with this, not knowing the enemy’s behaviour was also scary to players.

The majority of people found the sound of something moving closer to the player scary, while complete silence (Which I assumed would cause tension and anxiety) was a 50/50 split in terms of effectiveness, again I should take care not to use that too much.

Darkness was found somewhat scary, with the majority of people being indifferent to it, but nobody finding it not scary.

The majority of people found fog to be scary, I should definitely incorporate some form of fog or mist in my level.

As shown earlier, most people didn’t find water scary, and more people found murky water scarier.

Not knowing where to go was mildly effective, but I should take care not to have it result in frustration for the player.

Almost universally, most people found unexplained events such as doors suddenly opening scary.

And finally, and interestingly, many people found going through a door (Having to open a closed one) to be scary – Possibly due to the anxiety of not knowing what may be behind the door.

Closing thoughts provided by those who took the survey

I got some fantastic feedback from  those who took the survey, most of them focusing on a variety of aspects. Some are affected moreso from a strong atmosphere, some are especially suceptible to sounds, one pointing out that in a different game, hiding from an enemy while you can hear it searching for you is terrifying. Some found that being defenceless wasn’t too scary if they knew they could escape from monsters, while another found that being entirely defenceless is the most scary as tension is lost when they are finally armed.

This however was a spectacular response, and I’ll have to leave it here for you to read should you wish. It was incredibly valuable and I’m incredibly grateful for the time the responder took to write this out for me:


“My favourite horror game is Alien: Isolation because of the cat and mouse gameplay and its setting. I believe that the xenomorph is also one of the greatest creatures in media – as Ash describes it in Alien, it’s the “perfect organism”. The game uses an incredible interplay of menace and safety, dosing out the danger at the perfect pace to maximise the player’s sense of dread. Even when you’re heavily armed, in the light and far away from the xenomorph, a single mistake is all it takes for it to crawl into a vent and drop down on you. There are so many elements that can attract its attention (setting off an alarm, shooting, running, even using the radar, and so on) that the player ends up in a near perpetual state of risk. The unpredictability of the alien is unsettling enough to fear doing basically anything at all, in case it hears or sees you. Combine that with the humans and androids, and the entire game almost punishes you merely for daring to exist within its world.

Although no longer my favourite, I would also say that Amnesia: The Dark Descent is the best horror game. It goes further than Alien: Isolation by removing all methods of self defense, increasing the tension between systems, and obfuscating more information about the world, story, enemies and even gameplay. In Amnesia, the very darkness that envelops everything becomes an affordance for stealth; however, that very same darkness also weakens the player by turning the playable character insane – spawning creepy cockroach infestations, unsettling noises, enemies, and even eventually killing the PC. This interplay between darkness being safe and dangerous creates permanent tension and turns it into a tangible threat. The medieval-cross-Victorian setting helps exploit this darkness massively, with towering armour sets, heavy curtains, oppressive furnishings, dim candles, grisly paintings and more enhancing the sense of dread and unwelcomeness. It’s familiar enough for the unease and danger to make it feel tainted, like this once beautiful and majestic place is now a crumbling, ruined ode to the madness that pursues the player throughout the game. It is that madness, which works so well as a mechanic, which turns a static environment into an active threat: progressing requires illumination so that the darkness doesn’t turn you insane, but you can’t hide in the light from enemies, and seeing those enemies also drives you mad, so your only option is to run and hide in the dark, which will slowly deplete your sanity. You can hide in a room, close the door, stack crates and chairs against it and then hide in a cupboard and close the doors behind you, but it’s on,y a temporary solution. The monster won’t disappear, and hiding needs you to light a candle to avoid insanity; between the limited amount of tinder for lighting candles and the permanence of danger, there is an inherent tension between progressing and surviving that goes far beyond Alien: Isolation’s comparative ease.

I could go on all day long, but the conclusion is essential,y that fear, in my opinion, comes from the unknown. That fear can then be exacerbated, principally, with: fragility, an active my dangerous environment, limited resources, occasional moments of relaxation, the corruption of a previously welcoming setting, audiovisual trickery, and a permanent tension between systems that avoids frustration and instead builds upon the sense of dread. An underlying sense of tension, sparsely used big scares and occasional moments of release is, ultimately, much more effective than the reliance solely on jump scares which killed off the horror genre in the early 2000s.

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Second survey – Analysis of section 3

The third section focused on level building and level techniques, showing screenshots and gathering people’s thoughts on them. As usual, all survey responses are visible Second survey here.

I won’t be reposting the images I sent out here, however they are visible in the survey results document as well as my previous blog post here.

The first screenshot was the intersection. Most people would go straight through the door, which was better lit rather than going right. However, a sizeable amount of people did opt to go right regardless of the obvious danger, with the most common reason being because they want to clear/loot an area before moving on to the next section, which they assume is past the door.

The second screenshot was the dark hallway with shallow water, and windows lining the side with lights glowing from them. I asked how the scene made people feel, with the vast majority feeling anxious – The effect I was hoping to go for. The provided reasons for feeling that way was because of the risk of being spotted by a possible enemy behind the video, or a jump scare that may occur there.

The next two screenshots were of the same scene, one with water and one without, simply asking whether people thought the water added to the scene. The majority (80%) said yes, saying that it added more visual interest to the scene. Other reasons provided were that traps may be hidden under it, or adding tension due to the fact something must have broken for the water to have spilled out, creating tension. And finally, the fact that walking through water may give off more sound and give away their position.

The last screenshot was another dark hallway with a creature in the distance. I asked how the scene made people feel, and what their reaction was. The majority felt scared, with anxious coming in second place. This was the assumed effect, with me assuming again that the unknown would scare the player.

Interestingly, the majority of people would hold still, with the least running towards it. Most people’s reasoning (Provided in the “Why?” section) was that they were hoping to stand still and observe it’s behaviour, or hope that by standing still, it wouldn’t spot them.

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Second survey – Analysis of section 2

Section 2 of the survey focused around water in game levels. The responses to the survey as a whole are available here.

The aim of this section was to see if water was worth including in levels.

The first two questions were to see what kind of water (if any) unsettled them in games. The first was whether clear water in games unsettled people, and the vast majority, expectedly, said no.

However, a problem presented itself when it came to whether people found murky water in games scary. Here is the data:Murky water

I wasn’t sure how to interpret this and use this data – it’s presented a bit of a road block in my thought process. I’ve been assuming the whole time that “Ah, more people find this scary, so I’ll include this in my level” and “Oh, this isn’t as scary as I thought so I’ll leave this out.” But here, it’s almost a 50/50 split. Do I use water in my level, and potentially end up annoying half my audience with what they think is a pointless feature? Do I avoid using water, and potentially miss out on scaring half the audience?

This has caused me to shift in my thought process slightly – I’ll not include elements that are voted as not scary (As before), but instead of ignoring such close results, I’ll be sure to include elements of it in my level but not make it a central point, so that it may have a slight effect on the audience that finds water scary, but will not get in the way and be a pointless/boring obstacle to those that are indifferent to it.

Moving on, the next two questions were about player movement through water. The majority of players found walking through water, as well as swimming through water, scary in games (Though they found swimming slightly scarier than walking).

The next few questions were once again rating questions.

I wanted to see what situation people found scarier – Knowing enemies are in the water, knowing SOMETHING is in the water, and not knowing whether something IS in the water or not. All three were rated as fairly scarier, especially between knowing something is in there, and not knowing if something may or may not be in there, but ultimately it was the last option that pulled ahead, most people found not knowing if something may be in there, again, the unknown playing a large part in people’s fears.


In the closing comments for this section, someone highlighted that the fear of drowning can be scarier than enemies, and that having a limited air supply while swimming through confined spaces can be very scary.

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Second survey – Analysis of section 1

I’ve left my survey going for a week, unfortunately I didn’t get many responses to it – Possibly because of the length of it? Or maybe people were starting to focus on coursework. Either way, I’ve gotten 15 responses. The data may not be accurate, but I’ll be working from it. The survey responses are available to view here.

Section 1 Analysis – Enemies, NPCs and Sounds

As a remainder, all the questions in this section were rating questions, rating what people found the scariest, with 1 being the least and 5 being the most.

The first two questions were about whether knowing if enemies are in the area is scarier than not knowing whether enemies are in the area. People overwhelmingly found not knowing if enemies are in the area to be scarier than knowing whether there are any or not.

The next two were about sounds, specifically “Hearing a sound you associate with an enemy” and “Hearing the sound move closer to you”. Both were rated as overwhelmingly scary, with the lowest rating garnered by both a 3. This proves that sound can be a very effective tool, and I’ll have to use it in my level.

The following two questions were about enemies pursuing the player, asking whether not knowing if an enemy is pursuing you is scarier than knowing one is. Interestingly, I was expecting not knowing if an enemy is following you to be scarier, due to the inherent unknown involved with that, but actually it turns out  more people find knowing that they are being followed scarier.

After that, I then asked about enemy behaviour and stats, asking which people found scarier – If an enemy that is slower than the player but will never stop following or if an enemy is faster than the player, but will stop following the player if it loses sight of them.  Again I was surprised by the outcome, I was expecting the constant pursuit to be scarier, yet people find enemies that are faster but that will break off pursuit to be scarier.

The last two were about combat and being able to defend yourself, asking if a deadlier enemy that you can kill was scarier than an enemy that takes longer to kill you but is unkillable, and defencelessness ruled supreme here, with the vast majority of people finding the unkillable yet less lethal enemy scarier.


The comments I received at the end of this section brought up that the more time spent with an enemy, the less scary it becomes – Possibly due to the player getting used to it’s behaviours, however a variety of jumpscares occurring in different places may be continually effective.

Another comment brought up the fact that knowing the enemy is there without ever seeing the actual thing for the longest thing (Such as shadows and such) can continually build up tension and keep the player paranoid.

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Level Creation – Moodboards

Before designing the levels, I’ve decided to go and create a moodboard containing various old and dilapidated labs and research facilities:


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