In pondering which kind of game I wanted to make I uncovered and discarded many options before finally settling on this puzzle game idea. However, the roads left unexplored might still be pretty interesting, especially considering that the puzzle game won out mostly by account of its simplicity. Anyway, some other ideas I was toying around with were:
* A massively-multiplayer online role-playing game exploring race relations in contemporary european society. Graphics engine based on a octree ray-trace rendering architecture proposed by John Carmack.
* A shooter game based on Herman Melville's Moby Dick, but set 200 years in the future. The game would let the players assume the role of either a cybernetically enhanced captain Ahab or a cybernetically enhanced whale.
* An adventure game similar to Metroid / Prince of Persia / Cave Story in which the protagonist is a tomb-raiding Indiana Jones ripoff. The graphics would be simple and unassuming - 2D sprites in a style reminiscent of old NES games - but the actual game content would be all the more ambitious.
"Indiana Jones platform adventure" is not a really goundbreaking concept - it's been done before, more than once, in fact- but that's not something that really deters me. The idea for making this game came from:
1.) reading Jordan Mercher's journal from the development of the original Prince of Persia
2.) skimming through this transcript of meetings between George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and the scriptwriter for the first Indiana Jones movie, wherein they discuss the story in the first Indy movie
Anyway, I've been thinking about doing a Cave Story game for a long time now, but it never got anywhere but really vague ideas and some notes scribbled down and filed away indefinitely. However, right now I feel like I have a pretty clear vision of what I want this game to be and how to make it.
What this game is supposed to be - narrative hooks
Some time ago I got Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin for my Nintendo DS. The game was fun for a while, but after putting maybe five or six hours into it I never touched it again. Why? The reason was, I think, that all I had been doing was killing monsters. There was no suspense, no feeling like there's a mystery you want to solve, or some unknown territory you want to explore. There was no compelling reason for me to go back, because all I expected to find was new monsters.
In the Metroid games you're always wondering what's in those areas you can't access yet - the game gives the player a lot of tantalizing secrets, questions that the player is just dying to find out the answer to. I remember reading the Harry Potter books and observing something similar - there's a structure in wherein the reader is presented with lots of mysteries, some of which will be unravelled in the short term ("Who's making the crying sounds in the girls' bathroom?") and some of which pretty much span the whole book ("Who's the bad guy helping Voldemort from within Hogwarth's?"). When an answer to a smaller mystery is revealed the reader is relieved, but still she finds herself wanting more because there are even greater puzzles to be solved.
If I remember correctly there is also some overlap between the unravelling of an old mystery and introduction of a new the one. This keeps the reader "trapped", so to speak - you want to find out what was behind the crying noises in the bathroom, but when you've almost arrived at the conclusion you get hooked by some other unanswered question ("Was that a snake?"), which is even more compelling than the last one. When this story structure gets completely out of hand you get something like Lost, which is completely addictive at first, but brutally disappointing when you eventually realize the writers seem no more hip to what's happening than you are.
Setpieces & Puzzles
I also want this game to have a lot of setpieces, puzzles and other things that deviate from the standard mode of play. For example, one thing that I pretty much stole entirely from the Lucas/Spielberg conversation is the collapsing roof:
Our hero enters a narrow tunnel. Afer a few steps he notices the skeleton of a previous adventurer - terribly mishappen, as if it had been squashed flat somehow. As he progresses he sees more and more of these skeletons and suddenly there's a creaking sound coming from the roof - it's slowly collapsing, about to crush him! If the player starts running back at this point he will just be able to squeeze out of the collapsing tunnel, Millenium Falcon style. The solution to this puzzle could be for the player to carry with her a block of stone to stop the crushing floor (there has to be previous puzzle involving these stones, or the player might not think of using them, or they need to be right there, which makes it too obvious). Alternatively this could be some kind of pushing puzzle where the player realizes that he might be able to push a statue (or something similar) down from a floor above, and then use it to keep the roof up. Maybe some kind of ramp has to be constructed first, or the statue might land on too low ground to fit in the tunnel, etc.
A good precursor to the crushing roof puzzle might be one where you have to jump off of a stone block to be able to reach a high ledge. Later, you might even have to construct a small staircase since you're carrying a stone block and can't jump as high.
Clearly, there's a lot of places you could go with puzzles like this and it will add variety to gameplay which would otherwise get pretty repetitive.
What would be really great is if we could make it have lots of adventure / puzzle game elements, like Monkey Island or Grim Fandango but in a platform game. Why not?
A love interest and a nemesis? Story elements
Maybe we can squeeze in a romantic subplot as well, as long as it's not about the main character setting out to rescue his girlfriend (that plot was old even when they did it in Kung Fu). This depends on what kind of an atmosphere we want - Metroid thrived on the fact that you are the only human on planet Zebes, which gives it a very different feeling of vulnerability and isolation than games where there are NPCs you can interact with. Tombs could be a perfect setting for creating that kind of feeling, but I'm not sure that's what we want.
For a more serial adventure feel, we need a good villain. Prince of Persia had some kind of shadow version of yourself who would steal health potions and otherwise annoy you. I think this could be a great device for seriously pissing the player off - they see a really nice power-up, laid out right in front of them, and this other guy just pops out and snatches it from them. They would really hate that guy's guts!
Maybe this can be expanded into some kind of larger story context, which gives the player extra motivation for progressing in the game. She could hook up with some underground civilisation (hello Cave Story) and there's this internal conflict between the good underground people and the bad underground people and of course you side with the good guys and the antagonist sides with the bad guys. Anyway, we could make the player be part of something larger than just exploring tombs.
Powerful scripting language, maybe even a DSL. A powerful editor with script support.
Note to self: I should read Swords & Circuitry