Level Design: Concept, Theory, Practice Part 2

Emotional Feedback Systems

Other art forms have found a way to move their audience, cause emotional impact and speak to their inner self. Games have an additional power here, as the audience actively participates and contributes to the experience. The control over the content that a designer has allows them to predict some of the emotions of the player. Player contributions can be enhanced, altered, rewarded and reflected.

Reward Systems

Reward systems to encorage or discorage certain behaviors are a key component of level design. Here are several types of reward systems.

Escapism and wish fufillment is a large but often critised component of media that is especialy prevelant in games. To escape can be the reward in iself, as the player moves into a safe space away from their everyday hardships.

Submission and release is another type of reward. Sometimes people need to let go of the control that they have over their lives. People enjoy this when there is a clear agreement and reward based on submission, for example, learning a new skill by listening to a teacher, or following a guide though an unknown route to get to a certain place.

On the opposing side, challenge and empowerment can also create a positive reward. To have a sence of control over one’s live gives empowerment, and to rise to a challege and master it yeilds positive feelings.

Fairness is very important to people. When things go wrong though no fault of our own, we tend to produce very negitive emotions. Tied to this idea is investment and payoff, in that when time, money or effort is invested, a return is expected. The only subversion of this is when challegnge and empowerment come into play, and the act of doing is the reward in itself.

Social Reinforcement and temporary isolation are opposites but both are good for people. We need to be part of society in order to function correctly and to feel validated, however peer pressure and social control can be distressing. Both being respected by peers and having peace and quiet are good for people. Temporary islation lets us focus on our own thoughts.

Catharsis is the release of pent up emotions. It is not an experience that is comontly seeked out, as it involves negitive emotions before hand. It is a way of purging these emotions. Experiences like this might be descriped as character buildung. This type of experience permeates society in the form of initiation or coming of age ceremonies. The opposite of catharsis can put people off tasks, especially games. Who wants to keep playing if they constantly fail becuase of bad level design?

Escapism and Wish Fulfillment

In fantasy settings (here meant to mean anything that is not a real world simulation, as opposed to the fantasy genre conventions often found in games) the designer has a lot of freedom, being able to create anything as long as its consistent. As long as they player is taught all the rules, they don’t have to make sense in real life. Experiencing the fantastical world is a reward in its own right here. It is a combined sence of wonder and learning to play. When designing an envrionment for this type of game, there is a large amount of freedom, and challenge in working out how space is used in this world. In this sort of world, becuase part of the experience is the player engaging with the envrionment, including sections with less gameplay can work very well. Escapsim can be offered though exploration.

In simulation style settings, that seek to emulate the real world. These types of games are more wish fufillment than escapism – they let the player do something they would like to do in real life but, for whatever reason, cannot. The fun aspects of these real world activities are put across. This is not indended to be accurate, but to appear accurate. I can do this with my game – they player doesn’t need to meditate, but to enjoy the relaxed feeling that meditation gives.

There are other types of games, like serious games and fantastic simulations, but they are less common.

The designer has the power to create desire in the player – to give a wish and then to allow the player to fufill it. This can deepen immersion and challange the player’s perception. On the otherhand, it can be clishe, cheap and non challenging. This really depends on the type of game. For me, I can use this to set the player’s expectation for meditation.

Investment and Payoff

There is a silent agreement between the designer and the player – I’ll face your challenges, if you reward me. In my game, the reward should be the feeling they get while playing, but if everyone doesn’t feel that way, do I need to provide a more material reward? These awards need to be proportional to the effort expended in obtaining them.

Lack of variation and grind will bore the player, so add as much difference as possible. My corridors repeat – could change this significantly? Difficulty is also an issue here, and needs to be scaled to both the reward and the knowlege/skill level of the player.

Submission and Release

There is an element of submission when the player plays the game – they are submitting to the vision of the designer. In case of overt submission, like in a tutorial level, there also has to be an overt reward, like 100 coins or a cutscene. Covert submission is when something happens, no matter what the player decides. This works well when the player is not aware of it, but when they are they can come to resent it. This is done by presenting the tutorial or challange via the voice of the game istelf. If a villager asks the player for help, they may not realise they are in fact doing the quest to learn a certain mechanic. The player is likley to catch on if the same thing is repeated too much, it feels arbitrary or they are infomed it was all a ruse after the fact.

Empower the Player

One of the most powerful thigns about the game is the baility to present a challange to a player and let them overcome it, empowering them. They can also be literally empowered, gaining new weapons or spells after certain challenges. The key here is to provide just enough challange that the player can work though it and try a couple times, without getting frustated – its rigged slightly to their advantage. In real life, challanges are random and we are not always prepared for them, but we should be in games. The player should be allowed to feel clever or as if they are cheating, as the deseigner provides something like a wall to take cover behind, or an arbitary reset on guards alertness levels.


The catharsis feeling is found in both video games and meditation. Video games use the challange within the game, whereas meditation uses the release of emotions pent up from your life. This feeling can be used to generate suspense and exitment in an audience – the author uses Hitchcock films as an example here.

To design catharsis sucessfully, the challange needs to be very hard, but the player has to want to complete it. The player needs a motivation, wheather it is a reward in items or in story. If the reward and the gameplay are linked, this tends to work better, rather than being arbitrary hoops to jump though. Viable stratageies have to be provided so that they player doesn’t immediatley give up. The challange needs to be overcome over time, to build the players suspence.

The author talks about using exploration and a safe hub area to reward a player, making them feel curious and escaping and safe. These are both things I want in my game! Talks about more things being available in the hub as the player goes – this is sort of what I’m doing already.


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