I haven’t yet completed Night in the Woods, but it’s been a joy to start playing after many years of anticipation. One of the most obviously brilliant aspects of the game is the writing, which is snappy, dark, funny, and sweet, but when I say the “language” of Night in the Woods, I’m talking about more than just words.
While dialogue is one way to convey information to a player (and particularly important in a story-driven game like NitW), it’s generally not a good idea to trust the player to pay attention or be fully invested in the story or characters — no matter how good or central to the experience. Also the way people read or notice information will vary, so it never hurts to tell players twice…or thrice…or…you get the idea.
Consider the platforming mechanic in Night in the Woods. Early on, the game forces players to jump into trees and along wires (I mean, you are a cat, right?), which helps train players to look for platformable objects throughout later levels. That said, part of the game’s visual charm is its picture-book aesthetic. Looks great, but makes it hard to tell what’s interactable and what’s just pretty.
For many of the “adventure game” objectives, icons will pop up notifying the player of dialogue options, entrances and exits, and interactable objects, but there are no such icons when Mae is near platformable surfaces. This is good, because it encourages exploration and experimentation (and keeps the screen less cluttered), but the game is careful to remind the player to look for platformable areas with various visual cues.
Squirrels routinely jump on mailboxes suggesting they are not just decoration.
One early cue are the squirrels, which run along trees and powerlines. They also make their way into trees by jumping on mailboxes. Thus the game shows, rather than tells, us that mailboxes are walkable (and make a pretty satisfying crunch when you do jump on them!)
Mae being a hooligan.
There are additional dialogue cues like when you talk to a repairman, who complains how kids run along the power lines. His request for you not to jump on them results in a charming bit of dialogue, but it also reinforces to players that they should run along the power lines whenever possible.
This hard-working rat’s grumpy request that you not jump on the power lines is a great reminder for players to jump on the power lines.
To digress a bit, I’m always fascinated by the psychology of what games tell you to do or not do. For Night in the Woods, players are likely to be genre savvy, and Mae is a naturally rebellious and contrary individual, so doing what authority figures tell you not to do works on several levels.
Other games handle it differently, of course. In Spec Ops: The Line, your support team tells you not to do things, but the flow of the game forces you to do them — and then punishes you for doing them. But a central theme of SOtL is the meta conversation and expectation between player and game, so no surprises there. (Far Cry 4 does something similar with this back and forth between telling players what to do and knowing what players will do, but a little less brutally, I think!).
In contrast to these games, Yo-kai Watch is geared toward younger audiences, and it reminds players to stay safe. This includes waiting for the crosswalk sign at intersections. Ignoring these reminders results in rather startling but thematically appropriate events, but again, this game is for younger players, so the “rules” are laid out explicitly.
Basically it’s not nice to trick kids, but it’s acceptable (and encouraged!) to mess with older gamers :).
Returning to Night in the Woods, though, the point is that the game provides at minimum three separate reminders for where and when to platform. One is an enforced puzzle, one is dialogue-based, and one is visual. Note that none of these reminders come across as overt or heavy-handed. It’s just intentional design and carefully crafted polish working together to make a fantastic game experience.
Have other examples of games that use different types of communication to inform the player? I picked some of my favorite examples, but please comment here or e-mail us at email@example.com with your favorites!