I was fortunate to attend GDC 2013 in San Francisco back in March, which turned out to be a very inspiring experience. One particular presentation that I enjoyed was by game designer was titled 'AAA Level Design in a Day Bootcamp: Techniques for In-Level Storytelling', by Steve Gaynor (formerly designer at Irrational Games, cofounder of The Fullbright Company).
In-level storytelling is a powerful tool for game design, as it allows us to communicate important narrative elements to the player without disrupting gameplay with a cutscene or scripted piece of dialogue. The result feels significantly more immersive because players feels like they alone are piecing together narrative elements from visual cues in the environment, as opposed to being fed information through non-interactive cutscenes.
A feature of in-level storytelling discussed by Steve was that of framing, which relates to dynamic composition [see my Gamasutra article for more information on dynamic composition]. Because video games allow players to explore environments freely, framing is used to focus a player's attention on important storytelling events within a game.
As Steve Gaynor stated in his presentation: framing ensures "the player is facing an important event when it begins, and is able to see it clearly as it proceeds." This important design tool is illustrated below, where we have a top down view of a player [red circle] in an open video game environment.
In example A, the player has accidentally missed an important event [X] because they happen to be looking in the wrong direction. While in example B, a doorway has been used to funnel the player's view, focussing their attention on a specific point in the environment within an otherwise open 3D world.
When playing games, take note of such situations where you find yourself walking along a tunnel or the environment is framing an object or event. This device is repeatedly used in games like Halo, where the action of passing through a doorway often triggers an event within the environment, instantly giving the player an overview of what to anticipate.
343 Industries' Halo 4 (2012), above, makes heavy use of doorways to direct player attention to important events. For instance, a dropship carrying Convenant troops suddenly appears just as the player approaches this particular doorway—giving the player a heads-up on what to expect up ahead. Without the doorway framing the scene, the player may have been looking in another direction, missing the important event that helps them with orientation.
Steve Gaynor's example of framing in game design was from Dishonored (2012), developed by Arkane Studios, where rubble and building structures in the environment have been deliberately arranged to create a frame. As can be seen in the example below, the added feature of strong contrasts between the dark frame and bright central opening further focuses the player's attention on where an important storytelling event is about to happen.
Another point that Steve Gaynor's made in the context of in-level storytelling, was that the important event being framed should "always occur in the center of the player's screen."
Generally speaking, artists in all disciplines (except those working in portraiture) tend to avoid placing key objects at the very center of a composition because such placement works like an exclamation point—it becomes very difficult for viewers to move their eyes away from this position and explore the rest of the image. This is why the Rule of Thirds is often used as a framework for composing images.
The Rule of Thirds. Notice how the stone pinnacle in the left example, above, is visually overpowering because of its central position within the frame. While the righthand example—with the same structure now placed off-centre—gives your eyes more freedom to explore the rest of the image.
Returning to Steve's statement, that key objects should "always occur in the centre of the player's screen," refers to the fact that placing objects dead centre is a very useful device in video games to further focus a player's attention on important in-game events and objects of interest, as in the two examples below.
Centering an object within a frame ensures that it holds visual dominance, such as in the above example from Halo 4, where the player's goal is positioned dead centre—leaving no doubt as to where the player must go next.
Journey by thatgamecompany also uses the device of centering in the game's opening. You initially walk up a sand dune, which features interesting structures placed along the screens central vertical line. As you near the top of the dune, you're confronted by the mountain in the distance, which is awarded visual dominance on account of its size and central position within the frame.
Framing and centering used together are therefore an invaluable tool for ensuring that players of your open-world game will always be looking in the direction that you wish them to look at exactly the right time.