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

Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu
7 min readJan 26, 2020


Why do this matters?

Why does anything matters in design?

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

  • Guidance
  • Challenge
  • Immersion

I have raised in an environment where such beliefs have been considered accurate; I can’t dent that there is an elegance in such simplicity that can build a thesis on what works and doesn’t work in Level Design.

Depending on your level of expertise, you may choose to 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 “Guidance” from the list and use it as the cornerstone of this article.

The Merriam-Websters dictionary defines guidance in the following way:

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

For the Player to do such magical things, the environment should inform the player of what options are available. Here is where level design comes.

Through a clever blend of careful conditioning and consistent level design planning, the player slowly becomes accustomed to the rules and opportunities of the virtual space he inhabits.

Watch Dogs 2 — Coop encounter in the open world.

Understand what the playable character can do.

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

  • Play the game, fiddle with the controls.

It would help if you learned what the character can and cannot do—all the basic abilities of a video game character tie to rules that can’t break easily. Still, you easily deconstructed them into a set of verifiable metric references.

For example:

Classic proportions for a humanoid character.

A video game character 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 size of a player character.

In some video games, Developers built these dimensions on a different measurement system.

For example:

Source Engine — Half-life 2 Dimensions

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

Establish a metric kit

Based on this, we can extract a series of basic dimensions that we can consider to build the levels we want to develop.

For example:

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

Player Silhouette next to a small cover

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

It would help build these lego bricks based on their size in rapport to the player scale and what the player can do. You should also consider art assets and needs that built directly on top of these “bricks.”

Scale and Affordances

Done correctly should lead to Metric Library:

Metric Library

Such libraries facilitate understanding the concept from an early prototype stage when playing around in the grey-block phase is cheap and relatively inexpensive. By expensive, I refer to production time.

Metric Kit Construct

However, the point is not to build a library, rather understand its purpose and try to develop a form of consistency around our design, reusing static tropes in an easily readable and interpretable way.

Take, for example, this layout:

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 as no surprise that you can see what their purpose could be.

This mental model generates so quickly because all these components share a normal function.

This norma function becomes an affordance in the proper context.

Backyard example difference angle

Establishing a context by ensuring consistency in all interactions

Several factors generate this familiarity:

  • 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.

The context generates in the following order:

  • 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
Player assessing metric affordances in Watch Dogs 2

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

Humans have an incredible ability to recognise patterns in the environment, and based on this, and 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.

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

  • Consider how many characters 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
3 Characters are occupying the same space.

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

Camera position in a TPS.

Here is what it should look like in 3d:

3d Rendition

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

Player Choice

“Player choice” refers to:

  • The players can quickly scan a situation and make decisions based on the available options.
  • His decisions should not be designer induced; instead, the options need to be 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 ultimately do with the information you give him.

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

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

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

Door light at night!

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

The light draws moths

Attractors are game ingredients that attract the player's attention.

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

Alan Wake — Light Checkpoint

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

When the goal is to overcome 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

Lack of consistency generates confusion.

Sam Fisher using a window to take out an enemy.

Affordances are also associated with 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 can formulate his plans and approach the mission as he sees fit.

However, it would help if you focused your design efforts on defining these details so that the player will spot them and not be overwhelmed by their number.

Thus you can do more with less.

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.

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

The thinking behind it is that instead of adding multiple steps to your design, you add various ways to complete an 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 fulfilment. Players play the game and make their ideas come true.

The target is player empowerment, making them stick around for longer to enhance their strategies to game the system.

If the results are favourable, the choices become meaningful.



Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu

As a level designer I am not a creator, I am a facilitator. Senior Open World Designer. #Leveldesign #Open World #Design @notimetoulose.