Here’s a very simple game design document I made a while back. If you get a chance to check it out, please tell me what you think or share any helpful design hints.
- Unique Feature/Theme: Exploring identity issues related to paradigm shifts.
There will be androids, cosmic ‘aliens’, humans, ghost-like people, holograms and all sorts of flora and fauna in this world for the player to explore. The player will go between larger and smaller creatures with apparently limited or greater, or just different, perspectives. The player’s own perspective will be highlighted in the end.
- Genre: Metroidvania
My chosen genre is the puzzle-platformer. It is important that I follow the core conventions of the chosen genre. This choosing of genre basically equates to choosing the entire foundation for the game, the entire Christmas tree that will hold up my shining star of a unique feature at the top. In this case it’s not just a puzzle-platformer, it’s the 2-d metroidvania. I am choosing this genre because it seems manageable, emphasizes exploration and I just love it.
It is important to follow the conventions of metroidvanias (e.g. have maze-like level design, collecting upgrades, gravity and having jumping be fluid and precise, this kind of stuff) and if they aren’t done well, the game and the unique feature are pretty much kaput because my audience’s basic expectations will not be met. So 90% of the energy for making this game should be building a well-crafted metroidvania.
- Setting, and story
Metroidvanias are obviously either set on some far off planet, or set in castles. Mine will be on a planet that seems foreign enough, but will have Earth-like qualities. It will be post-apocalyptic, but what happened before you began the game will be mysterious. I definitely want it to be in the realm of story-telling where the player goes through the game and puts it together themselves. What was that cool word for it? Atmospheric storytelling? Environmental storytelling. That’s it.
The broad narrative will force you to inhabit android clones to play through the game. You will start in some factory, seemingly randomly. Through exploring, you will find tidbits about how the world collapsed, get more factories online and figure out who you are. The story arc for the android(s) will be that you were created by a doctor who lost his daughter and hoped to create her as some sort of underground governmental science project. Nothing too creative, really. A nod to Cave Story, I suppose.
After you first spawn as an android you will be placed in an area where you will, through little exploration or challenge, come into contact with a large immobile non-communicative cosmic alien creature in a room. Interacting with it in any way will result in being killed and forced to spawn again in the initial factory/spawn point. Hopefully this sets up some amount of mystery. Through iteration, I might add more mysteries such as this.
You will go through the game like any Metroidvania, finding power-ups, jumping around, finding secret doors, backtracking, getting energy tanks and such. Eventually you will learn that it might not have been humans that destroyed the world, other possibilities remain. The doctor will have panicked at some point. You will piece it together from the little scraps of logbooks you find, item descriptions, signs etc. You will never really know what happened to the planet (unless iteration demands it). Is it the giant creepy cosmic alien? Was it the hubris of the rational humans? Was it the alien flaura and fauna? This entire storyline is left unclear purposely as it really is somewhat of a red-herring.
As you go further into the world, the relationship between you and the cosmic being gets highlighted, until you come to a point of realization near the end of the game (3/4ths through?) that the cosmic being is actually the one who is exploring the world, like an investigator, via the human network controlling the androids like puppets. That is the first big twist and why attempting to interact with the cosmic being results in your player character’s apparent death. You will then try to explore the motivations behind the cosmic being’s presence on the planet. This is an even redder-herring because…
…The second big twist will be at the end of the game, when you find out it isn’t the cosmic being that is exploring the world as an investigator, it is the player that is exploring it and the why of all this exploration should ultimately fall on the players shoulders. It’s both a profound and may also seem like a banal point, but that’s what I got for this game.
- Aesthetic and mood
The music and art style will conform to the genre, nodding to the history of metroidvanias. It will have “hi-bit” graphics. I don’t like the less than Super Mario Bros. graphics look that many indie games have seemed to adopt. Think a little less than Shovel Knight or Axiom Verge. Or just the original Metroid.
The game should have a mysterious and alien feel to it. The music and art should highlight this aspect. It’s about exploring paradigm shifts and not really knowing which is the most true. At first it could be a bit more cutesy, but increasingly twisting the cutesy stuff into something a bit more dark and moody. Chip tune would be lovely for the nostalgic genre feels.
Unique Mechanic: “Shifting”
The familiar conventions of metroidvanias should be present, but there should be mechanics that enhance and match the main goal of getting players to go from one perspective to another. The way that this would be done is through a mechanic I’ll call “shifting”. Shifting will be what happens when your character’s control moves from one player character to another. This will get the player past walls and such.
You can also shift into computer networks, engaging new factories (spawn points). Shifting can happen from android to creature, but for a limited time… perhaps limited by the creature’s hit points. There could be areas where the player must have perfect timing to shift between a series of creatures to reach an android body on the other side of an otherwise unreachable part of the map. New androids could have special abilities as they are either modded or prototypes, but you have to bring them back to home base in order to upgrade. You might be able to have only a certain amount of bodies stored for use at a base.
There are a zillion puzzle ideas that can be built around this idea. If you shift into a damaged android perhaps you have only limited vision, or can’t jump, or whatever and have to figure out how to get through an area without having your upgraded awesomeness that you’ve been working so hard at getting.
Other potential minor mechanics
Thinking: this could be a fun way to bring up a menu and come up with new ideas and look through a beastiary.
Species variety: creatures will not copies of each other, or at least all of them won’t be.