Breadcrumb trails and why game designers are leading us all on

Mirrors edge

DICE’s Runner Vision allows players to quickly assess the best routes through Mirror’s Edge’s stark environments by picking out key features in easy-to-parse red.

Be it a poorly signposted objective, an obfuscated pathway, or a baffling maze,  being left with no clear idea of how to progress ranks among game design’s most heinous sins. But no player wants to be led by the nose, either, leaving developers with a formidable challenge in searching for a sweet spot between clarity and player freedom.

“It’s very tough, because while many people argue that they don’t want any hints, what they actually want is just the right amount,” says Simon Flesser, one half of Swedish studio Simogo. “And that is, of course, very subjective.”

Simogo’s lauded iOS adventure Year Walk demonstrates the studio’s willingness to give the player plenty of space. But while the illusion of freedom this creates is powerful, it’s still an illusion. “While it might seem that we’re leaving the players to their own devices a lot in Year Walk,” says Flesser, “we’re constantly nudging them in some direction. We wanted to communicate the feeling of being lost in Year Walk, but that was tough, because just walking around being lost will eventually only amount to being frustrated.”

It’s a problem that developers tackle in a variety of ways, some more obvious than others. It could be lining up collectables along a path, using lighting to draw the eye, or even the volume of an environmental sound effect. Take Dead Space’s memorable RIG suits and their locator system: when activated, a holographic projection of the route to your next objective emanates ahead of you, simultaneously reassuring you that you’re on the right path and removing any need to use the game’s less elegantly designed 3D map. It’s a literal, albeit futuristic, representation of the breadcrumb trail, but one entirely in keeping with the game’s fiction. And it shows that tension needn’t be diminished even if you do know your way through the dark.

Dead Space’s RIG suits and their locator system were a futuristic repackaging of the breadcrumb trail.

Such consistency is key to making breadcrumb trails work. “3D Mario and Zelda games do a terrific job of communicating objectives by their visual language and level designs alone,” says Flesser. “Just by looking at structures, you can usually make out a number of things: whether a jump is possible, or if you’d need to return to the same spot with a new ability and so on.”

Of course, Nintendo’s designers also make use of coin and enemy placement to lead you through these colourful worlds, and encourage you to explore away from the most obvious path. And there are plenty of other exemplars, too: the accent colours that paint a path through the austere environments of Mirror’s Edge, or the way Alan Wake ensures that future locations stand out from its mountainous vistas.

Lately, however, it has become increasingly fashionable for games to subvert the notion of there being any kind of designed path at all. Portal’s ultimate reward is discovering parts of the level its architects apparently didn’t want you to see – you rebel against the path that has been created for you in order to forge your own. It’s a construct, of course, but an eminently satisfying one. More recently, The Stanley Parable has taken this idea further, setting up a world that goads you into trying to break it. Of course, developer Galactic Cafe is still waiting at the edges of its design to recognise your efforts.

“With The Stanley Parable, we often left things open-ended in development just to see what people would try to do and craft the game to respond to that,” says creator Davey Wreden. “I always get super-stressed watching someone play a section where we’ve given them a lot of freedom, hoping they’ll find the hints we’ve laid!”

The Stanley Parable plays with the notion of the breadcrumb trail to tie its players in knots. You can read our review here.

Galactic Cafe level designer William Pugh lays out the risk and reward in letting players take the initiative: “Pacing factors into [breadcrumb trails] a great deal. Sometimes you can’t afford to have a player wander around for five minutes, banging their head against the wall. But if you’re willing to go out on a limb and leave it entirely up to the player, you stand to gain a lot when they discover the next piece of the puzzle and it leaves them feeling really satisfied. Spending a bit of time tuning the design really pays off.”

There’s nothing wrong with heading along a glowing path towards the diamond HUD marker that floats over your next destination, of course, and as game worlds continue to increase in complexity and size, clear direction is more important than ever. But when it comes to progression, as opposed to navigation, subtle signposting appears to offer the greatest rewards.

“I think there’s a big difference in presenting a problem itself, rather than presenting a problem as a problem,” says Flesser. “Often, the former works well enough. But personally, I’d much rather pique players’ curiosity through the intrigue of a problem [rather] than us as creators telling them they should now solve a problem because we say so.”

It’s easy to associate breadcrumb trails with linear journeys, but they are important to all games, irrespective of whether they’re a platformer or sandbox. “Minecraft has no breadcrumbs in the traditional sense,” Wreden notes, “but the game world is so consistent that it creates a kind of meaning between each discrete experience you have in it; you understand how everything you’re doing is tied together in some invisible way. This is the feeling that breadcrumbs are trying to evoke, that this place you’re inhabiting is a consistent, breathing world and that your presence in it makes sense.”