Level Design Primer Part 14: Rules of Composition

So far we’ve been looking at level design purely from a gameplay perspective. I want to switch tracks for the next few parts and discuss the aesthetic and narrative aspects of level design. That is not to say that these elements don’t effect and inform how the player interacts with the actual mechanics of the game, which is a subject I’ll also be discussing in these parts.

Now, I want to make a disclaimer and say that I am first and foremost a game designer, and not a visual artist. This is not going to be a comprehensive lesson on the rules of composition as they apply to visual art.  Instead, it will be a basic run-down of some basic elements of composition and how they can be applied to level design.

The first consideration in trying to determine how many of the traditional rules of composition are even relevant in your design is how much the player has control over the camera. The rules of composition were formed in media with a fixed view-point (such as painting) or a director controlled moving view-point (film). Games are different in that the camera will often move in real time based on the state of the game, and may very well be controlled by the player. However, the degree to which the camera is out of the designer’s control varies from game to game. For example, a side-scroller might move over the X Axis, but never move up or down. In my game Venusian Vengeance, the game scrolls vertically, but doesn’t scroll horizontally. It also has some areas which lock the camera in a certain position until the screen is clear of enemies. This made it possible to apply certain rules of composition that would not be possible with a free-moving camera.

For example, the “Rule of Thirds”. The Rule of Thirds is a common method for composing more visually interesting and pleasing compositions. Rather than center the focus of the scene, you put it closer to one of the lines which would divide the frame into thirds, or even on the intersections of those lines. Here’s two examples of the same scene. One in which the camera follows the player, keeping them in the center of the screen.

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In the second example, the camera is in a fixed position.

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The ground roughly follows the bottom third-line, the player is at the intersection of the bottom-third line and the left-third line. The platforms that lead up to the goal center on the right-third line, and the goal is roughly on the intersection of the top-third and right-third lines.

Now, of course, even when you’re able to apply the rule-of thirds, you should not be a slave to it. You don’t have to get everything exactly on the third-lines, the point is to move important parts of the screen off-center, near the third-lines.

Some games employ a camera movement system which tries to find a happy medium between maintaining a pleasing composition while also moving with the camera. For example, check out this video someone made breaking down the camera from Super Mario World:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCIMPYM0AQg

Unlike Super Mario Bros, Mario World isn’t confined to a single horizontal level. The camera needs to be able to move up and down. However, rather than following the character one-to-one, it will move based on what sort of platform the player is standing on, and what the situation is.  Notice that when the game is bottom-locked, the player ends up near the bottom-third line of the screen, and when the camera is top-locked, the player ends up near the top-third line of the screen.  The camera does center vertically on the player when they are on a high-up platform, however, so that they can see a reasonable amount below and above them (and, because of Mario’s jump-height, the platforms above and below Mario tend to be around the third-lines).  Whether the camera is fixed, scrolling in one direction, or situational, you can take advantage of the camera’s behavior when building levels so that the screen at any given time will tend to have a pleasing composition.

But the Rule of Thirds just one element of composition. A major part of what makes composition important in level design is how color, light and form can draw the eyes in certain directions and to certain points in the frame. This is massively relevant to level design, since one of the designer’s goals is to subtly communicate to the player where they should be going and what their goals are. Being able to draw the player’s attention to a certain object or area of the level is immensely useful in this regard.

So what draws the player’s eye? One of the simplest and most common methods used, particularally in 3D games, is using light. The player’s eyes are drawn to areas of light surrounded by areas of darkness. You can use this to draw attention to items that the player might want to try to get, or to areas where they should go.

You can also use form and color to draw the player’s eye. Many games will use brighter colors to denote objects that are important in some way, or which can be interacted with. Objects can frame or subtly point towards important objects.

In addition, even in cases where the player is in control of the camera, you can still take advantages of existing choke-points in the level geometry to frame compositions, if even momentarily. If a room has to be entered through a door, think about what the player will be seeing when they are standing in the doorway, looking into the room.

All in all, I hope this article has shown how rules of composition derived from previous forms of media can still have some relevance in level design, both in terms of pure aesthetic as well as as a tool for highlighting important aspects of the level to the player. Because you aren’t in complete control of the frame, the rules of composition won’t apply quite as directly as they do in painting or film, but they can still be applied while taking into consideration the differences inherent in an interactive medium.

Next time, I’ll be continuing the theme of aesthetics in level design and talk about the concept of naturalism.

  <–Part 13: Level Geometry   ——– Part 15: Naturalism –>

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