So here's what I came up with. I picture a game set in an environment where there's a lot of death going on, say a warzone where two factions battle for control. They're evenly matched and constantly respawning, so the war has become an ongoing battle of attrition in which people die by the second. The hero is a soldier sent in as one of many infantry units who accidentally kills or injures the actual Grim Reaper through some unfortunate twist of fate. Whereupon some cosmic bureaucrat materializes and informs him that if he doesn't want to face eternal damnation he'd better take the scythe and pick up where the last guy left off, The Santa Clause-style. What I'm trying to do here is avoid the Darksiders 2 protagonist problems: having no coherent motivation, and being some non-human demigod bullshit thing who doesn't need to be told how to do his job, so the exposition gets really awkward and forced.
The player has the ability to switch back and forth between reality and the dead world. Every time something dies in reality a soul appears in the dead world, a soul that has to be reaped. In the dead world the player has much freer movement - maybe full flight or teleporting from place to place - and has to chase down those mischievous escaped souls and give 'em each a whack with the scythe. The more time that elapses between a soul appearing and you reaping it, the more troublesome that soul becomes, incentivising you to get the job done quick smart. Maybe they get further and further away from the original body and you have to laboriously follow a trail. Maybe some of them become violent and you have to take them down with scythe-fu.
The story missions would take place in the real world, in which our hero attempts to balance his duties as a soldier of whichever army he's in with his obligations as the Grim Reaper. If you let too many souls accrue unreaped in the dead world then the celestial bureaucracy nullifies your ability to switch back to the living world until you get shit sorted out, creating the further incentive of locking off plot progression.
Then it gets interesting, 'cos obviously the player's human superiors would like him to be killing the enemy, and they start getting big ideas about all these miraculous reaper powers the player is exhibiting and how they could be used to turn the tide of the war. But the souls of ally and enemy alike all look the same under the scythe, and with first-hand experience of death's hideous finality, the protagonist becomes jaded and his loyalty to his superiors gradually crumbles. This leads into a character arc. One that the player should be able to naturally sympathize with, because they know that the more killing that the human generals demand of them, the more work they're ultimately creating for themselves.
This is starting to sound pretty good, actually. And it wasn't hard. I'm not even thinking about it much, it all seems pretty obvious when you lay down the core concepts and jigger them about a bit. Why is it so bloody difficult for triple-A games these days to not be shit? Is trying something new honestly less appealing to developers than getting to chop up monsters with big swords for the eleventy billionth time?
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn't talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.