Storytelling and Level Design

Wrote in 2012 for the IGDA as an article about Storytelling and Level Design

Storytelling in Level Design is much more than simply putting a corpse in a room. We first need to know what story we are telling. And for that, we have to examine Storytelling in Level Design through organic construction.

What is the story?

Is it the story of someone that will avenge his father’s death? Or a plumber that will rescue a princess? Or maybe a boy trapped in a castle and trying to escape? In fact, none of these are the “Story”. Instead, we should consider each of these as the plot or the “Subject” of the story and not the story itself.

So, what is the story?

images-1Let’s take a look at ICO, for Sony Playstation 2, designed and directed by Fumito Ueda, to show what I consider an organically constructed story. If I try to get the real story of ICO, I would say: it is bad to reject someone just because he is different. There must be a moral point of view, a value, a way to see things. Let’s call it the Moral Statement. (If you think I’m stealing things from John Truby, you are right. go read that book!)
Once you know what you want to talk about, your Moral Statement, you have to choose one aspect through which you will tell the story.

Rejecting someone because he’s different is bad.

How is that bad? It’s unfair; the rejected person is lonely. Here is your Theme. “I want to make a game that talks about how rejecting someone because he’s different is bad, by showing how lonely he will be when rejected.” By showing the result, you are talking about the Theme. Everything in your game must reflect that statement—from the Art direction to the Gameplay, Sound design, Music, and of course, the Plot. Now that we know what we want to talk about, let’s see what else we need before talking about Level Design (or what every level designer should know before working on his level!).

Character & World

Once your theme is established, you must develop the character and world to best demonstrate that idea. The best character is the one for whom it will be the most painful and difficult to go through the World. This character’s weaknesses will be directly connected to the world and theme. ICO’s theme: loneliness. By choosing a young teenage boy who has been rejected by his peers at a time in life where feeling different can be awful, the theme can be easily applied. Then we have to choose a World in which that character’s weaknesses will be challenged. You can use opposition and contrast to build it. It will confront the character with tough choices that will show our Moral Statement.

ICO’s world: a giant empty castle.Ico02

Just by choosing the right character and the right World, you help the player to connect with the story. What if Ico was sent in a world where everybody was like him, living happily? There would be no story. What if he was an adult warrior? What would the implications of that be? Would the story be better?

The Want

We have a Character in a world, a theme. What will be the most interesting action to show the Moral Statement? In ICO, we have a lonely boy in a big world. What that boy wants is to escape this world. So, the main action of the Hero will be to find the exit. That’s our Want and it will imply the main action and also our main Gameplay (exploration). In ICO, the secondary action is to find a friend. She’s someone that has also been rejected. By having Ico help her, we show a choice that defines our Moral Statement. This friend not only helps to accomplish the first action of exploring and escaping but also makes our character less lonely. This increases her value, makes us afraid to lose her and helps to demonstrate our Theme.


Now that we know what the character wants, it can’t be too easy for him. The World has to be challenging. The more challenging, the better. Not just in the context of game difficulty. This is where the weaknesses of the character really help to create the design of the Level. Ico is small so we challenge him by showing him just how big the world is. He can see where to go, but is unable to reach it. We also challenge him by making him exist as a human in a magical world. Building our character and his world in this ways allows obstacles to naturally develop and fall into place.

Level Design

We have a character, a world, a theme, a moral statement and a want – the spine of storytelling in a game. We must also consider game design, artistic direction, sound design, etc., of course, but what we’ve talked about so far helps to create the story arc. Now that we know where to start and how the game will end, we can then separate the arc in Acts, or Parts. Each Part is constituted by one or several Levels, each of which can have its own sub-theme and subject. Think of the Theme and Want for each part:

Part I (Theme: Loneliness; Want: Escape)

First, the boy will be alone, in a big empty place. Then he meets Yorda.

Part II (Theme: Hope; Want: Set her free).

He frees her and then has a new friend. He must fight to protect her. Through the fight, he learns that she has magic powers and, like him, is different.

Part III (Theme: Companionship; Want: Escape together)

Here the greater challenge, the challenge to escape, emerges as he realizes he cannot escape. For the rest of the game, the levels become more about scenery and gameplay as exploration as a way to escape becomes prominent.

A Space

classics-hd-ico-shadow-of-the-colossus-playstation-3-ps3-1315465162-064That’s our world. Because we’ve chosen a world that is a reflection of our theme, just by creating the world, we are already telling the story. The architecture is contributing to the storytelling. The camera and the construction of the world have to reflect our theme. In ICO, the camera is far away and the boy is often small in the screen. This supports our theme, as he has to look small, weak and lost in a gigantic place. We probably wouldn’t have that feeling if we were in a close, behind the shoulder 3rd camera view. While this may be a function of game design, let’s examine how the Level Designer has used that element to create storytelling. Start by asking yourself these questions:

How will the architecture of the level be a reflection of our Level Theme? Will the place be open? With long corridors? Small? Dark? Bright? A maze? In the air? On the water?

A Path

The first real job of the level designer is to decide the path of the player through the scenery. This path must be meaningful as well as functional. It must include not only the entrance and exit but also all the magic that happens on the journey. We know ICO will meet Yorda and that he will free her. Does he simply walk up and free her? No, instead he follows a clear path. He sees her. He approaches her. He feels compassion for her. He wants to free her. The Path It is not just “what has to be done to continue the game”, the player will genuinely, organically want to continue the game. We must take him on a path that has some conflict and challenge. The fact that he can almost reach her but can’t free her creates that conflict. The player wants what he can’t have and then begins to think, “How can I have that?” This is the Path. Showing the goal to the player from the beginning, like seeing the castle in the background, makes the goal seem reachable and helps to make the want more concrete. It also tells a story by itself. Because we see something in the distance, our mind always tries to connect dots. This Closure Effect (Scott McLoud) gives us a reason to go forward. If you’re in a corridor without any information, you will go forward because that’s the only way, not because you know what’s going to be at the end. If you find a locked door, you will want the key. When you find the key, you have a happy sense of achievement. However, if you first find a key, the key is meaningless to you until you find a door. Once you find the door, there is no obstacle in opening it because you already have the key. There is no sense of achievement in this path.

Hot spots

Finally, the corpse on the floor! Hotspots can be anywhere in the level where you give specific narrative information to the player and are the most obvious way to create storytelling in a Level. Without the organic construction that comes before, these Hotspots can feel useless, superfluous or lazy. You can always throw information at the player through a note, a diary or a lost tape but there is often no logical explanation for these items to exist. Thanks to your story arc, you already know when and where you must deliver the information. You have many choices of how you want to deliver the information: a cinematic, a found item, etc. portal_login_passBut, there is a more subtle way to give it: Hotspots. They are places along the path. They can be missed by the player, they don’t need to be seen to finish the level but they add depth to the game. They can be a lot of things — a window that gazes upon the exit, a corpse on the ground, text on the wall, a sound in the background, a light, a fog. Even a simple stain on the ground can be a Hotspot. What matters most when creating a hotspot is to consider the theme of the game and the theme of the level. In ICO, because the theme is loneliness, we wouldn’t add anything that shows any population. But, we can show that there is hope for ICO to find a friend by allowing him to go outside and hear birds. This reminds him that he is not the only living thing there. Does this help the gameplay? No. Does it help the storytelling? Absolutely. Portal is a good example of the possibilities of showing a lot of details through the scenery that help to tell the story. While the player can go through the game without looking at them, his experience will certainly be enhanced if he does look.


Building a game with a Moral Statement and a Theme, as well as a directly related and connected Character and World, will make Level Building a natural progression. You must not only know what you are doing but also why you are doing it!