Semiotics is something crucial to game design, that most players barely even notice. Semiotics is the study of signs, visual landmarks that can be interpreted and show us what we can and can’t interact with. These visual signs are crucial in games. We learn from visual cues that spikes are to be avoided, health packs have a green cross on them and glowing dots on maps are probably what we should head towards.
Resident Evil 7 has incredibly intelligent level design, and does a marvelous job providing the player with signs that guide them, without actually telling them what to do. By experimenting early on, you can gain an understanding of what certain objects mean in relation to the game. You save your game with cassette players, so by finding one in the environment you learn that the room it is in is a safe place, somewhere to run to if in danger.
90% of the game takes place in a single house. They seem like segmented levels, but once you find a specific object, you think back to all the doors that had the same insignia as the object on it. You open these doors and realize everything is interconnected. The game doesn’t tell you to back track, but finding an object that is similar in appearance or function to something you’ve already seen is a subtle guide of where to go next.
You can also find VHS tapes, left behind my some of the house’s former victims. By watching the tapes, you’ll play through a segment as another character. It isn’t obligatory to watch every tape, however the first tape is crucial for progressing. Within it, you find the answer to an environmental puzzle that allows you to move forward. This teaches the player that if they find other tapes, they may uncover a way to a secret location or an answer to a seemingly unbeatable challenge. It’s intelligent level design, because early on, the player is taught the crucial need to remember elements of the game world, without the need of arrows or blatantly obvious tutorials. It is the art of semiotics. Resident Evil 7 is creating signs for the player to interpret and understand, but in a subtle fashion.
Games like Breath of the Wild handle things slightly differently. They don’t offer specific visual cues that tell the player exactly how to proceed. Instead they teach you to look out for things that link to causation and correlation. When I walk into a shrine, I don’t possess a key that is in the shape of the door in front of me. I instead have a set of runes at my disposable, and I look for tell-tale signs of elements of interactivity. There is water coming out from that pipe, so I can use my freezing rune somehow. This cube turns when I hit its handle with my axe. This orb is too heavy to push, but lights up when I try and magnetize it. In Resident Evil 7, you’re encouraged to search every nook and cranny, scavenging for; keys, ammunition and herbs that are crucial to your survival. So by finding a key hidden away, the challenge is getting back to the door it unlocks without being killed. In Breath of the Wild, the focus is creativity. When you enter a shrine you have already been given the tools to succeed, so you look for visual cues that allow you to work out how to solve the puzzle using a mixture of your skills.
This is how most games are designed. Some offer heavy handed tutorials, others teach the player what signs to look out for in the world. Some games disregard this entire process. You might call Problem Attic genius, or you might call it garbage. It is a puzzle platformer with some of the lowest quality graphics in the industry. Most games teach you with colors. Brown boxes have apples, red ones explode. Yellow eco lets me shoot energy balls, blue eco makes me run faster. White space is air, so I can jump through it, and black spaces are physical objects, like walls or platforms.
Problem Attic throws all that out the window. Sometimes you can jump through a white space, sometimes you can’t. If you walk behind this wall, you’ll somehow appear back at the start of the game. You’re standing on a platform, you walk forward and suddenly fall through the level. There was no visual clue or sign that told you there was a hole to avoid there, so how could you have possibly known what to do. Some claim it is a poorly designed mess with no actual purpose as a game, yet I’ve also seen others praise its ingenuity and point out that it revolutionized how they tackle game design. I fall somewhere in the middle. I don’t think it is trash, but I don’t think it is brilliant by any stretch of the imagination. It is an interesting experiment and commentary around semiotics and the core structure of how we design games. There are things we can learn from it, but it isn’t awe-inspiring as a singular entity.
When making your own game, or trying to work out how the games you play work, there is an intricate amount of detail below the surface. Everything in the game means something, everything is a clue, and even when they’re not, and things seem nonsensical, the developer is still trying to teach the player a lesson.