Analysis: Splatoon's Dynamic Environmental Systems and Innovation in Successful Genres
Nintendo's frenetic multiplayer shooter stands out in more ways than its wacky premise.
When Nintendo first revealed its weird, wild, and unique take on the team-based shooter in 2014 in the form of Splatoon, the game was labelled by many as "Nintendo's Take on Call of Duty;" a family-friendly approach to the genre so often known for its more M-rated experiences. This was mostly due to Splatoon's basic premise: player characters could switch back and forth between a squid and humanoid form, using the squid form to swim through ink that players covered the map with in humanoid form.
Reception to Splatoon was mostly quite positive; while lacking in the quality of the online itself, the core gameplay loop was fun and engaging, and many players loved being immersed in the world of the game and its aesthetic. Now, the third entry is currently scheduled for release next year.
However, Splatoon stands out for more than just the colorful, vibrant world it takes place compared to its more gritty, photorealistic peers. Its central mechanics create a uniquely dynamic interplay between the player and environment, creating an engaging, replayable loop while still maintaining total immersion in the game's world. Splatoon is innovative in not just its tone and aesthetic, but its systems as well, and shows how "game-y" mechanics can work in favor of, rather than against, a game's narrative experience.
Ink or Sink
Splatoon's design revolves entirely around one simple concept: the Ink System. Every action that players take in-game is informed by this idea in which inklings, the game's player characters, carry a limited gauge of ink at all times that acts as "ammo" for their weapons; a certain amount of it is needed to use any weapon in the game, barring "ultimate"-type special weapons, which are still charged for use by covering the ground with ink.
Essentially every weapon in the game covers the environment in ink when used: shooter-type weapons, bombs, even giant paint rollers. If players are using their weapons, they're using ink. So then, how do you recover ink if your weapons use it all up? Simple; re-enter it as a squid, fill up your gauge, and pop back out ready to go. Want to move around faster, climb a wall, or get into the enemy base? Switch back to that squid form and go for a swim. It all makes for a core loop that is essentially "Ink turf/fight enemies --> enter ink and move --> repeat." In fact, there is practically never a time in Splatoon where you shouldn't be almost obsessively exiting and re-entering ink.
Image: Caticulated on YouTube
In multiplayer matches, the objective often revolves in some way around ink coverage as well. In Turf War, the team with the most ground covered in their color of ink at the end of the game wins; in Ranked Splat Zones, teams must control a specific point on the map with their color until a countdown reaches zero, King-of-the-Hill style. And even in game modes that don't specifically require a certain amount of ink coverage, effective use of the mechanic is still essential to success.
A gameplay screenshot of "Splat Zones," one of the game's ranked modes. (Image Source)
The World is Your Weapon
More seasoned Splatoon players will often use a term called "map control" (sometimes "turf control," "map coverage," etc.) to refer to how much of the map is currently covered in their team's color ink. This is because the amount of area you have in your color is essential to success in Splatoon. Because every mechanic traces back to ink, from your current health to your movement options to whether enemies can see you, the color of ink you're standing on means everything in Splatoon. If you push forward into an area covered in the enemy team's color, you can bet ninety-nine times out of a hundred you won't last long, and it ends up making for a genius, constantly-changing interplay between the player and their environment.
Take this firefight between two players in a video by popular player ThatSrb2DUDE, for example. The player on the purple team may seem to have some advantages; after all, they're on the high ground, and DUDE takes some serious damage, jumping around to avoid being killed. However, he recognizes the current situation and pulls back behind a wall while ducking under the ink for just a split-second to recharge and recover, meanwhile the other player is taken out by a teammate because they were surrounded by the yellow ink that DUDE laid down during the fight. All of this happens in the span of just a couple seconds.
It's a relationship between the player and environment not seen in many games. The world truly is your weapon, not only in that success comes from using environmental conditions to your advantage, but also that in doing so, you are continuing to make changes to these conditions; the state of the game world is entirely up the player and how they use their resources, and vice-versa. It's a classic school of Nintendo game design; build the abilities of the player first, then build the entire game around them, always tracing back to those core ideas.
Innovation in a Successful Genre
In some ways, it's not a huge surprise that Nintendo's first true foray into the multiplayer shooter genre would come with some crazy innovations and mechanics, considering their track record of going against the grain and experimenting with weird new ideas. Nevertheless, it's a decision worth recognizing because of how it stands as an example for introducing and honing in on inventive and new core game systems. From the beginning, decide on and set in stone what makes your game tick, and from then on, with every decision you make, look back at those core ideas and determine what solution would best inform, support, or take advantage of these core ideas. This can be easy to forget, especially in a genre as crowded and storied as multiplayer shooters, where the most common core ideas feel so familiar that they don't need to be stated. Splatoon, however, stands as an example that there's always room for innovation; you just have to commit to it.