I’m not a gamer by any means. Sure I’ve played video games before, but most of my experience begins and ends with classics like The Legend of Zelda when it was still on Nintendo 64. For me, playing an open-world game like Zelda was never about final boss battles; I was just there for the vibes—wandering around Hyrule Field, buying supplies at the Potion Shop, unlocking doors to hidden side quests, or advancing deeper into the game’s primary narrative. As a player, I enjoyed navigating the environment of each game level in a nonlinear way.
So when the Washington Post recently published an article citing Stray, a game played from the perspective of a cat, as “a master class in environmental story telling and level design,” I was obviously intrigued. What made this feline phenom such a masterclass? How exactly do video games like Stray build worlds that players want to stay in, and find believable? It comes down to level design—a lesser known digital design field which itself has close ties to UX. For UX designers that want to become world-builders themselves, it’s about expanding your tech capabilities while remaining true to the UX principles that ground the industry.
While a level designer wears many hats—they are part architect, part landscape designer, part interior designer—there’s also considerable overlap in skillset with UX/UI designers. A video game has to be intuitive, just like a website. “It’s not realistic for a door to be the same color as the key that opens it, but it makes it easier to navigate,” Sichling says. “Shafts of light draw attention to important items, towers ease navigability, and so on. All that is to say, it’s really important for the level designer to know what the players are supposed to do and feel in any given space,” they explain.
Like UX design, level design is also a highly iterative process. Richard Lemarchand, associate professor at University of Southern California, says the discipline is rooted in gathering concrete data about how the level is working in the game. “This is something that game design has inherited from the world of UX/UI and human computer interaction (HCI); it’s an empirical approach to making design better by running tests, gathering data, and analyzing that data.”
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Pacing, balance, and emotional connection are other key factors that level designers need to consider when constructing a compelling game. “Good level design is always shaping the player’s experience so that it is modulated over time with peaks of intensity and troughs of calm,” Lemarchand adds. Stray is a great case study in how to build that connection to the narrative by tugging at players’ hearts, beginning with the emotional and cinematic intro where you, as the cat, are separated from your feline family and must spend the duration of the game trying to reunite with them. Players have even been sharing their reactions to the intro online, with one Reddit user posting, “The game made me cry within the first five minutes.”
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