Composition – Storytelling through Level Design

Composition is a term applied to the visual arts in order to describe the placement of objects – including characters and perspective – in a scene, or the organization of elements according to artistic rules. (Grill & Scanlon, 1990)

This is often applied to traditional art forms such as Paintings and Photography to describe how the viewer’s eye is lead around an image, but can also be applied to video games to consider how players are lead around a level or game environment.  Visual Design elements that are applied to photography and other visual imagery in order to create aesthetically pleasing composition can also be applied to these game environments. This can include elements such as line, shape, form, texture, pattern, color, balance and dominance (center of interest) (Beyers, 2010) – and these can be applied to not only the visual aspects of a game environment but also the background design that affects the player’s experience.

A game environment is any space in a gaming context which does the following things:

  • “Constrains and guides player movement through physical properties and ecology”.
  • “Uses player reference to communicate simulation boundaries and affordance”.
  • “Reinforces and shapes Player Identity”.
  • “Provides Narrative context”.

 (Worch & Smith, 2010)

1This can either be a physical or virtual environment, or a combination of the two – such as the augmented reality game “Invizimals”, developed by Novarama for the Playstation Portable and released in 2009. Invizimals requires players to catch creatures in the real world, using the camera attachment for the PSP and a square “trap” device which works as a fiduciary marker. (McWhertor, 2009)

In order to create composition in Level Design, it is necessary to incorporate a concept known as “Environmental Storytelling” (Worch & Smith, 2010) which uses the elements of composition in order to create an environment which conveys a narrative to the player and guides them around the level on an optimal route. This helps to maintain a balance between the desirability of sandbox gaming, and the developer’s ability to ensure a positive gaming experience.

Game Design Issues related to Composition

The physical properties and ecology of a level or environment helps to constrain and guide the player as they move through it. This can include the walls, staircases or doors in an indoor environment, or geographical elements and scenery in outdoor environments. Furthermore, the ecology of an environment is shaped by the placement of objects which affect the gameplay, such as items and hostile enemies (Worch & Smith, 2010). Restrictions on how the player can navigate through the level can affect player decisions and impact on gameplay, for example – preceding a wide open space with a contrasting compact space can help to create a feeling of awe and subtly hint that something significant is about to happen. Using specific elements in an environment can “evoke different feeling or moods in your players and enhance their gaming experience”. (Busby, Parrish, & Eenwyk, 2004)

Along with the level layout, player experiences are also affected by the use of familiar references, which hold meaning – known as “Affordances”. (Worch & Smith, 2010) These are often small details or pointers around levels which convey meaning and help to guide the player. These symbols and cues help to build a particular mood or reinforce player immersion and realism with the level. This includes visual cues, audio and realistic experiences. “First-person shooters offer fast and frantic action, but the mood is reinforced by immersion via visual and auditory cues”. (Meigs, 2003) Cues help the player to understand the purpose of the environment and what purpose this might have in terms of level design, whether it is a place where combat may occur, a place to rest and prepare for the upcoming challenge, or simply a transition location to the next area.

In order to guide the player around the level effectively the designer is required to communicate simulation boundaries effectively to show where they are allowed to go in the environment and which direction they should travel next (Worch & Smith, 2010). Simulation Boundaries are closely related to the Room Flow of a level, which is important in environments, especially indoor environments which rely on room-to-room flow. This involves rooms that are connected in some way, either with direct hallways, or implied pathways such as beaten down paths which would suggest a logical pathway for the player (Meigs, 2003).  This is the visual flow that the player sees, but the design flow of the environment is also important. For example, one main issue is the environment structure in terms of transitions from one zone to another. Most action or adventure genre games will use a zone-based game environment structure, where the gameplay is broken down into playable sections, and will disguise the seams between these zones using animations or loading screens (Nitsche, 2008).

Environmental or Visual Storytelling is defined as “staging player-space with environmental properties that can be interpreted as a meaningful whole, furthering the narrative of the game”. Environmental Storytelling relies on player to incorporate elements in a scene to create a meaningful narrative, integrates player perception, encourages problem solving and can help the player navigate an area by telegraphing – for example details which denote danger such as blood stains (Worch & Smith, 2010).  Using the ecology of a level, affordances, simulation boundaries and environmental storytelling in conjunction with one another will help to build a picture that guides players and creates a distinct atmosphere for the scene.2

Traditional composition techniques can also be applied to video games, especially those which affect the viewpoint of the player, as the viewpoint from which a scene is viewed can alter the aesthetics significantly, especially in games where the viewpoint is easily changed.  The Golden Ratio is a concept in which proportions of thirds recur, along with the mathematical constant 1.617, in nature, architecture and biology; and is often used as a compositional device in visual media. This is demonstrated by examples in interface design, camera positioning and environment layout (Kay & Tudor, 2010).


Current Research into Composition in Games

Many studies have taken place into composition in games in order to attempt to create an enjoyable player experience, as well as techniques for utilizing Game Environments for other purposes than entertainment.  One technique for environment development is the technology of procedural generation. Studies have been conducted into the use of procedural generation for games of the platformer genre, as this technique has not yet been successfully implemented to this genre (Compton & Mateas, 2006). The main issue with procedural generation in terms of composition is that, despite the advantages of utilizing this technique, the designers have little to no creative control over the structure, flow and rhythm of the environment. Kate Compton and Michael Mataes, in their study into procedural generation in platform games, proposed a new four-layer hierarchy to represent platform levels, with a “focus on representing repetition, rhythm and connectivity. It also proposes a way to use this model to procedurally generate new levels” (Compton & Mateas, 2006). This presents a technological advancement in the development of environments and a consideration for the composition of said environments.

Furthermore, importance of level design and the development of environments for games have been addressed by some of the forefront designers in the industry – for example Cliff Bleszinski of “Epic Games” who tackled these issues at GDC 2000 (Bleszinski, 2000). Bleszinski suggests that level designers must find a balance between technology and art – “Art and Science are the Yin and Yang of [level] design”. This demonstrates the need to create a symbiotic relationship between the realism and architecture of level, and the gameflow and pacing. Moreover, the importance of education of these techniques has been brought into the limelight by modding communities such as ModDB (ModDB, 2010) and studies such as “Learning through Game Modding” (El-Nasr & Smith, 2006) which suggests that learning to create game environments through game modding – a process which involves customizing a pre-existing engine – allows designers to “modify […] behaviors, create new worlds for exploration, or even modify existing games into completely new ones”. This allows designers to separate the gaming experiences such as rules, behaviors, architecture and characters, from the engine itself and the technology that powers it.

Another main factor that can affect the composition of the environments is the position of enemies and their behaviors. A study was conducted into creating “architecture for integrating plan-based behaviors generation with interactive game environments” (Young, Riedl, Branly, Jhala, Martin, & Saretto, 2004). This study aimed to design a new architecture called “Mimesis” which was designed to bridge the gap between game engine design and development and much of the work in artificial intelligence that focuses on the automatic creation of novel and effective action sequences. Although this work is more concerned with the development of game engines and artificial intelligence, this also affects the behaviors of enemies in environments, which can also have major consequences in terms of composition.

The way players perceive an environment is highly related to the way in which they interact with the game world around them. This can be in the form of simulation boundaries which show the player where to go, or affordances which increase realism and immersion. In a study into “Player-Centered Game Environments: Assessing Player Opinions, Experiences and Issues” (Sweetster & Johnson, 2004),  the issues of interacting with environments from the point of view of the player were investigated, and so identified which issues are the most important to them. Using focus groups, this study noted that issues identified by designers, such as consistency, intuitiveness and freedom of expression, were shared by the players – but that players also suggested immersion and physics as important factors in environment design.  This is a significant study to consider as a level designer, as these important factors can be created using the composition techniques above to create an immersive experience in which players are effectively guided around an environment which has successful rhythm and game flow.

Augmented Reality is, as mentioned earlier in this article, a technique that can be used in games to integrate 3D virtual objects into 2D physical environments when viewed as a game environment using hardware such as a camera peripheral for consoles. This is a technique which had not been utilized in a widespread manner, before Sony integrated the technology with their camera peripherals for the Playstation 2, and the technology was advanced using fiduciary markers for the Playstation 3 and Playstation Portable (McWhertor, 2009). A survey was conducted into the field of augmented reality, which assesses the problems encountered with augmented reality, such as registration and sensing errors, and suggests some efforts to solve these problems, with extensive further research suggestions (Azuma, 1997). Solving these issues could lead to a more widespread usage of augmented reality, which would in turn create more unique gameplay experiences and a wider spectrum of environment styles.

Studies have also shown that innovative environment designs can be used for other purposes than entertainment games. For example, according to research, environments can be used to develop spatial cognition in 5th, 7th and 9th grade students (McClurg & Chaillé, 1987). Results showed that “certain computer games may enhance the development of spatial ability as measured by the Mental Rotation Test”. Games are arguably “a series of interesting choices” (Meier & Morris, 2000) where the purpose of the design is to engage players. A study into “Engaging by Design: How Engagement Strategies in Popular Computer and Video Games Can Inform Instructional Design” (Dickey, 2005) demonstrates how game environments can be incorporated into learning, as it provides “an overview of the trajectory of player positioning or point of view”, which relates to these “interesting choices” and how they might be affected.

Examples of Composition in Games

Examples of these techniques can be seen in modern video games, and arguably have contributed to the games’ success. Taking into account these issues is in game designers’ and level designers’ best interests, in order to create a compelling, immersive, and effective game environment. This is most prevalent in 3D worlds, in which there are either multiple routes, or the illusion of multiple paths through the environment.

A prevalent example of the use of composition in video games is “Bioshock” (Bioshock, 2007) – an action game which experienced great commercial success (Metacritic, 2007) with many reviewers attributing 3this to the immersive qualities of the game, and for making the player “think” (GAME, 2008) – which was aided by the political balance of the game and moral choices that the player must make. The level design in Bioshock shows examples of the use of composition, as it guides the player using affordances, simulation boundaries and ecology effectively. In one of the opening scenes of Bioshock, the player is presented with the scene of a “New Year’s Eve Party gone wrong”. The affordances in this scene give away a lot about the situation that has occurred – a party that looks like it has been left swiftly, and a sign which gives us a time in which the plot is set. The player is also constrained by the use of careful item placement and psychical architecture. Pathways are also blocked by – for example- doors, which restricts player access and enforces the player to make certain decisions, while also suggesting future advances through the environment, or an idea of the overall scale of the level. (Worch & Smith, 2010) Furthermore, lighting is also used to encourage the player to pay attention to a certain location in the scene, and altering the color of this lighting can be used to denote a safe path – again influencing player decisions.

4An example of non-linear environment structure, Super Mario 64 (Nintendo, 1996) uses a “Hub” structure, where the player accesses all levels from the central environment -in this case the Castle.  The world structure functions from this main base and access to all other environments run through it. The main hub contains doors or portals to other zones, and access to these zones is maintained through a system of collectables. The player must obtain a certain number of collectables in order to gain access to portals, but apart from that there are no restrictions on the player choice of which portal, or level, to complete first. This gives the player the illusion of freedom, as they get to make a choice, but the designers still have overall control of the general order of difficulty – which maintains balance and rhythm.

Examples of traditional composition can also be seen in games, as seen in the above examples of Gears of War 2 and Splinter Cell, which both feature use of the “Rule of Thirds” in their User Interface. Furthermore,  2D style games can also feature a level of composition, similar to that seen in visual media such as photography. This is most prominent in 2D adventure games such as “The Whispered World” (Daedalic, 2010) and “The Secret of Monkey Island” (Lucasfilm, 1990), in which the environments take on a structure of interactive 2D scenes.

A success story of the use of Augmented Reality structure in environments is the virtual pet game “EyePet” (SCEE, 2009) The gameplay is circulated around the concept of a virtual pet, which you can watch interacting with your physical environment using the camera, and will react to your movements on screen. Using the fiduciary marker technology as outlined above, the player is able to play with the pet using a ball, wash the pet, feed the pet and watch it jump out of the way of physical obstacles. The game itself only received a review of 6 out of 10 from Eurogamer, but the reviewer stated that the game was “a showcase of what console cameras and motion sensing is capable of “ (Whitehead, 2009), suggesting further advancements in augmented reality technology for environments in the near future.

Further Research

Outlined in this article are a number of issues that should be considered what incorporating composition into the design and creation of game environments. This investigation has shown that a use of the traditional concepts of composition, adapted for 3D interactive environments, provide an immersive and effective environment for player experiences. Use of composition helps to guide the player around the environment, communicate information about the scene, and aids in player decision-making. There are however, issues which should be researched further in order to gain a wider understanding of the topic. As demonstrated by the successful game examples, it is in the designer’s interests to incorporate these techniques into their design. More research should be conducted into the structure of levels, and more importantly into augmented reality technology to solve the technical issues that the concept presents. Solving these issues will result in a more interactive environment that players can incorporate into their physical environments. Furthermore, further research into the incorporation of composition techniques such as affordances in the form of meaningful symbols will result in more emotional and immersive experiences in which a balance can be formed between players’ desires for more free-roaming experiences, and the designers’ need to maintain balance and rhythm within level design.

Works Cited

Azuma, R. T. (1997). A Survey of Augmented Reality. Malibu, CA: Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments.

Beyers, J. (2010). Visual Design or Composition. Retrieved December 7th, 2010, from Paarl Photographic:

Bioshock. (2007, August 24). Bioshock Official Website. Retrieved December 9, 2010, from 2K Games Official Website :

Bleszinski, C. (2000). The Art and Science of Level Design. GDC (p. Session #4404). Epic Games.

Busby, J., Parrish, Z., & Eenwyk, J. V. (2004). Mastering Unreal Technology: The Art of Level Design. Indianapolis: Sams Publishing.

CellaGames. (2010). Mobile Augmented Reality in AR Tower Defence. Retrieved December 7th, 2010, from CellaGames:

Compton, K., & Mateas, M. (2006). Procedural Level Design for Platform Games. Literature, Communication & Culture and College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology .

Daedalic. (2010, March). The Whispered World Official Website. Retrieved December 10, 2010, from DEEP SILVER – Daedalic Games:

Dickey, M. D. (2005). Engaging By Design: How Engagement Strategies in Popular Computer and Video Games Can Inform Instructional Design. Educational Technology, Research and Development , 67.

El-Nasr, M. S., & Smith, B. K. (2006). Learning Through Game Modding. ACM Computers in Entertainment .

GAME. (2008, March 12). Game News Article – Bioshock 2 Slated for Late 2009 Release. Retrieved December 9, 2010, from GAME:

GameBanshee. (2010, March 3). Bioshock, Bioshock 2 and Borderlands Sale Figures. Retrieved December 9, 2010, from Game Banshee :

Grill, T., & Scanlon, M. (1990). Photographic Composition. Amphoto.

Kay, R., & Tudor, A. (2010, August 31). An Artist’s Eye: Applying At Techniques to Game Design. Retrieved December 8, 2010, from Gamasutra:

Lucasfilm. (1990, October). Lucasfilm – World of Monkey Island. Retrieved December 10, 2010, from World of Monkey Island Official Website:

McClurg, P. A., & Chaillé, C. (1987). Computer Games: Environments for Developing Spatial Cognition? Journal of Educational Computing Research , 95-111.

McWhertor, M. (2009, June 4th). Eyes on Invizimals – When Pokémon meets Ghostbusters. Retrieved December 7th, 2010, from Kotaku:

Meier, S., & Morris, R. &. (2000). Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design. New Riders.

Meigs, T. (2003). Ultimate Game Design: Building Game Worlds. McGraw-Hill Osborne Media.

Metacritic. (2007, August 21). Metacritic – Bioshock Reviews. Retrieved December 9, 2010, from Metacritic:

ModDB. (2010). ModDB Community. Retrieved December 9, 2010, from ModDB:

Nintendo. (1996, June 23). Super Mario 64 Official Page. Retrieved December 9 , 2010, from Nintendo Games:

Nitsche, M. (2008). Video Game Spaces: Image, Play and Structure in 3D Game Worlds. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: The MIT Press.

SCEE. (2009, October 23). EyePet Official Website. Retrieved December 10, 2010, from Sony Computer Entertainment – EyePet Official Website:

Sweetster, P., & Johnson, D. (2004). Player-Centered Game Environments: Assessing Player Opinions, Experiences and Issues. Queensland: School of Information, Technology and Electrical Engineering, University of Queensland, Australia.

Whitehead, D. (2009, October 12). EyePet Review. Retrieved December 10, 2010, from Eurogamer:

Worch, M., & Smith, H. (2010). “What Happened Here?” – Environmental Storytelling. Game Design Conference (p. 6). San Francisco: GDC 2010.

Young, R. M., Riedl, M. O., Branly, M., Jhala, A., Martin, R. J., & Saretto, C. J. (2004). An Architecture for integrating plan-based behavior generation with interactive game environments. Journal of Game Development .



Fiduciary markers are a tool that can be used in augmented reality games and motion capture in order to track objects. This technique has also been used in other video games such as the Nokia N95 Smartphone game “AR Tower Defence”.  (CellaGames, 2010)

Mental rotation tests include a test of the ability to rotate mental representation of 2D and 3D objects.

“Take-Two also announced that the original BioShock released in 2007 has now sold over four million units, bringing total sales of the franchise to seven million units total.” (GameBanshee, 2010)


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