My games are usually experimental; I take an unusual mechanic and seeing if the end result is still playable. And sometimes it takes more than one attempt to get it right; I think the original Side Saddle is something of a noble failure, while its boss-battle puzzle-shmup sequel better delivers on the original's essential game-play ideas. With my focus set so squarely on game-play mechanics, I've seldom had the time or the inclination to craft any kind of storyline to give them context. (And, honestly, what kind of storyline could there be for an abstract game like Side Saddle 2 or Ultrageist?)
But in Sequence Breaker, as I've said before, I want the player to have a more complete aesthetic experience, and story is a part of that experience. More than that, I feel that the big idea of the game is better served if there are story elements to give them context. "Shoot-out-the-side-in-a-vertical-shmup" is readily apparent from the moment you press the fire button; "find-ways-to-skip-over-content-and-do-things-out-of-order" is a little harder to grasp just by looking at a screen and pressing a button.
The World of Sequence Breaker
The player character, Mrs. Max, is employed as a "Sequence Breaker"-- a freelancer hired to find creative, clever, quicker solutions when a more linear solution, overly beholden to conventional logic, would be too costly or endanger too many lives. When, for example, a bad-ass space-marine squadron gets said bad-asses handed to them by the big ugly son-of-a-gun with twenty eyes and six mouths, a Sequence Breaker like Mrs. Max finds some sneaky way to avoid it altogether.
Athletic, resourceful, self-sufficient, Mrs. Max is a consummate professional, at the top of her game, having become the stuff of legend after an especially impressive mission she pulled off at "the colony". Where the colony is and what she did to earn her fame will be revealed in a flashback that is also the game's biggest mission. Think of the colony mission as being akin to the Pandora's Temple section of God of War, and you'll get some idea of how big it is in relation to the rest of the game.
But Mrs. Max doesn't like to talk about the colony mission. Her fame came at a price: the life of her husband. I'm well aware that "how-she-became-a-legend" isn't a good enough hook to hang such a huge chunk of the game on; "how-she-became-a-widow", on the other hand, might just do the trick.
There's a danger inherent in such a plotline, a potential for maudlin and eye-rollingly sappy dialogue. It's a danger I'm trying to very consciously undercut by making Mrs. Max a silent protagonist, defined by her actions and what others say about her. My hope is that enough will be implied by the circumstances in which she finds herself and the observations of the speaking characters that she'll be more than a cipher, without losing some essential sense of mystery.
Because Mrs. Max is a silent character, I'm not employing dialogue trees or giving the player much autonomy over the flow of the story/conversation. But since the point of the game is to give the player autonomy over the story they're telling by playing the game, to let them control the flow of the levels in terms of how they choose to follow or break the sequence, I think this is a fair trade off.
And so, the game's verbiage doesn't really take the form of dialogue, but of monologues and soliloquies. And I keep these two terms in mind when writing, because the connotation that both have is of a speech that reveals something about the person giving it. And so, when Stanley Six, your "scanner" for the first mission, contacts you to let you know about the switch at the end of a hall, he's doing so in a way that reveals his intense nervousness and social ineptitude. When Myron Gas, your character's boss, gives you the outline for your mission, it's peppered with his cynical, sometimes vulgar, sense of humour.
These characters, and the others, are also intended to be foils for Mrs. Max: Six is nervous, but she's cool and collected. Gas is low and vulgar, she's stoic, maybe even classy. I don't want to be attributing too much to this or seem like I'm reading too much into it, but I do think the cast of characters that I surround Mrs. Max with will give the player some sense of who she is by dint of who she's not.
It's important, though, that I don't bog the game down in reams of text; I'm the sort of player myself who will skim over the writing and impatiently skip over cut-scenes because I want to get back to actually playing the game. My challenge is to to make the words relatively concise-- no radio contact/update should last more than a single text-box-- and to keep them engaging, make them something the player would actually want to read and take pleasure from.
And I think it's a challenge that I'll be able to meet. A couple of dev. journals ago, I talked about how I relinquished control of the music and artwork when it became apparent that I wasn't good enough. But writing is something that I do think I'm good at; I'm a published author, for chrissakes, and my superhero novel Jolt City won several awards in its original, serialized form. If there's any area of game design where I have some inkling of what I'm doing, it's the writing-- ironic, given how stringently I've avoided it in the past.