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Game elements, or distinct parts of game worlds, that guide players to locations in the environment that influence gameplay.

Players may have difficulties realizing where interesting gameplay possibilities exist in games. When game designers wish to make it easier, but not completely obvious, to locate these they can make use of Traces. These may be purely visual changes in the game environment, the presence or absence of game items, or blatantly non-diegetic objects, but these all indicate to players that certain locations may be more interesting to explore than others.


A literal use of Traces are found in many first-person shooters, e.g. Duke Nukem 3D, by avatars leaving footprints after going through water, blood, etc. This can be used by players (and sometimes the AI) to track each other. See the page for footprints on Giant Bomb for more examples[1]. While many of these games let bodies disappear after a while as a form of temporary Traces, stealth-based ones such as the Metal Gear series and Thief series force players to hide neutralized enemies to avoid them being detected by guards.

Both Half-Life 2 and the Left 4 Dead series provide Traces in their games that show what people of those worlds previously have done in their struggles, and players can make use of these to find locations where they can replenish their supplies.

Where to go next in race events in the Grand Theft Auto series are shown through non-diegetic pillars of light that can be seen from far away.

The difficulties of navigating the mazes in certain text-based games, e.g. the Zork series, required players to create their own Traces in the form of breadcrumb trails consisting of dropped game items.

Using the pattern

Traces are commonly used to indicate the presence and location of Enemies, Resource Locations, and Traps. While Traces in these cases lead players to specific points in Game Boards, Game Worlds, or Levels, they can also support the Movement required for accomplishing Traverse and Game World Exploration goals; for Reconnaissance goals, the detection of Traces can instead be either supporting Clues or the primary subgoal.

The functional nature of Traces in games can be separated into two general classes: those that cannot be manipulated by the players and those that can. The first class provides players with information about what previous actions have happened before and during the gameplay. Those generated before the gameplay typically provide Clues or help unfold Predetermined Story Structures by being part of Environmental Storytelling, while those generated during the gameplay can be Traces of other players and often disappear after a certain Time Limits.

Traces which consist of game elements that can be manipulated by the players create additional tactics in games. Players may be able to move the elements to set-up false Traces, i.e. Red Herrings that may led to Traps (rather than warning players of them), or make Trade-Offs between whether to spend time hiding their own Traces or performing other actions instead -hiding unconscious guards in the Thief series is an example of this.

There are many ways to create Traces, the most basic being the placement of Check Points, Geospatial Game Widgets, Landmarks, Pick-Ups, and Props. Diegetically Outstanding Features can be used to make these easier to notice or instantiate the pattern directly by change the visual presentation of the actual Game Boards, Game Worlds, or Levels. Environmental Storytelling are more complex solutions typically making use of several other "smaller" patterns but at the same time allows the Traces to be part of Predetermined Story Structures. Depending on their status, Switches can be Traces if players have the knowledge of what state they should be in. Traces can also occur through the lack of game elements, e. g. Pick-Ups or Enemies. In these cases the configuration of game elements can be seen as negative Traces, i.e. the Traces are detected because something is lacking or has been changed due to the actions of the players or game events.

While game designers can add Traces to games that exist at the start of game instances, they may also be designed to occur as consequences of action and events; the footprints left after entering water in Duke Nukem 3D is a specific example of this while leaving Traces from Damage can be found in various forms in many games. However, players may create Traces themselves if they can drop Game Items, which can be used to support Game World Navigation, and unless Pick-Ups are instantly respawn the absence of them from locations in games can be Traces also.

Diegetic Aspects

Traces can often be constructed to maintain games' Thematic Consistency through using Environmental Storytelling, Landmarks, and Props so that they are presented as effects of previous events. Diegetically Outstanding Features and Pick-Ups can be used when these are not sufficiently obvious, but can break the consistency if overused or if the theme is not followed. Geospatial Game Widgets are guaranteed to break Thematic Consistency but can make the Traces very obvious. Cutscenes can be used for greater control of how the Traces are to be presented.

Narrative Aspects

Even if the Traces pattern relates primarily to how players can be informed about previous and potentially future gameplay events, it can also support Predetermined Story Structures. This is more or less a given when they are created as part of Environmental Storytelling.

Traces may be especially appropriate for those Predetermined Story Structures using a Detective Structure since these rely on players slowly being told the story from one perspective.


Traces are either built from Diegetically Outstanding Features or become this through how they attract attention, or both. By directing players towards points of interest in Game Boards, Game Worlds, or Levels where danger or Rewards can be found there, Traces provides Clues that can give rise to Anticipation and Tension in games but can also help in Puzzle Solving activities. However, not all Traces lead to what they seem, some are instead Red Herrings. Being able to both give players information and misinformation about future gameplay, Traces are able to modulate the difficulty in games to have the right level of Challenging Gameplay.

Traces modulates Game World Navigation and Movement since they affect where players want to move, especially when they are used to indicate the route for Traverse goals or give Clues for Game World Exploration goals. When the Traces are created during gameplay as effects of actions and events, Traces can support players in their Tactical Planning. If they can be modified by players the Traces can require Trade-Offs between removing these and doing other actions and can let players lead other players into Traps.


Can Instantiate

Anticipation, Clues, Diegetically Outstanding Features, Predetermined Story Structures, Reconnaissance, Red Herrings, Tactical Planning, Tension, Thematic Consistency, Trade-Offs

Can Modulate

Challenging Gameplay, Detective Structures, Damage, Enemies, Game Boards, Game World Exploration, Game World Navigation, Game Worlds, Levels, Movement, Puzzle Solving, Reconnaissance, Resource Locations, Traps, Traverse

Can Be Instantiated By

Check Points, Diegetically Outstanding Features, Enemies, Environmental Storytelling, Game Items, Geospatial Game Widgets, Landmarks, Pick-Ups, Props, Switches

Can Be Modulated By

Cutscenes, Thematic Consistency, Time Limits

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With



An updated version of the pattern Traces that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[2].


  1. Giant Bomb's page for footprints.
  2. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.