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Horror/Survival Level Design: Part 3 - Environment

Category: Level Design
July 02, 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.

Story and Environment

This is part 3 out of 5.


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

Story is king.

The power of story in your level comes down to two things. The story of the environment; and character's story in that environment. As well as the relationship between each other.

Story is what we remember after everything is done and over with. We love to tell stories. We love to listen to stories. There is no better way to communicate and to connect with someone. We don't care about facts. If you teach me history and just give me facts about dates and people I won't remember it.

I was working on a Left 4 Dead campaign map before they announced L4D 2. I asked my girlfriend to write a fictional story of the 4 characters Louis, Zoey, Bill and Francis and what would be their story as they are fighting through infected in New Orleans.

She wrote why the characters were there, how they got together and why they would stay with each other to survive. Each of them had individual goals and their own needs and wants. The environment came together all by itself. Each character's background created a set of circumstances and events. When they announced L4D, I had to scrap my idea.

Left 4 Dead 2

But, the exercise was very important eye opener for me. Even though the story may not have been shared in its entirety if my campaign saw the light of day. The depth would seep through the level design. Doing that exercise helped me create more depth to the characters, and more depth to the environments.

I want to introduce to you another story.

Story of the environment.


There are certain environments that are more effective in communicating horror and fear then others. For example abandoned buildings and old hotel rooms are scarier then brand new office buildings. Reason is because they have history and past associated with them. There are traces of human history in the environments. Brand new spanking environment doesn't have that. So we already are seeing traces of clich├ęs in the story of the environments.

Identify the Environment

  • What is the location?
  • What is the setting?
  • Time of day? Season?
  • etc

What is the mood you want to communicate? The environment has to compliment the story and the purpose you are trying to achieve. It also has to drive the story forward.

Collect reference images.

Here is a technique you can use to create more of an emotional connection between the player and the location. First introduce the environment as it is, without the elements of infected, serial killer or the fear element you have in your design. Perhaps it's a place they work in.

Then after the player is familiar with the place re-introduce them to it after they have encountered the horror.

What happens it this situation is the player has a physiological relationship, identification with the place. Because they were already there before, they associate and relate to it more then if you just throw them into a location with no background history.

For example the Max Payne bedroom. Both in the game and the movie, Max Payne comes back to that location later in the game.

Next is the most important aspect of creating an environment in horror and survival level design. You have to create an environment that players can relate to. They need to identify with the location in order to feel anything towards it.

Now, you don't necessarily have to have visited the location, but being able to relate to it, is important. Most people know what London looks like and were able to relate to it in 28 Days Later.

Use locations only as it directly relates to the character in your game and if it supports the game's story. If you can relate that location back to the player then it will strengthen the environment and player's connection to it.


  • Write a story of your environment. Think as if you are telling a story to your friend. Who lived here? How did it get to be how it is? Why did everyone leave?
  • How it was created, what happened to it.
  • Think of the emotional impact and how this story can be used to create more depth in your environment and relate it back to the character and the player.


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


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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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