Dark areas can be extremely effective and give your level a terrific atmosphere, but be careful because it can also easily ruin your level too if not used with thought. Running around looking at a dark screen is not enjoyable. If you are building dark areas, ensure players have enough light to see. Make sure they have enough flares and consider including a torch which makes exploring dark areas so much more fun.
Even in really dark areas, as long as players can see the immediate walls and the floor, they are in the game. Pitch black areas should be used sparingly and briefly. A brilliant example of using pitch black to build suspense and drama was the yeti den in the Tibet levels of TR2. However, Lara was quite safe while exploring that area in the dark and it wasn't until she turned on the lights that the action began.
I once played a pitch black level which was patched so you had no flares and the pistols had been removed so you couldn't even go around shooting to see where you were going. Where's the fun in looking at a black screen? I can turn my PC off and do that. Yep, you guessed it, it went into the recycle bin.
New builders in particular have a tendency to make overly dark levels. Always bear in mind that as a builder you know where everything is because you built the level but nobody else will. How are players supposed to explore and enjoy your work if they can't see anything? You can introduce pools of light into dark rooms by beams of sunlight, beams of moonlight, water, and flames amongst other things. This is an art and don't underestimate or neglect its power. Play top quality custom games and study how successful level builders put their adventures together. I've always thought Inchdix one of the best level designers in the world and I love his work. To help me grow as a level builder I offered to Next Gen his Hidden Garden series and worked closely with him for months until Hidden Garden NG was finished and released. What I learned from the experience has been invaluable to me as a level designer and I can feel his influence in my work now.
Audio and Background Loops
Audio is used by everyone, but is it used well? Most of us grew up with music and so knowing how to use audio comes naturally when designing custom games. Using audio to great effect is extremely powerful stuff. However, when it comes to background loops, somehow we just don't seem to get it. It is audio, after all. Maybe it's not music, but it is sound and it registers through players ears and impacts their emotions as much as music tracks so we just whack it in without a second thought about it.
Background loops pervade every level from start to finish, and therefore play a far more powerful and important role in building good atmosphere than you perhaps realise. Do you want to risk ruining the ambience of an excellent adventure you've spent months and even years building because you paid no attention to the background loops? Playing the same background loop without break for an entire level, especially a loud background loop, can drive players to distraction. Stick your favourite song onto your ipod and replay it 30 times one after another and see if it's still your favourite song at the end of it. As a level builder, don't underestimate the power of background audio loops. I reduce the volume of mine so it's just there, in the background, filling in and colouring the atmosphere from a distance. Background loops are not guitar solos in songs, they are merely colour for the background. Hearing comments about background loops being too repetitive during beta testing should sound like an alarm bell in your ears.
Try to change background loops through levels, especially when moving from indoor to outdoor areas or from caves to temples or from seaside to town. Change the loops and keep the ambience fresh. Good levels may have 2 or even 3 background loops that change smoothly and unnoticed behind musical interludes. Keep the volume of background loops low and in the background as they did in Underworld to great effect.
Suspense and drama is powerful gameplay. But how do you build it? By launching enemies around every corner? Dropping boulders on folks heads? Spiking them to death every two minutes? That kind of gameplay is rubbish. The threat of enemies can be more powerful than actually fighting them. For example, hearing the Yetis screaming in the Yeti den in TR2 was deliciously exciting and dramatic. Remember it? Remember walking around with flares and seeing them behind their cages? Remember how you felt when you turned on the lights, found the switch and knew what was going to happen when you pulled it? That is masterful gameplay.
Hearing an animal roar can be far more powerful than having them rush at you everywhere you go. In one Jungle Ruins adventure folks heard the T Rex and saw cutscenes of him 2 levels before they actually met him. Build suspense into your stories and always remember you're trying to build an immersive experience for people, not whack them over the head every step they take.