Why Nathan Drake Doesn’t Need a Compass | Game Maker’s Toolkit

Why Nathan Drake Doesn’t Need a Compass | Game Maker’s Toolkit

Hi, this is Mark Brown with Game Maker’s Toolkit,
a series on video game design. Near the beginning of Uncharted 3, there’s
this awesome section where you’re playing as a young Nathan Drake and you’re being chased
across the rooftops of Colombia. It’s awesome, specifically, because in most other games
it would simply be a cutscene. That’s because most game developers would
struggle to make sure the player is always going the right way and making the right jumps
– and not repeatedly falling off the roof or getting caught by baddies. In fact, most developers struggle to let you
move through a static environment, let alone an intense chase scene, without some clunky
navigational tool – be it a waypoint, a compass, a floating arrow, some kind of supernatural
survivor’s vision, or an ethereal space snake thing. So how does Naughty Dog do it? How does this
developer let you make your way through the whole of Uncharted, and The Last of Us, without
a map, when other equally linear games tell you where to go, at every step of the way? MONKEY: We’re not in the clear yet. There’s the way
out. The secret is that Naughty Dog, and other
developers like Valve and That Game Company, is telling you exactly where to go, but using
subconscious clues that are hidden in the level design itself. They use tricks to grab your attention and
guide your eye, which are borrowed from artistic composition. And they use in-world navigational
aids, which are lifted from Disneyworld. “It’s very much a game in psychology,” says
Emilia Schatz, game designer at Naughty Dog. “You need to figure out what your environment is telling the player” “And figure out how you can give the player as much information as possible” So let’s look at that Uncharted chase scene
again, and see if we can figure out what the environment is telling the player here. The first eye-catching technique is light,
which is streaming in through this open window. Light is the most common and arguably effective
way of guiding the player, because we flock to it like moths to a flame. Provided the
surrounding area is dark enough, light sources like lamps, car headlights, flames, and sunlight
will always catch the player’s attention. Here, visual composition tricks are used.
The pillars and wall create a frame – which is like a portal that draws that player’s
eye to whatever is inside. And in the middle is this line which runs down the centre of
the roof. Guiding lines are often used in painting and
photography to lead the viewer’s eye or focus their vision on a specific point. That’s harder
for level designers to use as there’s no fixed viewpoint, but similar techniques can be used
to suggest a path for a player. In a 2010 GDC talk, Naughty Dog art director
Erick Pangilinan says “defining a clear path is really important and is something we look
at all the time,” and he says “When you’re in a busy schedule it’s really easy to create
noisy, confusing environments”. So he talks about clearly separating the ground
and the boundaries of the level, and says “putting shapes in the middle of the path
creates a stepping stone effect that can lead the eye through”. When Drake leaps over the barrier, these birds
fly off. This gives us motion which, in a mostly static scene, really grabs your attention.
Things like sparks, flashing lights, and banging doors are hard to ignore, and encourage the
player to draw in closer. The birds in Uncharted not only do that, but
they fly off in the direction of where Drake needs to go next, subtly guiding you to the
right when the more obvious route is to continue along the roof. Of course, the enemy here will force you to
the right if you weren’t already going that way. Rules and mechanics can push and pull
the player very effectively – as you’ll run away from enemies you can’t attack, but will
chase down collectibles like they’re a trail of bread crumbs. Down here, we see an example of affordance
in level design. A ramp is there to be jumped off, and the player will dutifully play along. You can’t discount the camera during this
entire section, of course. It swings around, keeping your next destination in the centre
of the frame. But you’re always free to wiggle it about and look wherever you please – the
game rarely takes control away from you entirely. Now the guiding lines point up, except for
these windowsills. The contrast in directionality makes them stand out – not to mention their
colour. This is another common trick in level design – as long as the colours in the rest
of the stage are carefully considered, a bright and contrasting colour can really grab your
attention. Mirror’s Edge famously uses red, but The Last
of Us and Uncharted do the exact same thing with yellow. And Tomb Raider paints all its
important elements in white. All of these tricks are used to subtly nudge
you through the section and keep you on the carefully scripted path that Naughty Dog has
laid out. But it doesn’t stop there, as similar visual clues are littered throughout the entire
game. There are other tricks, too. Like negative
space, which forms an attractive portal. And audio can be used, too – everyone goes into
this room at the start of The Last of Us, not just because of the alluring light but
because of the distant sound of the TV speakers. SARAH: You in here? And then there are weenies. That’s right,
weenies. This is a technique from Walt Disney, who plopped the giant castle in the centre
of Disneyland to lure visitors into the centre as soon as they enter the gates, and
give them a navigational aid so they’re always be able to return to the middle of the park. So, characters in Uncharted and The Last of
Us spend half the game pointing at far-off landmarks which then loom over the skyline
and give you something to work towards and a static position to aid navigation. BILL: There’s that truck.
ELENA: You see that tower up ahead? TESS: There she is. That’s our building.
HARRY: There’s the tower. JOEL: Alright, there’s the bridge. That’s our way
out of here. The same applies to the Citadel in Half Life
2, buildings in Mirror’s Edge, and the mountain in Journey. And then there are arrows. Sometimes hidden
in the game world as props or as markings, and sometimes literal arrows, on signs and
painted on the ground that point you in the right direction. Hey, that’s what arrows are
there for, right? You can use all of these examples in your
designs. Even if it’s just using light and colour to highlight places of interactivity.
You’ll need to test that it all works by observing random players as they move through your level,
but you can also borrow a clever trick from Naughty Dog. Back when it was making Crash Bandicoot it
would do something called the squint test, where level designers would squint their eye
and see if the critical path through the level was the most dominant thing in each scene. You may be wondering why a game like Crash
Bandicoot or Uncharted needs to bother with all this, when they’re already so linear.
And it’s true: if you’re not going down the critical path in these games, you’ll often
find yourself at a dead end. But that’s kind of the point. The game provides
multiple paths for the player, and they feel like they have the freedom to explore whichever
they choose. As they always seem to stumble upon new content – not entirely aware that
they were subconsciously persuaded to take that path or enter that door – it stands to
reason that all the other exits and doors lead to new play spaces too. It makes the world feel bigger and less linear
than it really is. It also helps keep up the pace of the game.
Uncharted is supposed to be a rip-roaring adventure, and that would fall apart if you
were struggling to find the next door in every room. And, crucially, this stuff just works. And
you can test it for yourself: play Mirror’s Edge and turn off runner’s vision and you’ll
see how difficult it is to get through the game without these visual clues. If you’re
anything like me you’ll get lost over and over and over again. And finally, knowing how to use these tricks
will help other aspects of your level design too as they can be used for more than just
navigation. Picking the right colour for your level doesn’t just help you highlight platforms,
but also set the right tone. Motion can be used to make sure the player is looking in
the right direction. And frames in the level design ensure the player gets the best viewpoint for an important scene. But maybe we’ll come back to all that in another
video. Till then, thanks for watching. Have you ever seen a game that does something
smart with navigation? Leave a comment below. Also, give the video a like, subscribe to
the channel, or consider pitching in via Patreon.


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    There is the "developer guidance" in Fallout New Vegas, in which the most obvious way to Vegas is going north, but you soon encounter a lot of cazadores, with the path being a winding road that makes it easy to get ganged up on by them and difficult to sneak past them. In another northbound path, you get to deathclaw territory, which quickly proves discouraging.
    So you make your way south, first getting to Primm and solving some matters there, and then east, first encountering Caesar's Legion in Nipton and witnessing their cruelty there, then making your way to Novac, where you meet Boone and help him find out who screwed over his wife… a few quests more along the way up north, following the natural path, and when you get to Vegas you finally have some history behind you, and you feel ready to settle matters with the people who robbed and shot you. You also just left the game's "naturally directed" linear part and you're finally sort of "unleashed" to go wherever you want.

    I only noticed this in hindsight when I started the game over on PC, but when I first played New Vegas I followed the path without ever knowing I was being directed in a "linear" path: in fact I felt very much just like I was simply exploring a particular set of areas in this new world I was getting myself into.

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    2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250

    Wolfenstein was SO much fun but the level design in that game was VERY frustrating. Some people say that the devs intended for the levels to be confusing which would be ok if we were given a heads up, either subconsciously through dialogue in game or in advertising.

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    I know you mentioned Half-Life 2, but I was always blown away by the level design and visual tricks in that game. Playing that game however many years ago was my first foray into analysis of game design. I remember stopping mid-game one moment and thinking "I feel like I'm lost…" but as I continued, the game kept going along. I was unfamiliar with that feeling, used to being strung along. The only times I felt "lost" in other games were when I deliberately and consciously left the obvious critical path to explore nooks and crannies. In HL2, it felt like the critical path was those nooks and crannies. Thrilled by this, I played through the game again with developer's commentary and… man. The sheer effort and attention to detail that goes into every environment and scene… It's inspiring, to be honest. It's what really made me want to be a game designer. I always loved video games and thought making them would be "cool". But seeing the depth and careful thought that can be put into this fascinating and uniquely interactive medium is what made me fall in love with games as an art form. Any time I doubted my thoughts on wanting to be a game developer, I'd just play through HL2 or one of its episodes with developer commentary, and that feeling came right back.

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    Cadaverina Produções

    In some rpgs, I look for the hints That show me the correct way, just to avoid it, just to find the "wrong way", i like to explore the world, catch new itens that is not in the correct path, and find interesting things. Some games makes this very easy, they highlight the correct way, sometimes, you think you take the wrong way, and you need to turn back after the exploration, but it's the correct way, and you skip the exploration. We need to build a balanced way, with the exploration is crucial, give more clues about the right way, make the players know the "explorer path" and the "right path".

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    i personally hate the "color the path" trick, because it soon gets so obvious, that it reduces immersion and makes you feel stupid. the more subtil tricks like composition and light sources, aswell as moving objects however, i find great. so good in fact, that until now, they where subconscious for me.

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    João Baptista

    In 3:15 I certainly haven’t paid attention to the birds. I actually thought I had to go left, instead of right.

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    Grace Foskett

    I love how breath of the wild doesn't have a correct path, it instead asks you to find your own. Whenever you have to climb a mountain or cliff instead of seeing a giant glowing path you see a series of ledges where you can rest or a gentler slope. The only parts that seem like obvious ploys are the korok puzzles, which are meant to look contrived because in story, they were.

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    Late To The Party

    I recently finally got round to playing through Uncharted. As good as the subliminal progression can be, my most common thought was 'oh great, more waist high walls..'

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    Jelle Meijer

    Mark Brown, I wonder how you feel about special devices aiding players in navigation? Such as climbable cracks showing up in Metal Gear Solid V when using night vision. Or the simple common press 'v' to scan the environment and find all interact-able objects.

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    Dec B.

    I loved Portal 2, but I think it did a bad job with guiding players in the right direction. There were many times when I got stuck because I couldn't see a portalable surface because it was too far away, or I wasn't at the right angle.

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    Adrian Smith

    In Halo 3 ODST the Superintendent AI in control of New Mombasa uses recorded messages and automated parts of the city to guide you to the next clue. These recorded messages were used to direct civilians, and in the context of the game, they aren't exact, so the Superintendent has to use the closest thing it can to communicate. Too bad the game still has markers though. I just think that it's a really good bit of world and level design.

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    Cave Johnson

    I like how HALO ODST did all this so self consciously and then built the subtle manipulation of it into the story of the game. Keep it clean.

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    Metal Cat Channel

    I like how if he says that some games do it right he always uses half life 2 too in the example

    Half life and it's sequels and expansions are part of gaming
    That made so much

    I hope that new adventures of our scientist will teach us even more (if there will be new adventures)

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    Dave Carsley

    I don't think painting all the ledges white in a supposedly "undiscovered" tomb is very subtle. Actually, I think it's quite stupid, since it indeed assumes the player themselves is stupid.

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    Something interesting I noticed, the game NaissanceE breaks these rules on purpose a lot of the time. This is because the main gameplay is simply finding your way.

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    Gün Rodoplu

    I wish you had done this after Uncharted 4 came out, as navigating the player through level design is even more impressing than the previous entries of the series.

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    Jonas Memborg

    I've noticed recently that I enjoy games more, when they do not use the "arrow" or "marker" method to guide me along. I think a lot of it has to do with immersing yourself in the world and taking notice of it. Using landmarks, street signs or dialogue to guide the player also creates a necessity from the developers to think consciously of their world and level design.

    WoW, for example, was a more immersive experience to me back before we had quest helpers and such. Convenience doesn't always equate to a better gameplay experience. Following directions, getting lost and finding more content was part of the experience. One might just accidentally stumble into a new area, and one adventure might lead into a grander one.

    Using the fact that players CAN get lost along the way to create interesting gameplay opportunities should be a conscious part of a level designers workflow. That way if the player gets lost, there is something (hopefully) interesting for them to discover.
    – I've taken slightly wrong turns in game worlds and wound up in little hidden away villages or camps, which actually provided me with a brief respite and a chance to stock up – or sometimes lead into side quests and what not.

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    I disagree because there's nothing subtle or subconscious about bright red and yellow markers that seem drastically out of place to the rest of the game world. It takes me right out of the experience and reminds me that I'm playing a game. I may be biased because I thought Uncharted and Mirror's Edge were garbage for other reasons too, but regardless, developers can try better than just putting flashy colors everywhere whether they fit the theme or not.

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    Charles Dibben

    This was my biggest problem with skyward sword. As an avid gamer and Zelda officionado, I LOVE the sometimes obscure and head scratcher puzzles of the series. Skyward sword attempted to make a more kid friendly game with Fi, but just ended up making a game with excessive hand holding and zero chance for error. Show, don’t tell!

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    Now that I think of it the Stanley Parabal kinda does the opisite of this, showing you a lot of paths only to 'force' you down one, in order to make you more prone to break off that path when you can

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    Chillin Games

    you talked about Disneyland in your vid about music design as well… is that like a game makers treasure trove of ideas or something?

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    Jack Scrivens

    In the original 1985 super Mario bros, the game starts with Mario on the left side of the screen facing right, making the player go right.
    Because remember, side scrolling was very mind boggling back in 1985

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    Mr. Stark doesn't feel so good.

    Yeah no this may work in theory or whatever but I got lost and stuck countless times playing Uncharted to the point where I had to look up guides that show where to go next cause the game didn't give me any visual indications on where to go.

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    M. Vipsanius Agrippa

    Honestly mirror's edge without runner's vision is the fucking best! I always feel like it's a bit cheaty otherwise since especially in the many slow levels otherwise there's no challenge and room to experiment!
    I mean, it's no subtle hints in this game, but bright red markers that disappear as soon as you pass them, making it very similar to these annoying quest arrows!

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    The Wanderer

    It's impossible to get lost in Uncharted because there is literally just one path at all times! It's like saying signs and arrows in a tunnel helped you get to the end of it.

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    When I first played Skyrim and exited Tutorial Cave, there is this gorgeous valley ahead with really intriguing ruins on the other side. The ruins caught my attention so I ignored the quest and went there first. Turns out there is this long dungeon underneath them and I played through it, killing the boss Draugr and getting mah sweet loot, except for some random rock.
    Then I went to the quest marker, and they sent me right back to that cave to get that rock. So, in this case, the weenie came too soon, as the little town with the quest is a bit further off and not nearly as visible, if at all.

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    Wade Allen

    It’s fascinating how these games you mention in this video are designed to provide the illusion of free will. It’s like the designers know you don’t actually have control over what you’re doing in the game, and it all might as well be a movie, but as long as it doesn’t feel like it’s a movie is what counts.

    Not saying that’s a bad thing. Not all games need to be sandboxes.

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    James Jensen

    My favorite example of this is from Legend of Zelda, Breath of the Wild, as I often find myself wandering, and then I find something really cool, and realize that I've been led by a subtle path.
    Also when you are bored you can always find some landmark on the horizon and it gives you somewhere to go leading you subconsciously.

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    Holy crap, even after having played Uncharted for so long (it is one of my most favourite game series ever of all time), I never considered the great level layouts until now…! I mean, okay, so the coloured ledges are something most people comment on, but I'm talking about the layout of action sequence levels, where the flow of the sequence and the constancy of the tension counts on you being quick to react to your environment. DAMN this gives me another reason to appreciate this game so much!

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    Cieran Ferguson

    My first experience with this sort of thing was in the first assassin's creed. There are lots of premade paths, that often start with white cloth on the staic scenery, that give you a chance to experience some of the coolest parts of the parkour system. There is very often at least one of these paths in the chase sequences through out the game. They also often lead to interesting parts of the game world and the collectibles.
    It really is useful in an open world where there are so many paths that you can't just follow one road and go where you need to go.

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    Nicolas Cancio

    I'm currently playing The last of us and I find myself struggling to decide if I should follow the intended path or go into every room to get as much loot as possible

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    I some games that have HUD maps, I get why some don't like it, but in reality, if you know an area, it's like you have a map in your head. With games, you don't have the same level of immersion to gain that spacial awareness. Where immersion isn't doing the job, a HUD map helps clue you in to the immediate surroundings…something you can do in reality via peripheral vision but doesn't translate well to a PC screen.

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    Dishonored's "Runes" are like this too. But they don't help you find the end of the level, they help you to get to it easily.

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    Yik Long Tay

    There was a part in left 4 dead that really hit it home with me. There was an abandoned sign board advertising something with an arrow pointing in the direction where the game wanted you to go. But later in a different mission, your team back-tracked through the same neighborhood. The same sign was dislodged and fell. Where it landed, the arrow pointed in the opposite direction again helping to direct the player

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    Man, if you get lost in a super linear game like Mirrors edge without hints, you have a serious problem

    Nathan drake doesnt need a compass because the levels are 99% of the time a corridor. And even with that, they use subtle hints

    Is pathetic to see games like that enslaved and many others with a compass. Even in games like Withcher 3 is pathetic to be following a yellow spot instead of traveling by yourself

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    I'm not sure Uncharted is the best example for this, since the games are very linear and usually give you only one obvious way to progress. I'd like to see examples from some more open-ended games. The closest I can remember is Bioshock and Dead Space, which often use light and color to guide you to key objectives in far more natural ways than Uncharted with its eye-piercing bright yellow ledges. From Soft games even flip the idea and can use it to lure and ambush you, giving the concept a new level of anxiety and paranoia.

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    Gareth Williams

    I always felt the white surfaces to grab in the newer Tomb Raider games, were a little too obvious and unnatural looking.

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    Wolfenstein the new colossus has some of the worst level design I’ve ever experienced. I was always unsure of where to go and after killing all the enemies in a level I spent most of the time trying to find the way into the next section.

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