How to articulate a visual language system in a level design environment

Why does this matters?

Why does anything matters in design?

I’ve always stated that there are 3 pillars of level design that we can base our design methodologies are:

  • Guidance
  • Challenge
  • Immersion

And although I know this is just because I have been brought up in an environment where such believes have been universally considered to be true, I can’t deny the fact that there is an elegance in such simplicity that can be lead to building a thesis on what works and doesn’t work in Level Design.

Depending what your level of expertise might be you may choose to either agree or disagree with me on what each term means, but such debate is not the point of this posting.

Therefore I will pluck the term of “Guidance” from the list and use it as the cornerstone of this article.

According to the Merriam-Websters dictionary, guidance can be defined as:

Therefore we can assume it refers to the act of giving the player a hand in understanding what a certain challenge may be so he may stop and find a solution to it, and therefor apply it.

In order for the Player to be able to do such magical things the environment should inform the player of what options are available. This is where level design comes.

Trough a clever blend of careful conditioning and consistent level design planning the player slowly starts to become accustomed to the rules and opportunities of the virtual space that he inhabits.

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Watch Dogs 2 — Coop encounter in the open world

Understand what the playable character can actually do.

The first step to building a consistent visual language for the player to interpret is…:

  • Play the game, fiddle with the controls.

You need to learn what the character can and cannot do. All the basic abilities of a video game character are tied to a set of rules that can’t be broken easily but can be easily deconstructed into a set of verifiable metric references.

For example:

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Standard proportions for a humanoid character inside his bounding box.

A character in a video games has a standard size of 1.8 m in height and 1x1m in width and length.

A standard wall height is 4 meters. Roughly twice the height of a player character.

In some video games these dimensions might be based on a different measurement system.

For example:

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Source Engine — Half life 2 Dimensions

In the Source Engine the standard player height is 72 units high compared to a wall basic floor height of 128.

Establish a metric kit

Based on this we can extract a series of basic dimensions that we can consider a standards for building the the levels we want to build.

For example:

A cover is 1x1x1m since the bounding box of a player crouching is 1x1x1m.

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Player Silhouette next to small cover

By extension we can start building lego bricks that follow standard dimensions and reduce the chance of failing to achieve the scale requirements of our game.

These extra lego pieces should be created based on their size in rapport to the player scale and what the player can and also should take into consideration art assets and needs that might be build directly on top of these “bricks”

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Scale and Affordances

Done correctly should lead to Metric Library:

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Metric Library

The point of such libraries are to facilitate the understanding of space from a prototype stage, when playing around in gray-block phase is cheap and relatively inexpensive. By expensive I refer to production time.

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Metric Kit Construct

However the point is not necessarily to build a library that we can “own”, rather more about understanding it’s purpose and trying to build some form of consistency around our design, a sense of reusing static tropes in a way that is easily readable and interpret-able.

Take for example this layout:

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Example backyard space for an open world game.

The tropes used are:

  • Small cover
  • Large Cover
  • Long Cover
  • Climbing Block
  • Wall/Climbable wall.

I will leave their usage to your imagination.

It might come to no surprise that you can see what they might be used for.

The reason why this mental model is easily created is because all these components share a familiar function.

This familiar function becomes an affordance in the proper context.

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Backyard example difference angle

Establishing a context by ensuring consistency in all interactions

This familiarity is generated by a number of factors:

  • Scale vs player height
  • Consistency across the entire composition : All walls are 4 meters in height, all small covers are 1 meter tall, all tall covers are 2 meters tall, all climbing boxes are 3 meters in height.

This is how this context is generated:

  • The players will explore this space
  • The players will notice the affordances and the problems they have to solve
  • Use the affordances to solve the problems
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Player assessing metric affordances in Watch Dogs 2

When offering consistent metrics set to the player the player will start noticing these things in the world around him.

Humans have an incredible ability to recognize patterns in the environment and based on this the player can differentiate between:

  • Cover spots
  • Climbable fences
  • Unimaginable fences
  • Spaces he can crawl trough
  • Gaps long enough to jump across.

Based on this the player can decide to solve a particular problem (be it scripted or system) using a custom made solution of his own design.

One tip that I can give you in regards to how large or small a space should be is:

  • Consider how much character of density you want in that space: 1player+2AI should fit in a 3 meter wide corridor
  • Add another meter for an extra prop (cover/art prop) for the cover pass or decoration
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3 Characters occupying the same space.

In a third person game also please consider the camera height and distance from the player:

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Camera position in a 3d person shooter game.

This is what it should look like in 3d:

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3d Rendition

Based on what you are trying to build try to accommodate this rules into your design.

Player Choice

This is what the fancy term of “player choice” refers to:

  • The players ability to quickly scan a situation and make decisions based on the options that are available.
  • His decisions should not be designer induced, rather facilitated by level design.
  • If this leads to creative solutions empower the player to do so.

One way of inducing these kinds of elements is to consider what the player can will ultimately do with the information that you give him.

Players react to the game environment based on what they find interesting/attractive.

A blank canvas is boring, however add a bit of detail to it an the attention of the viewers will drift in that direction.

Adding a light in a dark corridor will draw the player’s attention to it.

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Door light at night!

The analogy is not to different from moths drawn to the light

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Moths drawn by the light

Attractors are game ingredients that attract the players attention.

If you give an attractor a functional purpose it becomes an “Affordance”.

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Alan Wake — Light Checkpoint

Affordances are in general an abstraction of real world opportunities that serve the same functional purpose.

When the goal is to overcome a challenge a challenge, giving the player a balanced amount of affordances facilitates player expression.

Affordances need to be consistent during the gameplay experience:


  • Light Switches — Turn lights on/off
  • Covers — Players can hide behinds
  • Windows — Enemies can be pulled trough

With lack of consistency confusion is generated.

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Sam Fisher using a window to take out an enemy.

Affordances are also associated to functionality embedded in the space.


Giving the player enough affordances during a level leads to an increase in Player Intentionality.

If the world is consistent and the opportunities are there, the player is then free to formulate his own plans and approach the mission as sees fit.

However your design effort should be focused on actually defining the these details in such a way that the player will spot them and he will not be overwhelmed by the their number.

Thus you can do more with less.

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The player should feel like Macgyver when attempting to solve a game problem.

He should be able to have one look and spot multiple solutions for each problem.

The solutions should be simple but they should be easy to spot.

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One frame — Multiple solutions. Watch Dogs 1
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One frame — Multiple Solutions. Watch Dogs 2

This is called 360 approach.

The thinking behind it is that instead of adding multiple steps to your design you add multiple ways to complete and objective.

Player Fulfillment

Acting with intentionality, in an environment that is built on consistent rules always leads to satisfactory results. The reason for this is wish fulfillment. Players play the game and make their ideas come true.

This leads to player empowerment, making them stick around for longer in an effort to enhance their strategies in trying to game the system.

If the results are favorable the choices become meaningful.

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Written by

As a level designer I am not a creator, I am a facilitator. Lead LD @MachineGames. #Leveldesign. All my opinions are my own. @notimetoulose.

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