Skip to content

NightSky: Great Design in Unexpected Places

March 20, 2012

I first noticed NightSky when it came out on Steam about a year ago. The trailer, embedded below, captures the essence of the game, which is really all about rolling a ball to solve some physics-based puzzles. It seemed to me like a fun distraction, so my interest was piqued. I didn’t obtain the game until the end of last year—I think I got it from Indie Royale—but when I did, I was surprised at how well-designed it was. In fact, the whole experience was sublime, with the gameplay, ambient music, sound effects, and visual design all working together to craft a surreal and calm world, which helped to quell the frustration from the particularly challenging puzzles.

Controls: learn them the hard better way

When you start a new game, you’re given the choice of difficulty: Normal, which gives a tutorial for the controls, and Alternative, which gives no instructions and features more difficult puzzles. I chose Alternative for two reasons. First, I wanted a challenge, so it didn’t make sense to try the easier puzzles. Second, I didn’t want to be taught how to play the game. One of the things that I loved about Limbo and Braid was that they didn’t provide any instructions before you began. I’ve been playing games for well over 15 years: I think I can figure it out. Plus, unknown controls adds an element of discovery, which I like. As an aside, both Braid and Limbo launched you straight into the game when you started it up for the first time, without needing to navigate menus, and I would have preferred if NightSky had done the same: as I mentioned, the experience in NightSky was captivating, and skipping the menus would have made it even more so.

NightSky screenshot

Some puzzles require interaction with special red blocks.

Expectedly, the two keys you use the most are the left and right arrow keys. But a few others buttons get thrown into the mix to allow you to move faster, move more slowly, or to control a few devices that you encounter. Without the control hints, it was up to the environment to reveal to me that I needed to do something different than just using the arrow keys. When I couldn’t make a jump off a ramp no matter how far back I started it was clear that there must be a way to speed up. When I needed to balance on top of other balls it was clear that there must be a way to slow down and use more finely-tuned movements. With both the Normal and Alternative modes, you’re told that you need to learn these things, but with the latter, you’re told with the environment and your failures—rather than with words—and that makes the learning more engaging.

Physics: the more real, the better (in this case)

Within moments of starting the game, I was immensely pleased (following initial shock) to find that the ball maintains its momentum in mid-air. That means that if you go too fast off a ramp, you can’t slow yourself down until you’ve landed. Plenty of levels take advantage of this feature by placing holes where you would normally land from launching off a ramp at full speed. As such, you’re forced to learn how to control the ball with a gentle touch, adjusting the speed constantly. And the speed-up and slow-down buttons also affect the ball’s friction—the ball spins hopelessly if you try to speed up on a slope, whereas going slower lets you perch atop points or stick to steep inclines. The realistic physics adds great depth to the gameplay in this way.

NightSky screenshot

In addition to standard ramps and weight-based puzzles, there are several levels in which you control machines. Here, rolling left and right spin the fans, which blows the balloon sideways.

Plenty of games bend physics, and that’s not a bad thing: Braid manipulates time unrealistically, and plenty of other platformers allow you to move back and forth in the air (reaching back into memory, I recall a particularly challenging game called MoneySeize from 2009). But it isn’t important that games stick to reality: what’s more important is that, assuming the decision doesn’t affect the game’s meaning or unique style, it’s best to choose the mechanics that allow for the richest gameplay experiences. I’m borrowing this idea from Jonathan Blow and Marc ten Bosch, who collectively gave a talk called Designing to Reveal the Nature of the Universe at IndiCade 2011. (I’ve mentioned this talk before.) One of the ideas is that given a set of possible game elements, the designer should pick the ones that create the most interesting, most rewarding (for some definition of “rewarding”) game space. And in the case of NightSky, the realism adds to the level of difficulty. Combining the natural physics with the ambient music and the soft clink of the ball when it hits surfaces, the game becomes rather immersive.

Not all games need to be emotionally deep

I’ve spoken at length about the emotional impact of games and about making games that carry meaning, but I wouldn’t want to discount the value of excellently crafted gameplay. My time with NightSky still felt worthwhile, and I think that it’s very much due to the extremely difficult gameplay (I was reminded of this when I revisited the game to write the post), the look of the game, and the subtle use of sound. So with a game like this as an example, it should be clear that not all games need to have powerful stories or relatable characters. I love those things, sure, but much can be accomplished with well designed mechanics and a purposefully built visual style.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 21, 2012 12:17 am

    I like pictures!

    Also, I agree with you, when it comes to not playing tutorials (and 90% of the time, not playing on anything but the most difficult setting). Some games are just too hard on the highest difficulty it stops being fun. My brother bought COD 4 so I decided to play it on veteran. I don’t play FPS games very often–read: pretty much never–and it was my first time playing COD. Veteran was so frustrating, and it was the worst moment when I realized the enemies would never stop re-spawning. I couldn’t kill everyone and push forward. I have some regrets playing it on veteran, as I wasted too much time playing a game I wasn’t that into. I beat MW2 after my bro bought it in a day on the level below veteran. It was more satisfying. (Playing it was like watching some cheesy movies all day).

    Yet with most good games, playing it on the hardest difficulty is the best choice. Ah, have you ever played a game, and hours in, found out about some aspect of the game that would have made it easier? It’s kind of a bittersweet triumphant moment.

    This game seems cool. Reading your blog makes me sad I lack the money to buy all the games (and then lack the time to play them all). Yet good news for me and my money these past few days, so perhaps I shall buy one :>

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: