Why Nathan Drake Doesn’t Need a Compass | Game Maker’s Toolkit


Hi, this is Mark Brown with Game Maker’s Toolkit,
a series on video game design. Near the beginning of Uncharted 3, there’s
this awesome section where you’re playing as a young Nathan Drake and you’re being chased
across the rooftops of Colombia. It’s awesome, specifically, because in most other games
it would simply be a cutscene. That’s because most game developers would
struggle to make sure the player is always going the right way and making the right jumps
– and not repeatedly falling off the roof or getting caught by baddies. In fact, most developers struggle to let you
move through a static environment, let alone an intense chase scene, without some clunky
navigational tool – be it a waypoint, a compass, a floating arrow, some kind of supernatural
survivor’s vision, or an ethereal space snake thing. So how does Naughty Dog do it? How does this
developer let you make your way through the whole of Uncharted, and The Last of Us, without
a map, when other equally linear games tell you where to go, at every step of the way? MONKEY: We’re not in the clear yet. There’s the way
out. The secret is that Naughty Dog, and other
developers like Valve and That Game Company, is telling you exactly where to go, but using
subconscious clues that are hidden in the level design itself. They use tricks to grab your attention and
guide your eye, which are borrowed from artistic composition. And they use in-world navigational
aids, which are lifted from Disneyworld. “It’s very much a game in psychology,” says
Emilia Schatz, game designer at Naughty Dog. “You need to figure out what your environment is telling the player” “And figure out how you can give the player as much information as possible” So let’s look at that Uncharted chase scene
again, and see if we can figure out what the environment is telling the player here. The first eye-catching technique is light,
which is streaming in through this open window. Light is the most common and arguably effective
way of guiding the player, because we flock to it like moths to a flame. Provided the
surrounding area is dark enough, light sources like lamps, car headlights, flames, and sunlight
will always catch the player’s attention. Here, visual composition tricks are used.
The pillars and wall create a frame – which is like a portal that draws that player’s
eye to whatever is inside. And in the middle is this line which runs down the centre of
the roof. Guiding lines are often used in painting and
photography to lead the viewer’s eye or focus their vision on a specific point. That’s harder
for level designers to use as there’s no fixed viewpoint, but similar techniques can be used
to suggest a path for a player. In a 2010 GDC talk, Naughty Dog art director
Erick Pangilinan says “defining a clear path is really important and is something we look
at all the time,” and he says “When you’re in a busy schedule it’s really easy to create
noisy, confusing environments”. So he talks about clearly separating the ground
and the boundaries of the level, and says “putting shapes in the middle of the path
creates a stepping stone effect that can lead the eye through”. When Drake leaps over the barrier, these birds
fly off. This gives us motion which, in a mostly static scene, really grabs your attention.
Things like sparks, flashing lights, and banging doors are hard to ignore, and encourage the
player to draw in closer. The birds in Uncharted not only do that, but
they fly off in the direction of where Drake needs to go next, subtly guiding you to the
right when the more obvious route is to continue along the roof. Of course, the enemy here will force you to
the right if you weren’t already going that way. Rules and mechanics can push and pull
the player very effectively – as you’ll run away from enemies you can’t attack, but will
chase down collectibles like they’re a trail of bread crumbs. Down here, we see an example of affordance
in level design. A ramp is there to be jumped off, and the player will dutifully play along. You can’t discount the camera during this
entire section, of course. It swings around, keeping your next destination in the centre
of the frame. But you’re always free to wiggle it about and look wherever you please – the
game rarely takes control away from you entirely. Now the guiding lines point up, except for
these windowsills. The contrast in directionality makes them stand out – not to mention their
colour. This is another common trick in level design – as long as the colours in the rest
of the stage are carefully considered, a bright and contrasting colour can really grab your
attention. Mirror’s Edge famously uses red, but The Last
of Us and Uncharted do the exact same thing with yellow. And Tomb Raider paints all its
important elements in white. All of these tricks are used to subtly nudge
you through the section and keep you on the carefully scripted path that Naughty Dog has
laid out. But it doesn’t stop there, as similar visual clues are littered throughout the entire
game. There are other tricks, too. Like negative
space, which forms an attractive portal. And audio can be used, too – everyone goes into
this room at the start of The Last of Us, not just because of the alluring light but
because of the distant sound of the TV speakers. SARAH: You in here? And then there are weenies. That’s right,
weenies. This is a technique from Walt Disney, who plopped the giant castle in the centre
of Disneyland to lure visitors into the centre as soon as they enter the gates, and
give them a navigational aid so they’re always be able to return to the middle of the park. So, characters in Uncharted and The Last of
Us spend half the game pointing at far-off landmarks which then loom over the skyline
and give you something to work towards and a static position to aid navigation. BILL: There’s that truck.
ELENA: You see that tower up ahead? TESS: There she is. That’s our building.
HARRY: There’s the tower. JOEL: Alright, there’s the bridge. That’s our way
out of here. The same applies to the Citadel in Half Life
2, buildings in Mirror’s Edge, and the mountain in Journey. And then there are arrows. Sometimes hidden
in the game world as props or as markings, and sometimes literal arrows, on signs and
painted on the ground that point you in the right direction. Hey, that’s what arrows are
there for, right? You can use all of these examples in your
designs. Even if it’s just using light and colour to highlight places of interactivity.
You’ll need to test that it all works by observing random players as they move through your level,
but you can also borrow a clever trick from Naughty Dog. Back when it was making Crash Bandicoot it
would do something called the squint test, where level designers would squint their eye
and see if the critical path through the level was the most dominant thing in each scene. You may be wondering why a game like Crash
Bandicoot or Uncharted needs to bother with all this, when they’re already so linear.
And it’s true: if you’re not going down the critical path in these games, you’ll often
find yourself at a dead end. But that’s kind of the point. The game provides
multiple paths for the player, and they feel like they have the freedom to explore whichever
they choose. As they always seem to stumble upon new content – not entirely aware that
they were subconsciously persuaded to take that path or enter that door – it stands to
reason that all the other exits and doors lead to new play spaces too. It makes the world feel bigger and less linear
than it really is. It also helps keep up the pace of the game.
Uncharted is supposed to be a rip-roaring adventure, and that would fall apart if you
were struggling to find the next door in every room. And, crucially, this stuff just works. And
you can test it for yourself: play Mirror’s Edge and turn off runner’s vision and you’ll
see how difficult it is to get through the game without these visual clues. If you’re
anything like me you’ll get lost over and over and over again. And finally, knowing how to use these tricks
will help other aspects of your level design too as they can be used for more than just
navigation. Picking the right colour for your level doesn’t just help you highlight platforms,
but also set the right tone. Motion can be used to make sure the player is looking in
the right direction. And frames in the level design ensure the player gets the best viewpoint for an important scene. But maybe we’ll come back to all that in another
video. Till then, thanks for watching. Have you ever seen a game that does something
smart with navigation? Leave a comment below. Also, give the video a like, subscribe to
the channel, or consider pitching in via Patreon.

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