It’s very easy for game designers to come up with lofty, complex ideas. This is especially true for people who take a support role on one project and suddenly find themselves in charge of something on another title; they get the impulse to put their stamp on everything, to show the world how clever they are by embroiling players in complex plots and multi-layered gameplay.
Sometimes, the best thing you can do is take a step back and simplify things.
Every night at dinner, I get asked by my toddler, “Daddy, what did you do at work today?” My answers vary, but often I mention how I looked at pictures of monsters (character art review), saw some fantastic place (environment art review), read a story about some great battle (narrative review), and so forth. Occasionally I even get to talk about something I wrote myself! If I say I looked at a monster, I’m asked “Was he good or bad?” If I say bad, I’m asked “What does he want to get?” And I usually give a little story about that creature’s motivations.
After this ritual had been going on a while, it suddenly struck me how incredibly useful this was to me as a storyteller and designer. If I can’t boil the plots and motivations of our characters down into simple terms that a child can understand, we’ve probably over-designed the experience–which means grown-up players won’t get it, either.
That’s not to say stories and gameplay have to be written like an episode of Dora the Explorer. The nuances and depth should be there for those who want to delve into them. But at the base level, the primary motivations of your characters and storylines need to be clear and obvious. Otherwise, all the fancy dialogue and pretty graphics won’t matter, because the drama of your game won’t resonate with the audience.