Alessandro Canossa

Ph.d.-stipendiat, MA in Science of Communication

(+45) 3527 7634
(+45) 3023 3284


Forskning og kunstnerisk virksomhed

Vejledning inden for forskningsprojekts problemfelt

Towards a theory of the player
Designing levels for enhanced player experience
Weaving experiences

The scope of my Ph.D. project is to define unified procedures and guidelines to design levels for a non-linear, action single player game. It is my intention to treat level design issues as a kind of language and make use of linguistic and semantic approaches and tools.

Language is defined as a vocabulary of words and a syntax used to combine them into meaningful propositions (Susanne Langer, 1951).

Vocabulary and grammar are identified as essential components of language. The first task will be a classification of elements belonging to the fields that help construct the player’s experience and emotional status, namely a taxonomy of spatial elements, a taxonomy of events and a taxonomy of emotions/experiences. The second task will be individuating the combinatory rules for each of the previously defined dictionaries.

In parallel, I plan to carry on an in-depth investigation and analysis into IO existing level design production pipeline. Methods to be used are quantitative questionnaires and qualitative interviews with: lead game designer, lead level designer, level designers, project manager, writer, level scripter, lead artist, modeler, texturer, game programmer and effect artist.  Afterwards it will be a matter of fine tuning the existing pipeline to accommodate for a design philosophy that revolves around the user experience.

Eventually I aim to provide the designer with a formalized and structured tool (language) to create levels still allowing the creative freedom necessary to produce outstanding and unique game worlds. This tool will allow the designer to be constantly in control of the flow from space to event to experience to emotion.

Level design as language
Entire disciplines, such as architecture, can be seen, and have been studied already, as linguistic processes, where the artist selects elements according to their function and combines them in spaces. Beside selection and combination the discipline of level design must comply with two other principles in order to be treated as a language: it must be possible to perform syntagmatic and paradigmatic operations and every element of its dictionary must have denotative and connotative level of signification.

In a game level, the succession of spaces is the syntagm (i.e. boiler room AND corridor AND sewers), while the paradigm consists of the possible alternatives that could have been used instead (i.e. boiler room OR storage room OR sewers). 

Denotative and Connotative levels refer to the “literal” meaning of an element and the associative values, symbolic content subject to cultural interpretations. As an example, in architecture, the Greek columns denotative level is their function: to sustain the roof of the temple, while its connotative level conveys the notion of democracy, sharing the weight to carry.

Taxonomies: dictionaries or networks?
Taxonomy is both the classification of things, and the principles underlying the classification. It is therefore important to state that our task will not have as a result the mere compilation of dictionaries but, much like Alexander’s pattern language, the creation of networks. Networks are used and experienced as sequences, moving from the larger patterns to the smaller ones, from the patterns that create structures to the ones that embellish said structures and then to those that embellish the embellishment.

Spatial Taxonomy
The first taxonomy-network should cover all the elements that help create the spaces of which the game level is constituted. It will be necessary to find the architectonical equivalent to Jungian archetypes in the definition of spaces, based in the way we (as humans with a similar body) perceive space and correlate forms. In this field there are many architects that have worked with classification of architectonical elements:
- William Muschenheim in Elements of the Art of Architecture (1964) breaks down form, space, and surface into mass, volume, plane, line, solid, void, proportion, size, scale, light, shadow, harmony, contrast, continuity, balance, enclosure, height, depth, light, extension, texture, pattern, colour, ornamentation, and façade.
- J.N.L. Durand mentions more intuitive components, such as supports, walls, opening, foundations, floors, vaults, roofs, and terraces.
- Francis D. K. Ching individuates Paths (circulation patterns), Types (organizing systems) and Forms (axis, symmetry, hierarchy, rhythm, datum).
- Christopher Alexander has devoted most of his work to bring about a change of paradigm to finally see architecture and the art of building as another language (“A pattern language is a language for building and planning spaces”) and has dentifyed 253 patterns, "spatial bits," that through combination can go towards creating meaningful environments. Spatial elements should be categorized both according to their function (denotation) and their perceived emotional value (connotation); by themselves and in relation to other elements.
Event Taxonomy
In the second network we suggest to include the occurrences that can be contained in the spaces that make up a game level. It is an extremely heterogeneous network that will contain a typology of gameplay nuggets such as:
-interactive objects (i.e. breakable crates, power-ups, switches, NPC, etc.),
-behaviors (state variables, properties, etc.),
-problems (ambush, obstacle, killing field, assassination, rescue, etc.)
-solutions (cover, quick route, short cuts, etc.)
-narrative (plot twists, story devices, scenarios, etc.)
-rewards (extra speed, invulnerability, invisibility, cutscene, unlocked features, etc.)
-direction (clues, flow guides, etc.)
-encounters (agonistic, cooperative, etc.)
I suggest making use of Christopher Alexander work method, defining a language to design forms and spaces according to given parameters; in his case the parameters are: “life”, “wholeness”, “privacy”, “community”, we would need to look for and define our own parameters such as “allows hiding”, “allows room for maneuvers”, “good for ambushes”, etc.
As for the spatial elements, events should be categorized both according to their gameplay function (denotation) and their perceived emotional value (connotation); by themselves and in relation to other elements of the same network.

Emotional Taxonomy
I suggest starting from a psychological point of view rather than a clinical one in order to harvest and classify emotions, and the work of Nico H. Frijda seems mostly fitting for its structured approach. According to him emotions are causes of or caused by:
-phenomena of behavior (weeping, laughter)
-physiological manifestation (blushing)
-subjective experience (sadness, happiness)
Another useful approach is the tree-like taxonomy of emotions suggested by psychologist Philips Shaver or philosopher Spinoza in his Ethica. The purpose of this categorization is to provide items with which to map the player’s experience in the different spaces and during different events. It is the only taxonomy that is not going to be presented as a network but rather as a hierarchical dictionary. (some unsorted emotional states: startle, fear, withdrawal, protection, amazement, surprise, wonder, anger, concentration, attention, sadness, readiness, gaze, activation, excitement, joy, fatigue, boredom, listlessness, frustration, paranoia, tenseness, panic, impulsiveness, smiling, laughing, weeping, inhibition, anxiety, depression, arrogance, indifference, etc.)

Combinatory rules: grammatic and semantic
Grammatical rules in languages ensure correctness in a sentence but do not ensure meaning; it is the responsibility of semantic rules to guarantee the production of meaningful sentences. It is in this part of the research project that I will individuate rules of combination between spatial patterns and game events to achieve certain wished emotions, both on a grammatical level (the spaces in the game level will look right, will be accepted, not breaking the suspension of disbelief) and on a semantic level (the spaces will communicate something to the player, will be densely meaningful).

I expect a great deal of work to be invested in “weighing” the items and patters contained in the taxonomies and correlating elements both within the same category and across the spatial, event and emotional taxonomy.

Summary and expected results
The purpose of this project is to define three open, weighed and cross referenced containers for spatial, gameplay and emotional patterns, and three sets of combinatory rules, one for each field so that incorrect or meaningless associations can be avoided.

The ideal outcome of this research project would be to define a framework for the creation of game levels that is structured enough to allow designers to guide the player (of course with invisible hands) from game spaces to events that engender a certain set of desired emotional states. At the same time the workflow should be loose enough to allow the designer to express his creativity and to produce striking and unique game-worlds. Furthermore I maintain that such a framework would improve greatly both quality and productivity.

The overall vision of the whole project is to establish “emotional states” both as a governing principle during the design phase and an evaluation tool during testing phase. It is in fact by addressing directly from the beginning the question “how will the player feel while playing this particular segment?” that we can create focused, sharp and successful games.

2006: Beginning a Ph.D.  research program in cooperation with IO Interactive and Danmarks Designskole.

2005-2006: Working at Dracco ( as game designer and 3d artist, developing games and visualisation material for their new lines of toys.

2005-2006: Teacher, tutor and advisor for the Danish Academy of Digital Interactive Entertainment (DADIU).

2004-2005: Teaching the course ”Technical and Artistic implications of designing videogames” at the school IMMA (Interactive Media and Marketing Academy), focusing on design methods and current trends of content generation.

2003-2005: Teaching the course “Game Design: the art and craft of interactive entertainment” at School of Art, Design and Fashion, Odense.

2003-2006: Founded game dev. studio “Tabula Rasa Games” producing the game “Hannibal – vengeance of Carthage”. Working as game designer, producer, 3D artist and project leader. (

2002-2003: Working as game designer, level designer, 3D modeller and animator for the experimental game project “The Seventh Day”, financed through the Danish Ministry of Culture.

2002: Wrote the script of a short docu-fiction “The Illogical Instrument” produced by DR2 within the series “5 hjerteslag”. The premiere of the film was the 26th of April in Cinemateket and it has been subsequently shown on DR2 the 10th of May 2003.

2002: Planning, organizing and teaching the 6 months, full time course “3D Game Design” at the specialisation school “Truemax”.

2002: Game Designer at Visionik, developing games for interactive television set top boxes (Open TV). Customers: Cartoon Network, Sky Channel.

1999-2002: Working at ITE (Interactive Television Entertainment) as Art Director, 3D Artist,
Animator and Game Designer.

1998-1999: Working as an Art Director, project manager and New Media Consultant for RT Reklame (now Republika), a major Danish advertisement agency (customers: FDB, SuperBrugsen, Irma, Merlin, Mercedes)

1997-1998: Employed at Net Pass as Interface Designer and Information Architect for their intelligent search engine utilizing agents and avatars (in use at Ericsson and Nokia). The company was located in Aalborg, Denmark therefore I relocated there.

1996-1997: Employed at the advertisement agency WDM (We Deal Magic) in Turin as Graphic Artist, 3d Modeller and Animator, working for a nationwide campaign for Martini and Bacardi.

1995-1997: Working in “The Box” art gallery in Turin as Exhibition Organizer and Creative Consultant.

1992-1997: University of Turin, Masters Degree in Science of Communication, with a thesis on intelligent agents and new methods of understanding Information and Entertainment (mark 102/110). Courses in Linguistics, Semiotics, Cinema, Psychology, Aesthetics, Rhetoric, Visual Communication, Advertisement, New Media, Mass Media Communication, Computer Graphic and Visualization.

Udvalgte publikationer
1994-1995: Contributed with a chapter dealing with artistic and philosophic implications of fractal geometry to the book “Theories and Techniques of New Media”, edited by Prof. E. Carità and published by CUSL Turin.

2005: Speaker at the DAC workshop on experience design at the IT University.

2003-2004: Speaker at DTU (Danmark Tekniske Universitet) for the conferences  “Vision day” and “Content day”.

Udvalgte produktioner
2006: 6 TV commercial spots for Swedish customer Harald Nyborg.
2005: ”Hannibal: Vengeance of Carthage” fully playable demo of Tactical Action Game (PC and XBOX) presented at GDC in San Francisco.
2003: ”The Seventh Day” PC game showcasing alternative gameplay and storytelling.
2002: “The Illogical Instrument” documentary produced by DR2 and shown in Cinemateket.
2002: “Johnny Bravo” game for interactive television set top boxes.
2002: “Lego Racer CD-ROM” promotional game for LEGO
2002: “Hugo: evil mirror” game for PC and PSX
2001: “Hugo: black diamond fewer” game for PC and PSX
2001: Hugo: frog fighter” game for PC and PSX
2000: “Hugo: quest for the sunstones” game for PC and PSX
1999: “Hugo Safari 2”, TV show starring the famous troll, broadcasted by TV2 in Denmark and in 17 other countries.



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