08 August, 2013

Thematic Content

I'm studying at University again. This semester, one of the topics I'm studying is "Texts and Traditions"; the theme of the topic for this semester is "Autonomy". This covers questions like "Do we really have control of our own destiny?", "What choices in our lives are actually ours to make?", "How does society impact on those changes?". In this regard we are looking at Oedipus Tyrannus to examine some of the early roots of autonomous thinking in the western canon, then we move on to Hamlet, and finally Frankenstein to understand how autonomy was pictured in an age of scientific enlightenment.

It looks like an interesting subject where we examine the ways authors have injected a similar theme into their works over the ages. We examine a theme in the context of the setting, in the choice of words and decisions made by the characters and in the overall plot of the narrative.

It got me thinking about themes in games, and coincidentally, a thread over on Story Games has been following the same kinds of ideas.

Authors tell a linear story, they can manipulate the text over numerous drafts, adding in thematic content to support their intentions, and removing content that muddies their agenda. But how do games deal with themes? How do game designers specifically inject certain themes into their games?

No Theme
The easy option is not to; instead, the designer produces a sandbox approach to play. Here's a bunch of funky toys that you won't find in other game systems, go out and play with them. In this case, it's up to the individual groups of players to define a theme and to choose what their story will be about. Groups who don't find a theme may enjoy the game on a superficial level, but those who latch onto a theme will get a whole extra level of depth to their storytelling. The onus is on the group.

Artistic Theme
The simplest option is to provide a bit of artwork throughout the game that reflects the theme.

Example 1a: A game about a gritty tough life always depicts people struggling or suffering hardship in some way. 
Example 1b: A game about heroism shows glossy figures performing stunts and great deeds.
Example 1c: A game about confronting the unknown shows investigations in progress and perhaps offers glimpses of the things that exist beyond the mundane.

The artwork in many games doesn't support theme in this way, instead producing stock images of typical character types posing for the viewer, or providing such a wide array of image types that the theme loses coherence. A well illustrated game gives a vague direction, but often needs more than this; and even when a theme is well defined purely through the artwork, the players who read the game might get an inkling into the thematic direction, but it is up to them to lead other players in the intended direction.

Thematic Fluff
Slightly harder is the option to tie a theme into the background of the game. This can be seen in many games, sometimes used in a heavy handed manner, and sometimes more subtly.

Example 2a: A game about a gritty tough life provides describes suffering in it's play examples and gives settings where struggles against the mundane are commonplace. 
Example 2b: A game about heroism uses play examples of dramatic stunts and provides settings conducive to amazing feats and derring-do.
Example 2c: A game about confronting the unknown provides sinister locations and suspicious people in its examples.

A common problem with thematic fluff is that when the hints are too subtle, it is easy to overlook them and have a group of players apply their own thematic choices into the story. Many people don't consider this to be a problem at all, they like a fall-back theme in case they can't come up with their own during play, but they like the ability to over-ride thematic content to resolve the stories they want to tell. In some games the thematic fluff goes to the other extreme, it is so overdone and heavy handed that the game seems incapable of telling anything but the one story...over and over. A lot of the current generation of "Story Games" seem to fit this heavy-handed approach, with their designers claiming things like "thematic high-art" as their defence.

Theme in Mechanism
Perhaps the hardest method of thematic content to get right is the connection of theme with the mechanisms that drive play during the game.

Example 3a: A game about a gritty tough life provides lower chances of success, but it might offer ways to twist the story based on failure. 
Example 3b: A game about heroism provides greater chances to succeed or more spectacular results when success does occur, it ups the ante with character choices and makes things seem more epic.
Example 3c: A game about confronting the unknown provides specific mechanisms for psychological effects when stepping out of a comfort zone, it provides benefits for doing so but at a risk that must always be carefully weighed.

When thematic content is linked to a single mechanism in the game, it can easily be removed, and the whole nature of the play experience is altered. For example, players know that if they alter the "insanity rules" in Call of Cthulhu their play experience will change accordingly. When it occurs due to a symbiosis of separate mechanisms, it becomes harder to know how a play experience will alter. This often occurs when a group changes the reward cycle in a game like D&D. Blatant thematic input tied to mechanisms may see those mechanisms deliberately avoided. Subtle thematic input tied to one or two mechanisms may not see the light of day; but when they do, the play group will really get drawn into the game world at a whole new level. It's a tough road for a designer to walk, but the pay-off can be immense.

Combining the Thematic Pointers
When good art, background and mechanisms all point in a specific direction, the theme becomes an intrinsic part of the game. It seems to make common sense, but I haven't seen very many games pull it off successfully. Josh T. Jordan's Heroine comes really close, and I think that's one of the reasons why I like it at the moment. Mage: the Ascension also did it pretty well, and that's one of the reasons why it will be one of my all time favourites. D&D never really did it well, often struggling to be too much to too many different people.

If you've got any ideas for other games that play with themes well, let me know. I'm always interested in new ways of doing things and new perspectives to learn from.
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