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7 Ways to Effortlessly Guide the Player with Level Design As Seen in "Alan Wake"

Category: Level Design
September 13, 2023

Go to the light!

Alan Wake takes place in the Pacific Northwest and features outdoor environments with mountains, forests, mining caves and abandoned towns. On top of that, most of the locations you visit are at night.

The challenge comes from designing environments in such a way that effortlessly guide the player to their next destination without them getting lost and frustrated.

In Alan Wake I rarely felt lost. Maybe a few times during combat but I was always able to orient myself back on path.

How does the game guide the player through nighttime forest environments?

Important Note: Following tutorial (like all tutorials on WoLD) is based on my own experience, opinions and conclusions as I was playing the game. Nothing here reflects what the developer or the publisher might have intended or did not intend as they were creating the game. These are opinions and conclusions I reached.

Video Tutorial

Guiding the Player

Many games guide the player with use of map radar and mission text. But you are more interested in how guiding the player is achieved with environment and level design.

Alan Wake uses combination of the following:

  • Landmarks
  • Artificial Objects
  • Framing and Composition
  • Lighting
  • Sound, Characters and Inner Dialogue
  • Following NPCs
  • Focus (F)


Most important level design guidance is done through use of environment landmarks.

Landmark is a dominating element that helps to orient the player within it your environment or guide the player to their final destination. It usually appears off in the distance and shown within first few minutes of the level.

In Alan Wake, landmarks are constantly used to reinforce the direction you should be going.

I covered many landmark examples in the Storytelling Level Design tutorial where the level shows you the landmark at the beginning of the map.

These include the Lighthouse:

Gas Station:

Train Bridge:

Anderson's Farm:

Bright Falls Power and Light:


Artificial Objects

Artificial objects are man-made objects that can be used to focus player's attention towards a specific direction. In Alan Wake these include roads, foot paths, fences, cabins, vehicles, look-out towers and red medicine boxes.

Roads and foot paths naturally guide you along the environment:

Fences guide you along the path:

Cabins are shelters that you naturally seek to hide in from darkness of the forest:


Lookout towers, as humans naturally tend to seek higher ground to see where they need to go:

Red medicine boxes:

The key to using artificial objects is through placement and position. Place them in the areas where they command player's attention because they stand out from everything else nearby.

Alan Wake's takes place mostly outdoors. So most artificial, man-made objects will capture the player's attention.

Framing and Composition

Composition and framing is an artistic arrangement of natural or artificial objects.

Framing and composition in Alan Wake is used to position the player's view on what's important, where they need to go and what they need to do. The game is a great example how effective framing and composition can be used to guide the player.

As you travel through the dark forest, it becomes difficult to see where you should be going. With framing and composition of environmental elements around you, guide the player from one area of the environment to the next and so on, one by one.

This includes:

  • Fallen trees
  • Rock formations
  • Road paths
  • Fences
  • Props

Fallen trees and rock formation frame the next destination to aim for. They stand out from the rest of the forest and you are naturally drawn to walk there:

Road paths and fences do the same thing as fallen trees and rock formations:

Placing props in specific ways that naturally guide the player to go straight, to the right or to the left.

Or the vehicle you are about to drive points the direction you need to go:

Whenever you press a button to activate something (open the gate, activate the bridge etc.), your view is always facing the direction what that button will trigger:

When you are not facing the direction of what that button will activate, then the camera control is taken away from you and a fly-through is shown.

Anytime you walk out from the doorway into a new area, your perspective is framed towards the destination where you need to go:

Guide the player using composition and framing, so they travel from one location to another, effortlessly.


We can't talk about guiding the player without lighting.

Guide with light an extremely useful level design technique. As humans, we don't like being in the dark. This is instinctual. We will always seek light.

Lighting is one of the important gameplay mechanics in Alan Wake. It is also one of the primary ways the game guides you through the level. Anytime you are lost, look for the light and head to it.

It is simple as that.

Lighting is used in many ways to guide the player such as:

  • Light/lamp posts
  • Structure lights (cabins, buildings, cars)
  • Distant lights
  • Emergency boxes
  • Manuscript pages
  • Item pickups
  • Green/red button lights

Light posts and lamps:

Structure lights (cabins, buildings, cars):

Distant lights, like the ones seen in the town level as you head for the helicopter landing pad:

Or the radio station lights:

Items and manuscript pages:

Emergency boxes are always visible from a far:

Last, you have green/red button lights. These are triggers you have to activate for power generators, moveable platforms and radios. Red/green lights are always visible and call your attention to activate them:

Sound, Characters and Inner Dialogue

Another way to guide players is through sound, this includes sound fx, character dialogue and inner self-talk.

Inner self-talk of Alan Wake constantly guides you by saying what you should be doing and where you should go. Such as to head for the gas station:

Characters in the game tell the player what to do next such as Alice telling you to turn the power on in Bird Leg Cabin:

Or using sound effects that alert the player towards a direction. Such as a scream coming from upstairs when you are on your way to Anderson's Farm:

Following NPCs

Following non-playable characters is another way to guide the player. This is done few times such as when you meet up with Ben Mott through the woods, walking with Cynthia Weaver or following Sarah and Barry.

If you decide to go your own way, NPCs will follow until you get back on track to the level's objective and then they are always just a step ahead of you. So you can't ever lose them.

Following Ben Mott:

Walking with Cynthia Weaver:

Following Sarah and Barry:

Focus (F)

At certain parts of the level you are instructed to press F for focus on an important element the level designer wants you to see.

It moves the camera away from the player and focuses on something important.

As a level designer you can script this with a trigger volume. When the player steps into this volume, it calls for text on screen, “Press F to Focus”. Then the camera view is positioned exactly on what you want the player to see. When the player leaves this volume, text disappears and function is disabled.

Key to using this is to make the camera movement flow from the player to the position of focus without making and abrupt cut to view.

With these tips you can design your levels with confidence, knowing that the player will effortlessly and naturally go from one destination to another.

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About World of Level Design

My name is AlexG. I am self-taught level designer, game environment artist and the creator of World of Level Design.com. I've learned everything I know from personal experimentation and decades of being around various online communities of fellow environment artist and level designers. On World of Level Design you will find tutorials to make you become the best level designer and game environment artist.

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