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 Masters Dissertation 

Role: Sole Developer

Engine: Unreal Engine 5

Year: 2O24

Entitled "The White Rabbit: Studying Player Guidance In Non-Linear Level Design", this dissertation studied established guidance methods and how players interact and respond to them, with the hypothesis being that they may not be fit for purpose with modern players that recognise them.

The product was a detailed non-linear level, showcasing my level design skills, as well as my ability to script interactions and gameplay moments with Unreal engine 5.

3O players tested 3 variations of the level with differing levels of guidance, results of play were recorded through the implementation of what I called a 'Heat-Trail System' which acted as a three dimensional heatmap. 

The results of this were very interesting, displaying possible trends that warrant further study of this area.


I am incredibly proud of the quality of not only my level and design work, but the academic side too. I feel that this project tested me like no other and greatly advanced my understanding of level design theory and methodology. 

If you would like to read the paper, click here, and, If you would like to download and play a build of the project, click here.



The level was inspired by the games of Arkane, namely Dishonoured. The level I created for this study was designed around a First person stealth/ immersive simulation mechanic toolset which I created to offer simple but varied methods of traversal and the option to pursue locked paths and explore.

Player Mechanics:

  • Walk

  • Crouch & Crouch Walk

  • Jump

  • Interact
    (Pick Up, Open, Close etc.)

Level Mechanics:

  • Access Points 

  • Moveable Boxes

  • Keys & Locks

  • Collapsing Vent

  • Secret Door 


The goal of designing this level was to study player decision making through non-linearity and the incorporation of a variety of guidance methods. As such, level flow, gameplay opportunity and fun were not factored in to my design decisions in the same way they would be for a normal level. However, I still wanted the level to play well and offer varied gameplay options. 

The first step in designing the level was to figure out a flow chart of events and possibilities, the location I wanted to the level to take place in, where the player could go, what they could do and what they had to do to reach the end. I decided the inclusion of 2 exits would provide an interesting point of data. From there I was able to sketch my initial level design layout on paper and annotate it with notes on dialogue, directions, opportunities etc, ultimately leading to my final digital design which I used to create my level in Unreal Engine 5. This provided a base upon which iterations where made for the betterment of the level throughout development. 



From the get go the player is subliminally guided by the environment through a number of methods, including:

  • Lighting

  • Framing

  • Leading Lines

  • Landmarks

  • Contrasting Colour

  • Signs and Arrows

  • Environmental Storytelling

  • Affordance & Anti-Affordance

  • Breadcrumbing

  • 3D Audio

From the get go, players are guided through the level with these methods, directing players to the goal and hinting at gameplay options available to the player. Without the inclusion of collectables, I focused on colour, lighting, framing and decals as methods of drawing the eye and encouraging exploration.

If players saw a red light, they know it's a vent they can access, even if its hidden. 

Another aspect I explored to add substance to the space was environmental storytelling. Throughout the level, notes and bodies can be found, building a vision for the space and the events that occurred within it. I used these as a hook to lead players to explore through the promise of knowledge as reward.

I also utilised landmarks and 3D exterior audio (Waves) to build a sense of relation within the level. Recognisable structures outside of the level will be seen repeatedly, so players understand where they are in relation to the world outside the main building.

The best way to see these techniques in action, as well as understand my intent behind them, is to play! You can download a build of the project here.

A session should only last between 4 and 6 minutes.


For the projects overarching aim of studying how players interact with guidance methods, I edited the level into 3 variants for 3 different sets of play testers. These edits were primarily focussed around filtering guidance from expansive and exploratory to seemingly linear. I never removed the players options for exploration, but I closed doors and turned out lights to see if those choices became more or less enticing, and whether or not it would successfully funnel players and have them make the choices that I intended.

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The final area I want to touch on is research. To better understand non-linearity in level design I watched and made notes on a number of videos on the subject, primarily from Steve Lee and GDC talks, and to gather real world and video game reference for the spaces architecture and theming, I created a few small mood boards which backed up my initial concepts. 


I also conducted a deep dive into the level design of Gloomwood's Coup's Fishery, slowly playing through the space and screenshotting every detail I could pull from to inform my own design decisions. 

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