Level Design Primer #9: Navigation through Non-Linear Levels

We’ve talked a bit about arranging challenges in a non-linear level. But what about the person actually playing your game? How do they find their way around? In linear games, it’s easy. “Which way did I come from? I’ll go the other way”. In non-linear games, it’s a bit more complicated (hell, sometimes the answer IS “back the way I came.”).

Now, the easiest way to do this, which a lot of modern games do, is to give the player a map, and put a marker on the map telling them where to go and an arrow pointing them how to get there. Now, this works to get the player from point A to point B, but it takes away a lot of the fun of actually exploring the space and finding your own way to the goal. It can also feel unnatural and immersion-breaking. On the other hand, if you give no guidance, there’s the possibility of the player getting lost and frustrated and not even know where they’re supposed to be going.

So the key thing here is we don’t want to necessarily show the player exactly where to go and how to get there. We want to design the level with enough cues and information that they can figure out how to get where they’re going. In order to do this, the player needs to be able to form a mental map of the places they’ve been, as well as be able to figure out where it is they’re supposed to be going.

First and foremost, one of the best ways to get the player to do something is to show them something they want, but place it so it’s out of their immediate grasp. Then let the player figure out how it is that they get to that goal. If you put a treasure chest on top of a cliff, they’re going to try to figure out how to get up there. And if you’ve placed a challenge in their path, they’ll no what it is they’re going through the challenge for.

Here I have an example where you can see the goal through a wall, as well as the gem you need to open it. Right at the start, you know what it is you need to do and where to go.

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Here’s another example of another way this can be applied. On your way to the first gem, you see a block that will only be opened with three gems, and behind it is a gun. From this you know that, if you come back here with 2 gems, you’ll get the gun.


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This technique is a hallmark of Nintendo games, particularly the Legend of Zelda series. Think of how many times you’ve seen a heart piece just out of your reach, or some object that you just know you’ll be able to interact with at some point. It makes you stop and think “there’s a challenge here. I need to figure out what it is and get that item.”

Another thing to notice about that example is that it uses gating mechanics to limit the number of options you have at any given time.  If you aren’t directly leading the player somewhere, they’re going to begin exploring their immediate environments.  Just like in the linear examples, the player is going to default to trying to go to places they haven’t been yet.  If you present them with a manageable number of places they haven’t been yet, they will keep track of them in their mind and when they’ve exhausted one path, they’ll try out another.  However, in an open-world game like The Elder Scrolls series, where the player could pretty much go anywhere at any time, you’ll need more direct guidance or else the player will lose track of where they’re supposed to be going.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is a good example of a game that strikes a nice balance in this regard, by putting gating devices in place so that the world gradually opens up as you play it.  When you first start the game, you’re blocked off from pretty much everywhere except for the secret entrance to Hyrule Castle.  You are given more freedom as you become more familiar with the world, and thus have a better mental map of where everything is.  It’s just like what I talked about before, with introducing new enemies to the player on their own before mixing them together.  You can use gating mechanics to introduce the world to the player in a linear or semi-linear fashion, and then open it up once they’ve become familiar enough with it not to get lost.

You can also build expectation over the course of the game that exploration will be rewarded. If the player knows that examining every room will yield benefits, they’ll go out of their way to search their environment even if they don’t there’s a reward waiting for them.

Here’s an example where you have limited ammo. There are a series of side-paths which lead to extra ammo. All but the first have some extra challenge the player has to face in order to get the ammo. The first ammo room serves as a non-threatening way to build the expectation in the player that they will be rewarded for going down side-paths.


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And, of course, you can also uses narrative cues to get the player to go somewhere. Dialogue can provide cues and instructions in a natural way to let the player where they should go next, or where there’s an opportunity for some bonus reward.

The other part of the equation is making it so that the player can orient themselves. Making your environment distinctive and filling it with memorable landmarks goes a long way towards helping the player not get lost. When the player is building a mental map of your game, they’re going to use landmarks as their foundation. They will think in terms of “The cave to the east of the town,” “the cliff to the north of the lake,” “the forest behind the castle”.

In addition, 3D games often use landmarks as a guide through unfamiliar space. If you know that your goal is a tower, being able to see the tower in the distance is a good way to know if you’re going in the right direction.

And of course, there are times when you want the player to feel a little lost, when you want to make them explore a little for the next thread they should be following. There are levels of subtlety you can employ when building your game world. The point of this article isn’t to say that you should always make the player completely aware of their goals and surroundings, just that, when you do want to lead the player, there are ways to do that aside from putting waypoints on their map.

Next up, I’m going to do another article on my own planning process, this time with a non-linear level.

<–Part 8: Gating and Implicit Linearity   ——– Part 10: The Revenge of Planning Out Levels –>

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