Level Design: Concept, Theory and Practice Part 4 – Visual Experiences and Choice

How We See

When someone looks at a level, they are using pattern recognition to separate it into chunks, allowing them to process visual information at much higher speed. These chunks are assigned further meaning and behavior, the process of doing this being called chunking. It is key to our intelligent understanding of our environment. A master chess player uses chunking to be aware of where pieces are, and someone who has lost something in the grass uses it to see the grass as a pattern and find the object where the pattern is broken. Motion tracking is our ability to sense and recognize movement in the world.

Emotional Associations

Certain visuals are ascribed certain emotions – towering buildings make us feel insignificant, we are scared of the dark. Aesthetic theory can be used to control the emotional reaction of the player. Some reactions to images are purely primal, whereas others are learned reactions. An example of a learned reaction would be the convention of red as the colour of danger, often seen in cinema.

Visual Direction

An example from the film Lawrence of Arabia is provided here. The shot was supposed to have a sheriff ride come into view over the horizon, but the shot had such a large expanse of desert in it that the viewer’s eyes wandered. A line was painted on to the scene to guide the viewer, but it was so subtle that they didn’t realize they were being led. To learn more about this topic, look at architecture, urban planning and environmental psychology.

First Person Cameras

When the player is given no control over the camera in a first person, it is on rails. An example of this is Myst. While it is outdated, it gives the designer a lot of control. It also gives environment artists an advantage, in that they are designing for one angle only.

When the player has control of the camera, they feel much more in control of their experience. Visual direction can be used to guide the player in this camera mode, making them feel like they made the choice, even when they were manipulated. It also adds increased opportunities for exploration.

Carrying Information

Placement and visual design carry information automatically. For example, a room of power ups signals a boss fight soon.

Darkness and Light

Traditionally darkness is used to scare in a game, however that is a cliche and easy to abuse. However, it can be used to keep the player hidden, so it shouldn’t be automatically assumed that it will be scary. Light is often used to create a sense of safety, like in Shadow. Stealth games also make use of light, using moving light as an obstacle.

An example of this was made of a player heading towards the light – much like what I’ve done with my mandala at the beginning of the game. In the example, the dark space is very small, stopping the player getting lost. Light areas draw the player, and are also used for ambiance and atmosphere. Exits are explicitly signposted. The light gets more intense as they progress, to highlight their progression. The area also gets bigger. The end point shows a bright and warmly lit vista, rewarding the player.


A player will feel a sense of elation after scaling a huge tower. The scale of the tower when the player first looked at it, and at the rest of the world as they look down at it, have massive impact. Lots of big looming buildings can create a sense of oppression. Small, cramped corridors give a claustrophobic feeling.

An example is provided where a bridge and a chasm are used for strong visual impact. The scale of the chasm shows a large, dangerous gap between the player and the antagonist, making the player simultaneous scared and determined.

Filling in the Blanks

Not everything needs to be created – we can use suggestions to let the player fill in the blanks. A steaming cup of tea suggests a person is in a building, train tracks suggest a train is nearby.


Make sure the theme, or set of themes, permeates every visual decision made in the level. Symbolism and metaphor can help with this.

“The visual direction used in a level touches every other aspect of the level’s design. It simply cannot be left till last; it is the designer’s responsibility that the consequences of related choices be well understood and implemented.”


All choices should be meaningful, or at least appear to be meaningful.

Game environments give a player feedback on their actions, interplay between feedback. and player’s actions define the player’s capabilities within the world, the player’s choices have impact on how the game progresses, and those choices are meaningful.

A choice of corridor, where each one leads to an enemy is arbitrary. A choice of corridor where one leads to a group of tough enemies and treasure and the other a weak enemy but nothing else, is an interesting choice.

Players should be given rewards when completing challenges and the reward should be scaled to the challenge and choices the player made. Designer’s should be careful when using intermittent rewards, as there are ethical concerns surrounding the slot machine effect.

Exploration can be a reward in itself however. “the simplest and most rewarding interaction with an environment comes from enjoying it by traveling though it.”


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