Theme is Everything!
by Adriaan Jansen
Ever looked at someone playing a game, and thought:”What could possibly be fun about that?” It could be a game that hardcore gamers seem to have a grudge against, like football managers or a horse game. If you’re more of a casual gamer, you’re more likely to say this about hardcore games like Civilization, Call of Duty or Starcraft. You might put this difference down to a matter of taste. There is a kind game for everyone. This is true, but I think the thing that decides this is not the gameplay, but the theme. Theme can even turn games that look dull and boring on paper into blockbusting powerhouses, like Football Manager. So here are some reasons why you as a designer should absolutely care about theme!
The game is in the theme
To me, the theme is the fantasy your game draws on. To clarify, here are some examples:
Civilization: Being a leader of a nation throughout the ages.
Saint’s Row: Being the ultimate anarchist in a normal city.
Evil Genius: Being a James Bond movie-type evil genius!
Farmville: Be part of a farming community, and owning your own farm.
The theme describes what the game should feel like, and ultimately how the game itself should be. Players mostly don’t pick games based on the sole quality of the gameplay, they pick games based on theme. It explains really well why a lot of gamers were disappointed with GTA 4, even though it’s a great game. The game switched from an anarchist theme to a realistic gritty theme. That’s not what some GTA fans were expecting. Another proof for the importance of theme, is how people can keep playing those horrible games that don’t look much fun if you would just look at the design on paper. Take these things for example:
This game takes hours to make progression, but you can lose half or more of that progression in 2 minutes. By default, you cannot reload to old save games.
You can walk around for hours almost thoughtlessly without doing anything fun in order to make progression.
NPC’s play an important role in this game, but you can’t interact with them on a personal level.
There is no clear goal.
Your most prominent actions are walking and fighting, and both hardly progress in power or possibilities.
Doesn’t sound much like fun does it? It’s Mount & Blade, a game that a lot a players simply loved. The theme of being a medieval lord is just fantastically well brought, and a lot of these gameplay rules described above just put emphasis on what the game should feel like. Football Manager, which is basically reading spreadsheets and watching the AI play the game, is another good example. Player look for themes that resonate with them. You are best defined by what ‘bad’ games you play.
How does the magic of a good theme work? It mainly works on three different but coherent levels: immersion, imagination and acceptance. It’s almost self evident that a good theme allows for deeper immersion. If a player knows what to identify with, and knows how to put the gameplay rules in a certain context, it will simply help him in maintaining the suspension of disbelief. It allows the game to transform itself into a world. Obvious stuff, right? This is where imagination kicks in!
If a player knows the context and the world, he will easily fill in gaps. An obvious gap in Mount & Blade for example, is that the NPC’s have almost no animation and sound. Chances are not a lot of people cared. The gamers could easily fill that gap since they knew they’re playing in a medieval world. There are human kings and lords, and if they see a text they can imagine them talking. It’s how old games worked too, when there was no room for speech. Games don’t need to give a perfect representation of a theme, but they must spark the imagination of the player into embracing the theme, and let the cortex do all the work. This little detail also helps in the learning curve, since people expect certain things. It’s the reason why a lot of gamers already know that you can walk around with your character.
The last type of magic is another powerful one, namely the acceptance of bad things in your game. If the theme is strong, you can get away with oddities or unfun mechanics more easily. The player can accept that “this is how this world rolls”. Let’s take Mount & Blade as an example again. All those boring mechanics, like walking and losing most of your progression, fit well into the world that the player wants to be in. It could have been made different, it could have been made more fun, but it certainly isn’t hurting the game right now. It fits in theme, and therefor, the player accepts it.
Working with themes
So how should this affect your game design process? It depends, but keep in my mind that theme is not only a boost to your game, but also a powerful communication tool to give context. Since we’re all up in the Spec Ops: The Line craze over here in gamemaking land, let’s take a look at how they used their theme. Spec Ops has two different themes: The ridicule of shooters and PTS Syndrome. During the game it shifts theme between standard shooting and the horrors of war. The switch in context is confusing and confronting to the player, and it forces him to see things in a different perspective. This gives the game a whole new meaning. All mechanics and the narrative reinforce those themes and how they interact with each other. It’s a great example of how theme can make a great difference.
You don’t need theme necessarily to make a great game (see bejeweled), but it certainly helps getting closer to a part of your audience. Taking a closer look at how your gameplay resonates with your theme might give you a clue about which parts of your game are odd or not engaging, and help you to create a game closer to the fantasy you’re trying to create. When holes in the game design start to show up, try to think about mechanics that fit well in the theme rather then just fun mechanics. Judge them carefully, and think of them as incomparable. Mechanics that are resonating with theme and gameplay are always winners. Here at the Abbey we put theme in a central place. Every time something feels odd or off in regard to the theme, we try to remove or replace it. This can even mean that whole mechanics disappear or need to be replaced. Take heed though. Themes are not a holy grail, and some people are impervious to the theme you select.(source:GAMASUTRA)