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Horror/Survival Level Design: Part 1 - Cliches

Category: Level Design
June 26, 2009

Following series of articles are going to go in depth and explain how to create horror and bring fear in level and game design.

Survival horror level design.

This is part 1 out of 5.


Part 1: Cliches
Part 2: Anticipation and Pacing
Part 3: Storytelling and Environment
Part 4: Relationships
Part 5: Moral Decision

There are sets of rules and situations that seem to appear in movies and games to induce fear and scare the audience/player. That may have started as original ideas, over time became cliches.

Dark room with flickering lights.
The abandoned building or an asylum.
A little girl that shows up at the end of the hallway and then disappears.
A phone that rings, when answered no one is on the other side, or you hear heavy breathing.
Foggy environment with noises and sounds of creatures awaiting for you just around the corner.
Characters that stay around in abandoned small towns.

The list goes on.

Definition of cliche is ideas that have been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty. In the examples above, some cliches were used very effectively, others weren't. Some may have started as original ideas in the beginning but over the years of watching movies and playing same videogames, we know what is going to happen.

Problem with cliches is we know what to expect because we have seen it so many times. We know that the killer doesn't die after the first try; they always come back and jump at the character one more time. We know that when characters split up, it usually means death for one of them. That is the problem with cliches. We know their anticipated outcome.

Some effective cliches are use of characters, story and environment settings. As an example of what some of these games did well is they took what we used to consider to be scary and terrifying and they made it better. They made it scary again. They took the cliches that were no longer effective and introduced new ways of playing, experiencing and looking at the horror genre.

A mob of villagers in Resident Evil 4.

Resident Evil 4

Monolith's F.E.A.R and The Ring ghost girl

Monolith's F.E.A.R

Left 4 Dead introduced co-op play and infected. Not zombies. As well as the ability to play as the infect. Just as '28 Days Later' redefined what "zombies" movie should be.

Left 4 Dead

Abandoned small town in Silent Hill or a Haunted House in Alone in the Dark.

Silent Hill

Combining first person shooter with survival horror elements and creating a setting that is memorable and unforgetable.


Condemned 2:Bloodshot took the first-person shooter and combining with survival horror elements and then introducing melee combat. There is enough of familiarity and yet enough originality. Level design of condemned 2 is driven through the melee combat elements.

Condemned 2

Now cliches are important. They are important to know and understand.

Cliches do work.

Even when we know what is going to happen, there are certain psychological triggers that make us react. That is why they are cliches, because they have been proven to work.

The goal is to recognize the cliches and then take it a step further.

Knowing how cliches work and what they are. You would then be able to anticipate the player's reaction. Having that knowledge of player's expectation and their possible next step you are able to put a new spin on them. Use cliches as a base for your level designs and game designs.

But cliches alone are not memorable. They are forgettable and unremarkable. They scare the player yes, but they become a gimmick. Use the cliches and by knowing the players reaction to them you are able to introduce new elements. Using cliches is easy; making the player remember them is hard.

Just as we all rememeber 'Sixth Sense' ending, but we all forget dozen of other movies that use the same ending.

Some cliches include story elements, environments and setting and specific events such as the flickering lights and the seeing things in the mirror behind you.

Using the cliches as a starting point you can begin to explore and introduce new elements that hook the player to your environment, your story and your level.

So, I've come up with 4 points, 4 important criteria that I believe are important to create horror and bring fear in the players in your level designs. If used right, it can engage and create an emotional response that will stay with the player way after the level/game is finished.

These four elements are:

  • Story and Environment
  • Relationships
  • Anticipation and Pacing
  • Moral Decision

Action Steps:

Begin watching horror and suspense film and start taking notes what cliches you see, what reaction and anticipation you feel to those specific events. Begin recognizing what the director is trying to do and where the psychological triggers are. Why are you feeling the way you are during the heightened moments of the film? Play survival horror games and study human psychology. Learn why people do the things they do.

In the next 4 sections we will begin to go in deeper covering story and environment; anticipation and pacing; character's relationship as well as players relationships to their environment, their needs and wants. As well as their relationships to other characters. You will begin to understand how to design a successful level, mod or a game using these elements.

We will talk about successful and no so succcessful horror titles. What they did well and what we can learn from them.

Really understanding these principles will make your map, mod or game stand out from the rest.


Part 1: Cliches
Part 2: Anticipation and Pacing
Part 3: Storytelling and Environment
Part 4: Relationships
Part 5: Moral Decision


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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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