Last essay I wrote about a mechanic that can be used in noncombat RPGs. Because the noncombat conflict gameplay is so slow compared to combat, you need to have a tighter relationship between it and other kinds of gameplay.
But there is another big problem with noncombat RPGs: stakes.
To be more clear, players judge the characters in an RPG based on how they face death and challenge, how they respond to threats, and what they want to accomplish. Most NPCs are brought together to try and save the universe, and that's a big part of why the player can respect them. There is usually one NPC that's on board for some other reason (money, escape, duty, simple friendship), but their motives are usually considered "lesser". In fact, their character arc is almost certainly to develop the same world-saving impulse as everyone else.
Well, in our NONcombat RPG, you probably aren't trying to save the universe. It's possible to cram universe-saving into the setting, but it usually ends up feeling rather hilarious: "saving the universe by repairing damaged factories!" "Saving the universe by dancing!" It's, uh... pretty forced.
Fortunately, it doesn't have to be about saving the universe.
I said before that we should look at our standard game stuff and try to figure out what it accomplishes, so we can find other ways to accomplish the same things. Typically, I explore different kinds of gameplay. But the framing of the narrative is also a piece of the game. It also accomplishes something.
It gives all of the characters the same moral and thematic backdrop. Because we can see how they respond to the same questions, we can see their distinct nature.
Nearly all of the characters in Mass Effect echo the central conflict of the Reapers. Tali's species created the Geth, then tried to exterminate them before they could become a threat. Mordin chose to keep the dangerous Krogan suppressed, and explores the ethics of that. Garrus explores the nature of laws and law enforcement, which first appears to be an echo of your human culture's interests, but then appears to be an echo of your larger fight against the Reapers. Liara's endless hunger for information and gradual descent into amoral infobrokering mirrors the Reapers' own hunger for new information. Ashley's racism reflects the Reapers'... well, it goes on.
It could be that the Mass Effect designers didn't realize they were doing this kind of echoing. If they were obsessed with oppression and the nature of power, their own obsession would have been reflected into the characters. It's hard to tell just by looking whether it was on purpose or on accident.
Dragon Age is similar. The characters are all meditations on the nature of undeserved/corrupting power. Again, it's hard to tell whether it was on purpose, or just because the devs were obsessed with that concept.
This is common. In FF6, the characters were obsessed with the concept of identity. In Chrono Trigger, they were obsessed with the nature of change and endings.
The overarching plot explores this concept as well. It is a capstone: all the characters shine their lights on the concepts in their own way. You pile them up and the capstone makes them hold together.
The fact that it's a save-the-world plot is just a wrapper. It's a convenient wrapper, because it A) gets the player a bit pumped and B) allows you to pull a bunch of characters together without too much effort. It's the "you're all in a tavern when..." of computer games.
The question isn't "can we make a noncombat game about saving the world". The question is "can we create a plot with a theme that holds the characters together, and make sure the player finds it compelling?"
The answer is yes and yes, but it requires some thought.
Let's think about our tiny little game design about people who run around and repair broken space stations. Due to the nature of the conflicts, our theme would probably be best as "complexity is a tradeoff". In turn, our characters would explore this concept in their own way.
This could be as simple as "this character has OCD and is obsessed with organizing minutiae", but that's a poor way to design a major character. They aren't just sticking to a theme: they're exploring it. So they generally have an arc related to it. Sometimes an arc works as "they reverse their issue" - cowardly to brave, loner to team player, etc. But those are traits everyone empathizes with, so it's easy to get inside the character's head. Obsessing over details is typically a distancing trait, actually pushing the character further away from both the audience and the other characters. Therefore, the best arc is not "stops being OCD", but is instead something that directly relates them to other characters. For example, goes from having an obsessive crush on the robot party member (no bacteria! No fluids!) to a more gentle romance with a completely different character.
This kind of arc explores how obsessing over details and minutiae affects his or her life. This is how the most compelling characters are created.
All the characters need to have that kind of thought put into them.
And the game's overarching plot also needs to have that kind of thought put into it.
As the capstone, the whole universe needs to be exploring the tradeoffs of complexity and simplicity. It could start small: many of the causes of breakdowns are bacteria that are really hard to get rid of, bacteria that constantly adapts to changing environments and eats plastic, rubber, glass, buckyballs, whatever.
This should be combined with a civilization groaning under its own complexity. Millions of trade agreements and billions of trade routes. Cultures with complex rules of interaction to keep people safe from each other. Governments that sign budgets, laws, and treaties into being but literally cannot understand them, as they are far too complex and apply too broadly.
The culmination would be a coup against the government. However, rather than being on one side or the other, the player party is just trying to keep people alive. By this time, the player should be able to "read ahead" and tell what kind of breakdowns are going to occur, and show up with just the right goods to repair everything. The civilization becomes largely cut off from itself as things collapse, but the player can tell various settlements to ship various things to various places, dragging the fractured system back into alignment, restoring everything to how it was. Then end on some kind of hopeful note.
This is a relatively good theme. Moreover, it gives us an easy chance to recruit NPCs by the bushel. Any NPC that lives anywhere where anything breaks down could have an interest in signing on to your crew, as well as anthropologists, entertainers, wannabee politicians, explorers, merchants: all have some interest in joining your ship.
And all of them have something to say about the tradeoffs of complexity.