In films and novels, every element of the story generally exists to reinforce the story. This is so obvious that when you see something that doesn't lock into the narrative of the movie, you immediately think that the narrative is not what you thought it was.
But what's obvious to movies and books isn't so obvious to games.
Most games are thrown together out of genre standards and whatever sounds cool. The many elements of a Deus Ex game do not all support the personal journey of JC Denton or whoever the lead is. Instead, they struggle to create an immersive mood while providing gameplay. At best they support the same theme. Normally, not even that much.
For example, think of a typical RPG. Volcano level, ice level, forest level, village, town, capital city, etc, etc. Goblin, wolf, troll, fire elemental, thief, etc, etc.
But what's the actual story of the RPG? How does a volcano level support that story?
Typically, it doesn't. It's just a genre convention.
It could, though. Volcano levels have a lot of characteristics, any or all of them could match up. They're chokingly toxic and hot, bubbling with something deadly. It could represent a time when the main characters are bitter and rage-filled. It could represent the world's opinion of the main characters, at a time when they are being blamed for troubles. It could represent a journey into your bitter dreams, or into your hate-filled past. It could host a particularly sinister group of people, or represent the uncaring brutality of the planet itself.
Thinking like this is a bit different from simply trying to make an interesting volcano level. It requires you to understand the overall arc of the story and use the volcano level as a reinforcing element at the right time. But it should also give you a lot of ideas on how to make the volcano level suit your story even more.
For example, few RPGs have a cloud of ash, or a violent volcanic explosion, or toxic smoke. However, your story could benefit from these events. As a simple and heavy-handed example, if the main character's husband dies, a cloud of ash could envelop the whole village. The villagers could desperately plea for the main character's help, and going into the volcano filled with magma and toxic smoke could very easily represent the main character's grief mixed with the unending pull of duty. People are depending on you! Do your job even if you want to die!
There's nothing wrong with being heavy-handed, so that would probably be a pretty solid sequence.
Hopefully, you can clearly see how using the volcano level to support the main character's personal arc can strengthen the entire experience. Not only can it lead to stronger design, but it can also keep the player on target, feeling the right things at the right time. Just don't forget to let the player enjoy the game, too.
This kind of basic approach is really under-used. Devs don't tend to think like this, probably because genre conventions are so heavy in their mind. It may also be because game writing is rarely very sturdy early on, so devs are worried about having to completely change the story element to a level, or because of the difficulty of synching up so many level designers.
But, anyway, that's a really basic approach. Basically stealing straight from the movie industry.
Is that the best we can do?
Video games are interactive. Our analogies can also be interactive.
The simplest example: that lava level represents our main character's struggle with her grief and sense of duty. But unlike a movie, we can play through this level. Each thing within the level can theoretically be tied into the story - every hallway, every enemy, every treasure, every puzzle.
This could be done very simply - each victory clears a point of grief or gives a point of duty. This is an iffy design since it's fundamentally going to push the player into completionist fits, but you can avoid that if you take some care when designing.
Instead, we could tie the various locations into memories the main character has. This could be done very obviously with flashbacks, but it can also be done subtly - the dungeon layout is identical to the town layout with monsters where the people were, etc.
We could also tie it to the real world in more concrete ways - people who know you and want to help show up over the course of the dungeon to pull you along or make things worse. Equipment shatters as you use it against the monsters, except perhaps the dagger your husband made.
There's almost an unlimited number of ways to embed the character arc not just into the concept of the volcano level, but into the challenges it contains. This can be done passively, to lure the player deeper into the arc. But it can also be done actively, giving the player some control over the outcome of the arc. Not necessarily the emotional outcome for the main character, but how it affects everyone around them.
Now let's talk about space ships.
Space ships are an extremely versatile thing in fiction. The play a lot of roles, but it's not unusual for a space ship to represent the overall arc of the movie or book. For example, Serenity from Firefly physically represents the characters' struggle for independence and life. It gets torn up or filled with compromises, but it still flies free.
Or it may represent the foundation of the series, like the Enterprise embodies all the ideals of the Federation in one tidy package. Or it could represent a mission even as it facilitates it, such as the makeshift shelter in The Martian.
Space ships are very flexible because they do so many things. They are vehicles, homes, cities, tribes, regiments, factories, workplaces, governments, and anything else they need to be - often several at once. Moreover, they are flexible because they are fundamentally made out of parts and the parts can be revealed or changed as the story demands.
From a game design perspective, space ships are also flexible because they can be created by the player or by the dev or any mix of the two. The player can be inside them, outside them, or embodying them. They can be working, broken, or need maintenance. They can be echoingly empty or packed with people. They can have a future and a past embodied in the state of their systems. They can have specific missions, or be built for a specific person's personal use. They can have distinct cultures, distinct puzzles, distinct costs, distinct payouts, distinct performance.
With all those things in mind, there's no reason we can't incorporate those elements into the stories we're trying to tell. Easy example, same as the volcano level example: the space ship falls apart as the main character's husband dies, and duty calls.
There are a lot of little things hidden in this idea. For example, a space ship that the player makes could play this role, in which case the specifics of the ship would vary wildly depending on the player. Which means the specifics of the arc the main character goes through would be different.
What if the player made a space ship that was too good, too self-repairing, too durable? When things go wrong for our PC, things don't really go wrong on the ship. This lack of an emotional resonance leads the player to underestimate the internal conflict of the PC, or leads the PC to have less internal conflict. Either way, this blunting would weaken the story. But we could make it so that if the ship doesn't echo the conflict well enough, the character doesn't recover from their trauma.
Or the other side of the spectrum: the ship is too badly designed and when it falls apart, everything falls apart forever.
We've been using a pretty dark and personal story for our examples, but there are lots of other stories. A space ship can just as easily represent wanderlust, or parenting, or your memories of a day at the beach, or the struggle to leave a mark on the world, or star-crossed lovers, or whatever.
In fact, the same ship can represent those things. Or, at least, ships built in the same game engine.
There's a lot of question in my mind as to how blatant this should be. I mentioned "grief and duty points", and that's one way to deal with it. But I think it's pretty easy to make it a bit more subtle.
Fundamentally, the components and experiences of the ship represent the emotions and interactions of the main story, whether that's personal or something bigger. It could simply be that stories only advance when there's an opportunity to advance it. IE, the main character stays in mourning until there are half a dozen opportunities to struggle through it using duty as a crutch, culminating in a dedicated final act. Your ship design, your chosen missions, and even how well you do on those missions could change when those opportunities arise.
Same for the others. Star-crossed lovers only advance by alternating between demonstrations of lovey-doveyness and star-crossedness, featuring the crew, the ship components, the missions the ship is on, the worlds the ship visits, etc.
The problem is how these arcs form. Generating stories is tough to make feel real.
Well, let's talk about that some other day.