Here’s a talk Anna Anthropy gave on the design of a level in her awesome Flash game REDDER. Anna thinks a lot about level design, and it shows in this game; it teaches you to play it, so by the time you get to the most complicated areas you’ll be able to pull off some moves you hadn’t before. (And does it without railroading you, as Anthropy explains in the talk.) But that’s not what I want to talk about.
Anthropy talks about how in this room she starts with a symmetrical design and then tweaks it. One of the tweaks is that a pipe at the top has broken, so you can climb on the fallen bit of pipe and then jump up to the space above it. Which means that if the building weren’t broken the game would be. The pipe has to be broken for you to reach the top, and it has to be broken exactly so that you can just jump to the top by standing on the pipe. Which reminded me of this passage from Gravity’s Rainbow:
There doesn’t exactly dawn, no but there breaks, as that light you’re afraid will break some night at too deep an hour to explain away–there floods on Enzian what seems to him an extraordinary understanding. This serpentine slag-heap he is just bout to ride into now, this ex-refinery, Jamf Ölfabriken Werke AG, is not a ruin at all. It is in perfect working order. Only wainting for the right connections to be set up, to be switched on . . . modified, precisely, deliberately by bombing that was never hostile, but part of a plan both sides–“sides?“–had always agreed on . . .
Which is a common theme in games. Try Cave Story or Small Worlds or, well, anything else; you’ll find yourself in places that have broken in just exactly the way that lets you navigate through them (and not through the parts you’re not supposed to reach yet). The same is true in fiction — what’s a coincidence in the world isn’t a coincidence for the author, as the thing that moves the plot along must appear just when it’s needed, even there’s no in-world reason that the hole in the wall would open up just within the heroes’ reach, or (to pick an artier example) the tire would blow out just so that the car crashes into the traffic island.
Which makes me think of an idea — we begin with someone trapped somewhere, with no escape. You play a spirit that travels through time, possessing people, nudging them to drop things and smash them just in the right way that in the future that person will find what they need to escape.