What makes a room easier to navigate, items easy to discover, paths easily discerned? Intricately crafted scenes, artistic renditions of the imagination to a tangibly-cognizant interact-able space are all important, but how is the player going to be interacting with the scene created?
Signal to Noise (S2N)
An important aspect of any scene and getting the player to notice particular objects in that scene is to limit the amount of distractions and to highlight the object that should be noticed. If the scene has too much going on, too many non-essentials catch the my eye, too many shiny things to keep me distracted, than how am I supposed to know that one is more important than the other? If I can’t interact with the many shiny objects, how am I supposed to know that some of them are interact-able or not?
Being able to discern the proper Signal (what’s important) from the Noise (what’s not important), making it easy to distinguish what is important from what is just background.
When you’re running around at 60 frames per second with environments and enemies designed to be obstacles and kill you, you want to be able to quickly and easily assess a scene and distinguish what is friendly, neutral or enemy and what are the objects that are manipulate-able, all while running around and trying not to get your player killed.
Tomb Raider – 2013
Looking at what Tomb Raider (2013) did, I think they took it a bit overboard.
This would be a perfect example what you should do, especially in a game that emphasizes exploration through cunning. The flames are a good marker for “look at me, there might be something over here.” The problem is the inclusion of “Survivor’s Instinct.”
What should I be paying attention to? Oh, right. All of this. It shifts the game from being a mixture of what and how to interact with objects towards only being about figuring out how to interact with objects.
Uncharted/The Last of Us
Among the unanimous circle-jerking that the community gives to Naughty Dog and the Uncharted series or The Last of Us, they actually did do a lot to keep the player engaged with the environment. Objects that were important were guided to subtly by various mechanics.
You were either guided by an NPC to an area where an object was to be acquired. See below.
You needed to look around an area for something important, which would only slightly pop-out when nearby but a marker appearing specifying that it was important only when it was assumed that you noticed the object. The contrast in color between the object and the environment, grey on green in this example, is what helps distinguish the signal (the grey) from the noise (the green).
Things that were important but not necessary or things that blended in with the scene (The Noise) too well shine slightly (The Signal) when you were looking in their direction, but this was the only instance of a more active guidance, but still required the player to explore and observe to even have the opportunity to see if anything important was in the area.
The way that Uncharted and The Last of Us handles S2N is by having the scene dictate where you need to be and having you explore that area to find the necessary keys required to progress. The Noise is still in the scene, but like a game of hot/cold, you explore an area and figure out where the hot areas are and you make your way towards the hot area (The Signal).
This is opposed to Tomb Raider’s approach which dictated, you need to be here next and here are the keys to progress so figure out how to get them. The parallel analogy is: here was the noise, but you can ignore all of it. Just notice the signal and nothing else.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)
Here, we can see many different categories that are determined by the color. Platforms are orange, the player is Green, the enemies Purple. The contrast between the various colors helps make the important objects on the scene recognizable. The only issue that TMNT had was that the ladders and the background shared the same color palette making them harder to discern from one another.
Shovel Knight designated the various types of categories for their environments to assigned colors. Some of these colors persist only for the stage to fit the color theming of the stage, but others like the destructible blocks (Signal) persist throughout the game making them easy to distinguish from the rest of the environments (Noise). Because each layer has a particular color associated to it, and each color has a large contrast to the other colors in the area, it makes assessing each scene extremely easy and frustration from “I didn’t see that,” or “how was I supposed to know that” doesn’t occur.