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Making a Splash

On how Splatoon's design allows the game to facilitate wordless communication between teammates.

As the release of Splatoon 2 approaches, I want to take a moment to talk about Splatoon, one of my favorite games of 2015. Nintendo has chosen an unorthodox means of implementing voice chat in Splatoon 2. My goal is neither to defend nor disparage this arrangement, but to highlight how the design of Splatoon allows for effective decision making in the absence of voice chat.

Unique among shooters, victory in a match of Splatoon is achieved by covering more of the horizontal surfaces of the map in your team’s color than the opposing team has covered in their color. Team colors are bright, and contrast sharply against each other. This is at the heart of the wordless communication in Splatoon. Players can easily determine where they are needed: If they don’t see their ink on the ground, and none of their teammates are painting, that’s where they’re needed.

This is reinforced by the squid form. Players can swap between their default humanoid form and their squid form; a form which has no means of defense, and is only mobile when in friendly ink. But how mobile it is! The squid is dramatically faster than the human, and more difficult to target, due to sharing the color of the teams ink, and a breach-and-dive style of movement. This conditionally increased mobility acts to support wordless coordination, as the player is most mobile where they are needed least. The front is wherever the player can no longer proceed in squid form, which is communicated clearly through the high contrast of the ink colors.

Additionally, players are able to use the level map on the Gamepad to quickly launch themselves to an ally’s location with a tap of the touchscreen. While vulnerable during the beginning and ending of this process, it allows players to cover arbitrary distances even faster than with the geographically limited squid form. This can be very valuable in situations where more firepower is needed in a concentrated area, which is inferable from the state of the level map. This mechanic, along with the squid form, trivialize the return of respawned players to the front, paying further dividends in coordination.

The design of the levels themselves further facilitates wordless communication. Levels are largely rectangular in shape, with each team’s respawn point set at an opposing end of the map. Moving away from ones own spawn point is effectively the same thing as moving toward the enemy’s spawn point, and with it, territory that is more likely to be covered in their ink than yours, simplifying navigation. Multiple paths forward exist in the levels, and here again the brightly colored ink (or absence thereof) conveys to the player which paths can lead them to most effective place to be. This begins right at the start of the match, when each team is clustered at their spawn point, in a fully unpainted level. Whichever way your allies aren’t painting is the way for you to paint.

Taken together, this creates a game in which players, by their collective actions, communicate to their teammates how best they can each advance the team toward victory, without the need for any verbal communication between teammates. This elegance of design makes Splatoon worth the attention of anyone interested in the effective usage of implicit communication between a game and its players, and between the players themselves.

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