Directing the Player (Part 1)


In this article I am going to lead straight on from player flow models, to looking at how exactly you can subconsciously inform a player where to go / what to do. As I discussed in the Level layout types post, a level may end up with branching paths and this can become confusing for the player, causing them to back track through the level. With the techniques I am now going to discuss, you can avoid this, by directing the player subconciously.

One of the vital tactics that Level designers must master is how to direct the players eye; This is very important for single player campaigns or any sort of level with big set-pieces. What is the point in spending a long time developing a big set-piece if the player won’t see it? and how frustrating is it if your playing a game, and you hear the end of a set-pieces and turn around just in time to see it finish?

‘Leading’ the player is using design features to attract the players attention, and draw their attention in a specific direction.

Movement leading the players eye:

One of the most effective techniques is to use movement to attract the players attention. The Human eye is very effective at noticing small movements, and using these small movements you can direct the player to look in a specific direction.

Players are used to looking out for movement in a level as it typically will be an enemy or something important.

A good example of this would be the Half Life 2 games, specifically Half life 2: Episode 2; Near the beginning of the game. Once the player has escaped the Mines,the designers wanted you to catch glimpses of the ‘Hunters’ which are miniature Strider’s, which become a major threat throughout the game. (See foreshadowing)

As the player is entering the new area, the is a Hunter perched on a rooftop across the yard from you, but it would still be easy to miss this peek at the enemy. To draw your attention the designers added a small flock of crows, to fly up as you approach. While this is not a flawless techniques, most players attention would be drawn to the movement and they would follow the birds movement, leading their eye directly to the hunter, which quickly disappears out of sight.

Half life 2 episode 2 screen capture

Birds movement guiding the players eye in Half life 2 episode 2
Image source

This set-piece not only alerts you to the enemy, it also foreshadows coming events, makes the following scene tense and, in a way, quite scary.

Light schemes:

People are much more comfortable in a light environments where they can see their surroundings; This is a natural emotion developed by a fear of being attacked.

As such Level Designers will often utilise light and dark areas to indicate the intended player path, or hint at rewards for taking risks.

When the player is in a dark environment, the player will gravitate towards light, seeking the ‘safe haven’ they feel it will provide – Its always easier to fend off attack when you can see what is attacking you!

A often used technique by level designers, using lighter area’s to draw you in – the player will follow the path of the closest light each time, giving the player a distinct route; however, the designer may choose to place some extra lights in the distance, so the player can see a light, but at the end of the dark corridor. this will be seen as a risk and reward situation.

The player will know that the is something of interest at the end of the dark corridor, but they will have to take the risk of entering the darkness until they reach the light area. This is often used to highlight a pick-up (Ammo, health, weapons, etc…) or a collectable.

Valve use this technique to great effect in games such as Half life 2 and Left 4 Dead – using light to guide the player and distant lights to tempt the player into exploring the area for pick-ups.

Enemy Placement:

In most modern video games, enemies are often used to direct a player. Whenever you are playing an action game, try backtracking; How often do you encounter an enemy? you may find the occasional stray , but overall you don’t really encounter many as you’ve already cleared out the area’s behind you. Now start progressing forward, very quickly you will find you encounter enemies on a much higher frequency.

This makes sense, obviously. Alot of players will use this phenomenon to help direct themselves through a game; keep moving towards the next group of enemies and you will continue to progress through the game.

What you can do though, as a Level designer, is plan enemy encounters to help the player navigate. This does not mean placing an enemy every couple feet in; but rather selectively placing enemies to direct a players movement or where they are looking.

If you have an area where the player could become confused, such as where two branching paths rejoin together, and you need the player to notice the doorway they are supposed to exit through, you can place some enemies around the door to draw the attention to it.

This technique is very dependant on the type of game – in a standard first person shooter game, the enemy will be in front of where the player wishes to go, but other games you may want the enemy behind the player, pushing them towards the goal; games like Mirrors edge, where the player was normally better off to run from the enemies, rather than take them on.

Mirrors edge Screenshot

In mirros edge, players are recommended to run from enemies, so in this scene the enemies make the player turn and run

with sound, particles effects, lights and such when an enemy fires a weapon or attacks the player, the player will easily locate the enemy and it will direct their gaze towards them. If you place an enemy coming out of where the player has to go, then the player will navigate towards them.

This also depends on the enemy – Half life 2, for example, features an enemy called ‘The barnacle’. this creatures hide on the ceiling and have long, sticky tongues which dangle down and catch anything that passes below. Once the player is familiar with this, they will know that they need to look up as soon as they spot the tongue to kill the barnacle. This is perfect for getting the player to look in an upwards direction at a specific moment.

Part 2 coming soon.


  1. The Quixotic Engineer Blog -Matthew Gallant – A fantastic and in-depth look at how Valve guide the players eye using different techniques.


3 Responses to “Directing the Player (Part 1)”
admin Says:

This article is part 1 of a series about directing a player. look for part two in the next few days.

Natisha Says:

Enjoy the modern design. I was pleased with the information. Thank you for this superb article.

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