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Designing Better Levels Through Human Survival Instincts
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Designing Better Levels Through Human Survival Instincts

June 21, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next

Shade, Shadow, and Survival

Refuges were previously defined as having a certain amount of shadow that hides humans from their enemies.

Shadow, for our usage, will here be defined as a lack of light caused by a light source being obscured by a physical object.

Some games, such as Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell use Shadow to such an extreme that it creates the sense of being a different space altogether. The developers of Splinter Cell call this concept "Shadowspace."

Shadowspace creates the perception that one room is actually two: areas within the Shadow and areas in the light. Architecture shows us that this type of space is of great use when creating Prospect and Refuge experiences.

In the Alhambra's Court of the Lions, located in Granada, Spain, visitors enter the space from a covered arcade and can look out into the courtyard, which is open to the sky above.

While the columns of the arcade define a separate space, the shadows underneath solidify the impression that it is, indeed separate from the courtyard itself.

Shadows create their own separate feeling of space in places like the Court of the Lions. Some stealth games use this to their advantage.

What if there is a lot of shadow though? In situations where there is little light, moving from an area of light to dark becomes increasingly uncomfortable. This fear stems from the idea that what is in the dark space is not entirely visible to us and therefore, unknown, much like childhood fears of going into the basement. This has been put to great use in thrillers and horror movies such as Jaws or Paranormal Activity respectively. The idea is that the scariest thing is that which is your own imagination.

In the case of Jaws, water acts like Shadow would in a game level. Despite the fact that most people know what a Great White Shark looks like, the shark in Jaws is not seen for about an hour into the movie. The mental image projected by the audience of it silently stalking helpless bathers was much more terrifying than what they could have captured on screen. By taking the concept of "shark" away from a corporeal fish, Stephen Spielberg made the idea of "shark" synonymous with the water itself. By the time that the shark does show up in the film, he is of such mythic proportions that he seems omnipotent in the ocean.

More literally related to the concept of Shadow is the demon in Paranormal Activity. For much of the film, his presence seems to only impact action that occurs at night. In this way, when the house is its darkest is when the demon freely roams. The monster is also unseen, meaning that like the shark in Jaws it is omnipotent in the nightly shadows and the viewer's mind is left to fill in the demon's form with their worst nightmares. When the demon begins doing things to the couple in the daytime, the rules are broken and the viewer becomes even more terrified, he now owns the daytime as well.

Games can use this to great effect in areas where lighting is scarce. While some games, such as military first person shooters, merely use a lack of light as a nuisance that must be overcome with things like night-vision goggles, games in the survival horror genre and some others use shadow to create feelings of risk for the player. In Half-Life 2, the designers place caches of items in small alcoves for players to find. While these are typically marked with the lambda symbol used by the in-game rebel faction, there are instances of supplies being hidden without this logo. These hidden areas are also known to be homes for enemies known as Headcrabs, some of which are powerful enough to paralyze the player character and leave him with very low health. This gives entering even small shadowy alcoves an incredible feeling of risk, since they can contain either helpful items or a dangerous surprise.

Shadows create a space of dangerous unknown that can be used to instill a sense of fear. This move by a level designer can allow the player's own paranoia to fill in the space with whatever scary object they wish.

Technological enhancements in games that allow dynamic lighting have given us games like Doom 3, Dementium: The Ward, and more recently, Dead Space. In Dead Space specifically, much of the game occurs in pitch-black surroundings with the player's flashlight as the only light source. In the tradition of allowing player imaginations to fill in the surrounding blackness, Necromorphs noisily move through an abandoned space ship around the player's character, a lone engineer ill-equipped for combat. As such, the least terrifying areas of the game turn out to be those where you are fighting visible enemies. It is the empty areas, pitch black but filled with the sounds of stalking mutants, where the player is the most terrified. Like the shark in Jaws, the Necromorphs command the environment with their lack of bodily presence.

In the sequel to Dead Space, players revisit the ship from the original for a brief period. The player character's previous traumatic experiences aboard the ship give the player the expectation that it is a beehive of space zombies. The designers wisely withhold enemy presence for the first half of the player's visit to the ship, ramping up the player's own paranoia of the Necromorphs before unleashing them in a swarm. While the amount of time the player spends without an enemy encounter is specifically notable in this part of the game, it is not the first example of this phenomenon. Dead Space 2 utilizes traditional horror surroundings to utilize pre-existing horror-movie fears in players, such as having players travel through churches and pre-schools to evoke horror imagery from films such as The Exorcist or Child's Play. In this way the game pulls no punches, taking environments that are thought of as friendly or safe and corrupting them, again in the cases of the church and the preschool, then bathing them in an all encompassing Shadow that sound and environmental hints fill with paranoid fear.

A ubiquitous darkness, atmospheric sound effects, and familiar horror imagery work together to intensify humanity's already existing fear of shadowy darkness.

Shade, on the other hand, creates a very different type of spatial quality. Where Shadow is primarily used to hide objects or the nature of spaces, Shade is used to obscure objects and evoke a sense of curiosity in players. In the Middle Ages, Gothic churches were purposefully designed with windows that would diffuse light and create an ethereal atmosphere known as Lux Nova, or "new light." Also referred to as "Mystic Light", this condition was believed to bring patrons closer to God.

This image, in the yet-to-be-completed Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, demonstrates the diffused light used to create the effect of "Lux Nova."

In the Mosque of Cordoba, it is combined with the rhythmic arrangement of columns to create the aforementioned sense of curiosity in the visitor, urging them to continue farther into the space and explore its experiential boundaries.

Rhythm and lighting create a sense of curiosity

If in games light is usually a signifier of spaces that are "safe" and Shadow is typically a signifier of spaces that are "dangerous", then Shade's middle ground creates a sense of Atmospheric Ambiguity. One series that uses this to great effect is The Legend of Zelda.

Zelda games have always been about exploration and mystery. As a game about interacting with the myths of a fantasy world's past, it also contains a fair amount of "sacred" items and places. The dungeon designs in these games, therefore, showcase shaded conditions in a way that keeps players wondering what lurks around the next corner. For example, it was previously mentioned that high ceilinged, wide-open Prospect spaces are often the setting for climactic Boss battles. However, these same spaces are also traditionally used in the real world for sacred purposes: churches, temples, etc. Zelda games use this dualism to create temples that, when shrouded in a blanket of fog or Shade, exudes a sense of mystery that players will want to investigate. While a dark Prospect space would seem to immediately indicate a Boss and one with rays of light filling the chamber would indicate a sacred space, Zelda games tease the player by using Shade.

In games such as The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, players often face a high ceilinged room with an ambiguously shaded lighting condition inside. While the final Boss room of each dungeon is very plainly marked with a skull on the in-game map and a golden Boss Door, other large encounters are placed to surprise players. Like other games in the series, Twilight Princess' dungeons are given back stories, adding to the feeling of sacred mystery. As such, walking into an ambiguous Prospect space is often an invigorating experience for players: am I about to fight a difficult mini-boss or am I about to get a new weapon? Often the drama builds as the player surveys then actually enters the room, then ends with either the door ominously slamming shut behind Link or Link's new weapon revealing itself bathed in a beam of light. This technique also finds its way into the game's overworld, where players occasionally encounter a skeleton knight in a bright but ethereally lit space. Eventually the player learns that this is the spirit of a past hero that will teach Link new moves, but the first encounter with this character is filled with dramatic tension.

Players may expect a moment of repose in this obviously sacred space before armored knights suddenly attack

Even in instances where the space does house a new item for Link, enemies often still attack the player before they may earn the item. In a way, this invasion of enemies into a previously sacred temple is not unlike survival horror games infesting churches and preschools with monsters: corrupting the sacred spaces of our society. While in survival horror this is used to instill fear, games like Zelda allow players more freedom in fighting enemies and turn these scenes into heroic battles.

While used alone, both Shadow and Shade can be incredibly effective. However, when used together, they can keep players constantly guessing at the nature of the level they are exploring. Zelda's Boss Rooms are often shrouded in Shade that quickly dims and becomes black Shadow when the Boss attacks. Several games by Valve perhaps even more effectively utilize a collaboration of Shade and Shadow in their level designs.

The first instance of this collaboration is in Half-Life 2: Episode One. It was previously mentioned that the enemies known as Headcrabs often hide in shadowy outcroppings in level geometry in this game. Weapons caches, left by the player's allies, also often occupy these spaces. One particular section of the game has players exploring tunnels lit by dim blue lights. Players are left to wonder what the nature of this space will be: will the stacked cars and shadowy doorways provide supplies or am I about to be attacked?

Lighting conditions allow the player to question whether a tunnel is safe or not…this tunnel isn't.

As the players press on into the space, a horde of Headcrab Zombies enters the tunnel and attacks. Zombies enter from any shadowy crevasse available and the player must hold them off with the help of an AI character. In this case the Shadow spaces that send mixed messages to players are combined with Shade that creates Atmospheric Ambiguity to lead up to a particularly dramatic action sequence.

This theme is also prevalent in the Left 4 Dead games. These games have the added benefit of featuring an AI Director that controls the location and amount of zombies the player will encounter, making every game different. Levels must therefore be crafted to provide the most Atmospheric Ambiguity possible, as an area that was safe in a previous playthrough may now be the site of the biggest battle of the game. To achieve these goals, shadowy alleyways or tunnels are often combined with a B-movie fog and film grain that provide the necessary Shade condition. Removing the Shade and replacing it with all shadows or even heavy rain takes the atmosphere from one of atmospherically ambiguous co-op fun to a claustrophobic tension not unlike that in Dead Space.

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