This time around I want to talk about some ways to make navigation easier in non-linear space, and I want to specifically deal with the issue of backtracking. Backtracking is when the player has to go back over the same are they just went through to get to where they started. Here’s an example to demonstrate what I mean (note, in this example, you don’t start with the gun. You’ve got to find it):
In small amounts, backtracking can be fine and help to drive home the non-linearity of the level, but if there’s too much backtracking, the player is likely to feel that you’re wasting their time. Depending on how you built your game, It could mean that the player has to complete challenges that they already completed, or it could mean they have to walk through areas that are now barren since they cleared out the enemies which would provide a challenge.
This could especially be a problem in a hub-based level design. What this means is your level is built around a central room (the hub) with offshoot areas containing the challenges. The above example is built with this structure. Each path opens up other paths from the hub room, meaning that you are constantly returning to the hub before going on different paths. This sort of level design is prevalent in many of the Legend of Zelda games. It’s an effective way to design a level for a few reasons. The hub provides a recognizable landmark so that the player can regain their bearings each time they return. It also helps to convey the structure of the level, along with its gating mechanism, to the player. They can see from the hub room which paths are open, which paths are open, and what they need in order to progress. The problem is, because you’re constantly returning to this central room, it would be easy to make it so the player is constantly having to backtrack.
One of the most effective ways to reduce backtracking is to create one-way shortcuts. These are shorter paths which bypass the long path the player needed to traverse in order to reach their goal, which the player can use to return to the hub once they’ve obtained that goal. The important thing is that the player can’t reach the goal via the shortcut, and thus bypass the obstacles all together.
There are a number of ways to accomplish this.
You can use gating mechanics to close off the shortcut path until you reach the goal. Of course, this could take as many forms as you have gating mechanics.
If the goal is an item that gives you a new ability, you could make the shortcut require that new ability. For example, if you get a double-jump, you can make it so the shortcut is up really high, so that you can’t reach it with your normal jump. If the item is a gun, you could make it so that the shortcut is blocked by an obstacle that can only be destroyed with the gun. The Metroid games make use of this quite often. Not only does it reduce backtracking, but it also helps to teach the player how to use their new found ability.
You could also have a button in the room containing the goal that opens a gate to the shortcut. Or have the key they found open the gate to the shortcut, or any number of things.
Objects/obstacles which can only be passed from one direction
I had an example of this in the last part. Since you can only shoot horizontally, you can only shoot a block from the side. Thus, it can be made into a one-way barrier by making the side of the block inaccessible from one path, and accessible from another.
You could also make a puzzle which can only be solved from one direction. For example, you could have a block that can only be pushed out of the way from one side.
The pokemon games have ledge tiles which the player can jump off in one direction, but not the other. They are generally placed in such a way that you need to go through the tall grass and fight the trainers if you’re moving forward, but are able to bypass much of that by jumping over the ledges when you’re going back the way you came.
Once again, the important thing is that it’s an obstacle that only lets you go past it if you’re going backwards.
Level geometry is a term I’m going to talk about more in the next section, but for now, just know that it means the physical shape of the level. You can use this to create sections which can only be traversed in one direction.
One of the most common ways to do this is by using the simple fact that gravity means you can fall any distance (unless there’s fall damage, at which point a certain distance could be lethal), but you can only jump as high as the game lets you (if it even lets you jump at all). You can thus make a short cut where the player could fall down from one direction, but they couldn’t jump up from the other direction.
Let’s see these techniques in action. Here’s a modified version of the original example, with shortcuts added to each of the paths in order to reduce back tracking
Next time, we’re going to talk more about level geometry, and how the physical shape of your level can have a large impact on how it plays.