One of the biggest challenges in level design is create an environment that is easy for the player to navigate. When creating a level you know what the layout is so it can be very easy to think that a level is easy to navigate but when it goes to testing players get lost easily. This not only shows the importance of QA testing it also presents the question: How does one lead a player through a level? There are several ways to give a player hints about where to go in a level without blatantly telling them such as: lighting, enemy placement, and items. Now lets explore each of these ways to lead the player through a level.
Lighting is important in any game, lighting can be used to generate a certain mood and it can be used to aid in player navigation. Horror games often use lighting to build mood and also lead player through an area. The eye is naturally drawn to lights and when a player is in a dark area they will move toward a lit area. A great example of this is in the Half-life 2 level Ravenholm. This area is a horror themed level where the player has to fight through a zombie infested town.
The picture above shows the first time the player meets Father Grigori, a survivor who helps the player through the town. The player is drawn to this area due to the huge bright fire in front of the building. Above the fire there is a very bright light coming out of the open door where Father Grigori appears. This is intended to draw the players eye to where Grigori shows up, this is important because the level designer uses this scene to teach the player that there are traps in the town that the player can use against the zombies.
The placement of enemies can be used to guide players as well, however since the enemies are going to move towards the player this method does not always work. An amazing example of this being used well is also in Ravenholm. Immediately after the player meets Father Grigori (shown in the picture above) the player walks past a boarded up room. As the player walks by two zombies start breaking through the boards and attacking the player. This draws the player to the room where the zombies just came from, and in that room the game teaches the player that they can turn on gas in certain areas to create fire. This is important later in the level, when the player has to turn off some gas to move on.
The placement of items in a level can help lead a player through an environment. A rule of thumb I use in games is that if I think I am getting turned around I start to scan the area of pick-ups, if an environment is picked clean I assume I have been there already. The Unreal Tournament series used very small heath pickups to show players different paths they can take through a level. Another example is in Bioshock, when the player acquires the shotgun. The weapon is placed in the middle of the room where the player can easily see it from the doorway. This causes the player to go into that room and get the weapon (although they are ambushed immediately after).
There are many different ways to give the players hints on how to navigate the level or area. There are many ways that I didn’t get to discuss such as sound effects and environment clues. The biggest problem with levels that are not fun to play is that they are frustrating to navigate. A great level shows the player where to go without directly telling them, an amazing level subtly tells the player where to go without them realizing it.