About Occupational Hazard

Occupational Hazard
Toolset/Engine: Hammer Editor / Source
Concept: Occupational Hazard is a single-player Half-Life 2: Episode 2 level that takes place in an abandon laboratory overrun by antlions and headcrab zombies. One of the major focuses of the project was utilizing the environment and creating an living immersive setting. I created gameplay-modifying spaces, developed environmental storytelling and visual composition in scenes, and crafted dynamic events to engage the player. Combining artistic, technical, and design excellence, the level was nominated for honors by my peers.

Design Goals & Key Features:

  • Develop a sense of progression using visual themes
  • Control combat difficulty through space design and enemy composition
  • Utilize a director and scripted events to create a reactive living world
  • Create an environmental mechanic around radiation and healing to promote tension
  • Provide a player with a variable experience through indicative and dynamic events
  • Guide the player through usage of space, flow, sight lines, and other physical elements

Design Achievements

Read more about how I guided the player by utilizing visual cues and sight lines...

Establishing Player Guidance through Visual Cues and Sight Lines

OccHaz Guidance Icon

The player's visual cues when they first spawned in were important to set the tone of the level and provide initial guidance. I avoided major clutter pieces that would distract the player or dilute the information I was trying to convey while focusing their attention on their immediate objective of getting to the next area. From left to right, visual cues are laid out for the player to help them progress and provide direction. First the less obvious unobstructed the vent, then the more obvious blocked door with the crowbar required to unblock the door.

Teaching the player from the moment they spawn…

Players should always have a purpose even if it’s one they themselves have created based on the environment and situation. Too little information to make a confident decision or too many seemly equal options and a player becomes frustrated and directionless. At best, we diminish their engagement as they struggle to find something to do or make a choice they feel comfortable with. At worse, the player blames the game and we lose them completely as a player.

Elements such as UI markers and voice over provide direct means to guide the player. We can reinforce and even replace these overt guides through subtle methods. Using multiple methods of guidance prevents players from getting fatigued by or desensitized to any one method which allows them to remain more effective for greater lengths of time. Additionally, the player experience is improved with subtler methods. Players have a stronger sense of agency and aptitude because they managed to ‘figure it out’ versus feeling like a designer has explicitly babysat them through the gameplay.

Knowing how a player traverses through an area and the effect on their vision cone is equally important. When entering from the hallway, the player is provided the tools they will need before seeing the challenge. Had the player gone through the vent, they would have first seen their objective before the tools since the vents position them more.

Utilizing moving vision cones

Visual cues and sight lines are two of the subtle design tactics I used in the level. By understanding how and what a player might see in their surroundings, I constructed and placed contextual clues that informed them of objectives and direction. At the broader scale, sight lines and movement with spaces influenced the level. Bends or obstructions in the level force players to turn which naturally move their vision across a space as well as creating a controlled unveiling of information.

The area was sub-divided into three major sections based on the objectives. Each section had elements such as light sources or interesting objects to lead the player through. To keep guidance clear, some elements responded to player progress or actions. When the lock control in Section B was activated, the lights in Section A would turn off while the lights in Section C would turn on to help re-direct the player. Similarly, the dynamic events in Section B only occurred under certain circumstances to avoid distracting the player.

Responsive visual cues…

Visual cues can be almost anything thematically appropriate. In this level, I used lighting contrast, particle effects, movement of objects, framing shapes, directional lines, and minor gameplay elements such as enemies and pickups. Given the number of cues used in any given area, I further sub-divided large spaces into smaller areas in order to create a better understanding of how each cue would work and inter-relate with nearby cues. This conceptual breakdown also aided in defining moment-to-moment gameplay.

Not every visual cue is always needed – especially if a player traverses a space multiple times. Having cues respond to player actions ensures proper clear direction as well as adding an element of natural immersion into the world.

Read more about how I crafted a living level and utilized visual composition...

Designing Spaces in the Game Experience

OccHaz Guidance Icon

Knowingly or unknowingly, players want to enjoy their relationship with and understanding of the game environment and the levels within it. The game environment invisibly shapes the player’s experience within it – from supplementing gameplay systems and core mechanics to strengthening narrative threads and cultivating an immersive experience. In Occupational Hazard, I designed both passive elements and active/reactive elements to create an level that players can enjoy, master, and immersive themselves in.

A well-built space influences the combat difficulty, maintains tension, and encourages players to master and understand the environment without punishing them for failure.

Building combat spaces…

Given the scope of the project, I prioritized three mechanisms to shape the level. Due to the role combat played in the level, I crafted each combat space to guide difficulty and invoke varying levels of tension. With a focus on gameplay and minimalism in the UI, I used visual composition and kinesthetic play to guide players through locations. Finally, I provided a living responsive level to shape the player’s experience and respond to the design needs at a given point in time.

At the most basic level, combat spaces provide arenas for the player and their enemies. Depending on the design objectives, a space can also dramatically color the combat that takes place within it as well as alter how a player reacts to that combat. In one example from the level, I introduce an antlion – a large fast enemy – in a equally large environment with movement-hindering obstacles. I chose the size of the arena, the obstacles, and their placement within, to hinder the antlion more than the player. This created tension with low combat difficulty as the player must remain mobile against an aggressive enemy while having a subtle advantage. Later on after the player has gained a more powerful weapon, I present an antlion in a space that is much more restrictive for the player. The same sense of tension exists only now the difficulty has increased in proportion to the player’s increase in power.

In this hallway, the contrast of light and shadow draws attention to the framed objective in the background. Lines of composition and particle effects for movement further direct the eye to the objective.

Visual composition…

I used visual composition techniques of framing, contrast, and lines in creating the location of each major gameplay beat. The framing of objectives enabled me to invoke curiosity in players which in turn created goals and objectives for them to seek out. Contrast and lines of composition complimented this framing and provided guidance by drawing players towards the desired directions. Well-lit areas stood out more against areas in shadow. Arrangement of props and their silhouettes directed the eye one way or another. Prop placement was also a key factor; by directing players to turn or move, I could further control the visual composition they would see.

Shown here are several of the events that take place in this area. Some are heavily scripted for design purposes. Others are freeform events dictated by what the player does and how they approach the area.

Indicative events…

In addition to the passive mechanisms described above, I also devised more active and reactive elements in the level. Some were used simply to provide dynamic events for the player to experience while others were specifically used to indicate progress and where a player should be. The dynamic events meant to entertain with variety were controlled by a level director which gathered basic information about the player and their progress. Indicative events were more tightly controlled based on gameplay and narrative beats. A basic example from the level were lights and the motion of particle effects used to direct a player’s attention to an objective. When that objective was complete, those lights and effects were switched off in favor of a different lighting scheme that directed them to the next objective. This kind of responsive event rewarded the player and gave the level a sense of life in reaction to the player.

Read more about how I built progression through thematic design...

Creating Environmental and Narrative Progression

Players naturally seek goals and progression during the course of gameplay. This feeling of progress can take many forms including mastering mechanical depth, improving gameplay skill, and obtaining or unlocking new items. In Occupational Hazard, the narrative-gameplay progression I created enhanced the illusion of an expansive play space and contributed to telling part of a greater narrative thread.

This progression guided the development of each environmental theme and the transitions between them. I increased the impact of key narrative beats or gameplay moments by rewarding such progress with a change in theme. These transitions created a sense that the level was growing with their progression. The additional direction provided by the tightly coupled narrative lent itself to developing very specific interstitial storytelling moments and thematic blending during gameplay.

An example early in the level is when the player first acquires the crowbar. As the crowbar was a major progression point for the level, the environmental themes transitioned around the initial discovery and usage of the item. Before receiving the crowbar, the primary environmental theme is administrative – clean with a feeling of familiarity and control. After receiving the crowbar, organic elements begin to work their way into the environment as does a general sense of decay and ruin. Once the player has progressed to the next area, the familiar/administrative theme has been fully replaced by decay and organic overgrowth.

Additional Media

Overview Map

OccHaz Guidance Icon

Gameplay Trailer