→ ToC and first chapter.
How (not) to get lost
Most certainly you want a player to achieve some goal. In spatial environments, making sure that a player walks from point A to point B with minimal frustration is a level designer's task. And we have several tools to guide players.
One way of showing the way is leaving trails. It fits different settings and plot twists, and can be represented in numerous ways:
- a thief is losing coins on their way to an exit;
- a fairy is leaving blooming flowers along the path of their way;
- a werewolf or other handsome beast is leaving scratches on any surfaces;
- a murderer leaves a trail of dried blood because you can't just leave the body here;
- or maybe you are the murderer and you're chasing a wounded survivor, then the blood has not dried yet.
Those trails are small but easily visible and are recognizable if logically put into the context of your level's plot. It is easy to add them, too, as you can apply decals or put small sprites or models along the path. This way, they are cheap and effective, but bidirectional, which means you can backtrack by them as well, which may not be applicable all the time.
They are also good for dynamic placement, hence their simplicity. One of the games that use dynamic breadcrumbs effectively is Dead by Daylight, where running survivors leave "cracks" on the walls only the murderer can see. Wounded survivors leave blood, too. These trails are a vital mechanic there that allows murderers to trace down survivors.
Collectibles, such as coins, gems, bonuses, and other stuff that is already implemented in the game, can be used for trails, too. But usually, you need to put them mainly off-route, as a reward.
Light was used and abused for decades. We are naturally attracted to lit spaces. If talking about classics, Left for Dead uses light everywhere to guide players. They are especially effective in dark and/or desaturated environments and are favored in horror games.
By itself, light creates a bidirectional route to the target. But by placing a light on a wall near a doorway of some kind, you can make a one-directional one:
This trick is useful in 3D worlds only, though, unless you implement a 2D field of view.
You can also make a moving light that guides the player and, for example, is moved by trigger zones, but be wary that if a player goes off-route, they can easily lose this moving light itself.
Partials are what I call interesting objects that are initially visible partially, mainly because they are placed on corridor turns and are partially behind a wall. Once you come to this turn, you can see the whole piece. Interesting and intriguing stuff will quickly grab attention and will force the player to come close.
A partial can be:
- a painting!
- a fallen object on the floor;
- any relatively big text that is obstructed by a wall or something. For example, "The factory of Pur···"
- a long trail.
Partials usually require narrow spaces, and do not work in 2D environments, but are good tools in 3D worlds. Because they depend on the viewport the player firstly sees them, they are inherently one-directional.
Vistas, or "wheenies", are used in 3D, and they are big structures that are noticeable from afar — usually from any point of the level — and are usually your main goal. They don't show direction on every step, but rather give a sense of the general direction a player is going to.
A vista can be:
- a tall tower;
- a mountain;
- a thick trail of smoke that goes upwards;
- some extreme weather condition, like a tornado or intense thunderstorm;
- a magical beam!
- a powerful spotlight that calls for Batman.
When nothing works, put maximally obvious directions. These can be:
- wooden arrow pointers;
- arrow pointers or directions that exist in UI only;
- NPCs that show you the way without asking;
- big billboards with directions on how to go to them.
Don't be shy to use them, but also use them as a last resort.
To sum up,
- Breadcrumbs: 2D and 3D, bidirectional, easy to make.
- Light: 2D and 3D, can be one-directional in 3D, easy to place.
- Partials: 3D only, one-directional. Workload to make one depends on each particular case.
- Vistas: mainly 3D, one-directional. Workload depends on the actual vista.
- Literally arrows: 2D and 3D, one-directional, usually easy to make.