Experimenting with sounds

Experimenting with sounds

Just a quick update – I’ve been experimenting with using sound cues in levels to startle the player and keep them on edge and adding to what they may anticipate. I’ve been prototyping some scenes, and placing down a trigger such as this:









What happens here, is that when the player walks through that red box (Which isn’t visible in-game), it plays a sound file of a creature screeching. I set up an example level with 3 of these sound triggers throughout, set up some screen capture software, and let someone walk through the level to record their reaction. The video is available here:

As can be seen in the video, the first time the sound plays, the player is terrified – They start looking around in a panicked state, and then start picking up their pace. The second time triggers a similar response, however by the third time the reaction is diminished as they realise no physical events are occurring, just sound cues. In my levels, I’ll need to be careful not to overdo sound triggers, to prevent them losing their effect.

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My thoughts on: SOMA

My thoughts on: SOMA

Just chiming in with some quick thoughts on a game I have recently been analysing. A recently released horror game by Frictional Games, SOMAis a perfect example of a well paced and suspense-driven game. I haven’t been playing the game personally as I do not own it, however I have been watching people play it and taken notes as they go.

SOMA describes itself as a psychological horror. Predominantly set in an underwater facility in a disaster-struck Earth, the player is set loose within the facility not knowing what is going on, where they are, how they got there, or indeed when they are.

Something I feel the developers used fantastically was subverting expectations and building anticipation. The game is clearly marketed as a horror game; It’s advertising showed it as such, as does the game’s information on digital download stores and on the game’s retail box. It doesn’t hide the fact at all, however as soon as the player loads into the game, they are greeted by a typical suburban apartment set in the present day. It’s immediately jarring and completely unexpected. The player learns about their character as they read their computer and go through emails and discover that the protagonist suffered a brain injury in an accident, and must attend a doctor’s appointment. Everything is fine and normal here, and the game makes the player do mundane things such as pack their bag, take their medication, take a shower, make a phone call, and then finally leave.

The effect this has on the player is it shatters all their expectations. Much like in Alien, everything is fine here – The calm before the storm. And yet something feels off. As the player knows this is a horror game, something has to go wrong, right? Everything feels off, and as such, it feels creepy. Unsettling.

Eventually, the player gets to the doctor appointment where they perform a brain scan. The screen flashes, and the player suddenly finds themselves waking up in this ruined facility with no explanation – The point of no return. A hostile facility filled with enemies, the player is left to their own devices to discover what’s happened. The player is kept on a constant edge as after that happens, coming out of the blue, they don’t know what else can happen.

This is a fantastic use of pacing, and I must incorporate it into my research.

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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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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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Feedback from the first presentation

Feedback from the first presentation

After presenting, the main feedback I was given on my presentation and the project as a whole was to not just look at horror elements in games, but to also look into certain films (Such as Alien) and note how they evoke fear, and why it’s so effective. They suggested I then incorporate some of those elements into my final level as well as elements from horror games.

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Preparations for the first Presentation

Preparations for the first Presentation

In preparation for my first presentation, I finalised my vision statement:

I want to look at level design in the context of horror levels. How can you approach level design to facilitate a scary game?

Planning out the presentation, I decided a good way to open it would be to explain the field I was researching – What actually is level design?

A common misconception is that level design is “just” drawing out a level, and then have it implemented by a programmer. The truth is level design is a long process centred around iteration. It begins with a concept – What sounds like it’d be fun? Once a concept’s been settled on, the level designer would then create various designs, incorporating level design theory and considerations for flow.

Once a design has been agreed on, the level designer would then talk with artists on the team and discuss the assets needed to build the level. Once the artists finalise the assets, they’d pass them on to the level designer who’d then begin constructing the level within the game engine.

Following on from that, I’d then go into the specifics of what I’ll be investigating (The usage of lighting, layout, pacing, ambient effects and sounds), how I’d investigate it (By playing and watching gameplay of select acclaimed games, and noting down the elements I mentioned prior) and the games I’d be investigating.

I’d also demonstrate some concept levels I made as an example, as I’d create various levels on paper as part of the project before building a playable prototype.

Finally, I’ll explain what I hope my final product will be – A playable level capable of evoking fear in the player, incorporating elements from my research findings.

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