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Horror/Survival Level Design: Part 5 - Moral Decision

Category: Level Design
July 09, 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.

Moral Decision

This is part 5 out of 5.


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

Last part in our five article series is the moral choice that a player makes while playing the game. Generally, morality is a system of rules that modifies our behavior in social situations. It's about doing of good instead of harm.

Left 4 dead is a good example of moral decision-making.

As you play with 4 other human players you are often have to make certain decisions about your group.

Who will push the button at the finale to call the herd of infected? Will you wait for the last player to cross through to the safe house? Or will you close the door and let them die? Will you risk the safety of three other players and jump down from a good strategic position to help one of your teammates?

Left 4 Dead

You have to stick together and if one character gets lost and attached by infected you as a player have to make a moral decision to leave them die and escape or help them and risk death yourself. Other factors such as your health, how far you are from the safe house point and if other players are helping or running away from it.

All this comes down to moral choice that you consciously have to make. We rarely make decisions all by ourselves. Most of our decision-makings are done within a context of others and within a given situation.

Some games that allow this moral decision-making include Fable and Fable II as well as latest PS3 title Infamous.

In the beginning part of the movie "28 Weeks Later" when infected break into the safe house; the main character has to make a decision to stay or leave his wife. As he and his wife are in the same room, they are separated by the infected. He stays near the door while infected bust in and see his wife, but they don't see him.

She looks at her husband and yells for help. The main character knows that if he helps, he dies. That moment of decision is the most important element of the moral decision. He chooses to run and shuts the door on her.

As he runs away, we see her at the window right before the infected rips her out form our view. That is very powerful.

28 Weeks Later

In GTA4, one of the missions has 2 outcomes. After establishing a good relationship with both characters in the game you are given a mission to kill one of them. PlayBoyX gives you a mission to kill his friend, who is also your friend. As you are on the way to complete your mission you get a phone call from the guy you need to kill. He says that he needs your help because he thinks PlayboyX is trying to kill him. Now you are faced with a moral dilemma. Who do you kill? Do you go for loyalty and friendship or do you choose money?

So how do you begin to have your player have more of a connection with your game and your level?

  • Begin by introducing decisions into your game, into your level design it will stand out as a unique and very rare map.
  • Introduce a choice in player's path.
  • Make your characters split up.
  • Make characters pull levers, as another one has to defend something else.

Introduce choice to the player in a situation with real consequences.

If you established a previous relationship and then give a choice that the player needs to do something drastic that will have real game consequences to the story, environment and your character's well being, then you are on your way to creating something truly unique and emotionally impactful.


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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