Detective Vision & Visual Language


Occasionally I post some mostly coherent Twitter threads on game design. Some of them are worth saving here. – Max

I’ve had this thought before, but it’s not a simple thing to solve.

The core question is: how do you make sure that the player sees what they need to see?

Lots of strategies. “Detective vision” is one that works in some cases that are otherwise hard to solve for. #GameDesign

When games went 3D and non-linear, it suddenly became a lot harder to do something that was (relatively) easy in 2D: making sure players can see “what they ought”. The #Zelda: Ocarina of Time team talked about this a lot in interviews

“The 3D world has a camera, so it’s important that the player be able to see what routes to follow and not overlook something important. By changing the camera viewpoint just a little you might not be able to see something you ought.” – Eiji Aonuma, 1998

If players must see it to progress, but the developers can’t guarantee it’ll be in the camera frame, that’s a problem.

Strategies like aggressive mini-cutscenes to pan the camera to points of interest, putting waypoints or radar blips on important objects, highlights.

In linear games, level designers can control what’s in view – to an extent.

Ex: if there’s a narrow corridor, you know the player will look forward. If there’s a big vista with a huge spectacle in the distance, players will look at it. You draw attention at specific moments.

But the more freedom players have to approach things from different angles at different times, and the more verticality in the environment, the less game designers can rely on these methods. The more players miss things, through no fault of their own.

So what do we do?

The answer is often “literally tell the player where the thing is” – thru waypoints, radars, map icons, detective vision, highlighted paths. These are reliable solutions, especially if you don’t want “search and backtrack” to be a big part of your game.

There are other more subtle solutions, but they are harder and require you to design around them from the ground up.

This stuff is _really hard_ and requires big commitment and discipline. #BreathOfTheWild did it – it’s why I think it’s the best game of all time.

The first solution is to develop a strong and consistent “visual language”.

A “visual language” is a set of rules that developers and artists follow to communicate to their players. Players pick up on these rules while they play.

In Assassin’s Creed, eagles fly from vantage points to draw your attention. In Horizon: Zero Dawn or God of War (2018), climbable spots are highlighted with yellow detail.

Breath of the Wild uses the color orange and the alien curves of Shiekah architecture to denote “this is a point of interest”. These cues are noticeable even at a great distance.


They also used triangular landforms of different sizes and shapes in very intentional ways (big topic).


For visual language to work well enough to reliably communicate everything to players, you need to build your entire art style around it.The Zelda team does this: their visual style is wholly subordinate to and driven by their gameplay needs. But that’s a really tall order!

You also need to be extremely consistent with your visual language. Using a cue incorrectly dilutes its meaning. Building a world that consistently adheres to rules like these requires immense care. If all goes well, the results are so subtle that players aren’t conscious of it.

It’s not enough to just pick some colors and shapes to denote meanings, you also have to design your game loops so that players see these markers.

BOTW is a game about surveying the environment: it encourages you to go to high places and actively look around.

Despite ALL OF THAT, they still gave themselves a pressure valve: Breath of the Wild had way fewer “unmissable” things than previous Zelda’s. You could afford to miss stuff because everything has multiple solutions.

So why am I delving into breath of the Wild so much? To demonstrate that:

A: It’s really hard. This was a priority from the ground up, and their art style, world design, gameplay, and even storytelling ALL support it

B: do it well and you’ll be GOTY

(I’m pretty sure that the reason they gave Link a blue tunic in BOTW was so that he’d contrast with the environment more)



Not every game can, or SHOULD, make “navigating w/o waypoints, icons, or detective vision” a core priority, or devote every element of its design to solving that problem. And that’s kind of what it takes in 3D open world games. And that’s why we have detective vision.