What's the big idea?

Recently I found Patrick Curry's blog Thoughts on Game Design, where as an exercise he's promised to do a game idea every week. Already he's up to 26. He describes each idea in terms of high concept, platform, the reasons to make it, a more detailed description, and why it would be fun.

As someone who does little more for games than describe what I do or don't like about them, this idea struck me as brilliant. I'm not a 3D artist or a programmer, nor do I think it likely I'll ever be one. On the other hand, to do little more than be a critic seemed a little too facile.

So I thought I would also give it a go to come up with a few game ideas of my own. I'll be posting them here, rather than at Rampancy.net, because that's more specific to Bungie and the Xbox platform than it is to gaming in general.

Curry's ideas are all very specific, detailing setting, plot, and sometimes characters, and even what platforms are best suited to the game. I thought what I would rather do is try to come up with some of the underlying archetypes that already exist on games and find ways of putting a new spin on them.

Journeys and Escapes

Lots of story ideas, whether in literature, movies, or games, involve journeys of some kind. You create a character in a setting and then invent a reason for that character to leave that setting to go somewhere else, which provides opportunity for conflict and drama. Maybe your character has to return to a long-forgotten home. Maybe he's lost and is returning where he came from. Maybe he has to leave his home and find a new one. The journey might be to do battle or to destroy some evil object, LotR being one of the most identifiable examples of this.

One of the lesser-used variations of this journey theme is escape. Setting this up can be a little bit more complicated. It's usually easy to understand why a character has to leave a pastoral setting-- because such settings don't have the conflict and drama needed for an interesting story or interesting gameplay. All we need to do, for instance, to send Frodo packing from the Shire in Fellowship of the Ring is identify the Ring as an object of evil that evil forces will attempt to find, steal and control. As such it threatens not only the characters in the story but their entire world. It sets up the contrast between the Hobbits and their Shire and the rest of Middle Earth in general and Sauron's Mordor in specific.

Escape takes more setup and perhaps more care with the ending because it reverses the direction of the journey; you first put your characters in immediate peril and they have to find their way out. The conflict exists before the characters are set up, so your audience may not identify with them right away. It may also be necessary to explain why and how your characters got where they are. A common setting for an escape story is some kind of prison. Since the audience isn't going to automatically empathize with a prisoner, you've got to take time to create that empathy.

Bethesda's Elder Scrolls games play with this idea a bit; nearly all of them begin with the protagonist being a recently-released prisoner with no knowledge of his past. It's an interesting device, and calls to mind other games with protagonists with mysterious sides-- such as the security guard in Marathon who may, or may not, be a cyborg killing machine manufactured from the corpses of dead soldiers, and the similarly (if less gruesomely) enhanced Master Chief of the Halo series, whose face we never see in the games and of whose background prior to his abduction and training in the Spartan II program we know very little.


I think an interesting twist to put on an Escape game would be to vary the kind of gameplay needed for each phase of a multi-stage escape.

The player would start off inside a solitary confinement cell in a high security prison. At this stage, the player has almost no resources at his disposal and no knowledge of the background story; he or she may have been drugged, injured during torture, lobotomized-- anything.

Gameplay at this stage might closely resemble the Flash-based series of "escape from the room" games, where through a combination of manipulation of objects at hand and assistance from an unknown outsider (a guard? another prisoner?) the player must find a way out.

Once outside the cell, though, the prisoner is still trapped inside the prison. Now, with more freedom of movement but still not much in the way of resources, we could have gameplay heavily based on stealth, where a premium is put on staying in shadows, being quiet, perhaps changing costumes at appropriate times in order to make your way outside of the prison.

Once outside, though, the player discovers the prison itself is just the worst part of an oppressive police state. Still there are controls on movement and material, but outside the prison the player may find allies. To what use he or she puts those allies to use will be up to them.

The key conflict here may be that now, at last, more traditional conflict-based gameplay is available; weapons and allies. However, the player may have to choose between taking this more traditional route, or taking another route to help discover why they were put in the prison to start with. It may not be what you think. The best variation of this may be to have what the reason is change depending on various other choices the player makes along the way, much as the endings of some of the Silent Hill games are similarly variable-- although I think care should be taken so that these "choices" are not as minor and arbitrary as they are in some of those games.

In the endgame, the player might choose to lead a prison break and free all the inmates, perhaps as part of a general rebellion against the police state. They might instead lead an expedition to escape from the walled city into the wilderness beyond, and leave the society behind. Or, the player might choose to eschew deploying large-scale force and instead try to unravel the mystery that led to his imprisonment at the start-- and each of these approaches may be incompatible.

The name for the idea, Matroska, I took from the famous Russian doll where inside each doll is an even smaller doll, to evoke the situation the player finds himself in at the start-- trapped inside a cell inside a prison inside a walled city inside a repressive society, with different skills and actions required to escape from each.