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Horror/Survival Level Design: Part 2 - Anticipation

Category: Level Design
June 29, 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.

Anticipation and Pacing

This is part 2 out of 5.


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

Anticipation and pacing is an important part of creating any single player and multiplayer map. It's even more important to creating a successful horror and survival level.

Pacing is the tempo, the speed that something is revealed.

Anticipation is waiting for something to happen, an expectation.

Pacing and anticipation is knowing how to scare the player, what to do and when to do it. All this comes down to successfully pacing and creating anticipation to a certain event or an outcome.


Pacing should be build slowly and meticulously. Thinking through every event as each step on a staircase. One step at at time until you reach the top. You never want to go from step one to step ten without hitting every step along the way.

When you reach the top of the stairs, and you have built the anticipation so high, that now it is time to release by jumping down from the top step to the bottom. If you introduce the killer or the monster at the beginning then you don't have anything at the end to keep up the pacing or to keep the player's interest.

Think of a roller coaster. As you wait in line, you hear the sound of the roller coaster go up and down. You hear others screaming and yelling. You feel the ground shake. As you slowly make your way you see others in front get in and they are gone. As you get closer and closer you feel your heart pumping faster and faster. So once you are inside the cart, there is no point of going back. You have been strapped in and ready to go. Now you are going up slowly waiting for your decent, and then all that waiting and build up is justified by the roller coaster being released as you plummet on the first dive.

If all that waiting around comes to a disappointing release then the intended effect is lost. Nothing would make up for it. Your experience would be ruined. At the same time if you didn't have the build up, and all of a sudden you get on and whoosh, its over. It would be a disappointing ride.

Think of an arc with a point of no return at the end. This is how most films are written. You want to design and think of your events in your level the same way.


As you pace your story and the events you are creating anticipation in the player. Then the anticipation at the end has to justify the expectation that the player had through out your entire game or level. You have to build up anticipation by setting the pace from one progression of events to the next.

Think of your events in your level as progression of one event to the next, but with rising conflict. For example in Counter-Strike you buy weapons, then you run towards a choke point, firefight happens. Most of your team dies. Everything calms down for a second; there is a moment of serenity. You advance further, plant the bomb, anticipation is built even higher. Timer ticks down as you know that the CTs are going to rush the bombsite to diffuse. At the last second it goes off. Expectation justified.

Build it up to something great and then release hell. If the player survives then it is something to remember. Never introduce and give away everything in the beginning. Wait till later. And build up your pacing slowly by introducing anticipation.

Using cliches. Recognizing what they are and knowing how the audience will react to it, because over the years they have been conditioned to know what is going to happen. Do it a few times then switch it up.

Be unpredictable.

Use a focal point in your map is a great way to build anticipation.

Use lights and sound to drive the player's focus to a specific spot in the environment. But of course don't give away everything.

Use hints. Use of sound and noise is a great way to build anticipation.

Create enough space between each event to let the player breath before the next even happens. Next one comes, should be harder and more interesting and challenging then the previous one. Introduce your events slowly, meticulously and well thought out.


Create calm before the storm.

This is a very effective technique that allows creating an exciting event and going from 0 to 60 in a few seconds. You make sure that everything is calm in the environment, no infected, no killers, and no bosses. Almost like everything is perfect, then you introduce a sound or two and few seconds later, all hell breaks loose. L4D uses this in a great way, when you call for help and you have a few seconds before the horde gets there.

Then, all hell breaks loose.

Dead Space

Saving Private Ryan

Perfect example of this is in Saving Private Ryan.

At the end of the movie when they are getting ready to fight the Nazis in the small-bombed town, you see them sitting around, talking and listening to music. It's almost perfect. But within few seconds the entire place breaks into a war zone.

Calm before the storm.

Come up with three ways you could introducing and pace your level. Think of specific events in your level design you could introduce this. Use the arc image to help you. This could be used for single player or multiplayer.

Think of the movies that have a clear rising of the arc. Pacing and anticipation and then the drop off such as Predator or Titanic.

Study Saving Private Ryan for Pacing and Anticipation.

How can you create anticipation in your player that where their heart begins to pump way before the final outcome is revealed?


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


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