→ ToC and first chapter.
How (not) to get lost, but with branching level structure
Guiding players is relatively easy if you're designing a level with a few rooms or places adjacent to your main route. It gets a bit harder when these adjacent rooms form chains and stretch off your main path, and when branching is introduced, as it creates loops where players can occasionally go the opposite ways. Let's make sure this doesn't happen.
All the previous methods are valid, but
All the methods from the third chapter are valid, with some modifications:
- Breadcrumbs, partials, and lights leading to/from the main path should not be "more appealing" to players. It should not look like the main route. If in doubt, ask others to playtest your levels and see how they navigate and what they think about places with branching.
These three should usually be used with adjacent paths that have dead ends.
- Vistas are useful when placed at the main goal's location, or in hubs. (More about hubs later.)
- Literal arrows should be as descriptive as possible.
Do you need players to find this route, though?
If you're making a secret, perhaps you shouldn't use routing tools to guide players to them at all. But depending on their length, you probably need to add backtracking elements like arrows or lights so it is easy to return back. For example, you can follow along a dark path, but if you look behind, you are still able to see a bright light coming from the main route.
These help not just with branching levels, but generally everywhere. If you see that players often take the backward route, especially with splitting and joining paths, make it impossible to go this way. For example:
- in natural terrain or industrial landscape, make the player jump off the cliff so that they can't climb back;
- put doors that get locked for some reason once the player enters the area where two paths join;
- add natural or artificial obstacles: for example, you've crossed a river by a big tall log that finally got drifted away. This also adds dope dramatic moments!
The downside of this method is that it is easy to permanently lose a portion of the content at branching paths. But it is a great tool for linear levels.
These are used with paths that should be visited only once, or have a skill test, or are long, or that would simply be hard or boring for backtracking. The idea is to give a player the shortest path towards the main path once some objective is reached. It can be:
- a cliff (again), but it requires planning the shortcuts ahead of time'
- a door or a hatch that leads to the main hallway but can be opened only from one side;
- a teleporting platform;
- a zipline on top of a tall tower, to quickly descend to the surface;
- something that naturally fits your game mechanics and/or game world. For example, a strong current in an underwater world.
Hubs are usually larger places that connect multiple pathways. They are ideal for several secondary tasks or puzzles, or when you need to put several skill checks. Hubs connect with other paths in form of a star and are usually a safe place for a player to rest, refill consumables, and plan their next actions.
A hub can be:
- a big hallway in the center of a mansion;
- a relatively big meadow with a fireplace that has several paths going into the dark forest;
- a town's square;
- anything artificially designed 😃
Literal directions are needed more in hubs as there are several directions to go to, and hubs are natural and believable places to put named pointers here.
It is good to make hubs useful gameplay-wise. If your game relies on health or mana concepts, replenishing these in these locations will be a good addition. Shops suit here well, too.