The Shuffled World Game (Game Design)
"Open World Games!" They suck! What's the opposite of one? Hm... a 'closed world'? All the games I've made are 'closed world games'. On a single playthrough, you see most or all of the game.
I've been thinking a little about games with procedural generation (procgen). Mainly, how do their worlds 'feel'? I'd say they don't map onto the closed/open world spectrum. The uniting element is that you can expect the unexpected on each play session. Endless content, games as life habits, whether they be IF, sandbox games, roguelites, roguelikes.
What from procgen can be used in closed world games? I have a game idea I'm working on (it's me, Melos the ideas guy!). Imagine a building in which, every time you enter it, every room's connection to another is shuffled. So if you wanted to get to the bathroom on the roof, the path there would be totally different - maybe you'd have to go through the 4th floor auditorium to reach it. It would be disorienting, right? But notably it would NOT be like a roguelite's linear, procgen levels, as you'd always rely on trial and error to navigate the building, supposing that there is no extra information to guide you through the shuffled building.
In my game idea, there is the Surface World and the Shuffled World. The Surface functions like the home base of many roguelites - it's always unchanged, various events play out here. The Shuffled World consists of a couple hundred, fixed mini-levels. Some are towns, containing characters. The mini-levels might include a Forest Glade, a Cavern, a Lake. Each mini-zone is like a room in a 3D Zelda Dungeon: they connect through "doorways", and the game fades to black and back again when going to a different mini-level.Every time you enter the Shuffled world from the Surface, all the mini-levels' connections get shuffled (although, following some rules - thus procgen will play a slight role.) To finish the game you need to visit certain "Towns" within the world multiple times. So far, this sounds like a pretty bad idea! If you need to get back to Town 1, the path is randomized each time! Oh no! Well, let's assume these problems are solvable, and ignore the practical issues for now, since that just limits brainstorming and prevents me from being an Ideas Guy. Let's think more about the possible effects of this "Shuffled World".
I'm going to make up the term "Shuffled World Game". I'm going to say Yume Nikki, 0' N 0' W, 10 Beautiful Postcards, Goblet Grotto, Spelunx, LSD Dream Emulator, perhaps Anodyne 1 are all Shuffled World games. While none of these games are shuffled in the same sense as my above idea, they are shuffled in that: the areas within each game are static, but the connections between areas are either hard to remember, or random. It's easy to get lost or have trouble keeping track of where you are in most of these games. But, it's not a 'bad' thing, because that's also largely the point when playing them.
Shuffled games achieve a sense of disorientation, by limiting the the ability to mentally map out a space as one explores it. Either the areas don't loop quickly enough (so you lose track of where you were), or areas look too similar, or they're connected randomly or have nonsensical transitions (In LSD, touching walls will warp you, in Yume Nikki, you might go from a void to a forest with no logical explanation).
In non-shuffled games, there's a moment in which you have seen everything and so the world feels more familiar. Even after hours of playing most of the shuffled games, there's still a sense of unease as you close the game: "What else could be under the surface?" Shuffled games elude understanding in fun ways.
In my idea's case, I'm interested in seeing if shuffled games can be reconciled with games that is traditionally 'linear'. Meaning, my game might take 8 hours to play, and players will see all the same areas/content - they just won't see it in the exactly same way due to the Shuffled World.
Anyways... there's still the problems of 'if the world reshuffles each time you enter it, how are you supposed to find areas again over the course of the game?" There's always fast travel, but if the POINT of my Shuffled World is to sustain the feeling of "I can't really mentally map this world", then being able to skip from Town A to Town B without having to go in between would be render the shuffled world more or less pointless (Maybe a limited resource could let you do it, but might just create a even stronger, constrasting feeling of 'pain!' when navigating the Shuffled World.
Right now, my thinking is... To have a shuffled, closed world, that is also still navigable (in order to meet the demands of a paced-out, mostly linear story)... implies the existence of unique navigation tools, or maps. Maybe the shuffled world gets mapped out automatically. But then following the map to an area feels perfunctory...
One less-perfunctory idea I have is that while the world is shuffled, it's shuffled via rules, to take a page from procgen level design. Each mini-level of the Shuffled World exists at a depth from the entry mini-level: I could make up rules where "To reach town A, you have to go through 3 red doors... and these red doors always exist at a depth of 3, 5 and 7." Moreover, for each entry to the Shuffled World from the Surface, there could be a map of the mini-levels that gets filled out. Also, if the mini-levels are truly 'mini', then navigating through small collections of them with a little trial and error might not be the worst thing.
If the main events of the game are advanced through finding Towns amongst the "noise" of the Shuffled World, then eventually a player will find a town. They can learn something that will aid returning to the town (maybe you get items with charges that get refilled at the Surface: using them while on a dive into the Shuffled World can help point you one step in a town's direction), maybe they can learn other clues to look out for to reach other Towns.
There's still something cool to me about a world that's only navigable through memorizing little tricks or paths. It reminds me of reaching strange parts of the internet when you forget the URL, of navigating chat histories of Discord servers, of Wikipedia races. It's like making the whole game into Zelda's Lost Woods! (Oh no, the Lost Woods kinda suck...). Moreover, there's a lot of exciting possibilities with a world like this: by giving certain tools or adding little things to the mini-levels, you could do stuff like hide mini-levels after certain sequences of mini-level transitions. Or, maybe mini-levels at very far depths from the entry mini-level start to become truly procgen, and some Towns are only located deep in the shuffled world through some random areas. Etc... there's a lot of opportunity for modeling the towns of this game around the structure of the internet, or distant communities, etc. The "Shuffled World" also can form a nice metaphor in contrast with "The Surface!" Maybe the Shuffled World appears as a mine? A mall? Who knows...
But basically, the shuffled world would require a new sense of navigation that can't rely on memorized connections or landmarks like in normal closed world games like Anodyne 2 or something. Idk... it might suck... or it might rule... only one way to find out I guess... (If you have any ideas or references please post below!)