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Level Designer & Game Designer
Making games since 1997
Started with modifications for the Quake
series and other FPS games
Joined the games industry in 2008
Currently employed as Lead of Game
Design at Gameforge
Teaching Game and Level Design
3 years as Level Design teacher at the Games Academy Frankfurt
Multiple lectures as a speaker on game conferences and events
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What are Game Environments?
Are made up of many different elements:
These properties have many uses or
• Limit progression
• Hide information
• Provide challenge
• Trigger emotions
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What Experiences is this Talk about?
This talk focuses on two very specific uses
of game spaces:
This is the art of using a pre-designed
environment to inform the visitor. It is
comparable to set design in movies and
theater or to theme park design.
Using cues in the environment to subtly
guide the visitor or his gaze in the desired
direction or to help him orient himself.
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What is Environmental Storytelling?
Environmental Storytelling is the telling of „stories“ through a space and
This is the art of using a pre-designed environment to inform the visitor.
It is comparable to set design of movies or to theme park design.
For video games this is done using all the tools at the Level Designers
disposal. This includes:
• Sound effects
• Visual effects
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What can Environmental Storytelling do?
There are three primary ways to
environmentally tell stories:
Supports the larger story of the game by
providing subtle context.
Presents small story vignettes within the space
for the visitor to interpret.
Provides a playground for the players to create
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Why do We need Environmental Storytelling?
There are a few differences to classic exposition storytelling:
Exposition (audible, textual or visual)
• Requires concentrated attention from the audience
• Often creates a break in the game flow
• Tends to be explicit: It makes it obvious what it's about
• Audience is only passive, can only consume
• Audience can soak up peripheral information without interruption
• Often seamlessly integrated into the game experience
• Tends to be subtle: Information is not directly told
• Audience is required to actively interpret
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Reading Environmental Cues
Humans are trained to take cues from the
• We recognize patterns
• We compare them to learned patterns
• We come to conclusions
This happens within microseconds.
• The subconscious „auto-pilot“ can
register a lot more information than
focused attention can.
• It only alerts our active thoughts if
there is something of special interest.
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Once the pilot has been alerted the
viewer will focus his attention on the
stimulus and actively investigate it.
• The visitors curiosity is piqued
• He wants to solve the puzzle, to
understand the situation
• If he is not interested, he can simply
ignore the information
This will lead to the players' version of the
presented information: his own story
created at his own pace.
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What can Environmental Storytelling tell Us?
Environmental storytelling provides
context to the visitor:
About the Place
• What is this location or it's purpose?
• What happened here? What is the
history of this space?
About the People
• Who are the usual visitors/inhabitants
of this place?
• Who are you in regards to this place?
At home? An intruder?
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Paints a picture of the entire space in broad but subtle strokes.
What can it do?
• Sell the reality of the environment as
presented in exposition.
• Support the larger story of the game
by providing context.
• Provide a visual reward through
variety or special unique scenes.
• Reinforce the player identity by
clarifying the relationship to this place
• Set up expectations for the location
and it's contents (affordances)
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How is it done?
• Spatial sequence: Progression from room to room
• Coherent use of subtle cues, both small and big
• Establishing a fitting mood
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Presents the relics of specific events within a space.
What can it do?
• Add character to the individual
• Provide warning or examples for
player to learn from.
• Give hints to game functionality
• Can be used as breadcrumbs to focus
• Support the larger setting through
• Give insight into specific events in the
history of this place.
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How is it done?
• Handcrafted scenes showing the remains of previous actions
• Remains can be coincidental evidence of these actions
• Or they can be a conscious expression of previous „visitors“
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What does it need to work?
The information has to be noticed
• Create contrast to clearly highlight your scene
• There are many ways to attract the visitor's attention
• Movement and strong light & color contrasts work well
• Redundant information makes finding the clues more likely
Information needs to be understood
• The player will interpret the information based on his perceptual space
• Intuitive understanding is necessary to avoid confusion
• Use familiar objects or carefully introduce new ones
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Provides methods and opportunities for player-created stories.
What can it do?
• Players are able to express themselves
• Or the game simply records the
„evidence“ of their actions.
• Players can find out what has
happened in game based on this.
How is it done?
• Actions change the environment and
it's contents, be this bullet holes, a
paintbrush or enemy corpses.
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A small exercise to help you understand how to tell stories through the
environment. You have 30 minutes to:
• Take a game or setting you know or make one up on the spot.
• Think of a specific place, a Macro and a Micro Story within that world.
• Write your stories down, don't show them to the others.
• Come up with concrete ways in the environment to tell these stories.
• Take some time to list these methods or make some sketches.
• Outline the game and setting so we know the larger context.
• Describe your scene to the group, don't explain the story!
• The rest of the group tries to come up with their own interpretation.
• Compare this to your original story ideas. Do they match?
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Why Player Navigation?
Players need help finding the right path or important spots without
being frustrated by an apparent lack of options.
• Constant increase of complexity of spaces in games
• Early games were perfect information: all on one screen
• Then we introduced multiple screens, creating a need for maps
• With the step to complex 3d simple maps become unfeasible
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Ways to Help the Visitor navigate?
These methods are created by the Level Design within the space.
• Attract the visitor to specific spots
• Help the visitor identify different areas
• Provide concrete guides and signs
These options are a part of the interface and not the world itself.
• A map provides an overview over the space
• Markers are useful to highlight specific, possibly mobile, spots
• The compass provides information in relation to the visitor position
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The goal of this method is to attract the player's attention to a spot.
• Useful for linear level design to keep the flow
• In non-linear levels it can highlight areas of interest
There are many ways to achieve this:
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• Visual contrast attracts the eye
• Color, shape, brightness are all good ways to create contrast
• Light usually works really well on a broad but subconscious level
• Try the squint test to see what stands out in a certain view
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• Environment subtly points toward the target
• Lines are oriented as desired
• Lines crossing boundaries have a stronger effect
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• Larger structure visible over a greater distance
• Provides reference points for navigation
• If interesting enough the player will be curious to investigate
• Works especially well in non-linear level design
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• Motion is really good at capturing attention
• This is usually a conscious attention and far from subtle
• Effects are an excellent way to introduce motion: Sparks, flickering...
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• Cutscenes take away control of the camera from the player
• This way specific areas and paths can be clearly highlighted
• However this interrupts gameplay and could be skipped
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• Place items (weapons etc.) to lead to your desired location
• The in-game value of the item will attract player
• Often these items are also visually highlighted
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• Characters often combine movement and game value
• Player is trained to react to characters, esp. enemies
• Even if he is not aware of them, if he is attacked he will be
• Following friendly characters also leads the player along
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This method helps the player to distinguish between different areas.
• Different locations get a strong identity
• Makes it to remember and create a mental model of the space
• Very useful if the player has to create his own path (non-linear or
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• Large, immediately visible features of the location
• Within the area it's hard to overlook the landmark
• Can also be used as Weenie to attract over longer distances
• Generally used to refer the location to other people
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• No single dominating feature
• Create a contrast between different locations
• Different styles (architectural, lighting, textures...) for different places
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Guides provide in-world information about the different locations and
their relative position
• Useful if players know where they want to go but not how
• They are only relevant if there is a choice of routes available
• Can be confusing if there are multiple routes to the same goal
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• Useful for non-linear level design
• Often difficult to use without breaking immersion too much
• Requires conscious attention from the player to read
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• Visualizes path between two locations
• Difficult to show info about path and goal at the same time
• Often tough to integrate into the world seamlessly
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This work is licensed under the Creative
NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
To view a copy of this license, visit the following website:
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