"Your parents are missing when you reach home after a late night party. They never told you about a sudden vacation plan and the door was left wide open at 3 AM when you arrived.
Something's definitely wrong.
You check the house and there is chaos everywhere. The furniture is out of place, there are broken pieces of glass on the floor and the back door is broken. In the midst of all this, you find a blood trail.
Follow the blood trail.
Upon going through the hallway, it leads you to the basement. There are no lights down here. You now need to search for a torch. Upon finding one, you enter the basement and finally locate a complete stranger resting on an old mattress breathing heavily. She has suffered severe woulds and is unable to talk. You have to stop the blood flow somehow.
Get her a dressing, call an ambulance and the police.
Your residential phone isn't working because someone has cut the cables. Your mobile phone is switched off because it ran out of battery. You have 5 minutes to either find a phone charger up in your room or find another person out in the streets to make a call for you before the stranger succumbs to the lethal wounds and dies.
Now, this is a fictional setup of a non-existent game, created to show you how level design can be enhanced to make the player emotionally involved. Notice how each phase of the game has been genuinely crafted to induce certain feelings and emotions of the player.
The first paragraph informs you that your parents are missing. This gives you a sense of alarm. To be on your heels. Caution ahead.
Next the chaos in the house with things being out of place is intended to make you realise the degree of danger ahead. Raise in tension and increase in seriousness.
Then you are shown a trail of blood. While deeply alarming in itself, it is also a definite case of showing the way - Hope is induced to find some answers.
Darkness in the basement is a mere delay in presenting to you the truth. This pricks your curiosity and is intended to leave you with more drive to pursue whatever it is that you are heading towards.
You find a stranger, and not your parents. A surprise with slight sense of relief that all that blood wasn't your parents'.
None the less, you have to save the stranger. The altruistic nature of the selfless protagonist (assuming that it is a part of the character design) is being highlighted here. This would also align with the character's intention as the stranger might hold important information as to what transpired in the house.
You being unable to make a call and forced to critically choose between two uncertain options as timer begins its countdown is all intended to give you an adrenaline rush.
The whole short scene, although simple looking and to some degree predictable, can vary extensively depending on the level design designated to it. The emotions are recognised as the narrative gets set. After that the level designers need to construct the whole scene working around these emotions.
How can we increase the sense of alarm and tension when the player enters the room?
- Add broken glass panes that are visible from outside the house.
- Turn off the lights and let the player figure out why there is not electricity in his/her house while the neighborhood looks to have no power-cut.
- Add fire to something in the living room that needs extinguishing.
How add a sense of rage?
- Replace the injured stranger with a dead family member who incidentally had some interaction with the player early on. Probably a favor asked or a some life saving act received.
How to prick the player's curiosity?
- Add an assault weapon at the scene with some blood on the floor.
- A gagged neighbor whom you can hear but cannot find in the house, probably locked up in one of the wardrobes.
- All the electronic equipment have been left switched on for some reason; the Television, the washing machine, the induction in the kitchen, the music system, the electric trimmer, the table fans, and even a chain saw which doesn't even belong to you!
It is easy to build a more convincing game level (and by level, I don't just mean the physical architecture or location, but also the progression of the in game objectives) when you are familiar with what you want the player to feel when he/she is actually playing the game.
To be able to evoke a desired emotion in a player isn't very easy and can sometimes go unattended. If the designer in this story chooses not to bother with player emotions, then probably the lights would not be switched off in the basement when the player enters it. Similarly the identity of the injured NPC wouldn't have been deliberately kept a secret from the player. These small details are hard to validate at first glance and might not get approved owing to resource and time constraints. And then we get into the age old tug of war between extensive quality and time management. The question is not to find a clear victor between quality and time management, but how to avoid this dead-lock in the first place by planning out the level design process in alignment to Game Narrative.