Font Can Be Insulting

by Nick Dinicola

25 March 2016

You Must Build a Boat tries so hard to be nice to players that it comes off as pandering. It is obsessed with coddling my delicate ego.
 
cover art

You Must Build a Boat

US: 24 Jun 2015

You Must Build a Boat is a mobile game that crosses an endless runner with a match-three game. You command a ship captain who automatically runs through a dungeon, encountering treasure and monsters and traps along the way. On the game board, you must move tiles around a grid to match three symbols in a row in order for him to interact with those treasures and monsters and traps. Treasure can’t be taken unless three keys are matched, monsters can’t be slain unless three swords are matched, and so on. Throughout all this matching, the screen is constantly scrolling, so the longer that you take to make the matches, the closer the captain gets to the edge of the screen. If he gets pushed off, then your run through the dungeon is over.

  
The game isn’t over, You Must Build a Boat is very adamant about that fact, just your run. The dungeons are endless, so every run has to end with you getting pushed off the screen. It’s forced failure, except the game doesn’t want you to think of it that way. When a run ends the words “You Win!” appear in big white text, putting the focus on the things that you gained, whether that be gold or treasure or strength points or mind points.

This is a good use of text and font to influence players positively.

But then there are the quests. You Must Build a Boat is structured around quests, specific goals that we’re asked to accomplish during a run: kill a certain monster, find a certain treasure, gain certain points, match certain tiles, etc. Once we complete all of the quests in a given dungeon, then we move on to the next dungeon. As a result, they become an indicator of progress through the game. At the end of every run, your current quests are displayed along with the “You Win!” message. If you completed a quest, it’s displayed in green. If you didn’t, it’s displayed in red. That red text is the insulting part. 

Red is associated with negativity and failure, so that text signifies something completely at odds with the “You Win!” text. When a run ends, first the game exclaims my victory with (relative) bombast, but then directly under that exclamation is a quest highlighted in red, indicating my failure. I clearly didn’t win.

The game feels so aggressively unaware of its hypocrisy that it comes off as pandering. It is so obsessed with coddling my delicate ego that it can’t state the obvious fact of failure, even as its UI reinforces that very failure. I understand that the game wants to foster a sense of progress, of happy play and not frustrating play, but a simple thing like font undercuts that whole ethos of the message.

The exclamation of winning is problematic on its own, as the very mention of winning naturally implies failure as well. One alternative is to do what Crossy Road does and never acknowledge success or failure. When you die in that game, whether you jump in a river or get hit by a car, the camera lingers on your drowned or squished body until you tap the screen, which immediately queues up the next run. The lingering camera forces us to reflect on whatever mistake killed us, but the game doesn’t offer any kind of judgment on our death. It avoids any language about winning or losing, instead highlighting different hooks to keep you playing: how long until your next free gift and your progress on a quest (note that it only shows progress, and never acknowledges if I fail to progress). The game never judges you for your performance unless you hit a new record, then it simply celebrates that fact.

Alto’s Adventure is an endless snowboarding game that always lists your objectives before each run. When you complete an objective it gets crossed out. If you don’t complete it, nothing happens. Again there’s no judgment made on success or failure.

Even the developer’s previous game, 10000000 does it better because it just says “Run Complete” and your score.

Or then there’s a game like Quest Keeper, a very different game in that each stage has a definitive end, so dying along the way is a clear failure. However, when you die (and don’t revive), it embraces your failure as the titular Quest Keeper makes a grand exclamation of how you’ve died, “You’ve fallen to you doom!” At the same time, at the top of screen, the game shows how close you are to unlocking a mystery chest. Every 200 steps earns, you a treasure, and after each run, a meter fills to clearly show how much progress you have made and how many steps are left. The meter emphasizes what we earned, and the Quest Keeper’s mockery is so extreme that it’s funny instead of insulting. This keeps the game fun in the face of failure.

You Must Build a Boat doesn’t show us how much money that we earn on a run, it just says “You Win!” with nothing to back up that statement. It tries so hard to be nice to players that it comes off as pandering and insulting. It makes me want to stop playing.

Two words can say so much.

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