Guiding the Player without UI

Many games out there provide the player with endless UI-options, quest markers and explanations of where to go, what to do or who to interact with – Skyrim comes to mind. Providing too many UI-Indicators or whatnot often ruins the exploration immersion in first-person games for me personally.

Especially in games that are that focused on open-world or exploration, so I was wondering how games with little to no UI manage to guide their players towards their objective anyway. In “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” there is almost no UI, except for interactions.

However, it actually still manages to guide the player anyway, albeit not being an open world like Skyrim. The only additional thing you’re told is that you’re an investigator and that you’re supposed to find somebody, that’s it. So how is the game guiding you through the start?

In Level Design, there’s the funny concept of using so-called “leading lines” in your frame composition. This is one of a million tools a level designer can use, next to the proper usage of lighting and colors and so on, to highlight where you’d want the player to go.

This is the first frame when the player gains control and you can immediately see where the game wants you to go without telling you about it with a specific marker or UI-element.

Notice how all pieces of the environment signal the player where he can go and where he’s supposed to go. The train tracks in the center lead towards an area that is highlighted by the lighting and fog.

The area close to your screen is very dark, making the player feel uneven and makes him want to leave towards the light. You can also see that the arrangement of the rocks point you towards the center as well as the power line on the left, directly placed next to the tracks.

When you follow the train tracks you quickly get to a group of rocks that block your current pathway. In the center, behind the roadblock you can still see that the train tracks go further ahead so you naturally search for a way to get there.

The trees in front of you are placed in a high density so you immediately understand that you cannot go directly “through” there. Instead, the position of the rocks and especially the log on the ground point you to where an alternative pathway can be found.

The same concept applies to when you follow the alternative pathway.

The arrow-shaped rocks / rock formations lead you along the path; the trees block the parts where you can’t go. The light blue sky also signals the player that this might be a way out of the forest.

More arrow-shaped rocks, another tree to the right keeping you on your way. This time the frame composition exposes you to a scenic overview of the area you are about to get to and you can see that the tracks you were following are actually part of a bridge.

So the player naturally heads towards the bridge and thus a “landmark” cleverly positioned in the environment. He now has a new temporary goal being “get to the bridge”.

Following the path, you get to a junction where you can choose either to follow the tracks and thus getting to the bridge, or to go to the right, into the unknown. Here, the game establishes that there can be more than one way where you can go when you play along.

Both options are highlighted with two different color palettes and lighting styles. The right side being dark, the left being colorful and bright, promising different experiences. As players gravitate towards what’s not in the dark, we go to the left.

On the Left we are now looking at the bridge. Leading Lines are also present here, cleverly built into the wooden planks of the bridge. As a player, I can already see that it’s a long way to the other side of the bridge.

As players most of the time don’t like backtracking at a later points in the game, we turn around and check out the other option before committing to the long walk over the bridge.

We’ve now turned around and chosen the right side (pun intended) and we can immediately notice that it’s much darker around here, so as a player I will mostly feel uneasy being in the dark so I’m looking to get out of here.

Thankfully, the framing of the view from the position I am in and the distribution of light clearly point me towards the bright spot in the center. Therefore, that’s where I’m going for now…