How can virtual spaces convey meaning and evoke emotional states?
This is a set of building blocks for expressive level design. They are very abstract so you can take any of them and try to apply them to your project.
Each comes with an example from a game you should definitely play. The titles are always from the player’s perspective and the focus is on first and third person “immersive” games.
The patterns span across different domains and scales, it’s a flexible structure borrowed from the classic architecture and urban design book A Pattern Language.
This is a living page, feel free to suggest more patterns!
Making a choice
The Stanley Parable by Galactic Cafe
From the “lanes” in DOTA to a series of doors, virtual spaces present more or less explicit choices through obstacles and passages.
Choices that don’t have an apparent way to backtrack (eg jumping off a cliff) can be daunting to many players who want to make sure they explored everything before moving to the next “level”.
A crucial part of game design is communicating the affordances of the world: the doors you can open and those you can’t, the ledges you can climb, and the platforms you can walked.
In art games the player might not have as many actions and as much urgency, but a confusing space can ruin the atmosphere and undermine your aesthetic goal.
Following a landmark
Journey by Thatgamecompany
A common way to orientate the player in vast spaces is to put a prominent landmark (signposting).
In theme park design such landmarks are called weenies.
Following the light
Abzu by Giant Squid
Avoiding darkness is a natural human instinct. Lighting is one of the most common signposting techniques.
Note how the doors appear brighter at distance regardless of the actual lighting conditions of the passage.
Entering a dark space
Neo brutalism of tomorrow – Moshe Linke
If humans and gamers are inclined to follow the light, how do you put them in dark spaces?
A light at the end of the tunnel? Turning off the lights?
Following a trail
Firewatch by Campo Santo
Communicating walkable areas outside of a built environment can be challenging. Think about how the cues you follow in maintained natural environments like parks: opening in the brush, beaten paths, clearings, secondary landmarks…
Entering a portal
That night steeped by blood river – Taylor Swietanski (2020)
Dimension hopping for practical (level size) and expressive reasons.
Changing a space
Most immersive games involve some kind of spatial progression: unlocking areas, opening doors, activating secret passages. Not even open world games provide complete access to their entire world from the beginning.
Gameplay aside, letting the player change the environment can be an expressive and dramatic strategy.
Enjoying a view
Views and vistas are observation points that show the overall layout of a location. They can be used expressively to provide a release after a moment of tension, convey a sense of wonder and encourage exploration, give the impression of a world bigger than the explorable area, or foreshadow some future locations.
Functionally speaking, they can allow the player to set their next goal in open worlds or give an overview of a puzzle/challenge.
Finding a view
Umurangi Generation by Origame Digital
Sometimes level design is not about communicating clearly but about hiding secrets in the environment (hidden object games, secret passages, Easter eggs…).
Photography games (like photography itself) force the player to look at the world more carefully.
Game photography and machinima further decouple the act of looking from the stated goals of a game.
Oikospiel Book 1 by David Kanaga
It’s the biggest fear of every mainstream level designer (and mainstream gamer). Yet being lost in a virtual space can be powerful. Am I supposed to be here? Is this a bug? Is this the edge of the map? These are questions that break the “immersion” but maybe immersion not the only way to experience a virtual space.
Reaching a boundary
Bientôt l’été by Tale of Tales
Artificial spaces have limits, and hiding the end of a level is a primary concern of a level designer.
Games are often set in islands, valleys, or other self enclosed environments to take advantage of their natural boundaries. Sometimes the border is an invisible wall or, in student games, an endless drop into the void. Boundaries can be meaningful and integrated in the story.
Not reaching a boundary
Interminal by Ivan Notaroš
Procedurally generated spaces may not have boundaries, and that can be unsettling too because it reminds us of the infinity of the universe.
Moving in three dimensions
Mirror Drop by Ian Lilley
Most 3D games have a predominantly 2D logic because we are puny creature forced by gravity to crawl on horizontal surfaces. A few games, typically set in space, allow you to actually operate in all 3 dimensions. When combined with a lack of horizon this can be very disorienting.
Traversing a soundscape
Proteus by Ed Key and David Kanaga
Sound is a powerful and relatively cheap way way to characterize a space.
Also, spatializing sound with a modern game engine is very easy.
The Beginner’s Guide by Davey Wreden
Denial of agency is the greatest affront to a player.
But then cutscenes can “trap” you for minutes, so it’s about setting expectations and making the prison time valuable.
Songs of the lost – Paloma Dawkins Jlin and collab
Moving upward toward heaven or to VIP floor of the club. Meaning can be embedded in a level verticality.
Traversing high places
The fear of heights translates well in 3D environments and putting players in dangerous situations can be emotionally powerful. But beware: if the danger is too “real” and the player keeps “dying” there will be less gravitas associated to the event. Invisible walls and control aids may be necessary to provide a sense of peril without the frustration of falling over and over.
Promesa – Julian Palacios
Consider the game feel of your control system and how your environment accommodates for it.
A first person perspective can be grounded with heavy footsteps and head bobbing, or disembodied and ghostlike.
Sable by Shedworks
Gliding is a mechanic but also a factor in the organization of a level. Gliding makes a vertical level feel less dangerous: the nice feeling of reaching new places, and traversing long distances effortlessly… the reward of a difficult climbing session.
Manifold Garden by William Chyr
Generally associated with death, damage, or narrative turning points.
Dépanneur nocturne by ko-op mode
Descending to a lower level is a trope in dungeon crawling games. Lower into the ground is closer to hell, harder and scarier. However movies like Parasite or Us present more symbolically complex kinds of underworlds.
Traveling across vast distances
Outer Wilds by Mobius Digital
While technically challenging, virtual spaces can be designed for different modes of movement such as vehicles or mounts. The visual sparsity or density of an area can give the player a clue to switch to a slower mode of transportation.
Entering a vast space
Dear Esther by The Chinese Room
Conveying a sense of relief or wonder, especially after going through a narrow passage.
Destroying a place
The Indifferent Wonder Of An Edible Place, by Studio Oleomingus
Destroyable environments are common in games but what does it mean to destroy a place?
“The Indifferent Wonder of an Edible Place is a story about a building eater consuming a tower in a town condemned to be removed from history.”
Also see: Artist Gordon Matta Clark anarchitecture
Also see: urban warfare by the Israeli Defense Forces inspired by post-structuralist theory
“During the battle soldiers moved within the city across hundreds of metres of ‘overground tunnels’ carved out through a dense and contiguous urban structure. … they used none of the city’s streets, roads, alleys or courtyards, or any of the external doors, internal stairwells and windows, but moved horizontally through walls and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors. This form of movement, described by the military as ‘infestation’, seeks to redefine inside as outside, and domestic interiors as thoroughfares. The IDF’s strategy of ‘walking through walls’ involves a conception of the city as not just the site but also the very medium of warfare – a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux.”
0N0W by colorfiction
In 1991, when computer graphics and the Internet were still seen in a kind of virtual continuum, Marcos Novak imagine Liquid Architectures for the cyberspace.
He imagined an architecture that tended to music.
“If architecture is an extension of our bodies, shelter and actor for the fragile self, a liquid architecture is that self in the act of becoming its own changing shelter”
Marcos Novak, “Liquid Architectures in Cyberspace”
Interpreting a place
Alien Caseno – Grace Bruxner
What are the signifiers that make a space recognizable?
How can you “communicate” a living room, a church, a casino with the least amount of details?
Recognizing a real place
Gameworkers and guildworkers – by Spekwork
Thanks to photogrammetry and ever-expanding asset stores is easy to recreate existing spaces in game engines. But with great specificity comes great responsibility.
Notre Dame is different from a generic fantasy church. Do you have a reason to reference a piece reality?
Noticing a change
Anatomy by kitty horrorshow
The built environment is not supposed to change, when it does it can be unsettling or a sign that time is passed and other entities acted upon it.
Feeling at home
Rainy Season by Rainy Season by Inasa Fujio
How to create cozy games is a hot topic in game development as the range of experiences in gaming expands from mere adrenaline-based tension and release loops. A cozy space can be a safe area you return to multiple times in a game, or an environment that evokes a feeling of domesticity and familiarity even if it’s new to the player.
Reading the environment
Narrative elements can be embedded into environments through various strategies: architecture, staging of props, signage etc. This is referred as environmental storytelling, and originates from story-rich shooters that needed to flesh out a scenario without continuously stopping the action for cutscenes.
In action-adventure games, environmental storytelling typically answers the question what happened here?: something has gone terribly wrong so the level is infested by enemies that the player has to kill and there is no human to talk to (how convenient).
The cliche’ of environmental storytelling is the skeleton, which has become a meme.
Can environment storytelling convey more than catastrophes?
More on environmental storytelling
Gone home by Fullbright
Disseminating “lore” through spaces in the form of logs, letters, meaningful objects etc has been common practice in action-adventure games for a long time. It’s a way to provide optional story bits without forcing players into cutscenes.
Walking simulators (or wandering games) have turned this exposition technique into an artform.
Even in Arcadia by Phoebe Shalloway
Way too often Non-playing characters (NPCs) are just hanging out waiting for the player to arrive, like an information ATM. What if they had a behavior, a routine, and their own adventures?
In games like Tacoma, Elsinore, and Even in Arcadia, the narrative space is organized around NPCs movements and conversations, following the lead of the critically acclaimed immersive play Sleep No More.
Assuming a different perspective
What Remains of Edith Finch by Giant Sparrow
While it’s impossible to know what it is like to be a bat, in games you can shift player perspective by playing with scale and movement system. Spaces have to be (re)designed accordingly.