I’m not going to say “Write more like Tim Schafer and Eric Wolpaw,” because that’s useless. What I’m planning to look at in this series is simple and clever thematic tricks that more games should use.
So you complete the tutorial and the front door opens to let you into the main hub world – in the fiction, it’s a summer camp. It’s big enough to get lost in, with enough secrets to feel mysterious. The exploration is fun, but the main attraction is the NPC’s; the camp is filled with kids, all having conversations with you and each other. They’re well-written enough to be charming. These same NPC’s are there every time you come back into the hub, always in a different place doing something new. It’s unlikely that you’ll hear everything they can say the first time around. The constant changing of these NPC’s makes the camp feel alive.
At a certain point – the point when a good player has found most of the secrets in the camp – the main villain makes all the NPC’s disappear. He’s stolen their brains. It’s now night-time, and the hub feels silent and empty. As you find the last secrets, it only becomes more hollow.
The inevitable late-game draining of content is played as an emotional punch to the gut. The hub that seemed alive with secrets and possibilities before is now totally mapped out, devoid of content, and dead. The villain stole the content. You have to go rescue it. There’s nothing more for you here; you have to move on, and finish the game.