We have talked briefly about the story and narrative for Backworlds on previous occasions but I thought I would try to further extend our thoughts in this post. The most impactful decision we have made regarding this topic is that the story and narrative structure completely takes a backseat to our gameplay.
What this means in practice is that we design all our levels and worlds without thinking about the story and then we apply the narrative elements onto it after. We have however already written a lot of our story, in various stages, and thought about how it will be delivered in our open-world design (but we are not ready to reveal anything yet).
I think the reason for this decision (though we haven’t discussed it much) is something that has surged through this project overall; we don’t want to have any “filler” content in our game. No repeating puzzles, no filler space and no forced narrative elements. So the story will be integrated into the experience in a way that it doesn’t interfere, though there could certainly be optional elements to explore.
Because of this it is also important that we, as developers, don’t expect too much out of adding the story. The game has to work well without it, since we are not testing the game with it at all at the moment. We have stories we want to tell however and take it seriously, but the themes have come out of our mechanics rather than the other way around. The art and gameplay is something that we want to own and be proud of and the same thing goes for the story.
If this approach is good or not probably just depend on the game. If you have a certain story beforehand that you want to tell, maybe you should try weaving it into the gameplay you are designing. For us it was the other way around, we had our gameplay and the story was born out of thinking about how we could create a story and narrative structure that relates to it.
As mentioned we have been thinking about this a lot and we experiment with different ways of applying the above in practice. In the demo we had voice-over telling most of the story but we found it doesn’t work well with our open-world design and that it created a link between the world and the story that was confusing.
This is all very vague since we’re constantly considering how we want to tell the story, but hopefully it helps explain our thought process.