Continuing last week's thought, I tried out bump-to-use and really like it.
Formerly when you would attempt to move into a usable object (a door, lamp, or switch, say), you'd get a message saying something like “Press Ctrl-left to open the door.” Thus, you'd learn what something was by bumping it, then use a Ctrl-dir key chord to actually use it.
Following a tester suggestion, I tried switching it so that you don't have to press Ctrl-dir to use most things. Instead you just bump them directly and they get used.
This makes the game feel a lot more fluid, which is good. Most usable objects are fairly self-explanatory, and the ones that aren't were not getting well explained under the old system, anyway. The big puzzle for me is how to allow players to shut doors. At the moment this is accomplished by aiming a Ctrl-dir combo at an open door while standing next to it.
At the moment I have status-bar messages that indicate what happened when you use something. This is all right but I think I can pare it down to be even less obtrusive. I'm going to try allocating a field on the status bar for indicating the “current thing.” Normally this will be the terrain underneath the player, but when you use something or bump something it will describe that thing instead, so after opening a door it would say door on the status bar.
I also spent several hours writing some dialog for the captain of the protagonist's ship, which in the test level serves as home base. The ship captain is my first attempt at a friendly character. By having him guard his ship I hoped to introduce the player to the mechanics of guards in a safe environment. He says most of the same things as regular guards, until he recognizes his passenger. “Using” him triggers a series of lines. (Our hero is currently the classic silent player-character whose reticence provokes monologues from everyone he meets.)
I've been mulling over whether the game design has room for sidekicks; the ship captain is kind of a prototype. They have the potential to add a lot more interest to the story since they'd each have their own agendas. However, it's important that they not take away any of the fun of the game. None of them should steal any loot that you can, for instance.