each of nightsky‘s levels is divided into three screens. in designing these screens, nifflas does something smart and unusual with pacing: often, he puts the most challenging part of the level on the first or second screen. the third screen tends to have little possibility for failure (failure means having to start the level over from the first screen), often being entirely safe of danger. this isn’t the shape of most contemporary level design, in which challenge continuously escalates, with the final scene being the most challenging.
but the hard-harder-hardest structure allows little denouement: a continuously-rising note becomes monotonous. in nightsky, a level’s challenge builds to a head and then, once the player has surmounted it, rolls gently to the level’s end. the third screen is set aside for the release of tension. it allows the tension that has built over the course of the level to discharge before the next level, where the tension will begin to build again. what it creates is an experience that is far less stressful, which suits the tone of nifflas’s quiet nighttime game.
the protagonist of nightsky is a ball that can roll left or right, and has to use the momentum it gains from rolling along slopes in order to get around. the three-screen stage shown here is from early in the game: the instructional text appears, i suspect, because the player’s two additional verbs change according to whichever level she’s playing, and nifflas felt this was the most elegant way of explaining this inconsistency. here the player has lost an ability that lets her roll the ball very fast, and is forced to one that makes the ball move slowly.
the third platform from the left in the above screen, the long one, continuously and slowly rotates counter-clockwise. because the player is forced to move slowly in this level, she can’t speed across it but has to wait until it’s mostly horizontal to roll off the preceeding platform and onto the rotating one, so that she’ll have enough time to get the ball over it before it becomes too steep. falling off the bottom of the screen means restarting the level from this first screen and repeating this first challenge.
the second screen develops the idea of the first: choosing the right timing to start climbing a rotating platform. the rotating piece here is the triangular one. not only is this screen harder because the triangular shape has more and shorter sides (meaning its surfaces become vertical more quickly) and the distance between a solid platform and the moving platform is greater, there’s also much more open pit on this screen, so there are more places to fall (and return to the previous screen). you’ll notice on the first screen that most of the gaps between platforms are too narrow for the ball to actually fit through. this is the screen the player is most likely to fail on, the most challenging screen.
this is the third and final screen of the level. it has a pit for the player to roll over, but it’s unlikely (especially with slowness enforced) that the player will actually fall in the pit. after the player has overcome the tricky second screen, there’s little threat here of falling and having to repeat the challenge from screen one. when the player rolls off the right side of the screen, the level is complete and it’s on to the next.
note that there would be a difference between ending the level when the player exits the second screen and ending the level after the third. because every level fits the three-act structure, the player anticipates a third screen after completing the second. when that screen is easier than the previous challenge, there’s a palpable feeling of relief and the release of tension, which provides a valuable bridge between the current level and the next.
the level shown here is from the “normal mode” of the game; the “alternative mode,” available from the start, features versions of the normal levels that are harder but explore the same idea. what’s notable is that even in this harder mode, levels still often obey the rule of having a less difficult or entirely safe third screen.