The more ‘open world’ video game environments get, the more navigational paraphernalia get foisted upon player shoulders. Maps, markers, checkpoints, radars, and HUDs persist on the screen and faithfully point towards where the game intends you to go next.
There’s nothing wrong with map-based navigational aids: they streamline gameplay and provide helpful markers for posterity in truly open-world environments. But if we are to look at games as tools that foster exploration, immersion, and pattern identification (and we should), then overt navigational aids carry an air of spoonfeeding, at times disrespecting player intelligence and reducing challenge.
One game franchise that doesn’t feature maps is the Uncharted series. Although these games are linear, the levels are still sizable and it’s easy to get lost or take wrong turns. But the players rarely do so. Naughty Dog brilliantly uses environmental cues to guide the player along its levels without them even realizing it half the time.
Let’s look at the elements they use…
This term was coined by Walt Disney and is in splendid effect in all Disney theme parks. Weenies are basically architectural or visual magnets that draw people towards them (usually towards where the park designer wants the to go). Magic Kingdom has Cinderella Castle. Epcot Center has Spaceship Earth. The Animal Kingdom has the Tree of Life. And so on and so forth. People can see these structures looming over their line of vision from anywhere in the park. They provide navigational grounding and a ‘place to go to’. They are always situated at the center of the park, so that people visit most of the attractions along the way as they head towards the weenie.
All four Uncharted games use weenies regularly. There’s always some temple, castle, tower, or marketplace in the distance that your in-game partners point out at the beginning of the level, and that you spend most of the level traveling towards.
French castle in Uncharted 3
Another Uncharted 3 weenie
Tower in Uncharted 2 (I don’t know why the lights are still on)
Radio tower weenie in Uncharted 3
Blinking light weenie in Uncharted 4
Island weenie in Uncharted 4
Naughty Dog have used weenies in their other magnum opus series, The Last Of Us, as well. Like dependable North Stars, these weenies successfully guide players lost in digital seas.
In the book ‘100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People’, Susan Weinschenk writes about the importance of central and peripheral vision. As the first thing people see, central vision should ideally encompass the critical elements that the designer wants the player to see. Peripheral vision acts as a context-setter and validator of central vision; if the elements in peripheral vision are dissonant with those in central vision, the player’s mind jars and the designer-player communication link breaks down.
The Uncharted games use light and central vision to their advantage. In levels with darkness (and some without), light is strategically placed in the player’s central vision as a marker for progress.
For example, when you explore the cavernous London underground in Uncharted 3, floodlit tunnels point you forward.
Or when you’re breaking into a Turkish museum to ‘borrow’ a priceless lamp, light splattered on the walls highlight where Flynn plans to use his grapple rope.
Naughty Dog definitely thought ahead
These light-based markers are even more important in levels where speed is paramount, such as the flashback chase sequence in Uncharted 3. As young Nathan races up the stairs to a locked door, the camera angle brings a small window above the door (with light streaming from it) into focus, and players instinctively jump through it, congratulating themselves for a quick and smart choice. Little do they know of the deliberate design choice that made the choice for them.
In the ‘100 Things…’ book, Susan Weinschenk also talks about a concept called chromostereopsis, the color combination in two-dimensional pictures that acts as a visual illusion and gives a perception of depth and contrast. Although the Uncharted levels are certainly not two-dimensional, color contrast is cleverly used to bring interactable objects into focus.
Naughty Dog seem to be fans of yellow. In detailed levels where objects that can and cannot be ‘grabbed’ are tough to distinguish, yellow is usually a good indicator to take that leap of faith.
For example, in the memorable opening sequence of Uncharted 2, yellow rails underneath the hanging train are more often than not the places you need to jump to.
The pirate ship levels in Uncharted 3 are a veritable sea of yellow.
The bars you’re on are yellow…
…and so are the bars you jump to
The best place yellow came to my rescue was in these levels. In one particular stage, right after two long fight sequences that involved swimming and ship-jumping, I was stranded on a platform with no idea where to go next. I snooped around an oblong yellow bar, and lo and behold. I just had to push a crate attached to it so that it lowered and made a forward path.
The yellow bar showed me…
…the way forward
The eyes focus where they see motion. The Uncharted games use this trick fairly subtly, both as foreshadowing tools and navigational guides. In the Uncharted 2 opening, Nathan wakes up battered and bloodied on the seat of a train. He looks outside the window and sees snow whipping past it, sideways. Why sideways? Because the train is hanging off a precipice, as he finds out a second later. The motion of the snow is a great touch of detail that adds to the overall awe of this opening.
‘What…?’ is right
Or take the previously mentioned flashback chase sequence in Uncharted 3. When young Nathan jumps onto a rooftop, suited goons cut off his path from the left. Where does he go?
Barely visible on the first playthrough, a flock of birds take flight as soon as Nathan lands on the rooftop and flee towards the right. The players’ eyes follow instinctively and they turn Nathan right without even thinking about it. And of course that’s where they have to go.
Using motion as a navigational aid
A final word on ramp-shaped aids that Naughty Dog use regularly in chase sequences. Player mental models are well developed enough to know that when they see a ramp, they move towards it and jump off it.
Ramp-shaped stairs in Uncharted 4
Jump off the ramp and onto the lampposts
Ramp during chase sequence
There’s plenty more to dissect from each Uncharted game, but I’ll leave it here for now. Let me know if I’ve missed something out or got something wrong!
References (for screenshots and content ideas)
Game Maker’s Toolkit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k70_jvVOcG0
Game Design Conference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4uPwhSqW8Q
*Note: This article is republished in full on Next Level Design with permission from the author.
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