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Horror/Survival Level Design: Part 4 - Relationship

Category: Level Design
July 06, 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.


This is part 4 out of 5.


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

Relationship refers to the connection that the player has to other characters, to the story and to the environment. Establishing a relationship in a game is very challenging thing to do. It's even more challenging to do so in a survival/horror genre. Not many games and movies have been able to pull this one off well. Those that do, are remembered and often imitated.

It is difficult to create emotional connection between two or more characters without seeming to force it. It takes time to establish and create relationships. In movies we often see a forced love story, or a family story. Often times we don't even care, because there is no real connection there to begin with. It seems like it was created as an afterthought.

Pulling off a powerful relationship in game through which a player can relate to and connect to takes a bit of thought and time. As humans we want to connect to other people and we want to share experiences.

Nothing connects and establishes a relationship faster then a shared experience. Some of the strongest bonds that people have were established through a highly emotional circumstances.

Any shared emotion that releases chemicals. Sadness, love, excitement and fun are to name a few. If you can induce any of these emotions in a player while they are playing the game and your map, you will create an emotional connection. If you do this early enough and effective enough, you have the player hooked.

There have been many more games lately that have been using a dog as a "sidekick". One of the reasons they do so, is because nothing more creates an emotional connection to the player then a dog. That is why few years ago virtual pets were so popular. In movies we could see thousand of people die, but if one dog dies it is a tragedy. Just look at I am Legend.

Now the dog relationship between the character and the player is becoming a cliche but it is still something new in videogames. Fable 2, Fall out. All of these have a strong connection between the character and their four-legged friend.

What if while playing the game and after having an established relationship to your canine, you find yourself split by an unclimbable fence or an unbreakable glass from your dog.

You would then see but unable to help when a villain or a horde of infected comes in and kills your canine friend. What if this happened after you have invested time and effort in playing the game for majority of the time.

I don't know about you but just writing that makes me imaging the situation and I feel the emotional consequences of this. I would want to finish the game just to get to whoever was responsible. That is a strong emotional drive you want to try to induce into your players. Its not easy, but if you pull it off, it is powerful.

Let me give you few principles to begin to incorporate into your level designs when it comes to relationships:

  • Relationships to other human beings are more powerful then to material possession. We often times see someone loosing a house or a car or some sort of a possession but in reality when a person looses something more valuable to them like another person is more emotionally responsive.
  • If I show you something that creates a sad emotion and then re-introduce it later in the level. I would elicit the same response in you as I did when you first saw it. I now can use this to keep re-introducing through out the level and same emotion will come up.

For example if you do something that happens to the player in the bathroom as in Doom 3. Then everytime the player goes into the bathroom, he/she will have an emotional response to that environment.

Fable 1 and 2 does the same thing by having the character being re-introduced to the original place where he was born in.

  • Music can create relationships and make them stronger. Using specific music during crucial parts of your game and during high emotional impact moments will heighten the connection between the player and the character.
  • Relationship that a character has to their environment could be used to great effect. For example if the character comes back to an environment that they have previously been to and now it is not the same.

For example in Max Payne, in the beginning of the game his child and his wife are killed by drug addicts who break in. Later in the game through his dreams we get to replay and come back to the same location. By doing that we already have emotional connection and certain response to that environment. It is such as strong motivator that we want to just run up and undo what was done in the beginning.

Focus on universal emotions and create situations where you can induce the following emotions within the player. This will require some time and effort. Knowing your situation, your environment and characters involvement within your environment.


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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