Guiding Lights, Part 2 (Day 14)
So yesterday’s post was short and not super informative, so I’ve decided to go over it in a little bit more detail today. The idea is using light as a tool to manipulate the way the player interacts with the environment, most commonly by guiding their eye to a particular path or object.
Games that use dark or dim environments are especially fond of this, which makes it a popular tool in horror games, or just games that have dark environments for some other reason. And it’s crazy effective, too, even – or especially – if the player doesn’t know it’s happening.
Basically, players will naturally move towards well-lit areas, whether or not the game directly encourages this. I’m sure there’s some complicated neurological explanation for this, but that’s a bit out of the scope of my blog. Instead, assume it’s because lights are good, and should be touched .
This is a huge subject with a lot to talk about, especially in relation to level design. It’s also my first full day off from the full-time job I’ve just started, so I’m not going to spend as long as I could or probably should on it.
Basically, though, it’s a great diegetic tool for directing player progress. It’s great to develop the illusion of freedom – if players move through an environment via the critical path without exploring much else, the world feels immensely larger. This isn’t necessarily what the developers are after – sometimes this is a terrible outcome – but for games like Left 4 Dead, it’s perfect.
Similarly, any game that encourages quick progress can benefit from this kind of tool. It’s more elegant and less intrusive than using a HUD element to guide the player, and it can have the effect of making the player feel more clever even if they’re not quite sure why.
It certainly runs the risk of being too subtle, though. Conversely, it can be very obvious if over-used or used too overtly, which is probably even more jarring than simply guiding the player via the HUD. It’s a good idea to fortify this idea with other things, such as a trail that’s activated if the player is lost for too long or just with other environmental cues.
It’s also not necessarily used to guide the player, but also to grab their attention for whatever reason, such as in the Metro 2033 screenshot. Players will look towards light, especially if it appears suddenly and/or is moving.
This is probably quite basic if you know anything about level design in games. It’s not exactly a well-kept trade secret, but I imagine that it’s much more common than most people realise. Next time you’re playing a game, keep an eye out for when the path is guided by some form of light, whether it’s electrical, a fire, the sun or even something magical. You’ll probably be surprised by how often this trick is used.