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No More Wrong Turns

August 25, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[How do you navigate complex video game levels easily? Designer Nerurkar looks at examples from Fallout through Shadow Of The Colossus to examine the top tools for aiding level navigation for players.]

With the ever increasing complexity of our games and our game spaces, the need for support has increased as well. The earliest games often consisted of only one screen.

All the action of the game was immediately visible at a glance -- think Space Invaders or Pac-Man. These are games of (almost) perfect information: you can see all there is to the game. All pieces are on the board, so to speak.

Nowadays, it's a lot different. The ability to display the entirety of the game world on one screen was quickly abandoned in favor of larger environments, through scrolling or leaving one screen and entering the next.

The step to immersive, open worlds in 3D has emphasized this even more. And that's before we add the increasing complexity of gameplay on top of that.

Fortunately, there are tools that can be used to alleviate this situation.

Discrete Navigational Tools

First off, I've separated the navigational tools into two big categories: discrete and immersed. We'll start off with discrete navigation tools first.

By "discrete", I mean that the tools are separate from the environment. They're a part of the Graphical User Interface. This puts them into squarely into the realm of game design. It also makes them stand out -- that means they are noticeable (but can also be obnoxious).

However, the fact that they're abstract makes it easy to use them to transmit more than just spatial information (a position, line, area or volume). For example, the color of a dot on the map might display its health or whether it's friend or foe.

Speaking of maps, let's start with the first tool:

The Map

The map is what most of you probably thought of when I wrote navigational tool. It is the most obvious method and the most unsubtle one. A map displays the environment in an abstract (and usually simplified) way to provide a good overview over the game space.

To that end, it often also contains other information on the game state such as the position and state of units or objects in the spaces. This makes maps very helpful for games in which the spaces are sprawling and complex and/or where there's a lot of different information to manage.

For example, in Colossal Cave Adventure, the first adventure game, the player uses text to navigate through a cave maze. The game features no map, since it's all text, but it is so complex that it practically forces the player to sketch one as he plays.

We've learned since then, and the general trend to user-friendliness has ever increased over the past 30-odd years. A step on that road was Doom. For the first time there were complex and immersive 3D environments navigated from a free first person perspective. And since this was not only new to the players but also to the developers, there was little in terms of immersed navigational tools.

To not get lost, players needed a map. And to spare the player the task of drawing it, the game takes over by drawing the automap for him: As the player progresses more and more of the game world becomes visible in his map. This type of map is quite common as it adds to the sense of discovery of the game and shows the players those areas that he hasn't explored yet.

Also noteworthy is that unlike many games, the map in Doom isn't static. Often times, you can activate the map, take a look at the world, and then return to the game to continue playing. In Doom you can bring up the map by pressing the Tab key.

In this new view you can move around using the normal controls. The map moves accordingly while the arrow symbolizing your avatar turns. The controls are a bit awkward and objects or characters (except the player's avatar) are not displayed. Still you can give the map a try in this Flash version of Doom.

Another more recent example of a map is Far Cry 2. In this game's huge open world Africa, the map is necessary to find your targets. What sets it apart from other games is the way the map is integrated into the game. It's not an overlay (as in Diablo) nor is it a separate screen as in Doom.

Instead, your character brings up a map in his hands without you leaving the game and breaking immersion. Just as with Doom, it allows you to look at your map and still move through the world. It's also worth noting that, unlike Doom,the large Far Cry 2 map does not need to be uncovered. A map of the entire gaming space is available from the beginning.

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James Gonzalez
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This is a great addition to any designers "design guidelines" , helping the person decide on what tools to use for the appropriate situation and game style.

Great article!

Brandon Kidwell
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I would like to see more designers incorporating navigational tools like Far Cry 2 more often, but the navigational feature needs to be integrated into the game and not just mimicked.

Ernest Adams
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Failure to provide a map is a Twinkie Denial Condition.

Damn I wish this article had come out two weeks ago! I just shipped my textbook off to the press. I would have loved to quote from and cite it.

Martin Nerurkar
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Glad you guys enjoy the article and I hope it's helpful to your everyday work.

Beren Baumgartner
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Awesome article Martin! And glad you included many illustrative images. Two thumbs up! :)

Jason Schklar
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Great overview and classification system. The only thing that immediately jumps out as missing is the "eff off" (or "anti-weenie") marker. Something that lets the player know "whoops, I've gone the wrong way and should probably head back". Sometimes this is done punitively (fall in water/acid and die). Sometimes this is done through obvious dead ending (blank wall with no door or nothing that looks interactive).

As a "usability guy" I've watched lots of players wander into a segment of a level and try like heck to open an un-openable door (or pick up a non-pickuppable object) because there's no obvious "turn back, this is not the object you're looking for" indicator.

Martin Nerurkar
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With a bit more time come more detailed comments.


I have to say though I don't think each game needs a map. It all depends on the complexity of the space and information. What I wanted to express with this article is that there's different tools, and as is true for all these things you have to choose the right one for the right job. Pac Man doesn't need a map.

Also a pity about the timing. Especially since the article was mostly finished two weeks ago. All I did since then was polish and submit it. A shame since it would have been a real honor to have been quoted by you. ;)


I considered adding a "don't go here" or "repulsor" section to the article but in the end decided against it. Why? Because it's really hard to tell the player not to do something. I think it's mostly much more feasible to instead highlight the "designer-intended" route.

And to specifically address your examples:

- If you put up a clear sign that says "don't go here", they players will certainly try go there so that's not really an option.

- Adding insurmountable gameplay-blockers such as pits of lava is a lot like building a wall. Granted the obstacle is "soft" and players might try to overcome it - but only if they feel that there's a reasonable chance for them to reach some sort of "goal". This already means that there's some miscommunication here - the pit looks like it could be overcome while it can not. That's a serious no-twinkie condition. But if the pit is clearly not to overcome, then it's in effect a boundary to the map, and such part of regular level design.

- And as for the non-pickuppable object or the un-openable door - that's again a symptom of bad communication. An object that cannot be picked up but looks liked it could? Here there's something wrong with the visual design. A big part of the visuals of a game is to provide a good affordance: It'sclearly evident what the object does. If this fails, then that's confusing the player. We're not steering the player, we're misdirecting him. (sitenote: of course there's games where this confusion - or the searching for an objects function is part of the gameplay)

Jacek Wesolowski
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The difference between a "wrong way" sign and a wall (or river, or lava pit, or something) is that the former lets the player know what's best for them, while the latter leaves the player no room for action. If player defies a "wrong way" sign, they do it on their own, and they do it at their own cost, e.g. "I know this path won't take me anywhere, but I just want to see what's behind the corner". Even if there is a pit of lava behind the corner, it's still better to warn the player in advance. Without "wrong way" signs, many features of the scenery, such as dead ends, become unpractical.

Also, part of the problem with going wrong way is that you're not going the right way, which often leads to not seeing the "this is the right way" sign. As a result, many games end up with compasses built permanently into their HUD's.

Repulsors could be useful when you don't want to add a "pit of lava" for aesthetic reasons. For instance, imagine a game taking place in a modern town: wide streets, large squares, office towers standing in some distance from each other rather than sharing walls, etc. Some towns are kind enough to be located on small islands, but then again, most aren't (e.g., imagine an alternate-reality game about members of the English Resistance in the Nazi-occupied London).

Non-linear games, in particular, could take advatage of a visual language in order to tell players just how difficult the section ahead is, for example. This is essentially the job of the "Guide" methods you describe, except that sometimes you may need to warn the player explicitly, rather than just inform them and let them do the math.

It's a bit of a a pity that so many games say "you can't go there" when they actually mean to say "please do go there, it's your next challenge, we're just teasing you so that winning feels like an achievement". Such conventions make repulsors less useful.

Jesse Tucker
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Hi, great article. I wanted to open a bit of discussion about the "don't go here" aspect of design. as you wrote:

"I considered adding a "don't go here" or "repulsor" section to the article but in the end decided against it. Why? Because it's really hard to tell the player not to do something. I think it's mostly much more feasible to instead highlight the "designer-intended" route."

There are some subtle tricks for telling a player not to go somewhere, or more specifically to go to certain places in a specific order.

For example in an exploratory setting, presenting the player with a drop-down and no clear way to return to their current location will encourage a player to go everywhere else that they are able to explore first, before dropping down.

Similarly, by presenting a side path alongside a main path and making them similarly attractive, most players will usually explore the side path first if they wish to get the full experience of the game.

Instead of explicitly saying "Don't go there," it is often more important for a level designer to be sure not to accidentally guide the player in the wrong direction. Players should be able to recognize unusable doors at a glance, for example. Also, care needs to be taken to not encourage the player to go to places in which they can barely not fit. It is good practice to provide enough space for the player to move around, or to make it painfully clear that the player can't get into a specific area.

Martin Nerurkar
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Your examples aren't really repulsors. Instead these are side routes, which should clearly be communicated as possible paths, but not the primary one. The drop down should clearly look like the way to continue, not a dead end - otherwise players will not take it. Also you need to communicate the existence of the other routes Then with that established, it's up to the player to decide where to go. You're not repelling him, you're just presenting options. And when you do that it should be clear which way is the "right" one to continue the game and which one is the dead end with a few goodies.

Ava Avane Dawn
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The map in pathologic did something interesting, which was obscuring the ways of going around town, for example by making very low fences in the paths you traversed that you couldn't cross and weren't written on the map, yet making impossible architecture deeming is necessary to cross the boundaries of reality, verfremdungseffekt and gaming.

Walking in the town made the relationship that the map is not the world, and that simulation is not that which it simulates clear, and the play became even more interesting when suddenly in some part of the game you could scroll up on the map by making a move that you had no reason to do, where you would find a drawing of something just being there, seemingly growing yet static; a living organism that was dead. Was this part of the navigation? What did this have to do with the game premise of an immortal man dying to do? How do you feed the map and the representation of the real world in the game? You pay a character to draw today's spreading of the organism that is the plague so that the parts of town that are dangerous are marked on the map, and act of paying actually changes the way we perceive the world and the way we interact with it. With the appearance of the tumor the reward system with which the player got the dangerous parts marked is subverted, and since there are no goals marked on the map otherwise this is something even more interesting.

Sorry for the rant.

Ruthaniel van-den-Naar
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Good encyclopedical analysis is sometimes better than some new "genial" ideas. Thx Martin.