Last week I posed a question to my friends in level design and environment art: how do we create welcoming spaces in our games?
I received many great answers on shape theory and lighting, answers on specific objects for the feelings they evoke, and answers on mechanics to create a welcoming space. However, the variety of answers exposed a flaw in my question. What does “welcoming” mean?
When I posed the question, I framed “welcoming” as the opposite of feeling apprehensive or wary. Level design and environment art have many techniques to make the player afraid to move forward. We also have shorthand and tricks that have become clichés over the decades: the blood trails and graffiti warnings, the flickering lights and tilted halls. Within this context, I asked what techniques we have to achieve the opposite effect of apprehension.
System Shock 2 (1999)
I received two types of answers to my question. The first type considered “welcoming” as a feeling about a space. That is, if we imagine a room with no door or world outside, what makes the player feel welcome in that room? The second type considered “welcoming” as a feeling of contrast while moving from one state toward another, better state. That is, if we imagine a building in a world, what makes the building more welcoming than the world around it?
My hope, in turning this conversation into a post, is to clarify the question and highlight some ideas for us to explore further. Eventually, I hope we will techniques as robust—and even clichéd—as our toolkit for creating apprehension and dread in our games.
Welcoming as Contrast and Movement
To start, imagine again that abstract building in an abstract world.
But let’s be specific. Imagine a spooky forest on a cold night. Imagine a cozy cabin on a hill in a clearing. Wandering the forest, we hear wolves howling. Right as we think we’ve lost our way, we see a path leading up to the cabin. We see the warm light of a fireplace illuminating the windows. We see smoke curling gently from the chimney. We approach, still unsure if we should ask for shelter or continue on our way, but we hear music and laughter within. This is a welcoming feeling, to be drawn or attracted toward an appealing space.
Now instead of a forest, let’s imagine a nuclear wasteland. We hear the flesh-hungry mutants howling. Our gas mask filter is worn out, and we could use some clean water and food. Instead of a cozy cabin, there’s a rusty metal shack. It shows no signs of life, or death, which is a good thing when there are bandits around. A dusty window will let us peek inside to be sure it’s safe before we enter. Maybe there will be supplies to salvage? At the very least, the shack means a moment of shelter on our journey.
Is this still welcoming? We should be cautious approaching the shack because this is a hostile environment, but the shack itself is neutral or better than the world around it. We are not repelled, and the possibility of supplies is attractive.
For both of these examples, the buildings offer the possibility of satisfying our needs for survival. There is the possibility of food, water, and rest. But even if we can’t satisfy these needs, the building itself offers shelter from a hostile environment. Both buildings are more positive than the world around them, which makes them attractive. But are both welcoming in the same way?
Near Death (2016)
Before we go too far, let’s look at a specific example from games. In Near Death (2016), the player is trapped at an Antarctica research station in a blizzard and has to find a way to survive. There are no monsters or enemies, only the cold and the wind. The buildings also aren’t enough on their own to warm the player. For that, the player uses a portable heater and a limited supply of kerosene. In some buildings, the windows are blown out and need patching before the player can use the space to recover and warm up.
Because of these mechanics in Near Death, venturing out to each new building is a gamble. There may be supplies, like more kerosene. Or there may be blown-out windows that demand supplies to repair, adding an element of attrition. But, as the player moves through the research station, the known and safe territory expands. Backtracking into a room the player knows to be safe produces that welcoming feeling.
To turn these examples into a more abstract case, we have something like the diagram above. The player is in a hostile world, sees a safe building, and moves toward it. Arising from the environment’s context and from the movement toward a positive space, the player feels welcome.
The exact cause and effect is not clear here. Does the player experience the welcoming feeling before deciding to move toward the building, or after? Are the feeling and action simultaneous, or is one in response to the other? These are difficult questions. My hunch, borrowing from appraisal theory, is that the emotion follows initial stimuli and cognitive appraisal of the environment context.
If we change the environment context, or change the direction the player is moving, the player experiences different emotions.
This diagram is a fuzzy way for me to condense several of my subjective experiences, so treat it with caution! The emotional labels here are imprecise. The importance of this diagram is to isolate the welcoming feeling from related experiences, which deserve their own investigation.
Specifically, moving toward a positive state may not be enough on its own to make the player feel welcome. There is some aspect of entering a building or an enclosure that contributes to the welcoming feeling. This may be an association with safety and refuge, but I’m not sure if this real-world association is strong enough to override when a game’s mechanics make interiors more dangerous than exteriors.
What about more complex examples? What if we remove the threshold between building and world? For example, what if instead of a building we have an opening in the forest? There is no door to open, but standing in the clearing will feel different from standing among the trees. Or what if there are two different cabins to choose from, or a whole village?
To handle these more complex cases, we can borrow from what Robert Yang dubbed “valence theory”, which was itself adapted from Randy Smith’s GDC 2006 model of “Level Building for Stealth Gameplay”. An important feature of this model is that the states within the environment are fuzzy and imprecise. The states have gradients of intensity and overlapping boundaries.
A node layout from Aubrey Serr’s GDC 2019 talk
Aubrey Serr’s GDC 2019 talk “Designing Radically Nonlinear Singleplayer Levels” also adapted Randy Smith’s model, but with a strong emphasis on the cloudy quality of each state within the level. Serr’s diagrams add objectives (indicated by stars) to explain why players move through negative states instead of staying where they are safe.
With these more complex networks and fields of polarized space, what does the player feel? Is the nuance of a welcoming feeling lost to the less specific feeling of tension and release? There is more for us to investigate here.
What Makes the Player Move?
So far I’ve described the welcoming feeling as a product of moving from a negative state toward a positive one where there is some element of enclosure and safety. But what attracts the players in the first place and motivates them to move?
With my example of the cabin in the forest and the shack in the wasteland, I assumed human needs and interactions. We need food, shelter, and water. If there are people in the cabin, we could talk to them. If there are supplies in the shack, we could salvage them. With video games, we can’t count on any of these real-world assumptions.
For example, the Doom games invert our expectations. For us humans, hell is bad, and Earth is (comparatively) good. But for doomguy, who only wants to rip and tear, Earth is boring. Doomguy runs toward hell.
Beyond Doom’s simple inversion, we can make our valence model a proper mess by looking at states that simultaneously attract and repel the player.
Let’s imagine the forest scenario again, but now as a horror game. Instead of a cabin, we have a haunted house. Instead of the warm light of a fireplace, we see some eerie glow of mysterious origin. Instead of laughter and music, we hear chains and electric crackling from somewhere below.
The forest in this imagined horror game is not pleasant, but also not hostile. Looking around, we see a fence some distance into the trees, and if we checked, we’d find that we are unable to cross it. We also have no way to interact with the forest, and there is nothing to do but walk in circles or approach the house. Let’s say this imaginary game also has no mechanics for hunger or thirst, and we don’t need to worry about hypothermia outdoors. Within this context, why does the player leave the safety of the forest to face the danger of the haunted house? Something attracts the player at the same time the threat of danger repels.
In Miriam Bellard’s GDC 2019 talk on “Environmental Design as Spatial Cinematography”, she described several ways that environments attract players and influence their movement. First, there are mysteries that draw the player to seek information. A towering landmark in the distance may not be enough to draw the player, but if there is a mystery around the landmark, then the player has a reason to investigate. Second, Bellard describes multiple ways that object affordances motivate the player to move through a space. To oversimplify a complex topic: people tend to move toward areas with greater affordance opportunities. Or, in game terms, players tend to move toward interactivity. (Watch Bellard’s talk for the more nuanced explanation.)
To return to our horror game example, mystery and affordance draw the player at the same time that the aesthetics, and the dangers they suggest, repel us. This tension of both wanting and not wanting to proceed is at the heart of horror games. The player feels a dissonance of wanting to know the mystery but not wanting to face the danger on the way.
But the welcoming feeling is in opposition to mystery. In my example of the cozy cabin in the woods, we may hesitate because of the unknown, and we need reassurances to overcome that uncertainty and feel welcome. Or in my example of the shack in the nuclear wasteland, we would be far more apprehensive if there was no window to peek through before we step inside.
Without mystery as a tool, what remains from Bellard’s toolbox is the attraction of affordances. Inside the cozy cabin, or inside the shack, we know there are things to do. But if the game offers no ways to interact in these spaces, then there is no attraction; the cabin and shack are no longer positive spaces for us to be drawn toward and feel welcome.
However, there are forms of play not represented within game systems and mechanics that can still attract the player. Non-interactive spaces can still serve role playing, imaginative play, and social interaction.
For example, in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998), there is “Lon Lon Ranch” where the player has several optional activities to earn valuable items throughout the game. Once the player completes these activities, the game no longer offers incentives to spend time there. The space becomes minimally interactive. There are still things to do, like chasing the chickens, but the game offers no reason to interact beyond intrinsic enjoyment. Yet, when I played Ocarina of Time, I would return to “Lon Lon Ranch” between the game’s dark and scary dungeons. This was a welcoming space.
Beyond the ideas of affordances and mysteries, there is more we can explore:
- Are players drawn toward aesthetic beauty, and in what contexts?
- What about safety and comfort?
- Or community and a sense of belonging?
Before moving on to the idea of welcoming as a state, here’s a summary of what we have so far:
- The welcoming feeling arises while moving toward a positive state, often enclosed, where there is the promise of safety and interactivity.
- The player moves toward affordances, mysteries, and rewards. The player’s movement may not align with the welcoming feeling at all!
- If we want welcoming spaces, we need to create the reasons and opportunities for our players to enjoy them.
Welcome as a State
Back at the start I said how the responses to my question fit two types. Now that we’ve explored the welcoming feeling as contrast and motion, let’s explore the welcoming feeling as a state.
Thankfully, a 2017 Project Horseshoe report about “Coziness in Games” did most of the work already! As part of the section on cozy aesthetics, the authors suggest literally welcoming the player into a space:
When the player is explicitly positioned as a welcomed entity, this gives them the freedom and safety to express themselves. This welcome does not imply responsibility or pressure on them as a hero … but rather welcomes them as a person, to join whatever activities are available, or to be alone, as they wish. Bartenders often greet newcomers with a welcome, whether the tavern is digital or physical, to encourage a longer and more leisurely visit.
The other patterns for cozy aesthetics are about safety, protection, and abundance. A welcome environment is one where players are supported and feel like they belong.
Welcoming as Dominant Mode
Most of these cozy spaces described in the Project Horseshoe report are small rooms that fit within one screen. If we expand these spaces, we may lose the cozy aesthetic, but how far can we push them while the player still feels welcome?
In some levels, the welcoming feeling of safety is the dominant mood. There may be pockets of risk or danger, but they are isolated with clear boundaries.
For example, the first main level of Super Mario 64 (1996) is sunny and verdant. There are friendly NPCs to greet the player at the start, and the first real obstacle the player encounters is the Chain Chomp. This enemy is literally leashed to a pole and can’t escape. A red coin on top of the pole encourages the player to toy with this boundary. Within this safe context, danger is made a tool of play. The other enemies in the level also have leash-like behavior where, if the player runs far enough away, the enemies will give up the chase. But the boundaries here are more subtle than the Chain Chomp’s.
The Chain Chomp enemy in “Bob-omb Battlefield”, taken from the Mario Wiki
If we return to our valence theory from earlier, this first level of Super Mario 64 looks a bit like the diagram below. For each of the level’s risks, the players can retreat to safety and try again when they are ready.
“Bob-omb Battlefield” as depicted on noclip.website, with our valence diagrams on top.
Mette Pødenphant Andersen’s GDC 2019 talk “Hitman Levels as Social Spaces” also highlights the idea of spaces where the player is welcome. In the level “Sapienza” from Hitman (2016), a welcoming public space surrounds a walled villa. Between these public and private spaces, there are clear boundaries so players know when they are trespassing and toying with the level’s risks, much like the player’s experience with the Chain Chomp in Super Mario 64. Other spaces have softer boundaries, but if the player can’t manage the risks, then the large public space allows the player to retreat and find another way.
The social spaces in “Sapienza” from Mette Pødenphant Andersen’s GDC 2019 talk.
How far can we expand these welcoming levels? Can we make the whole game welcoming?
For Super Mario 64 and many of the 3D platformers like it, the welcoming levels are only there at the start. As players progress, the levels ask more of the players’ abilities, and the level aesthetics turn dangerous to match theses mechanical demands. As a consequence of these dangers, the early levels like “Bob-omb Battlefield” become even more welcoming when the player returns. Or for Hitman, “Sapienza” becomes a vacation from harder levels like “Colorado” where there are no public spaces. In both games, these welcoming levels become a genuine reprieve because of the harder levels ahead.
Ideas to Explore Further
Phew! I hope these early notes have highlighted some techniques and ideas to explore. There are also more specific ideas that I didn’t cover. In particular, I am left with a few questions that I hope to investigate in the future:
- We feel welcome when visiting a friend’s house, but we don’t use “welcome” to describe the feeling we have in our own house. Why?
- At what point does welcome becomes mundane and boring?
- Is the welcoming feeling holistic, where one element out of place disrupt it? Does this make shorthand techniques impossible?
- Bonfires! How much of the attraction to bonfires is a real-world association that we bring to games, and how much is an in-game association with mechanics?
- “Welcoming” as an act, or ritual that we perform for our guests. What games explore this?
Thanks for taking the time to read! If you explore these ideas in your own work, or are aware of more games I should study, I hope you’ll let me know :)