As a one-man-army indie game developer, it can be quite intimidating to make a story-driven game. Building cutscenes, recording voice or just adding text and telling the story of your game that way is difficult if you’re on your own or you have a small team of developers.
Luckily, there are lots of games out there that have already demonstrated ways to tell a story with gameplay elements, the environment, and scripted events only. Have a look at Limbo, Inside or Journey, for instance. Of course, these are very successful and also elaborate examples. Still, there are simple ways to add story elements anybody can implement.
I am currently working on a title called “Mind Maze”. You play a little guy who wakes up in a maze and your only goal is to find the exit. As the name might already suggest, this maze tries to play with your mind.
When you’re walking through the maze you will enter areas you would not have expected to enter. For example, if you’re moving along a corridor you suddenly might hit a dead end, then go back and you’ll find yourself in a completely different area than before. The maze changes while you are in there.
It’s a bit hard to describe with words only. That’s why I also made a video about this topic.
Still, let me try to describe the ways how I try to add a little story to the game.
So, you’re walking around the maze, it changes, and you have puzzles to solve. This works but can be a bit boring in the long run.
Since I love the mysterious atmosphere of games like Limbo and Inside, I also wanted this kind of atmosphere in Mind Maze. The great thing about that is, that the actual story and the idea of what the heck is going on in this game, builds up in the player’s mind.
At one point in Mind Maze, you solve a puzzle and all of a sudden another character runs past you. You just get a glimpse of that character and he or she looked exactly like you - or didn’t she? And as soon as you try to follow this character, she already disappeared.
With this small event (please watch the video to get a better idea of what I mean), the player starts to imagine the story by herself. Questions arise. Who was that? Where did she go? Was that friend or foe? Will I see her again? And so on…
With that in mind, you can build up the tension. The player solves the next puzzle, the next level, and then that character from before appears again. This time you can watch her for a longer time, but it’s impossible to reach her because she’s on another platform or trapped in a giant glass box and you can’t get her out.
I hope you understand where this is going without me spoiling the whole story.
It’s about using gameplay elements and the environment to make the player herself create a story. Of course, we as the developers can push the story in particular directions and give the player some hints. But isn’t it just beautiful to build a game, a piece of art, where every person playing the game can have a different experience and so interpret the events in the game in a different way?
It’s like watching a movie with an open ending. Everyone has seen what happened in the movie, but the interpretations can vary in so many different ways.
The same applies to a video game. Using simple elements and assets you most likely already have and putting scripted events in the right spot can make a huge difference and provide a delightful experience for the player.
I hope you got the idea. Now have fun building your own story-driven indie game.