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  • How Level Flow Works In Uncharted 4 And The Last Of Us

    - Trinh Nguyen
  • For the past few months I have been researching several different games. During that time I have been researching games like "Uncharted 4" and "The Last of Us" (made by Naughty Dog).

    With this article I want to share my knowledge with my fellow peers, in the hope of empowering and motivating them to learn more about level design. This will be a crash course on the different elements of level flow, that level designers can use to make informed decisions about their level design.

    1 - Introduction: What is level flow

    My definition of level flow:

    "When the player knows what to do, where to go. 
    But not always know how to achieve/get towards that goal."

    (keyword: Spatial Awareness)

    It is a state where the player has a pleasant experience, traversing through the level. It goes hand in hand with game flow.

    This definition is quite vague and that is because level flow is a broad subject. For simplicity I will split up "level flow" into four (4) smaller pieces. In high-level terms, these are some of the elements we level designers use to guide the player(s)..

    "I need to know about geometry and composition? But I am not an artist?!"

    Yes, I am also not an artist but I do believe that everything is in some way intertwined with level design. Mastering small bits about these subjects will allow you to make more informed design decisions.


    • Think about collision, physical interactive objects, shape design.


    • A) Focal points. Funneling the player with use of Geometry/Assets.
    • B) Contrast (positive & negative space): Between, Space, Lighting or Color.

    Scripted Events

    • Companions, Enemies (AI), Moving/Patrolling around.
    • Other events that makes the player move: such as an explosion or a fallen tree trunk.


    • Text/Signs (direct)
    • Assets placed in a particular order, like pickups scattered across the map or barrels in a corner (indirect)

    Geometry, Composition and Scripted Events can be combined to create Storytelling elements. Being able to master these sections will allow you to guide/move the player to where ever you desire them to go.

    Here are some examples of flow elements that can be used to guide the player through the level.

    2.1 - Examples: The use of lines

    Lines, Arrows Shape Silhouettes, Pathways...

    Lines have two points, a begin and an endpoint. A line affords direction. It is a 2D object that moves in a direction. We can see lines as arrows and arrows afford direction.

    In this example, multiple objects in the scene will hint towards this focal point, the mega structure.

    • Nathan Drake points at the landmark. (not in this picture, but in game he does)
    • The pathway underneath them, leads towards the landmark.
    • The shape of the mountains.
    • The shape of the houses (especially the roofs)
    • The contrast between the mountains and the forest.

    As you can see lines are powerful tools to indicate direction. They help to guide the players eye from A to B and visa versa. 

    2.2 - Examples: Landmark Visibility

    Landmark definition:

    An object or feature of a landscape or town that is easily seen and recognized from a distance, especially one that enables the player to establish their location on the map.

    Landmarks can be used to determine someone's location, approximately from the landmark. Therefore it is a method to improve flow in the level. An exceptional level designer would work together with the environment artists, to make sure that each area is recognizable. They should work together to determine the line of sight and the visual language of the area.

    In this example, Joel will be able to see the bridge from multiple angles. This allows the level designer to create a level that doesn't go into a linear/straight direction. As walking straight towards the objective is boring and no fun.

    The high buildings on the side also helps to frame the bridge, funneling the player towards the objective. The only indication the player needs to know is how far away they are from the bridge. If they are approaching closer to the bridge, they can assume that they are going towards the right direction.

    2.3 - Examples: The use of Color

    Using Color as Affordance:

    Color can be used to indicate the player, that a certain object is able to afford something. It can be used to contrast the scene, shifting the focal point.

    In this example, all reachable & climbable ledges have these "light yellowish" color casted on them. Informing the player that those afford to be grabbed/climbed. This is a clever way to indicate something to the player, without it breaking the immersion. By blending in with the cliffs, using the same "earthly" tones.

    • You can also use color to invoke an emotion from the player.

    Bright shades of red and yellow might indicate danger , while a blue color let them think about water, the sky, calmness or peace.

    2.4 - Examples: Repetition, good or bad?

    Repetition is beautiful as humans can see patterns. Nature is build up out of patterns and we love it.

    But when you repeat it too often, it becomes boring. You can compare it to listening to the same song for 100x times. At first you might like the song, although after repeatedly listening to it, you might come to hate it.

    This problem is also true in level/environment design. Do not let the player(s) traverse through areas that all look the same. What is the point of exploring if everything looks the same?

    You can keep it look coherent, but be sure to have a bit of variation. As mentioned in the previous point: Color is a nice way to break up the monotone feel of a scene and to attract the players attention.


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