A lot of games stick to the safe territory of superheroes, sci-fi and high fantasy, and for good reason. In these settings, the differences between people can be greatly exaggerated into noticeable differences in the way that characters behave in-game; their personalities, skills and abilities. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about the merging of character personality, look and function in archetypes (the ‘fire’ character is lithe, quick, red and angry!) Videogames are often about shooty shooty, bashy bashy, so we use similar sets of crude numbers to represent what people are like (strength, agility, intelligence and so on) which aren’t necessarily relative to anything in reality. We use them because most players are familiar with them and because they’re easily relatable to stuff the player might want to do in-game.

How do the characters of the TV show Lost fit into traditional RPG class archetypes? What makes someone a Paladin rather than a Warrior? If Sawyer and Kate are both “Rogues”, do they represent different sub-classes of this archetype? Try the same exercise again with something even less fantastical (e.g. a ‘kitchen sink’ drama).

We make games in ‘tombs’ and ‘dungeons’ because these fantasy standards provide an environment designed entirely around navigating traps and monsters to find shiny stuff; a contrived assault course with some tentative link to reality. A dungeon can be relatively non-functional and abstract. So can a post-apocalyptic ruin. If everything is alien or ancient or destroyed then we don’t have to consider things like the logical placement of toilets in an office building. This is one of the reasons why Steam is so awash with procedurally-generated games with “dungeon” in the title.

I like epic dungeons and spaceships, but I have very little desire to make games set in them. Part of it is about maintaining a manageable scope*, but its also down to these settings being saturated. I don’t want to make a worse version of a game that already exists. I don’t even want to make a better version of an existing game, because ultimately I’m motivated by creativity and novelty. But that doesn’t mean I can’t take familiar tropes and make something fresh out them simply by turning them on their head a little.

a tongue-in-cheek approach to an existing ‘geek’ genre may be more achievable for new developers with less resources.

Recently, I’ve been playing with the idea of introducing the mundane into generic fantasy and scifi settings. Terry Pratchett’s discworld took the normally grandiose genre of high fantasy and delivered the same epic stories but in a much more grounded and tongue-in-cheek way, in a world where there are  guilds for Lawyers and Glassblowers as well as Rogues and Mages. Comedy science-fiction like Futurama, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Red Dwarf is also able to explore big ideas and ‘what if’ scenarios without taking itself so seriously it becomes cheesy and unintentionally hilarious. And there’s a sizeable amount of people for whom the staffroom banter and romantic subplots in Bioware games are one of the most memorable parts (self included). I would happily play Mass Effect and DragonAge games minus the combat – no joke.

Back in early 2014 and friend and I made a short jam game** about running a VR Parlour in a cyberpunk future. During the process we both realised that we were essentially making a game about jobs we have both done in our late teens (he used to work in video-rental place and I worked in a record shop). Even Papers, Please is about doing something mundane in a setting which could easily have been used for a AAA shooter like Just Cause or Homefront. Fallout Shelter is also a very mundane game set in a fantastical world. So are Recettear and Kairosoft’s Dungeon Village. Often these games can be a way of using ‘hardcore’ gamers’ existing tastes to draw them into more casual modes of play.

Mundanity isn’t a goal in itself. Sometimes games about mundane tasks such as managing a business or caring for a person or creature can become time-sinks which provide the same sort of pleasure as scratching your butt***. But I am noticing this pattern in a lot of my ideas. What if the player runs a crèche for the children of superheroes? What if the player runs a dating agency for Tolkien-esque fantasy characters?

In the next post I’m going to talk about all of this in relation to a 2-4 player card game I’m developing called Hook-Up Heroes.

*I spoke about issues relating to scope for new developers here.

**You can play VR Tycoon over at itch.io but it is very very broken.

***”Richard Rosenbaum offers a good explanation of how operant conditioning techniques are used in casual games to make them addictive.