I've been doing a lot of reading on plot, theme, and narrative development lately, especially as I consider how these elements will affect Threatened Destiny. Of course, TD is far from needing those elements yet...I'm still working on a StageMap editor (though that's getting very close: I need to finish growing the map space as you place tiles near the edges, and then it's just a matter of saving and loading all the pieces and I'll have the first blush of the system together), but it's worth thinking about and planning out these elements, so that whatever story structure and universe appears in the final product; it's thought out and not rushed.
A lot of TD is still based on the ideas I pondered nearly twenty years ago as I mowed my parents' lawn. The Fermi Paradox ("If intelligent species exist in the universe, where are they?") is answered with the question of "they're just behind." In TD, Earth is the most Goldilocks of Goldilocks worlds, and has experienced remarkably few extinction events. As a result, Humans are ahead of the curve. By the time we were able to receive signals from other intelligent races (remember, space is unbelievably big), we'd developed FTL travel and could go visit them. There are a few alien species that are mostly on par with humanity, but nobody that's astonishingly more advanced across the board. But that's all less of a theme and more of a narrative conceit, or a touchstone for the setting.
For various reasons, I want a more "pulp" like emotional feel to the game. The player character is larger than life and their actions have far-reaching effects. It's a small universe -- you see a lot of familiar faces wherever you go. Style reigns over substance; drama claims victory over hard science. If the player wants to wear a leather jacket instead of a flight suit, that's a valid choice rather than a suicidal one. In other words, by making a pulp comic universe, I get to keep a lot of the tropes of sci-fi action games without the need to over-explain every little thing. There are some really great hardcore sims in development right now (check out Rogue System for a great example of the hardest of hard sims). I don't have any real desire to tell that kind of a story. I'd rather tell a fun story about a spacefuture badass than a dry tale of astronaut survival. I'm not against that kind of story -- hell, I love playing those -- it's just not the kind of story that I have the most fun telling.
The primary theme that I want in TD is that it's a personal story. The game's narrative will be about the player character; not about the galaxy. I'm specifically not going to tell some epic story where the player has to zip around space, recruiting a crew of hardasses to stop an existential threat to all life everywhere. Not only has that story been told, it's been told a lot. I want TD to be something a little different. I'm not saying that the galaxy won't be saved (after all, like Shamus Young says, saving the galaxy never gets old); I'm saying that the biggest reason the galaxy gets saved is because it has the good sense to stand in the same place as the player character's ass, and while the player's saving their own ass, the galaxy is along for the ride. My goal is to have a story that the player really feels a part of; that the story is actually about them. By giving TD a pulp comic essence, I can tell a story that's primarily about the character, but has consequences for the universe. Think about Star Wars: was it about the Rebellion and the Empire, or was it about the larger-than-life characters of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo, and Darth Vader, which became wrote large into the Rebellion and the Empire?
One of the other main themes of TD is "the more things change, the more they stay the same." This is both very optimistic and very pessimistic. Humanity is humanity. Our nature as humans, for better or worse, doesn't change that much. While that removes the optimistic future of Star Trek, where there is no want, it also bars the worst of the dystopian societies, where the strong simply roll over the weak. Humanity is united...sort of. Human kind is still as fractured and sectarian as ever, but a universal governing body tries to mediate the various nations and corporations: more like the UN or the EU than the Federation. It's a massive slow-moving bureaucracy with more power than good sense. The military controlled by the bureaucracy operates largely on its own; managing to generally keep the peace among the nations of humanity and defend human interests, but they can't be everywhere or save everyone. Even though traditional racism is largely a thing of the past (humans are pretty tolerant of other humans), humanity as a whole is still xenophobic, there are just better targets than obvious natural humans between transgenic races, engineered humans, and actual aliens. Even with fantastic technology, people are still people. Some people are good and some people are bad. Science fiction literature traditionally has a particular theme that the universe explores, and this is probably mine.
I know every RPG talks about how great they are at player agency -- letting the player make decisions which matter or feel like they matter -- but that's a theme and concept that still fascinates me, probably because of my deep roots in table-top roleplaying games. I'd like to avoid Besthesda's tendency to make NPCs invincible, so you don't "accidentally" kill a story NPC, and instead make the story able to handle NPCs getting killed. Like, certain parts of the story would require a "Special" NPC to pass the information along, or come to the player's rescue, or what have you; you all know the general tropes of RPG story lines. Rather than me, as the writer, deciding that this particular NPC is special, why can't the game decide "hey, the player talks to this NPC a lot, and they're appropriate for such and such reasons, so I'm going to tag them as 'Special' and let them do this thing?" I'd really like to do that. Maybe it's not possible. But it's something that I want to explore.
I also want to explore something that I generalized from Kevin Pease: Since a story is ruled by narrative and drama, anything that the players/characters spend time on should either be important or a deliberate red herring. I try to apply this principle when I run tabletop games, and the results have been some of our best, most memorable moments in playing. A computer game, where the computer can track everything that the character does, should be able to do something similar. In other words, the actions that the player takes are considered important by the game. Do you do mostly smuggling? Smuggling should be rewarded with getting to do more of it, and it should (ideally) take a more central role in the narrative. Maybe the player is more of a bounty hunter. Then those behaviors should be rewarded. Rather than making the player do every mission, or forcing them to do things that they don't enjoy or are bad at, I would like (and again, maybe this isn't possible but I want to try) the game to recognize the things that the player has their character do and emphasize doing those things as part of the overarching narrative. After all, this is a story about that character. The story should focus on the things that they tend to do. In a perfect world, the game would be aware of things that the player is really bad at, and create missions where they are expected to fail and that failure is part of the mission parameters: "Take this load of mildly illegal contraband through the checkpoint at such and such time. When the military picks you up, that should distract the customs agents long enough for our actual shipment to get through. Legal expenses will be paid in addition to your rewards." That's probably too ambitious, but wouldn't it be cool?
Since failure could be an important part of the game, I'll probably offer a "hardcore" option, where the game would remove the player's access to saving and loading, and would instead auto save the game at very frequent intervals (and when quitting). I'm not planning on character death being a significant disadvantage. I expect to give the character a cybernetic implant (which I'll probably call "an insurance card") that plugs into the character's head. This implant could be removed (if the player desires permadeath), therefore freeing up a cranial cybernetic slot. On death, their consciousness is transferred into a clone and all their gear is matter-transported back into the clone's inventory. The penalty for death will probably be a simple monetary fee and the need to hoof it back to wherever they were when they died, and that's it. I respect real death penalties, but I understand why some people don't care for them, and I don't think the pulp-action feel I want for the game is diminished by bringing the character back right away. That eliminates the need for complicated save/restores taking the player out of the game world, and makes the idea of a "hardcore" option that removes the ability to save the game on command possible. Since you don't need a recent saved game in case of death, and I have frequent autosaves, hardcore just eliminates save-scumming, which is the point.
A character story should consider the possibility of failure as a setback, not as a show-stopper. If our story was about saving the galaxy, setbacks would have to be part of the narrative, rather than emergent experiences: if you fail at saving the galaxy, you fail at saving the galaxy, so setbacks need to be added by the writer. If the story is about the character, then they, as fallible human beings (or whathaveyou), are permitted to make mistakes and sometimes not succeed. In the case of a character-driven story, failure on the part of the character can (and should) make the story more interesting and relatable, rather than less. In a traditional game narrative, you'll have missions that you "fail," but the failure will be inexplicable or written in. I remember one truly infuriating sequence in Final Fantasy 9, where I had to last through a very difficult fight, using up all my healing items in the process, until the bad guy used a move to simultaneously just knock everyone out at once. If I lost the fight on my own, that was game over. I had to lose the fight after "winning" the fight. That's intensely frustrating and, to my mind, wrong. I'd much rather have a setup like the old Wing Commander: if you failed at a mission but survived, you had to deal with the consequences of failure; it wasn't just a game over (eventually it could be, but not right off the bat for failing one mission). That gives player agency: they're allowed to fail. And in a player-driven story, player agency is king (even if the game dev is still the Grey Eminence).