I was thinking about old arcade games where there’s no real end to the gameplay. It’s just about making it through longer than anyone else. Racking up as many hours of play to say you lived that long with everything beating down on you constantly. Then I thought of a survival game where essentially you play as a homeless person getting by. Sounds weird, but hear me out:
It starts out as a day in the life, throwing you into the subtle action of finding food before the day ends and you need to get back to your dwelling hidden in an abandoned warehouse (Subtlety of Minecraft’s gameplay). Every day, the character has to worry about things being stolen from where he hides them, being cleared out by cops, and perhaps flaws within the character that complicate the control of the character — say if a bone is broken, food and waiting won’t heal it, but makeshift medical treatment will do the trick for a time and this affects the ability to keep getting out to keep up the character. Money hardly comes by the character in an industrial landscape where there isn’t a lot of foot traffic to spare change and even in the places you find some money, you have to worry about being robbed on the way home. The elements of actual value are a stockpile of food and always looking for better shelter. Cheap apartments are available, but rent and utilities only push the character back into the streets if money doesn’t keep rolling in. Anything that would seem to help a character like this (shelters, charity, drunk tanks, churches, robbing people or businesses) come with challenges of their own and trigger followup situations that would come up to keep the gameplay interesting — potentially a lot of spontaneous written ‘quests’ come about giving more reason to keep pushing forward to get out of the rock bottom and beating these or maneuvering well keeps your character afloat a little longer, but the game would only send more difficulties to constantly keep everything moving forward and slightly downward.
Essentially, Italian Neorealism: The Game. Think Umberto D. meets Bicycle Thieves meets The Pursuit of Happyness — nix the Happyness. All of the institutions in those movies bite the characters in the ass despite being there to serve them. I think emotional character development in games is something very possible today and investing in an ongoing conflict is perfect in a one player story mode where they’re writing the story. The player puts themselves into the character and dives further into this world beneath them. I don’t even think there should be a way of beating the storyline, getting back to that arcade model idea. The player gets by as long as possible until it’s depressingly obvious that there is no getting out of the slump, or they get caught risking an armed robbery or they die of starvation, or illness, or hypothermia or the violence that surrounds them. Consequences. By today’s standards, it probably wouldn’t be in the studios’ eye for developing, but it could be what players are looking for. I haven’t been impressed with anything that’s been out lately.