Dismantling game level design and art from “Stray” (2)

The author is Nai Crane, game level artist and lighting engineer. This article is reproduced with permission from the author

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In the last article, we focused on discussing levels in linear space: dismantling game level design and art from Stray (1)

The previous chapter strictly follows the storyline of Stray and the sequence of game levels. In order not to disrupt the reader’s reading rhythm, it will not cite unmentioned levels as an example, nor will it use a lot of patchwork games to quote, but Some simple knowledge points need to be mentioned as soon as possible, so it may not be the most suitable legend, and everyone can understand the meaning of the knowledge points.

Everyone must be tired of getting started, so let’s go deeper in this chapter.

Chapter 4 – Slums

From this level, the game changes from the original linear game level space mode to a more freely explored level space. Players no longer follow the fixed rhythm and one-way space created by the linear level to experience the game. The rhythm of the game is gradually let go from the designer’s complete control, and more control is placed in the hands of the player, who can only dynamically control the player’s behavior, which puts forward higher requirements for the design of the task and the layout of the space.

Therefore, the content of a new chapter will be distinguished from the previous one. In this article, we will focus on dismantling the content of the “slum” space, which will involve the level content of multiple spaces and free exploration to a greater extent.


Occlusion was briefly mentioned at the end of the previous chapter, and is mentioned again here because it is a very useful technique in level design.

In the virtual-reality theory of architecture, it has to be mentioned that there is a major quality of the entity: occlusion.

Any real-world scenario can’t avoid this, you put an entity and that entity blocks the objects behind it; this forces level and game designers to think carefully about what should be seen at the same time and what is should not be seen at the same time.

The nature of physical information communication is that it creates a shadow behind it, and we have no way of knowing the internal information.

When the player enters the slum for the first time, he needs to guide him to the last elevator, so planning the player’s route skillfully is the key. In addition to using some doors that can be closed, occlusion is also cleverly used.

The water pipe on the left blocked the way the original robot escaped, and of course it was temporarily closed. Secondly, according to the guidance of the above line, from high to low also points to the right.

Weakening influence

Another effect of occlusion is to weaken the influence .

We can use occlusion to hide elements that are overpowering and conflict with our center of gravity. In this key shot, the road on the left and right sides is blocked by the protruding structure in the foreground, allowing the audience to focus on the elevator car.

Using Occlusion to Improve the Difficulty of Spatial Understanding

Occlusion can also be used when we want to make it easier for the player to understand the structure of space.

If we wanted to increase the difficulty, we could place objects that occlude key elements at multiple angles, so we could reduce the completeness and clarity of information from a single angle, forcing the player to look more closely at the environment from multiple angles.

A similar approach, Naughty Dog, was used in Uncharted 4’s [Financial District of Libertalia], where they used three consecutive layers of occlusion to hide the target location. When the player was unable to find the exit, the player turned back and walked down the stairs again, and saw that the exit was only a few steps away, but was blocked by an object.

Even if the light points there, and it is the position with the largest difference between light and dark, it is still not discovered by the player for the first time, and Naughty Dog’s superb level design allows players to subconsciously explore the level space they designed, basically for the player to make decided, though Naughty Dog doesn’t force you to explore these corners.

Occlusion can also adjust the sense of volume of the space. As in the previous article [Adjusting Space Definition], using the knowledge points of physical occlusion of the skeletal structure can prevent players from clearly understanding the whole picture of the space at the first time.

这是矩形空间?还是半圆形? Is this a rectangular space? Or a semicircle?

“Stray” also uses a similar technique to make it more difficult for players to understand this area, allowing players to make new discoveries when exploring.

来时没有发现的路 The way I didn’t find when I came


Overlap is essentially a type of occlusion, which means that what is behind the entity is not completely covered, and it is not impossible to obtain information.

When as a designer, we want to convey a clear message to the player, the first element to consider at this time; but on the other hand, we also occasionally use occlusion purposefully when designing.

When we have something like a reward chest that we don’t want players to find easily and want them to reward them when they explore, we can obviously put a thing in the way to block it, it’s only eligible to get this when exploring carefully award.

被书堆挡住的保险箱 Safe blocked by stacks of books

Or use occlusion “hints” to guide the player towards a target. By subtly exposing the reward to a little corner, distinguishing it from the occlusion in front of it, it can guide and motivate the player to go around and explore, looking for the object occluded on the other side.

Strengthen the depth of the structure

Overlaps can also be used to enhance structural depth.

If there are a large number of objects in the scene and they are separated from each other, the distance and the front-to-back relationship between the objects will become blurred. The player cannot well locate the distance relationship between himself and different objects, which is detrimental to his desire to move.

Maybe the perception will be more obvious in the [roof] level.

Use different shape occlusions to plan player paths and expectations

In a speech at CEDEC 2017, the open world in Nintendo’s “Breath of the Wild” explained the magic of shapes, and the player’s path and occlusion are closely related.

One thing their environment designers noticed is that the driving force that guides the player left and right around the triangle, the triangle will disperse the player’s forward force, pushing them to the left and right, and it takes a little more effort to climb up before, which will move the player forward Desires are divided into three types.

The guiding force of the square forces the player to separate from the left and right sides, so the cube basically only provides the player with two choices of left and right.

At the same time, he also has a unique ability in the occlusion relationship. When you go around the triangle, the objects after it will be displayed gradually. The more the player moves forward, the stronger the motivation and goal.

When you go around the cube, the objects behind will be exposed at one time, so they use the triangle as a guide and the cube as an obstacle.

Use visual elements to guide

color contrast

The use of color and various visual contrasts in the game is very meaningful for level design. Designers use visual cues and rely on specific colors to highlight objects, which has a strong effect of attracting players’ attention and saves them from spending a lot of money. Time to find the next target.

When players need to perform instinctive maneuvers like jumping, they need quick and recognizable targets, not brainstorming and making mistakes. Losing your aim on instinctive basics can be frustrating for the player!

In locations that do not require strong guidance, meaningless guidance will disrupt the player’s intention to move, so it is best not to use visual elements. In the follow-up [Midtown] level, there are many brightly colored jumping points, and when you jump to the end, you find that they are only used for screenshots and viewing.

repeating element

Naughty Dog discovered the rules of using color contrast as a guide since Uncharted 2, and over time, they used a more subtle way to achieve this goal, a model that is still used by many companies today, For example, some repetitive visual elements.

《神秘海域》 “Uncharted Sea”
《战神4》 God of War 4

The repetitive element design in Stray is something like an electric box that emits blue light.

This is a very meaningful design in a semi-open level. When there is no HUD, how to invisibly plan the player’s movement trend, so that they don’t get lost, and the use of repeated elements will make the player feel familiar.

While you can go to those inaccessible areas and find a few treasures or enemy hideouts, most players don’t care about that, they’re all staring in the right direction.

《神秘海域4》开放关卡 Uncharted 4 Open Levels

NPC/enemy guide

In many later games, this design has more special extensions, such as using strong light, and the location of enemies, and sometimes using collectibles dropped by enemies to guide the player’s route is also a clever design.

In “God of War 4”, this kind of guidance method is used a lot. In the seemingly open space, players are constantly guided by some enemies to the area that the designer wants them to go to.

《战神4》 God of War 4

In the slums, there are some paths that players rarely use, but there are some world view designs and quest collections. In order to give players the opportunity to explore these areas, an NPC who will walk around these paths is specially designed.

Curious players will follow it to explore this area that serves the world view. Of course, not going will not affect the main line process.

deceit and comprehension

In game level design, if the guidelines are too obvious and simple, it will also make players feel too easy and boring. So instead of giving the player perfect feedback every time, use some fraudulent behavior to “play” player expectations.

This has the same effect as narrative. Conflict is the soul and value of the story. The story cannot be smooth sailing. The protagonist always has to fall into a trough and then reach a climax. Levels serve as their narrative significance to a certain extent in a movie-based game, so It can’t be all smooth sailing, and there are always places that point to new tasks.

Of course we can’t just use this difficult technique with tasks, we can work on repetitive or visual elements that we create.

It is also “Uncharted 4”. In the [Auction] level, Naughty Dog’s skills are repeatedly used, leading players to the wrong path, and finally found that the right path is behind. You can always catch a glimpse of the left frame during the auction for the vents to allow you to observe what’s going on outside, which Naughty Dog does on purpose so that you’ll miss the entrance on the right.

And when the player realizes that “it turns out to be here”, they will get a sudden realization, which is probably similar to the feeling of solving a math problem for a long time and finally solving it.

The feeling of understanding and completion is a great positive feedback.

define space

The next few subsections will focus on telling and dismantling the definition of space, which is a content that closely integrates level design and art.

For 15 hours, I wandered through the map in the ghetto chapter, observing the structure of the various spaces. I have to sigh, this is definitely a textbook-level mini-map box court design. All the details are not over-interpreted. It is the superb design and long-term polishing of the level designer. Here I only dismantled the space design of the first floor.

In addition to being indoors, we can also feel that we are in a generalized space when we are outdoors. Just as the field of space described in Chapter 1, when several solid structures are placed in an open space, they will generate field forces with each other. , forming a space.

For example, if you are standing in Stonehenge, even if there are only some stones, they still make you feel like you are in space.

Define space with points

We can use points to define the space, and place four sundries or other entities on the four points respectively. At this time, the sundries act as points. This kind of case is actually difficult to find in the actual game level, but it happens to be There is such a space in the game.

While there isn’t much height and volume, the space has a sense of connection, and the clutter creates a formal space. They are opposed to the negative space outside, you will feel a sense of closure in these clutter, which also divides the two NPCs (we will talk about this later)

You can see above that the iron barrels on the left are stacked, they are no longer a perfect point, they are a bit like a line. It carries a sense of direction, they suggest the volume and intent of a space here.

Define space with lines

Let’s put a complete column in it, the main meaning of this column is to define an upper limit of the volume of space.

Even though the four corner points are not complete, the addition of a line still allows the space to be defined. This forms a more defined boundary, at least more clearly than a point, creating an image of a square along the ground, creating a sense of volume.

为什么屋顶上要放一个叠这么高的路障,是不是过度解读了 Why is there such a high stack of barricades on the roof? Is it an over-interpretation?

When this guiding neon line is connected to the column, and the barricades are used to reinforce the shape in the middle, this forms more invisible lines, they create a strong image of a plane, and the linear elements can create a sense of space that can be measured.


Define space with faces

The above picture uses virtual surfaces to define the space, and of course also uses the bottom surface. The definition of the space is very direct.

Surfaces can be simply divided into three types: bottom surface (ground), wall surface, and top surface.

The types of these three planes affect how we find space, how we imagine space, and how we interact with and be affected by space.

Define space with ground

If you want to create a sense of volume, it’s hard to do with the ground, but combining it with some linear elements quickly evokes that feeling.

仅仅使用一条线 just use one line

Combining it with a single line, it is possible to create almost the entire volume, although no other details of the structure can be seen, but the concept of the structure remains.

Of course, we can also just use a volume floor to create an open space that is not so volume.

We only use steps, whether it is upward or concave, which will make our structure more stable. In order to have more obstacles to enter this space, we have to go up the steps, of course, it is not a big obstacle from entering. But it’s important, and it defines it as a functional space.

It might be more voluminous if viewed using the method of sinking into the ground, which is actually more of an observation of a given space than going up a step.

Define space with walls

Of course, you can also use the wall to create a space, the same is true. For example, use a full wall and some low walls or railings.

为什么盆栽放在右侧角落而不是中间 Why are potted plants placed in the right corner instead of the middle

This space is very interesting. You should now know why potted plants and table debris are placed in the left and right corners. But this plank slope of this space breaks the steps that originally defined the space, connecting with the external space. This space should be treated as a subspace within a single space, and the iron bucket pile also confirms this.

We will talk about this later.

Define space with top face

There are very few examples of using only one top surface to create a space, like the picture above, many top surfaces cannot exist alone (in physical conditions), it needs some support. But it’s in Stray, otherwise why is it called a textbook?

When we talk about enclosures, there are a few points to focus on beyond the definition and how well the space is defined:

Can the audience understand the type of space you are trying to express?

Is space positive or negative?

How does it affect the flow of player routes?

How is space defined and how is space implied?

How does space in space affect the whole?

Just like this space defined by the top surface, it is open, its conformity is very low, and the player hardly stays here for too long.

When we define the space, we can use the method of [Adjusting the space definition] in the previous chapter to adjust the player’s perception of this space and the degree of openness of this space, which is conducive to controlling the player’s current position in the space cognition, and the influence of intention to enter and exit a space. I won’t go into details here.

Multi-space composition

The composition of space and the composition of images are often closely related. The essential difference is only the difference between three-dimensional and two-dimensional. When people understand space, they still rely on visual images to understand. The content of the image composition is not mentioned here.

Suppose this is a top view of a space building, it is difficult for us to understand through the scene, how these objects are connected and organized, there is too much information here, there is no special meaning, so many identities mean that all identities are here is lost.

But we can still make some classifications, because their lengths are similar and different.

We can use various methods to strengthen the connection between them, such as size, shape, color. I use color here.

It can be seen that even though the rectangle in the upper left corner is not connected to other rectangles, we can still feel that there is some connection between them.

We can see that some of the different spaces are related to each other, when we go into the composition of space, the composition of space helps us to arrange the space, to explore the space, we understand where we are, where we are in the whole space. More often we use connections, or other more subtle ways to connect multiple spaces.

Node Grid and Decision Points

This is the first floor space map of the slum level.

We can draw the possible travel route of the player in this space. While they’ll definitely take detours or diagonals, and maybe even circle around in places, that’s essentially what it is.

Players may make choices in some positions, which we call decision points.

In wayfinding design in architecture, this is called a Node Network.

Essentially, it’s about sending a message to the player, and when you’re creating a level, you should think about where to make sure the player will pass through, and where I want them to turn their attention.

Once in this space, we need to set up the player with a composition of steps to explore, how these spaces lead the player to flow to another space. You can find that there are usually obvious directional means or signs near the decision point of the slum level.

And each decision point is a key point that the player will pass through. It is a separate camera lens and a static image, but the overall flow of this entire level is the composition of space, such as buildings and buildings, how space and space are connected .

We can go back and use the flow of the level where the player enters the slum for the first time as an example.

Use spatial composition to create narrative rhythm

The mood created by a single space is fixed, let’s call it “atmosphere”; when switching between multiple spaces, it can be understood as the change between multiple atmospheres, which forms the rhythm of the narrative.

Spatial composition conveys a worldview, using architecture and spatial composition, especially the hierarchy and organization of spaces, which can tell a lot about the intent of a given space.

When the player enters this space for the first time, with the narrow passage and the cold light on the front side, the atmosphere here is cautious and a little timid. The warm yellow light in the distance makes people feel that the atmosphere of the space there will be warmer and safer.

Unfortunately, when the robot natives sounded the alarm after finding us, the new red light effect appeared, coupled with the BGM and the composition of the narrow space here, we began to tense and the narrative pace accelerated.

At the same time, the player’s movement intention is also strengthened, and most players will speed up their pace to the next space.

When we came to this space, the blue walls and blue-yellow lights dispelled the sense of crisis of the red light, and the space composition became more open. The curious atmosphere replaces the previous tension. Players will tend to make some observations here. Of course, it is also worth observing here. There are grandma’s scarf shop, programming shop and street signs.

Especially the scarf shop, this is a space with many elements, and it is open to the intersection, you can enter this space for a period of exploration, it is a separate formal space!

奶奶第一次是不在的 Grandma was not there for the first time

This is a space that uses three sides (ground, wall, top) and many elements of points and lines at the same time. Its conformity is very perfect, and it has a strong reason for players to take a look inside. .

Of course, the carpet here is also a space for players to stop for a while (I played with this lucky cat for a while anyway).

Next, after we turned the corner, we were brought back to a slightly nervous mood by the warning lights and red lights. There’s a short flight of stairs, and if you’re paying attention, there’s a pipe running through the sky right above it, a detail we’ll get to later.

If you jump left and right on both sides of this step at this time, you will obviously feel that two different atmospheres are separated by invisible walls here.

I don’t think that’s what PPV does, I think a lot of the atmosphere here depends on what color lighting effects are on the player, which is actually a further aspect of color psychology.

When the red light occupies the GI of that area, once the player enters the range of the light probe, the light on his body will turn red. People are very concerned about the color of their body. When the red light penetrates on your body, you feel more nervous.

I found the same intent while researching Lightning in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. When the player enters the GI of that light, the atmosphere starts to get tense.

When you got here, did you feel like there was going to be a fight next? Think about what influenced your judgment.

Create key compositions at decision points

A lot of the time, the lens of the decision point is very simplistic. Pure artistic expression of what feels good, what is interesting and exciting. We wanted the player to feel the space they were constantly moving, and there were a lot of great static compositions that made the level feel alive and pleasing to the eye.

When I found this turquoise wall here affected by red light, it was very beautiful, and the street lights and signs in the distance were also perfectly composed.

Color Script

Color Script is a collection of graphic illustrations used to tell a story, the color script we apply throughout the game to illustrate the tone and atmosphere of each level.

This is an art script in the early stage of game level design. It is a guide script for level composition, color, and of course lighting. It will define the narrative rhythm of a level’s rhythm.

As we mentioned in the above section, using space to create story rhythms is not only used in Stray, but also used in many games.

《SIFU》色彩脚本 “SIFU” color script

The most basic “inheritance and transition”, the game levels also follow this narrative rhythm principle, which is exactly the rhythm when we first entered the [slum] level.

space organization

As mentioned in the [Multiple Space Composition] subsection above, when I have multiple spaces, if they are disordered and their identities are chaotic, it is very difficult for people to understand. We need to compose it, just like images, to create connections and differences between them, to facilitate understanding through rules and contrasts.

If the player has so many decision points and the level flow is complex, it makes these spaces seem disconnected, and many times they are not even connected.

For this reason, the level designer created a lot of restrictions when planning the route that the player entered for the first time, so that the player could only flow in space according to the designer’s intention. Because the player finally needs to perform a cutscene in front of the elevator.

Level designers used closable doors and impassable barbed wire to limit player flow and limit jumping. Make sure the player reaches the target area as planned.

In addition to doors and barbed wire, there are some elements we used earlier when talking about defining spaces, such as steps.

These boundaries define the organization of spaces, which spaces are connected, and which spaces have the same or related identities. To classify and organize through boundaries, the related spaces belong to the same organization, which is also related to the world view and the narrative in the space.

Spatial organization is not completely proportional to distance, but how to organize space through division.

The two NPCs sitting in front of the [Programming Store] door are completely inconsistent with their rational identities organized by the programming space, while the emotional image of [Grandma Knitting] is more similar, and they have a similar element – a shawl. Therefore, the ladder here is very necessary, it divides the space organization and determines the dominant space.

dominant space

I have briefly described the identity and connotation of the spatial organization divided above.

In the organization of general space, there will be a dominant space and its satellite space. The dominant space has a dominant relationship with its satellite space. It can be understood that the identity of the dominant space will spill over into the satellite space, and the satellite space will have the attributes of the dominant space.

There are many factors that will affect the dominant relationship in a space organization, how to make a space become the dominant space, here is simply a space with a strong identity, which affects the surrounding space.

division of space

The method of dividing space organization is similar in nature to defining space. For example, when we look at the area of ​​[Dead Crossing], why is its space organization interrupted when it arrives here?

In the space here, there is a wooden board falling on the line, creating a line division, and the top surface above is also different from the organization space of the [dead junction], forming a boundary.

In the game, when players walk through this boundary, they can clearly feel the difference in atmosphere, and there are many similar examples.

There are also some examples of weak divisions in slums, such as the area in front of the laundromat, which is divided using pipes that pass through the sky.

These structures and definitions are similar to the role of “doors”, and the purpose is to let players know that they have entered a new spatial organization with a new spatial identity. Similarly, we can also use atmosphere to distinguish identities, such as using lights to switch atmospheres.

The organization of spaces is very important because it helps players quickly remember the relationships between these spaces, just like in word games, where random and disordered phrases make it difficult for us to remember, but categorize them into meaningful ones When synonyms are memorized, they have layers, which turn a written exercise into a thinking exercise.

When our spaces are connected, they become a relative relationship, and the player can quickly understand the relationship of the entire level map.

Spatial Identity and Narrative

When we are within a spatial organization, we can acquire the identity of the space through its elements, and the narrative within it needs to be connected. Similarly, we can also divide the organization of space by its narrative content.

In Stray, we can understand the identity of this spatial organization by talking with NPCs. For example, the weak division in front of the [laundry] through the upper pipeline does not completely separate the two areas, but a father-son relationship.

We can verify with an NPC.

Although the NPC sitting in the corner is some distance away from the door of the laundromat and is divided by pipes, it still belongs to the organization of [Laundry/Paint Shop]. It’s still talking about the two guys upstairs, and there’s a sense of everyday life here.

The narrative content of the space is not only affected by the identity attributes of the space itself, such as the ease and casualness of the [bar], but also by some special elements in the space. This “temple” in the elevator is the best example.

为什么这里是个寺庙? Why is this a temple?

symbolism of space

Maybe the following content will be biased towards philosophy, and it may be used as some reference or interpretation. I think this part of copywriting planning students will be more interested. Of course, this is also the perception that art should have when it develops into art.

monumental building

Monumental in architecture refers to a building that evokes an aura of greatness, a quality of strength and gravity that demands public recognition. Usually cathedrals, temples, etc. These spaces have very high ceilings to inspire awe, through very high ceilings, out of our reach.

This design takes advantage of the monumentality of the original religious building, allowing the government or regime to replace the role of God, in order for the robots to praise and worship it. In this worldview the upper powers became a new religion.

elevator hall temple

This elevator hall temple is a very interesting space, first of all it is located on the lowest level of this monumental building, it represents the meaning of the oppressed. Secondly, it is a very closed place, it has three walls, and the door is also a rolling shutter, similar to the wall.


Walls represent society and are mainly used to create boundaries of space, as opposed to our base plane. We interact with it through touch, and we choose to interact only when we want to fight the wall.

So walls are antithetical because they limit our ability and maybe limit our ability to move silently, we can’t pass them easily, we need to fight it, but they can also be comfortable, they can be friendly, provide Privacy and security from enemies.

The four walls represent the timidity and old-fashionedness of the residents in this space. If you show them some “outsider” item, you’ll get the answer that it’s impossible to leave here.

The top surface was supposed to be very high, but because of the fall of the elevator, it was hung above, and some tarpaulins were used to temporarily protect the space above.

If we go inside and translate what’s on the wall, we’ll know that they’re believing in humans. Falling tops mean their faith has fallen.

top symbol

Its presence has a stronger sense of shelter and closure than the other two faces, you know the top face is just above, not just physical boundaries, they tend to define an emotional tone.

It is here that we first realize that we have been under a dome. Then our plot also hinted at this world view: in order to protect themselves from environmental degradation, human beings locked themselves under this dome, but they did not expect that because of the selfishness and greed of the closed authority, human beings eventually went to extinction.

And this dome, including this monumental elevator, will always accompany the world view of the game, and in the follow-up will encounter believers of the religion of the authority and similar robots.

spatial hierarchy symbol

If you study geography in high school, you should know that high-end residential areas generally choose places that are located in the upper winds and waters. Upwind, that is, the upwind direction of the wind; Shangshui, that is, the place with high terrain. Living on a high terrain has gradually become a status symbol, and the same is true for space.

In the level of [Slum], there are “outsiders” who have longed for Midtown and escaped the slums living in, or once lived in high-rise apartments.

The NPCs who yearn for the real blue sky are also lying on the roof, the highest authority is on the top floor of the elevator, and the most conservative believers are on the bottom floor of the elevator. These are all symbols of spatial hierarchy.

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