Guiding Elements (GE): These are set pieces in the game world that help the player get from one place to another. More specifically, they lead the player in a certain direction. Springs, slides, ropes, and moving platforms are all included in this definition.
Malicious Elements (ME): Things placed within the level which can hurt you. This only includes enemies if their positioning in the level creates a sort of trap or obstacle.
In the Sonic the Hedgehog games (I'm talking Genesis here), players are treated with an experience that is at once visceral, intuitive, and challenging. This is because of outstanding level design that indulges the player’s love for speed while at the same time challenging their reflexes, memory, and knowledge of traditional and series-specific level-design cues. Sonic’s level design both forces and encourages the player to keep moving at high speeds, and thus, she has to react more quickly in the face of oncoming obstacles and enemies. Really, the time allotment for each level is quite generous, and while you can earn a bonus for finishing more quickly, this is a pittance compared to what you could get by carefully saving rings. Large sections of the level are devoted to shunting the player from point to point quickly and in a very natural way, while at the same time throwing up new obstacles and cheating expectations time and time again. GE’s do not always lead to safety; often a crushing device or patch of retractable spikes will appear in the middle of a straightaway. This occasional sort of use of false cues keeps the player on her toes, giving way to a richer experience, without frustrating and confusing them altogether.
While there are multiple paths within a given Sonic level, usually these paths are all equally easily accessible. Every level has the player seeking the path of least resistance—the level tract of ground—like electricity. Running has a visceral quality in this game, not only because of the sensation of speed but also because of the risks that come from it. So, what we have are levels essentially composed of giant strings of GE’s; springs, loops, and bumpers propel the player in various directions. However, more isolated strings will guide the player in a certain direction, and that direction will be part of a larger path. The paths connect in such an organic manner that levels do not feel particularly divided up into these “sections” I am imposing. While you would expect this to also make players more careful, this is not necessarily the case; walking with Sonic is uncomfortable in part because you have to keep tapping the d-pad to achieve this, and you must speed up to get up certain ramps and through loop-de-loops. Also, the player will likely inadvertently run into all sorts of launching/speeding up devices, no matter how careful they are. In short, it is hard to stay slow in a Sonic game for long. In this way, a lot of Soinc’s GE’s are about maintaining or increasing speed, and they are hard to avoid because each level is saturated with them.
One vivid example of Sonic Team's use of traditional cues to thwart the player is in the second act of Hill Top Zone in Sonic the Hedgehog 2. One yellow horizontally positioned spring propelling right faces another one propelling left, seperated by little distance, both in a small pit, so that before the player has time to fully understand this contrivance, they will likely either use the first spring to launch themselves accidentally into the other, or will avoid the first one and will inadvertanly run into the second one that had been offscreen moments before. For a few seconds the player is sent bouncing back and forth, and simply has to hop out at the right time to avoid this. It's almost like a joke in level design; no harm comes from being trapped here, and it doesn't last for very long; however, it serves to remind the players that they can be tricked at any time.
Here you can see the path that builds momentum leading to the two springs facing opposite each other in the small pit.
Take this in stark contrast to the Mario games where GE’s like pipes, vines, and even moving platforms are neatly separated form each other and ME’s most of the time. This is particularly evident in Mario’s fortresses/castles. The GE’s are sparse, and ME’s are systematically categorized and arranged; a typical structure might go like this: a thwomp room, followed by a fireball room, followed by a falling ceiling room, followed by the boss. In a sense, there are very few GE’s at all, besides the suggestion that the player should move forward in the direction opposite from the door they come through.
Here is a prime example from Super Mario World 2. I have helpfully edited the map to accentuate my points.
Map courtesy of vgmaps.com