Role: Sole Developer
Engine: Unreal Engine 5
Year: 2023 (Work in progress)
This is my masters dissertation entitled "Taming the white rabbit: Balancing guidance in non-linear level design".
This project is based around studying the established level design methods of player guidance, challenging them and studying how players see, feel and react to them, all within the context of a non-linear prison escape level.
As of writing the project is in progress (Week 7), with the majority of design and implementation finished. My next goal is to script, polish and finalise the level prior to player testing and gathering of play data.
Designing the Level
I started the pre-production phase simply by ideating upon what sort of level I wanted to make, what happened within the level and how I could best utilise a variety of level design methods within it. I created a miro board and collated a large amount of videos, images, Articles and papers that would inform and bolster my design decisions, my main sources being GDC talks, Steve lee (Senior Level Designer on Arkane's Dishonoured 2) and The Level Design Book, an incredible online resource.
To further elevate my research, I conducted a deep dive into the excellent first environment of Gloomwood (New Blood, Dillon Rogers). This thorough exploration revealed the intricacies of the game's non-linear level design, the benefits of exploration and the effectiveness of options on player experience, and majorly influenced my own level and the methods I utilised in its creation.
Once I felt confident in the backing of my research, I began ideating upon layouts, mechanics, and level events, creating a first draft sketch that acted as the backbone of my design. Building upon that sketch, I created diagrams to visually translate my plan for the level and its gameplay, while also allowing me to explore how the different options I offer the player intertwined. This gave me the opportunity to polish my plan before in engine implementation began.
Ultimately my level featured grabbable objects, doors, keys, vents, windows, pipes, buttons and notes, and featured a simple "quest" where the player can choose to help the surviving guards in 2 different ways, earning themselves the code for a hidden safe (Or ignore them completely). All of these elements allowed me to create a true non-linear level with multiple means of access to nearly every gameplay opportunity.
Level Design Methods
From the start of the level I utilised the environment itself as a method of guiding the player. Using methods such as framing, leading lines, Bread crumbing, Signage, affordances and anti-affordances to effectively telegraph gameplay options and opportunities to the player both subtly and obviously.
While the level is mostly indoors, I used landmarks (or weenies) to indicate location to the player when necessary. One side of the prison frames a lighthouse, casting a light through the mist, Setting the scene, mood and offering more detail to the player of their whereabouts. The other, a bridge, telegraphing a point of entry or exit to the player, establashing a belieavable structure to the environment.
I wanted the level to convey a narrative through sparse expository dialogue and easy to miss notes, as well as through the environment itself. While this aspect of the level is not pertinent to the grander goals of the project, I feel that it's inclusion was necessary to create an engaging and immersive space for the players to explore, applying believable reasoning to the existence of the space and guidance methods within it, as well as bolstering the players drive to explore the level with the reward of personally piecing events together.
I wanted to utilise light as a powerful tool with this level, not only lighting the space, but also setting the tone and indicators key gameplay information and guidance. I used a variety of light colours to signify different information to the player, as well as carefully positioning light sources to create indicators with shadows and only highlight details that I wanted it to.
A further extension of this is my use of darkness as a method of guidance. Careful use of lighting allowed me to create areas of shadow that themselves afford gameplay opportunities, such as stealth, or attract the eye when in well lit spaces.
The final guidance method I implemented was audio. Another powerful tool, I opted to use it sparingly, primarily through the surviving guards and their conversations being heard through walls. However I also used the crashing of waves and wind to indicate to the player their proximity to the buildings exterior.
Programming the Gameplay
I started programming using Unreal Engine's blueprints, my first task being the creation of a simple player controller, buffing it's feel with shake and wobble when jumping, landing and crouching. While a minor part of the project as a whole, I believe quality game feel is always important to creating immersive experiences.
The next task was setting up all of the interactable objects. I created a simple interact system, allowing the player to interface with objects when a trigger box in front of the player camera overlaps the chosen object. From their the player can press 'E' to launch an interact event specific to the overlapped object, from opening doors to picking up physics objects.
Beyond mechanics, I used BLueprints to script level events, primarily the guard quest. The quest launches when you are caught by the guards, who then ask you to help them escape bu putting out a fire or opening a locked door. The player can help them or ignore them, but completing the quest rewards the player with access to the office safe (Which there is also another way to open). These scripted events lend the world some dynamism, as well as bolstering the level with Narratively significant gameplay opportunities that wouldn't be possible otherwise.
Framing Leading Lines Trailing Signage Affordance Anti-Affordance
White Light - Secrets
Red light - Vents
Use of shadows