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When a player navigates a space for the first time, it is very interesting: the content is new, the dangers are unknown, paths need to be found. However, various situations force the player to backtrack, or navigate the same space multiple times. Perhaps the level designers are being economical, or trying to build familiarity with a space. Perhaps the game itself is open-ended, or like a sandbox, where navigating the same spaces is part of the game itself. These can make the same spaces seem tedious and sparse.

Given that backtracking (or navigating the same space multiple times) is unavoidable, what are some effective, economical ways of making it interesting? Please keep in mind:

  • We are reusing levels deliberately, either for effect or to save on cost. Therefore modifying the levels beyond recognition would be against our intent.
  • We also cannot modify the gameplay too much; if we were attempting to save cost by reusing levels, incurring more costs by adding gameplay would be counterproductive.

One quick-fix I had in mind was to give the player some sort of powerup or vehicle so that they could backtrack faster. I'm sure there are better methods, and examples of games where they were used.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You can have a short cut that only opens up at the end of the level. It might not be interesting, but certainly less painful if you have to go back and forth between areas. \$\endgroup\$ – Aholio Sep 24 '14 at 5:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ "We also cannot modify the gameplay too much" - it's way harder to answer this question than it should be without knowing what the existing gameplay is like. \$\endgroup\$ – nathanchere Sep 24 '14 at 7:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ are minor changes to the levels allowed (a part collapsing that just happens to provide a shortcut across that platforming section from hell) \$\endgroup\$ – ratchet freak Sep 24 '14 at 7:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ if "navigating the same spaces is part of the game itself" and that process for the player is "tedious and sparse" it sounds like you've got a problem with your core design \$\endgroup\$ – Eben Sep 24 '14 at 10:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ One of the things I always like to see in those re-use situations is that there are actually multiple paths through the level, or little extra things to find, that are hidden, or visible but inaccessible, until you have acquired skills or items from a later section. As a basic but effective example, look back at the original Legend of Zelda dungeons, where you might pass through a room more than once, but this time you have the raft, or the ladder, or a bomb to open the secret path in the wall. \$\endgroup\$ – LLL79 Sep 24 '14 at 16:18

13 Answers 13

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One thing I liked about the backtracking in Super Metroid is how your new powers allowed you to get through the areas faster, but in a more challenging way. Another way is to place items such as health upgrades (or obvious switches/breakable blocks) in plain sight but out of reach until you come back in possession of another item. The best example of this is the first part of the lower area of Brinstar, where at first you have to take your time carefully jumping through waist-high water and avoiding invincible enemies. When you come back to that area, you have the Ice Beam which allows you to freeze the enemies and use them as stepping stones to quickly traverse the water, and of course you eventually get the Gravity Suit.

A different game that makes backtracking interesting is Dark Souls. The difference with Dark Souls of course is that you aren't usually locked off from areas, it's simply that the enemies are too high-level and thus will be hard to kill. When you first come to Anor Londo, there are a bunch of Sentinels standing around that don't get easily aggro'd, although some guard chests. At that point, most players won't be able to really take them on, so they are ignored. When you come back to go to the Duke's Archives, you can take on the Sentinels and claim the treasure. The same goes for Blighttown when you need to go to the Demon Ruins: it becomes much easier to explore the rest of the swampy area and you can find the Great Hollow. At the same time, power players (like me) will have already explored these areas and removed the need for backtracking by enabling warping to the areas that are weren't opened yet. There is of course also the optional revisit to the Asylum, in which the area is repopulated with tougher enemies and a heinous trap is placed.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Disclaimer: I have bad opinions. As a player, I find both these backtracking mechanics somewhat unsatisfying. I do promote the ability to go thought the level with more speed when backtracking. A hard mechanic to balance. The ease backtracking is greatly decreases the dissatisfaction I feel when being forced to go back. Unless my environment is more open worldly, in which case picking a route is part of the fun for me, and finding tangents to fill the time spend when backtracking is nice too. \$\endgroup\$ – user1695680 Sep 24 '14 at 6:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Another interesting aspect of Metroid is, even without added abilities, you don't necessarily go back the same way you came in even if you are backtracking. You'll pass by all these unreachable areas and maybe try to get into them, and then those sections are revealed to be the path back. \$\endgroup\$ – jzx Sep 24 '14 at 6:44
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You said that modifying the level beyond recognition is out of the question, but what about only small, randomized modifications to levels?

This can be in form of events which only have a certain chance of happening whenever the player traverses the area. When there are multiple such events which also interact with each other, it will result in a slightly different experience everytime the player passes through the area.

One game which does this with an interesting effect is The Stanley Parable. The gameplay of this game is based on lots and lots of branching paths, and after trying one path through the game, the game resets and the player can make different choices and see what happens. That means that the starting area of the game is traversed many, many times. To make this a more interesting experience (and to confuse the player even more), this starting area has a certain probability to have some random but meaningless changes. Corridors change their length, sections are added, removed or replaced, or rooms suddenly have papers all over them.

Such completely unexpected and unexplainable changes would of course not work in a game which isn't as abstract, meta-referential and intentionally confusing as TSP, but there are other, more plausible things you can have to make your game world feel more alive.

In a hostile area, you could have enemies which only spawn with a certain probability or have different positions in which they can spawn. That way the combat experience will be a bit different each time the player passes through the area.

In a friendly area, you could have background events happen or not happen with a certain probability or spawn NPCs which approach the player with a certain probability during each pass-through and say something which might or might not be important.

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One thing I hated about backtracking in Metroid Prime was how when I first came across something new and interesting, I couldn't tell if I had the tools to interact with it or not.

I'd leave, hoping I'd get the tools later. But then I'd hit a dead end. Then I'd wonder if I had the tools to navigate the dead end, if I was missing something, or if I had to go back to the previous place I was unsure about. This led to lots of aimless wandering; so I quit playing.

Personally, I find it wrong to show the player something before he can do it (unless it's painfully obvious they can't do it, like what's that little hole at the bottom of the drain pipe in Banjo Kazooie? Braid only made this mistake once, and I thought it made a huge difference to its flow. It meant that if I couldn't figure something out, it was because I had more thinking to do, not more wandering (or trying to figure out if I had to wander or think)).

If you're going to reuse level geometry by making the player traverse it multiple times, it is my opinion that this should not be done in such a frustrating way. Halo did this well in certain places. Like when you were going back through a bunch of levels you already traversed, but this time by flying. There was no presentation of something that you thought you could do but couldn't, but they still found something interesting to do when going back through.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think it's fine when it's obvious that you need a different tool and that you'll know when you get the tool that it's the right one. The 2D Metroid games since Super Metroid all showed you what weapon you needed to break each block so you could tell where you'd be returning. \$\endgroup\$ – jmegaffin Sep 24 '14 at 15:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ For myself I disagree with this answer, so long as the game is consistent. I like experimentation in games, being unsure what I'm allowed to do. It's only when there is usually a very obvious way through; then the rare ambiguities break my flow because I'm in the wrong mindset. But done well, I like more ambiguity and experimentation (even trial and error) over less. \$\endgroup\$ – Richard Rast Sep 26 '14 at 16:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ Zelda Wind Waker. The block stack puzzle. There is zero indication when you should attempt that puzzle, or what the goal could possibly be. I wasted so much time on that puzzle before I had the shield thing that allows you to complete it. I should not have been allowed into that puzzle so far away from getting the item I needed to complete it. \$\endgroup\$ – Almo Sep 26 '14 at 17:09
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In Portal, the developers intentionally introduced back tracking into the game.

They did this for a couple of reasons:

  • Player Immersion: It happens after you have broken out of the initial portion of the game and have been running around 'behind the scenes'. Bringing you back reminds you that you are still stuck in the facility, still 'in' the game. It also allows the recognition of the area for the player and crucially, prevents the player from feeling like they are just following a long linear corridor.
  • Show the effect the player is having on the environment: Due to the players actions when entering the room, the player can't progress in the same way that they did before, and so they intact more with the space.
  • showing the player that they have changed and how it opens up more opportunities for them. In this case by subverting the previously established rules for the area.
  • it allows the player to feel smart: it's a great example of fridge brilliance. How? Well the player exits the room by descending am empty lift shaft. How is that brilliant? Well the astute will have remembered that unlike every other lift in the game, the first time the encounters this lift, it was not already there but was arriving late as you arrived. The second time around our doesn't make it all!
  • Forshadowing: By having the lift arrive later, it gives a glimpse at the world outside of the whitewashed walls of the test centre (sorry: Aperture Science Computer Aided Enrichment Centre,hinting that you will soon be running around outside the trading environment. That it is also Forshadowing an actual escape route that you actually take later in the game is just an added bonus.
  • Added collectables. A patch of the game shortly before the release of the sequel added radios hidden in most of the areas of the game, including that room. This led to players voluntarily backtracking through the entire game to collect them.

Wow. That's quite a lot for one simple room. How does it help you?

  • Backtracking can make your world feel more real. A comfortable area (Say an NPC town could act as a 'home' for the player and/or a hub that connects you to different areas of the game.) lets the player become familiar with the area, and thus more connected to the game. Having it as a hub lets you reduce the time taken to backtrack between different areas, and so also reduces player frustration.
  • Have hints in areas that only become more apparent or meaningful when passing through an area again. That first time through, the castle on the hill looks like a nice bit of scenery. Coming back through, you know that it is the home of the "big bad" and you will have to make your way there in the future - possibly by returning to the area again!
  • Change your area over time, either by player or npc actions. This can be purely visual; town attacked = some buildings with burn marks/missing thatched roofing etc, or you can take the opportunity to totally change how the player interacts with the environment; same town, but after more attacks, makeshift barriers have been constructed from the scenery (maybe from a cart / street furniture that was already there, but have now been moved). Bonus points for having the player help with the change.
    Another alternative is to have NPCs introduce items to the game: The first time on a coastline for example, you see a beach from a cliff. The next time you go down to the beach. The third time (yawn, again?), a ship suddenly appears and offloads warriors for you to fight. You pass through again and the ship is still there - it is persistent. you can explore it etc. Later on, you find you need a ship to enable you to progress - Oh look, there was that one on the beach a while back. Lets go back (again) and commandeer it.
  • Use the changes to introduce new things for the player to do, be it finding bonus collectables, opening up new routes or discovering new ways to interact with the environment. You don't need to make big changes, keep it subtle.
  • If all else fails:
    Massive changes. You've crossed the plain and navigated through the temple to get to the tower of Babel. Going into the tower, you have an epic quest and end up with it coming down around your ears. What now? you need to go back through all that space to get back to somewhere meaningful. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a new area you could pass through to progress? Well, there can be. What happened to the tower? Introduce it to your environment, it blocks off routes that were there before, can crush obstacles that blocked you and open new routes. It can even be a new route itself; introduce familiar rooms from the tower, only in a new orientation that provides a new challenge to traverse. or use the outside of the tower - get up on and run along it to access new areas / shortcuts that didn't exist before.
    One key thing to note is that the changes don't actually have to be massive in terms of added content, but they should be in your face and provide new ways of using what is already there - design your original levels with the changes in mind.

Good luck! I don't know your genre, so I tried to keep this fairly generic.

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There has been a lot of suggestions in terms of powerups, time decay and ETC. My opinion is a mixture of all of these elements to form a living breathing world that can be both cheap and expensive for development depending on the level of complexity and scale.

However, there has been too much emphasis on going backwards. It's not just about going back, but actually going forward too. Let me explain.

Living Breathing World

Depending on the game, having a living breathing world is a key feature to consider. That's because no matter what direction you are going as a player, living and breathing worlds are always changing.

Instead of thinking of a solution to solve going backwards through a static dimension, think about how life flows in both directions. Dynamic changing events enhance both directions, which fill a game with events that can enrich a gameplay session.

This can start with simple dynamic gameplay events or triggers. That no matter the direction, provide a dynamic event for the player under certain conditions.

For example, if a player is traveling through a world zone that is outside, a trigger based on time could include elements of new music, new sound effects and a sunset that sets the mood of the zone during that particular time (i.e.: World of Warcraft).

Another example, if a player completes a certain quest, dialogs in both towns that have been visited and new towns that have to be visited include new dialog (i.e.: Skyrim).

One more example, visiting certain areas during world changing events provides a sense of player driven change such as what you expect when conquering a new universe. NPC guards now hail to a new faction, security statuses have changed and wars have begun (i.e.: Eve Online).

Dynamic

I focus on dynamic events because so much can be designed around them. It doesn't matter if you're doing a simple side scrolling game or a robust online game. Dynamic events breathe life into a game that is unexpected and diverse for all players that experience them. Particular focus can be applied to both new and old encounters. That means going forward and backwards can entail a set of dynamic events that really add a unique touch to the game.

I for one, enjoy change as I progress through a game. As time goes on, age and even seasons of the world make the game that much immersive. Seeing a house that was once standing during my first visit, then it burnt to the ground in my next visit is rewarding (i.e.: Fable).

Seeing the seasons change as the game time changes is also equally rewarding, even during revisits. Seeing a christmas tree erected in the main square or simply experiencing snow or fall is equally rewarding in both new and existing visits (i.e.: Guild Wars).

Solution

Therefore, I think to key to all the suggestion is a living breathing world that is built off dynamic events or triggers.

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What you are talking about is not easy to do.

If you are going to send the player back through an area then you can still make a lot more game experience there by making new things happen on their journey back. Consider the original Halo where the second half of the game was effectively a fight back through the locations of the first half, but confronted by new enemies. This approach makes effective reuse of the environments but it was not without it's critics in Halo and doing it well is certainly difficult. You should be able to up the difficulty on the return journey so that players benefit from knowing the terrain somewhat. On a two-way trip you could also make certain rooms and power ups available on the way back that were not available on the first journey true, as mentioned in other answers.

If you are thinking of having more of a sandbox setting, then giving the players ways of jumping to the general area they are aiming for is helpful- the various Zelda games do this in fairly useful ways, giving the player a horse or a bird for faster travel at a certain point. You still move through the same areas often, but you can at least get to them quickly. The Elder Scrolls games do something similar with Fast Travel, allowing you to quickly return to a location you have previously visited. In both cases dropping you in the right area does not stop you from having to revisit places you previously passed through once you get there, so the content is re-used effectively.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for Elder Scrolls fast travel, done with way-point discovery. Basically, you can fast travel to any way-point you've been to before, if no monsters are present. \$\endgroup\$ – Fuhrmanator Sep 24 '14 at 12:39
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The best approach to backtracking to make the player feel like the area they are backtracking through has progressed slightly timewise. Were there two NPCs arguing in the village? Have them in a fistfight when the player backtracks. Did the player destroy a wall? Crumble some of the infrastructure around to show the damage they did. Did they summon a blizzard? Add snow to the ground.

These little tidbits keep a players interest in already familiar territory while saving you the need to remake a fourth forest area when they just went through a third. It also gives the player the impression that time is occurring around them, something a lot of games fail to convey.

Other fun ideas:

  • Use a filter to make it night, twilight or dawn.
  • Change the location of enemies to keep the player guessing
  • Put a repair man NPC in the level trying to scrub the laser burns off the wall.
  • Add 'battle damage' to certain location where tough battles would have occurred.
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Time! Let the environment develop over time. Time is a resource that's missed by pretty much all games throughout time and genres. Small, random, changes to the environment, over time, can lead to massive changes. Letting time and some randomness guide the development of the games environment also increases replay value and it can do so quite a lot, depending on the type of game.

Allows NPCs to change the environment or react to changes imposed by any character -- then provide rumors to the player and tell them about (some of) the changes. Introduce grudges between characters, let characters die (and be sure to pass on any game functions from the character to someone else -- maybe in a different area) or just move them about.

Only having small, static, changes tend to make it seem like the developers have done a half-arsed job about it.

Suggesting that it's possible to do anything to keep backtracking interesting without spending resources on it is naive. Any change to a game will require some resources and making backtracking interesting is going to require that you either redo maps or introduce new features (or both). Being able to traverse an area you have already been in faster than the last time doesn't make it more interesting. It just shows the player that they where forced into an area for no really good reason; if you're not adding anything to the environment, you should just let the players skip it entirely.

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There are several techniques that can help improve player experience.

Rule 1 - Inaccessible areas: Make it impossible for the player to explore all of the area first time round. If backtracking is an intentional part of the game, making sub-areas of a location inaccessible first time round is an excellent way to stretch out the interest in the area. When the player then has to backtrack, the newly accessible area makes the familiar location seem new. It's like moving out of your house while an extension is built and then coming back home to enjoy it.

Rule 2 - Character scripting: One of the most underused techniques for revamping old areas is to change what the characters say. When the player returns and speaks to an NPC, only to find that NPC's former throwaway dialogue has been replaced with new, interesting lines.

One good way to revamp dialogue is to make the NPC comment on recent events that have happened within the game world - maybe an evil organisation was overthrown, maybe there was a dragon attack in some far off town, maybe the town mayor celebrated his birthday, maybe the weather has changed. Not only does this add interest, but it has the secondary effect of fleshing out NPCs by making them seem aware of what's going on around them. This in turn makes the game feel more immersive because it reflects reality - humans are constantly talking about current events. Now is the best place to be.

To take this slightly further, if an NPC knows the player by name, they should absolutely express how much they have missed the player (or even their displeasure that the player is back). A friendly NPC would also ask questions about where the player has been and what they've seen on their travels, particularly things relating to that NPC's interests.

Rule 3 - Expansion of shops: In many games (RPGs in particular) items are constantly won, bought and sold. Coming back to a location and finding that the variety of a shop's goods has been increased is always nice, particularly if the items are new to the player or even if they just weren't available from that shop before.

Rule 4 - The effects of time If the player has been away for any significant length of time, it's a good idea to show the effects of time on the world and the characters within it. Characters age, they grow, they get new clothes, they injure themselves, they get diagnosed with poor eyesight and now require glasses. Buildings age, ivy and vines grow on them, the exterior tarnishes and gets weathered, glass gets broken, tiles fall off. Trees grow, flowers grow, graves are dug, rivers dry up, rivers expand, bridges are built. Life does not stop because the player leaves, the rhythm of life is a powerful beat.

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    \$\begingroup\$ #2 is a favorite of mine. It also applies to NPCs you can't interact with. E.g. the ones that just walk around and call out things, or seem to be arguing with each other. Have a set of a few rotating phrases each time, and pick the next set on each visit (or in response to a mission). Also, don't forget you can personalize messages: "Oh look, there's <playername>, slayer of the great dragon!" or whatever. \$\endgroup\$ – uliwitness Nov 24 '14 at 6:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @uliwitness I was trying to hint at the ones that just walk around with the 'throwaway dialogue' remark. The personalisation thing is a very good point though as far as immersion is concerned. \$\endgroup\$ – Pharap Nov 24 '14 at 18:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Personalization can be a little problematic, though, if an NPC addresses you in its dialogue, but you can't talk to them then. I like when they do things like integrating the player into town gossip, though. You 'overhear' it, so wouldn't join the conversation, normally. \$\endgroup\$ – uliwitness Nov 25 '14 at 7:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @uliwitness Depends on how good your dialogue scripting engine is. Most variations of Pokemon's dialogue engine (for example) are capable of both inserting the player's name into dialogue as well as asking simple multiple-choice questions. The only kind of dialogue engine (that I know of) where you can give any input and the engine actually tries to parse it and make sense of it are the kind found in text-based adventure games (e.g. the hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy text adventure game). As far as I know, nobody has attempted a hybrid of RPG setting and parsing-based dialogue engine. \$\endgroup\$ – Pharap Nov 25 '14 at 18:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ I was thinking more that you have to be careful in designing the phrases in a way that entertain the user, but don't make them uncertain whether it is part of the mission to have this conversation. Of course you could add an Eliza-like chatbot to each NPC or make it possible to bring up a dialog tree of random phrases (or even dialog tree entries that show up for every NPC who's said certain ambient text while you were present), but that gets boring pretty quickly, and may distract from the actual gameplay and objectives. That said, I'm all for it if it is well done. \$\endgroup\$ – uliwitness Nov 26 '14 at 10:30
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If you have design space for platformer elements, you could create topology that makes moving backwards a different problem than forwards. For example, lots of jumps and tricks to get to the top of a cliff such that getting back down without falling to death is distinctly different. You might try doing this passively via gravity (ex. jumping to platform slightly lower, creating a one-way gate), or more actively by changing the actual state of obstacles. (ex. oh no, the elevator is out of order now, because a dinosaur attacked it.)

Basically, the space is the same, but spatial navigation problems are different because the objective has changed.

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Two approaches I think help were used in 1996's Duke Nukem 3D.

  1. Provide multiple routes to get to a key location. In the first level of the shareware episode, you need to get into the projection room of the cinema to get the red keycard. You can get there either by going up the stairs from a door in the lobby, or by going through the air vent in the toilets, which also lets you find a secret room, the door of which opens into the projection room. You can use either route to get in or out of there.

  2. Spawn enemies when the player does something vital, so they have something to do on the way back. Quite a few levels have enemy spawning tied to either flicking a necessary switch (such as one to disable a forcefield) or by an invisible touchplate floor in a key area. Either way, the level designer includes enemy spawners linked to those switches, so areas you cleared out the first time won't be clear on your return.

Similar to number 2, you could also trigger one-time phenomena which cause changes to the level architecture. E1L5 is a good example of this with the game's earthquake mechanism being used to open up new paths and change the slope or height of existing ones.

Secret places can also make things interesting. The player might miss them on the first trip, but spot them on the second. This is particularly likely if they were on walls which would have been facing in the same direction as the player's movement on the first trip, but which they'll get a better look at on the second.

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You don't necessarily have to change the rooms themselves if you can change what objects are in the room when the player backtracks.

As a quick example, one of the lairs in Neverwinter Online has a room that's basically empty (although it has two locked doors). As you advance through the lair, you encounter a boss that drops a key, and the door behind the boss was one of the locked doors in the empty room... but now the room is full of enemies! And, of course, the key dropped by the boss grants access to the remaining locked door once you dispatch them.

Because you enter the room from a different entrance than you have before and because the room has enemies where it had none before (especially since the game has already trained you that the rooms you've passed are going to necessarily be clear of enemies), it took me a little while to realize I had backtracked at all!

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After reading Philipp's post about changing environments in The Stanley Parable, I am reminded of Quake II.

While Q2 is very linear (age of Duke Nukem 3D, Shadow Warrior, etc... style FPS), at one point the player passes through the Pumping Station, only to revisit it after the next level. When the player is revisiting the level, they enter through an area not seen before (nor accessible their first time through), briefly passes through a familiar part of the level, and exits through another inaccessible area.

A couple interesting things to note:

  • The part of the level the player passes through - that they are familiar with - has some new decoration. There are barriers set up, and there are new enemies present to hinder the player's progress.
  • The part of the level the player ultimately exits through is somewhat visitable (though locked) their first time through. It gives a sense of a future possibility to revisit and interact with later.

These are things that can give a game a bit more "life" - it gives the illusion that the Strogg - the enemies the player faces - are sentient and aware of the player, and their progress through their facilities. E.g.:

"Curse this human invader! They've torn through [levels a, b, c, ...], decimated our warriors, and destroyed our factories! They must be stopped! Recently, we noticed they passed through [zone N] to get to [zone M] - too bad for them! [Zone M] is a dead end, and they'll have to come back through [zone N] eventually! We'll set up an ambush for them as they make their return."

Giving players something to see - but not reach or interact with (yet!) - can add to the excitement and immersion as they make their way through the game. They know they'll come back to it later, and be able to do something about the obstacle, or say "Hey! This is that pathway I saw from the cliff two levels ago! I know where I am now relative to where I was then!" - and reminisce about their adventure(s) between the then and the now.

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