Movement in A Hat in Time


Recently I played the 3D platforming game A Hat in Time. I started it up, pushed the joystick to move, and watched the character dart across the screen. Immediately, I thought to myself, "okay, this is a good game." This may have been a premature conclusion- I hadn't played any of the levels yet. I hadn't even jumped! What if the rest of the game was a mess, and the movement was just disproportionately good? Fortunately, the entire game lived up to the standard set by those first few moments. But I want to look at how movement in particular works in A Hat in Time, and what qualities make it so polished and enjoyable. Why did I feel that way just from making the character run around? What makes A Hat in Time's movement so good?


The player character, Hat Kid, is a cartoony little girl with exaggerated, Mario-like proportions. Her limbs are tiny compared to her body and head. When she runs, her arms flail back and forth, her legs go as fast as they can, and her whole body bounces up and down:

One thing in particular I noticed is how Hat Kid's entire character tilts to the side when she changes direction while running. This makes her seem more physical, as though she is a real object with inertia who struggles to change direction instantly. Since the player will often be changing the direction of Hat Kid's movement, she spends a lot of time leaning back and forth but never falling over. It made me feel like I was perfectly executing a delicate balancing act just by wiggling the joystick around. 

Hat Kid also emits particles while running around. Even though they are just cartoony puffs of smoke behind her, these too make Hat Kid's interaction with the world more convincing. The player can't actually feel the ground beneath Hat Kid's feet, but they can see the dust kicked up as she runs, which helps sell the illusion that she is a physical object in a real world that the player is exerting their influence on.


Hat Kid's footsteps are a pleasant tapping sound. They change contextually based on what surface she is standing on. On carpet, they're a deep drumming; on tile they're a higher slapping noise:

Hat Kid also has sounds for jumping, diving, and basically every other action she can perform. No matter what the player is doing, their button presses are confirmed with a yelp from Hat Kid or a swoosh of air.


One of the hardest things to get right in a platformer, in my experience, is acceleration. If the character accelerates too quickly, they will seem chunky and mechanical like in Megaman. If they accelerate too slowly, they will be slippery and frustrating to control, like in Jumpman. A Hat in Time strikes the perfect balance. Hat Kid has just enough acceleration to feel solid, while still remaining stable and going where the player wants.

Beyond just running around, Hat Kid has two main actions: jumping and diving. Jumping is performed on the ground, as is classic for a platformer:

The player also has access to a second jump in midair:

This double jump, beyond letting Hat Kid gain extra height, serves an important purpose. In 3D games especially, it can be difficult to judge depth. It's easy to line up a jump, go for it, then realize you were slightly off in your aim. With a single jump, that would be it, and you would just have to try again. But a double jump allows the player to correct their movements in midair, and turn a botched jump into a satisfying recovery.

Hat Kid also has a dive move:

This gives her extra forward momentum in midair, and can stretch a jump or double-jump over a much longer distance. Hat Kid's final main move is that she can jump out of the dive, canceling the forward movement and gaining a little extra height:

Putting these all together gives the game's big movement combo: jump-jump-dive-jump. This sequence lets Hat Kid traverse a huge distance without touching the ground, potentially avoiding dangerous obstacles or bottomless pits. When timed optimally, the button presses form a pleasing rhythm, like playing a song on the game controller.

There are a few other context-dependent moves, like a ground slam and climbing ladders, but these three actions- running, jumping, and diving- make up the core of A Hat in Time's movement. It doesn't have as much depth as, say, Super Mario Odyssey, where the player can perform a nine-button combo sequence to make Mario fly into the air and bounce off his own hat. But the simplicity is kind of refreshing. I understood A Hat in Time's movement completely after the early level where I learned about jumping out of a dive, and from that point on I was able to concentrate on perfecting my jumps and tweaking my movement to make Hat Kid glide gracefully through the levels.


So why does any of this matter?

When making a game, it's important to make the core of the experience as refined as possible. A Hat in Time, like most platformers, is fundamentally about movement. It's not really about hats, or time travel, or crows trying to steal your social security number. The thing that the player spends almost all of their time doing is making Hat Kid run, jump, and dive through the levels. It's critical that this central experience be pleasant, not just as a means to an end, but intrinsically- the process of moving should itself be enjoyable. A Hat in Time passes the ultimate test of a platformer: is it fun to move around in an empty room? Even on a completely flat surface, I always enjoyed making Hat Kid dash and hop as I guided her from place to place. Everything else- the level design, the story, the soundtrack- was secondary to this. The movement was good, so the game was good too.

Some of these specific techniques can definitely be applied in other games, platformers especially. Zubenel, a game I made shortly after playing A Hat in Time, has a roll move that was inspired by AHiT's dive. While it wasn't strictly necessary, and the game could have worked with just running and jumping, the roll adds extra depth to Zubenel's movement. It feels great to pull off a well-timed roll and make a jump that you would have otherwise missed.

But more generally, this is just an instance of a game designer polishing a mechanic that is central to their game. The developers of A Hat in Time knew that it was about movement, so they put in the time to make sure the movement was solid. It's easy as a designer to get distracted, and put tons of time and effort into perfecting features that the player will spend less than ten minutes on- a cool, format-breaking boss fight, a heartfelt cutscene, a fishing minigame, etc. But what matters much more is the very basic mechanics that the player does over and over. If there's one main takeaway from this blog post, it's this: identify the core of your game, and make it as good as you possibly can. If some other parts are rough around the edges, that's okay. Focus on the thing players will spend 90% of their time doing. As long as they like that, they'll probably like the game as a whole.

If there's another takeaway, it's that you should play A Hat in Time, because it's really good.


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