Recently I've been thinking about creating settings for video games. I don't mean world design in the large sense, but in the smallest sense: individual buildings, small stages. I want to take it smaller because I have a hard time actually creating the assets for levels. Most of my games use abstract, low-asset settings such as space, tiles, maps. I want to stretch a bit and create a more immersive environment with things like wallpaper and chairs.
Except, of course, I hate wallpaper and chairs. That is, I can't gather any enthusiasm for it. I like designing characters, and I like designing settings/worlds. Those are the things that classically drive the mechanics and the narrative and the overall feel of the game I'm trying to build. A big reason I do so much sci fi stuff is because you can scale down the setting until it's just a single building: a space ship, a small space station. If the entire world is small enough, I can build it while still feeling excited about the world.
But I think it's possible to go the other direction. Rather than scaling down the world, I can scale up the characters. Building "a house" is painfully dull because there's nothing to grapple with. But if the game has a family, building the house is a way to extend their personalities and relationships. The kitchen looks a certain way because that's how the family tends to cook, and it is an opportunity to show the pressures between whoever tends to cook dinner and whoever tends to just scavenge snacks. All the rooms let you show who is dominant in what ways, what their approach is to that part of life, and what their personality is through the decorating choices they've made. Even if those decorating choices are just whether there are toys and clothes strewn around.
This is a sound enough idea. Obviously, if you have a big game, you'll probably end up with a lot of houses. You'd probably end up re-using a lot of content house to house. That's not the case in this kind of ultra-small-scale thing, so the house can be pretty uniquely customized.
The problem is gameplay.
Fundamentally, most games use levels to throttle gameplay. Each chunk of gameplay takes up some amount of physical space. For example, you move into a new building to continue your gunfight. Even in a game about building things, space is still linked to gameplay in that a given tile does specific things.
When you try to make the whole game happen in less space, you have to think about how the gameplay can be condensed to take up less physical space.
There have been a number of games set in mansions, but these are huge buildings. For example, Gone Home is just about the smallest of the mansions. It has only a few hours of gameplay, and the mansion is 4 floors and dozens of rooms. Huge. Gone Home condenses gameplay by making small objects "expand". You find a tape, it contains three minutes of music. You find a sheet of paper, it fills your screen with text. You find a cabinet, it contains a dozen things that can be randomly strewn around as you please. You can think of this as "zipping" the gameplay up, like into a zip file, and it is extracted into gamespace as you interact with it.
This method isn't unique to Gone Home. All mansion games do it, as well as any game where there's a significant amount of indoor gameplay. Even huge games do it - accepting a quest from an NPC is a method of tucking content away until the player decides to unzip it.
But I'm working with almost no space. Could I make a game that takes place entirely within just a few rooms? A small apartment?
There are games like that. Typically they are small Flash games about escaping the room. These games are not really very interesting to me, because they're really constrictive puzzle games. You don't actually exist in the room, it's just a set of screens you can click on.
I'm thinking about rooms that your avatar actually exists in - you can walk around in them, interact with stuff.
First thing first, fewer and smaller rooms mean the typical method of navigating is too fast. The avatar needs to move slower, with finer control, because space is denser. This requires a third person camera, because the avatar's fine state has to always be changing to represent the fine, dense space. In most games navigation is part of the challenge, even if it's just "you can't walk through walls". A big part of what distinguishes each level is the contrast of what you can see vs where you can walk.
When the map is tiny, you can't do that. You're going to be traveling on the same tiny map the whole time.
You could just write off navigation as a challenge, make it super easy. However, then you're no better than a locked room puzzle game - you've taken the avatar out of the reality of the room. Instead, it might be worth trying to think of how to make the very limited navigation space more interesting.
The only way to do that is to make it polymorphic. The goals, conditions, and navigation capabilities need to change pretty regularly even though the map is the same. For example, one day you might want to sneak around without being seen through a window. Another day, you might want to keep direct line of sight on a toddler while you do your chores. Another day, you might be looking for something, lifting and tipping and crouching low - but be careful not to let anything slide off the top of the furniture! Another day, you might be managing the seemingly endless power and video cords connecting everything in your apartment. Another day, you might be sick, so unable to control yourself very well. Another day it might be dark, or hot, or cold, or slippery...
Thinking about the possibilities, I've come up with a brief list:
1) Evading/minimizing line of sight via stealth. Crawling, dashing, closing curtains, pushing furniture. Also: you might be able to alter yourself to "stealth" through specific lines of sight. For example, if you're trying to sneak from the shower to your bedroom without being seen, if you have a towel on its okay to be seen by your mom (but still not through windows).
2) Maintaining/maximizing line of sight. Waiting for the target's movements, rearranging furniture, putting up mirrors/monitors, moving the target manually, and working rapidly to minimize lost LOS are all viable play elements.
3) Minimizing toe-stepping. Since it's a shared space, people will get upset if you screw things up for them. No matter what the objective today, mom will get annoyed if you move the couch or break a dish. Your sibling will get upset if they find you on their side of the room, and so on. This is partly line of sight stuff - obviously they'll get upset if they see you do these things. But it's also about not leaving traces, or about earning permission to do these things.
4) Easter-egg hunting. Lots of nooks for the avatar to examine closely. The player can control the avatar's eyeline and hands by right-clicking and dragging to cause the avatar to move their head relative to the right-clicked area. Basic level: looking under things, behind things, closely at things. Moderate level: groping around someplace trying to feel what's going on. Advanced level: getting the proper combination of head and hand angles to allow for seeing while fumbling around. Extra: combine with other challenges, such as tethers and line of sight.
5) Tethering. Character has specific movement restrictions. For example: can't set a foot on sibling's side of room, or must keep stirring a pot while continuing to do other things with your other hand, or having to keep a grip on a toddler's leash.
6) Lighting. For example, you (or an NPC) are scared of the dark. Alternately, you'll wake up completely if you go into the light, and you want to get back to sleep. Light glinting of hidden things, communicating silently via flashlight flashes, telling scary stories with moving shadows, shining lights underneath things so you can see...
7) Limited furniture rearranging. Moving furniture around to clear floor space or crowd floor space, block doors, make something unusuable, create forts, look underneath, etc. Many pieces of furniture will have debris on top, which makes it more complex.
8) Debris. Things are everywhere. Scattering them, rearranging them, moving them, accidentally knocking them over or off of a surface. Many of the things have a function which can be used either as a primary objective or as a step towards a primary objective - for example, setting an egg timer so that your sibling will go check it out and leave their post.
9) Diminished nav. You are tired or sick. The floor is wet and slippery. Wind is howling in through a broken window - maybe there's even glass on the floor! Accomplish other objectives while having a hard time of it.
10) Interpersonal interaction. Talk with the other residents in a gameplay-related way rather than a quest-related way. Ask them to move because moving actually changes things considerably for you. Ask them to change clothes, or bring them a bite to eat - they follow specific rules and can therefore be used to change the situation in predictable ways.
11) Customization. Wearing different things gets different responses from different people, and may even change whether their line of sight is problematic. Not just wearing things, though: hang posters on the walls, change which drawer forks are in, tune the radio so that your kid's favorite station is on, build a cushion fort, put a hat on your dog, pick which things are plugged in where.
12) Hiding and revealing. Hide things so other family members won't find them, or look for things hidden by other family members. Communicate with specific family members by hiding things in spaces you know they'll look.
13) POV control. Switch to a different family member for different capabilities and objectives.
14) Zipped gameplay. Turn on the TV, open the fridge, turn ingredients into food, play a video game, play various minigames or skits by interacting with NPCs and devices.
Anyway, just thinking aloud.