Lessons in Architecture

I recently revisited Matthew Frederick’s ‘101 Things I Learned in Architecture School’, a fantastic book full of concise lessons that are applicable to various design disciplines and not just limited to architecture students. I have picked out 10 essential lessons, and then attempted to briefly explain them in regards to approaching level design in games.

1. “Use ‘denial and reward’ to enrich passage through the environment.”

As designers we can divert players down unexpected paths, denying them of their current objective and creating intrigue through alternative points of interest. We can then reward them by hinting at views of their target location, creating a sense of visual progress within the current objective. Frederick states that “we connect visual clues from our surroundings”; suggesting that designing intriguing pathways towards the objective can make the arrival all the more rewarding.


2. “Any aesthetic quality is usually enhanced by the presence of a counterpoint.”

To create greater impact in your spaces, try to integrate opposing qualities together. This can apply to approaches into a space as well as the elements inside; such as navigating through a low-lit, narrow corridor to reach a tall bright room.


3. “Three levels of knowing.”

SIMPLICITY – Referencing the child-like unawareness of what lies beneath the surface of immediate reality.

COMPLEXITY – Awareness of complex systems, but with an inability to discern patterns and connections.

INFORMED SIMPLICITY – An enlightened view of reality, to discern and create clarifying patterns within society and nature.

Pattern recognition is crucial, and I found the ‘Informed Simplicity’ definition a perfect description on how we should consistently break down and analyse the world around us for inspiration.


4. “Create architectural richness through informed simplicity or an interaction of simples rather than through unnecessarily busy agglomerations.”

Don’t overcomplicate things. When constructing spaces we need to ensure that we are not making things unnecessarily complex, and this is equally important in regards to our workflow; solving a design problem in fewer, simpler moves as opposed to introducing too many complexities early on.


5. “Beauty is due more to harmonious relationships among the elements of a composition than to the elements themselves.”

One fundamental compositional technique is the idea of viewing things holistically rather than focusing too much on individual elements. This can relate to designing and constructing highly-ordered game spaces, and how individual elements of the environment interact with one another to provide emergent gameplay.


6. “Geometric shapes have inherent dynamic qualities that influence our perception and experience of the built environment.”

Directional level geometry can subtly influence player direction. A long rectangular object or room encourages movement along it for example. These will also influence the player’s direction of gaze as well their movement.


7. “Overdesign.”

This rule is essential to real world architecture in that we are using physical space and materials, and that reducing or focusing the size or layout of a building is easier to do than having to try and create more space to fit things in. Of course, video games do not present us with the same types of restrictions with virtual space, however the idea of starting the workflow with a broader scope and then honing it down to a more focused and refined structure still applies.


8. “An object, surface, or space usually will feel more balanced or whole when its secondary articulation runs counter to its primary geometry.”

Take existing elements in a space and place counter objects against them,such as placing an offset horizontal beam across a series of vertical ones. This is effectively a way of disrupting patterns. You want to interrupt the eye and movement of the player with thoughtful placing of opposing level elements, subtly drawing them towards areas of interest.


9. “Limitations encourage creativity.”

A fundamental approach to design involves engaging with and taking advantage of your limitations. Set yourself constraints early on for the map you want to make, limiting your narrative, art, architectural and mechanical elements.


10. “Just do something.”

Frederick states that simply ‘depicting a design solution’ is enough to learn something about the problem you’re trying to solve. Start working on something. Anything. Adapt to the problems that arise and iterate. In relationship to level design, this may affect the time you spend in pre-production, as at times it may be better to just jump straight into the editor and start blocking things in. Study other designer’s workflow preferences and experiment. I’m currently trying out different approaches and finding that the sooner I have something playable up and running, the better.


‘Possibility Space’ is a familiar concept in game design that has always resonated with me when it comes to understanding how we interact with games spatially and mechanically. Essentially, the term refers to a visualisation of all possible moves and states within a defined game space; representing the full range of interactions and possible outcomes available to the player. A well-crafted possibility space therefore constrains a player’s actions, and within a range that they understand clearly. This may be through physical exploration of the boundaries of the space, or through gaining an understanding of the mechanics by exhausting all possible actions available.

An oft used example is the extremely small number of moves possible in Tic-Tac-Toe, versus the near-unlimited amount of player states available in a game of Chess. In both cases, the physical constraints of the space are relatively small, but the possible moves and states that can emerge vary dramatically depending on the rules governing the space.

Eric Zimmerman states that we can attempt to understand the concept of a possibility space both metaphorically and literally. In a metaphorical sense, we can view them as “an abstract decision space or conceptual space of possible meaning”; referring to the underlying systems of the game that dictate the actions available to the player. Exploring the concept literally as a 2D or 3D space, we can focus on the organisation of spatial elements that guide and constrain the player’s actions. Here we can attempt to understand the space of possibility narratively, considering the impact that these spatial features may have on creating meaning.

Will Wright was an early adopter of the term possibility space, and regularly referred to it in a similar way to the ‘metaphorical’ interpretation mentioned previously. However some designers have favoured the more literal approach of the concept; and in particular have been exploring its connection to narrative design.

“Games create ‘possibility spaces’, spaces that provide compelling problems within an overarching narrative, afford creative opportunities for dealing with problems and then respond to player choices with meaningful consequences” – Warren Spector

Warren Spector, acclaimed for his work in narrative design and character immersion at Looking Glass studios, supports the fact that spatial features have a strong impact on the creating the narrative space of possibility. We can effectively view an individual game space as a ‘physical’ narrative place that guides and constrains the player. Another ex-Looking Glass designer Randy Smith; has also often used the term possibility space in regards to narrative. Randy believes that the creation of “honest and believable stories out of the possibility space” is the key to engaging gameplay. He states that as humans we have an innate desire to witness to stories resolve, and that framing these key narrative points as possibility spaces is a compelling way to understand storytelling in games.


Compositional techniques have always played a fundamental part in constructing aesthetically pleasing imagery throughout art history, specifically referencing the placement and organisation of visual elements. Established as a vocabulary for artists, the theories used were focused on achieving unity within these visual elements and guiding the viewer’s eye through them.

After investigating compositional theories in a broad sense, it soon becomes apparent that they can indeed be applied to various areas of a game’s design and visual identity. Some are purely in regards to aesthetics, such as a visually pleasing yet functional layout of UI elements. However they are also very much embedded inside the mechanics and systems of the game. An example would include using compositional values to achieve a harmonous balance of enemies to engage with, or within the array of weapons available during the conflict. Considering single player level design, for this post I want to specifically focus on how we might take some traditional compositional theories and try to adapt and apply them to help influence player direction through the game space.


The most important idea that we can take from these compositional theories is the focus on guiding the viewer’s eye through elements of an image. Traditionally, composition has been applied to static imagery, with the frame of reference being dictated by the artist. However, as designers working with a player-controlled camera, there are no guarantees that the player will be looking where we want them to, when we want them to. Therefore we can investigate into how certain compositional theories might be adapted to influence the player’s eye towards the areas we want them to look at or go towards. In single player level design, I believe that intelligent application of composition can help to guide and constrain the player through an optimized narrative path that the designer has crafted.

Vertical lines:

Vertical Lines

Vertical lines tend to represent powerstability and strength, exaggerating the impression of height and grandeur in architecture. This example from Dishonored evidences this, presenting an oppressiveintimidating ‘building’ that the player needs to infiltrate.

Horizontal Lines:


Horizontal lines imply a sense of calm and tranquility. In level design these can be implemented most effectively in moments of exploration where the player is in little danger, such as this scene from Mirror’s Edge where the player is navigating through a confined, yet safe space inside a building.

Directional lines/architectural elements:


The arrangement and position of architectural elements can lead the player’s eye along, directing movement as well as attention. The flow of interconnected spaces is enhanced by these directional elements, using physical world properties to effectively lead the player where the designer wants them to go.


Lighting_Direct Attention

Effective use of lighting can be used to direct the player’s attention towards a certain location within the space. As this screenshot from Metro 2033 evidences, singular spotlights are often used in darker environments to guide the player’s eye towards an area of interest. In this case, the light reinforces the door as the most  important object in the current scene, heightening the expectation of what may lie behind it. 

Lighting_Direct Attention_Architectural Aid

Sometimes lighting can be used in conjunction with other leading architectural elements. In this slightly less subtle example, the arrow taped onto the left wall directs the player’s gaze across and towards the light at the back of the corridor, effectively informing the player to continue down this path towards and up the stairs.



Framing is traditionally used in composition to crop and frame an area of interest within the field of view. In the same way that we can direct the player’s gaze through lines and lighting, we can also manipulate their field of view through level geometry and scripted events to guide the player’s eye to a specific area of interest. However in my opinion the scripted event should never involve taking control of the player’s camera away from them, they are just another technique that can be used within the game space to draw the player’s attention. In this Half Life 2: Episode 2 example, the player emerges from an underground mine tunnel to the surface outside. The first thing the player sees is the large combine presence crossing the bridge in the distance. Framed by the doorway and further emphasized by the sloped entry, it is almost impossible for the player not to witness the framed story event in the distance.

Positive/Negative space:

Positive Negative

Shapes are created by both the physical geometry that occupies the space and the emptiness that surrounds it. This creates positive/negative spatial elements, providing architecture that can be interesting both aesthetically and in terms of how the player engages with it.

Positive Negative_Silhouette

Effective implementation of positive/negative geometry can be reinforced by using strong silhouettes. This aids the readability of a structure, both in introducing new memorable structures to the player and then making them recognizable when they come across them again at a later time.

Repetitive elements/rhythm:


Repetition of visual elements can sometimes have a calming effect on the player, as the eye is naturally drawn along patterns. Disrupting these rhythmic elements can have the opposite effect on the player, creating unease and placing an emphasis on the isolated area.



A sense of scale is created by the relationship between shapes within the space, as using one object as a size reference for another aids the player’s understanding of scale within the scene. Typically this can be used to emphasize the large or small size of something when it is placed against its opposite. In this example from Halo 4, it translates to vehicles as well as architecture. Having the smaller vehicle next to the larger one further emphasizes the distinct difference between the two, the latter object’s scale communicated more clearly to the player through this specified placement of items.

It soon becomes apparent that clever application of compositional techniques in level design can be incredibly important in directing the player and communicating information, as well as maintaining visual balance and rhythm within the space. One major benefit I feel strongly about is that it removes the emphasis from scripted moments that take control away from the player, such as cut-scenes and quick time events. Clever use of composition focuses on communicating information through the environment, utilizing carefully placed elements within the space to influence meaningful player decisions. The player controlled camera seemingly causes a natural conflict with traditional composition techniques based on static images, however further investigation shows that they can be implemented to provide an interesting relationship between the designer, player and the game space, providing experiences unique to the medium.


Foreshadowing is a technique that can be used to visually hint at an upcoming area of the map to the player. Previewing a future location ahead can create an element of anticipation and tension, whilst giving a sense of orientation within the world. The technique can also be reversed, to frame elements of the map the player has already visited, and as such invoking them with a sense of progression. For this post, I am going to be specifically looking at how it can be tied directly into the player’s current objectives; foreshadowing short-term and long term goals within the game.

Though there are many techniques that are used in directing the player such as line of sight, leading architectural elements and lighting, I want to focus exclusively on how foreshadowing can be used in a narrative context in level design, and look at a few examples of it in use.


Visually hinting at the player’s long term goals in the game gives narrative context to the overall space. It can give the player a more holistic representation of their progress within the overall story arc of the game, presenting them with an idea of how close they are to their ‘ultimate goal’. If a game regularly reminds the player of their long term objective, it can keep them in anticipation whilst also developing consistency within the game world and story, heightening the immersion in an environment that provides constant visual feedback to their progress.


Large structures such as the lighthouse in Alan Wake work well as they are visible from afar and give the player orientation within the game world, keeping them on direction towards the objective.


These structures usually have to be visually easy to read with a strong silhouette and features that distinguish them from the surrounding environment. The citadel in Half-life 2 is great example of this.


Presenting the player with glimpses of an upcoming area they will be exploring keeps the player motivated and engaged in their current ‘objective’. It can be effectively used to frame upcoming objectives and previous ones, giving the player orientation by providing instant feedback and verification on the player’s progress in the current space. Hinting at these short-goals can also enhance the believability and connectivity in the relationship of individual spaces, raising tension and anticipation as the foreshadowed area is usually very close by to the player.


Using another Half-life example, foreshadowing can be used to hint at upcoming events as well as specific locations, such as this screenshot from Half-life 2: Episode 2 where the ‘Hunter’ observes the player from the roof a building, hinting at the reveal and initial confrontation of the enemy coming up.



‘Rebel_Bunker’ is a Half-Life 2: Episode 2 map I recently finished working on; the primary goals of this project being to get me back into actually creating levels on a regular basis, and more importantly giving myself a strict deadline and making sure I delivered a finished product at the end of it. Though this was a 2 week project, it had to effectively be worked on a few hours a night balanced against other work, effectively serving as a test for time management and motivation when working on future projects like this. The map is certainly not as well designed or polished as I’d like, but I am pleased to have managed my time well enough to ensure a map actually reached a finished state (more or less), and because of that this now sets me up nicely for the work ahead on maps I have lined up for the near future. Here are some of my thoughts on the final map:

  • Due to the strict time schedule I gave myself, very little time was spent on pre-production and layout for the map. This was not good. I adapted to a more freestyle workflow which I enjoyed at first, but when working on a single player level this ultimately ended in a lack of flow and coherence in the spaces, with poor placement of puzzles resulting in odd pacing for the level.
  • Due to the lack of planning, at the beginning I originally decided on using a underground mine as the starting point, to immediately give myself restrictions with designing the narrative and layout of the spaces. I usually would want to begin with what kind of story I would like to tell with a first person game, but starting with the theme effectively cut off other options for me, limiting my decisions and resulting in me being able to get on with the work a lot quicker.
  • The environment themes started to change as I worked on the map, and I ended up with two very aesthetically different areas of the bunker. The first half was a more organic, dimly let space with low ceilings, wooden walls and beam supports, rusted metal doors and fences. The second half of the map was in one large open space, with very oppressive concrete architecture with harsh edges. I like the different aesthetic styles as they differentiate the two different areas, but due to the small size of the map the two visual styles were not blended together naturally. At all.
  • The second large, open concrete area with elevators mining cart tracks was undoubtedly very rushed. The strict time schedule and freestyle workflow resulted in me having a lack of direction of the actual finishing point for the player, and far too much was crammed into the final open area to get the player to gradually scale upwards through a few physics puzzles towards the final elevator.
  • The lighting is pretty terrible. This again was due to the fact it was rushed, both in where and how it was implemented and also the fact I should have spent more time researching the lighting. I also had some problems with sewing displacements which resulted in shadows forming in floor textures that were aligned next to each other. The solution involved redoing the displacements completely and re-sewing them, and for now I’ve left them as they are. I know for future reference however.
  • There were a couple of elements I liked in the map. One example was the elevator that has its switch around a corner, meaning the player cannot actually press the switch and reach the rising elevator in time. To solve this, the player had to push the mine cart onto the elevator, using it as a heavy object to weigh the elevator down once the switch had being pressed, and having the the player go back to push the cart away off the elevator resulting in it rising up with the player on it. After a lot of trouble designing ways to move the elevator, the mine cart puzzle came together nicely as it served as a object within the actual narrative space and was coherently used as part of a physics puzzle.

Though this project resulted more as a test of personal workflow and as a prototype for future projects, everything that was learnt during this project has proved useful for approaching development of future projects I want to work on, of which I’ll be posting about here soon. Here’s some images of the map:







Heat maps are an incredibly useful way to visualise critical player data  from game sessions. They can collect and represent important statistics, with this data then being compiled and presented to the developers to analyse. For example, they can be utilized effectively in an online multiplayer shooter to observe the intricate details of a game, such as what particular weapon was used to gain a kill in a specific point of a map. Observing this data is crucial as it allows designers to be incredibly specific in distinguish what parts of the map are working well and what areas are cause for concern, in ways which may not have been possible just using player feedback alone.

Team Fortress 2 - 2Fort

Team Fortress 2 – 2Fort

It is important to note the difference between heat map data targeted at the players, and the data collected for the developer’s purpose. My first real encounter with using heat maps as a consumer was with Bungie’s fantastic data service incorporated into Halo 3. I was absolutely amazed by the depth and scale of information provided for matches you had played, working both as a springboard for personal skill development and interest in how other players approach a map. Bungie was not the first developer to provide feedback data to its players, but they were certainly the first to hook my interest in heat maps and telemetry data as a player.

Halo 3 - The Pit

Halo 3 – The Pit

On the other hand, developers have been observing data provided by their players for years, both during development and post release. Companies such as Valve are infamous for their consumer/implementation feedback loop, collecting data from the players and continuing to iterate on design issues through updates after a game is launched. Alpha/Beta testing, in-house QA and focus groups have all been ways in which data has been collected pre-release, and it’s become increasingly popular for developers to reach out to fans with an early build of the game, providing valuable telemetry data for the developers regardless of any additional blatant marketing intentions. As well trying to keep the product as balanced and bug free as possible, this data also benefits future players by ensuring better compatibility with different hardware. A great recent example of this is Echo, Splash Damage’s telemetry and analytics system being used on the closed Alpha of their upcoming game Dirty Bomb. In this case the fantastic technology is provided by a dedicated team, where the cloud-based technology can collect data from every single game played worldwide.

Besides the data collected in online games both during development and after launch, developers are increasingly incorporating feedback from players in unique ways through new technologies and business models, and it’s gradually become evident that telemetry data can be incredibly interesting for the player as well as the developer.



Imposing limitations on the player is a fundamental part of game design. However, the challenge arises in deciding where these limitations are implemented and how the story, world and mechanics support these limitations to provide internal consistency. Observing this in terms of the navigational space available to the player, I want to briefly look at a great example of how incorporating heavy spatial limitations can affect the level of interactivity in the environment.

When studying level design, it may be uncommon to analyse the use of space in the point-and-click adventure titles popular in the 1990s, yet that is exactly what engrossed the majority of my interest whilst playing through Jordan Mechner’s 1997 cult classic The Last Express. The ambitious adventure game plays out in a simulated real time fictional story of a 3 day train ride on the Orient Express in 1914, the last few days prior to the outbreak of World War I. Though there are countless things you can admire with this game, from the fantastic rotoscoped animation to the simulated real-time actions of the characters, I want to try and specifically concentrate on Mechner’s decision to use a train as a confined space of play, and how the scale of game space dictates the level of interactivity.


The Last Express had a huge budget for its time, and aside from the large amounts of money being poured into the unique rotoscoped animation process, the production and design team put a lot of effort into fleshing out the environment – just six train cars in this case. The result is that the train became an incredibly coherent and realised environment, with the all the characters on board from the passengers to the staff, established as convincing, distinct individuals. As the game evidences, putting all your resources into developing a smaller realised game space can allow for a more detailed, fleshed out environment with a believable level of interaction. In the case of The Last Express, it allows you to freely explore the train cars, engage in conversation with characters and observe your surroundings, actions which become context dependant due to the simulated real-time movement of the train and the behaviour of its passengers. Mechner is attempting to tell a non-linear story in a very small, controlled game environment, by taking the limited amount of objects and characters available and providing variable outcomes depending on the time the player chooses to interact with them. This encourages fleshing out small game spaces with mundane, seemingly irrelevant interaction points that serve a purpose only at a specific time in the game story.

 “I think of it as a non-linear experience in the most linear possible setting, that is, an express train” – Jordon Mechner

While The Last Express evidences that confined spaces seemingly favour adventure games, when trying to generalise the application of heavy spacial limitations in game design there’s clearly multiple things to consider. For example, smaller spaces may mean less room for emergent gameplay to emerge in such a small area, and even a heavily detailed small room in an adventure title could turn into a pixel hunt with a lack of player direction. On the other hand, open world titles pride themselves of level of freedom governed by the player, but it of course becomes increasingly difficult to decide what the player can and cannot interact with in relation to the design and technical limitations. An often referenced idea in exploring a heavily spatially constrained environment is Warren Spector’s One City Block RPG. Spector’s dream involves constructing a single city bloc,; a highly-detailed building simulating the lives of the people that live there and the objects that reside with in it. It’s an idea seemingly popular with designers; to create an inhabitable space rich with believable interactions that is supported by the consistency and constraints of the world and it’s underlying systems.


15 years on from The Last Express, its clever use of space is still just as inspiring. It remains a great example of using a highly constrained environment to implement believable mechanical constraints, by providing internal consistency and supporting the overall narrative.