Worlds for Players: Composition and Linear Environments

People are dumb sometimes. Just like you. People are smart too, just like you, and you need to trust them with that. Doesn’t make sense? Welcome to game development.

When we’re designing games, there are times when we need to lead players through the level. We might point out a specific location, or highlight particular areas that they might like to visit. Many developers like to do this the easy lazy way, and just slap a floating icon on whatever they want the player to look at. If the icon isn’t in the player’s field of view, there might be an on-screen arrow telling them where to look. There could be a prompt that says ‘look here!’ Players are told to follow a magic GUI guide instead of being encouraged to engage their own curiosity and problem-solving abilities. This needs to change.

In image-making, contrast is important. An artist can create contrast between rounded shapes and pointy shapes, smooth textures and rough, bright light and shadow, strong color and dull color. They can create contrast between opposite colors, such as red and blue, or green and magenta. The eye is drawn to the area of highest contrast, so by strategically using one or more type, the artist can ensure the viewer’s eye knows where the most important part of the image is. By using real or implied lines—the curve of rope or a pointing hand—the artist can lead the eye from one part of the image to the next, creating an approximate route that viewers will follow. Architects and theme-park designers use these as well, adding a few spatial techniques of their own, like sound and motion. Game developers take it a step further: they get to play with immersion.

Let’s look at Half-Life 2. The game is 13 years old this year, which means that it’s from an age where patronizing players was frowned upon. The olden days were glorious. The first chapter of Half-Life 2 is a master class in subtly showing the player where to go. 
Take a look at this image.

After doing our civic duty and putting our trash in the correct receptacle, we enter a food hall. There’s a big monitor with Doctor Breen displayed on it. This is established as the primary compositional focus of this scene through visual composition and context clues: it’s the key source of motion in the room, the difference in value (brightness) between his hair and the backdrop is the strongest value contrast, and the monitor is clearly established to be the source of the main audio that we can hear. After recognizing this element, we look around. To the right we have an attractive warm patch of sunlight that highlights some citizens that we can interact with. The edges of this patch of sunlight creates leading lines that draw the eye down and towards the left side of the scene, where we see another interesting contrast—a line of blue light in an otherwise warm-coloured room. It’s clear that this leads somewhere, given that the light vanishes through a doorway. 

Note how other details are still present. The metrocop standing in the doorway at the left edge of the image. The doorway beneath the broadcast monitor. These details are important for building a convincing world, however they aren’t made overly important to the player. They’re intentionally given a lower visual contrast. Can you see how the visual hierarchy works to rank elements in terms of importance?

Let’s go deeper and see how this plays out when we’re actually navigating a space. 

The first example of gunplay in the game is a narrative moment. You’re not supposed to be making difficult decisions—the developers need to ease you into the world, give you some narrative and help you not die as you navigate a rooftop environment. Here they hide the path from direct sight, disguising it as the edge of a roof. They use several cues to encourage exploration of the route, however. There is the movement of the gunships and the interest they create for players as previously unseen enemies. There’s the visual interest of the moving cans. These bring our attention back to the foreground. Then we see the line made by the eaves of the roof as it slopes down, hinting at a possible route beyond the cans. We follow and are rewarded.

There’s a scene near the end of the game that puts all of these elements together to give us a lot of information very quickly. We’re walking towards the Citadel and find ourselves at the edge of a huge pit. A handful of ravens flies past us, drawing our attention up to the Citadel itself. It’s the first and only time in the game that we get to see it up close, and this moment encourages us to really appreciate the size and bulk of the thing. We’re reminded of the colossal strength of the enemy we are about to fight. When we’ve seen all that we can see, the vertical lines of the Citadel then lead our eye back down, and we cast around for a moment to figure out what to do next. Almost immediately we see the main focal point of the area--a bright, white light surrounded by darkness. There’s also a lot of periodic movement as clouds of dust rise from the pit near the light, the only source of movement in the area. As we look down at this area, another focal point catches our eye—the edge of a ledge. It’s been given a rim-light to make it stand out, but the light is subtle enough that it doesn’t seem too unnatural or out of place. It’s clear to us then that our path should lead us down to this ledge, then along to the bright light. Here the developers have not only given us navigational prompts using composition, but they’ve also helped reinforce our goals and set a clear mood for the scenes ahead.

Good teachers encourage students to find the solution. Good chefs don’t cook food that customers need help cutting up. When we make games, we want to foster independence. Players want to figure things out. They know the game is all smoke and mirrors, and that somewhere along the line there are hints and prompts leading the way. But when we make these hints a part of the game world, we work with the player to create an experience that empowers them and respects their ability to problem solve. We want to use the wonderful world of visual language to subtly draw the player’s eye to where it needs to be drawn. We want to guide players our world with a gentle hand on their back, letting them call the shots and enjoy that sweet sense of satisfaction as they make their own exploratory choices. Leave the magic floating GUI markers to other devs. Make good games.