Rob Daviau pays a visit for a discussion about theme. How much theme is enough? How much is TOO much? How do you actually translate theme into gameplay mechanics. And heck, what IS a ‘theme’, anyways?
We jumped around all over the place in this one and, alas, didn’t get around to even describing what we think a theme is until the very end. This is an interesting topic that deserves more time, so I’ll be expanding on it a bit here.
As I noted during the podcast, my own definition for a “theme” is basically an element that evokes a feeling. Or, to be more specific, how our brains translate abstract systems, names and numbers into a relatable experience. I would say that a game has a theme of discovery if it relies heavily on mechanics where you explore and make use of your surroundings. This differs quite a bit from the opinion shared by my co-hosts that “theme” is simply the story or background, and has no direct relation to mechanics.
The reason why I’m willing to blur this line is that regardless of what kind of game you’re making the goal is always to make your players feel something. This could be feeling like you’re living inside the familiar Star Wars universe, maybe even a specific battle therein. Or your objective might be for players to feel like bold explorers laying claim to mysterious territory filled with potential.
Stepping into the shoes of a 16th century conquistador or a 23rd century star admiral in particular is indeed more ‘thematic’, but these are simply deeper layers of theme. The added specificity is nice, but even the basic term ‘explorer’ evokes a clear feeling of what sorts of challenges and accomplishments await. ‘Explorer’ and ’16th century explorer’ are members not of different universes, but a single continuum.
Some might argue that to call something ‘thematic’ should mean it exhibits an especially high level of specificity, but you run into fuzziness even at the extreme end of the spectrum.
Let’s say our theme is playing as that 16th century explorer we’ve talked so much about. Within short order we realize we need to get a bit more specific as to what we actually mean by “a 16th century explorer.” Are we a violent conquistador willing to slay any native for an ounce of gold? Or are we a man of the sea, driven on by the unmatched thrill of being the first to lay eyes upon virgin landmasses on the horizon? Are we playing as one particular explorer from history?
Most likely we’re actually playing as a not-really-all-that-specific amalgamation of careers and highlights from several different individuals. Even if you are in fact assuming the role of Hernan Cortez from May 26th-August 13th 1519, you’re probably not forced to deal with the sticky and unpleasant the summer humidity, or how your horse’s injured front-right leg makes it impossible to reach a full gallop on rocky-but-not-too-rocky ground.
Reality is a mesh of near-infinite complexity. A supercomputer with the brainpower of every human that has ever lived would have no chance of fully representing even a tiny sliver of our universe and the physical forces which define it. Our grey matter doesn’t even bother wasting time on such tomfoolery, and instead very intentionally throws out the vast majority of data it collects. Rather than actually experiencing reality we swim within a model created internally containing only the tiny fraction of stuff we find important or interesting. This is virtually identical to, you guessed it: a game.
(As an aside, the same is true of dreams, which is why the passage of time within them feels so odd. If you’d like to learn more about this topic and how the brain works generally I HIGHLY recommend reading David Eagleman’s Incognito. I listened to the superb audiobook version narrated by David himself.)
Anyways, the takeaway here is that when you’re talking abstraction it isn’t a question of “if” but instead “how much?” Even the most thematic games are highly abstracted, and it’s up to our brains to flesh out what’s there.
So what do you think? Do you agree with my more general way of defining ‘theme’, or is the narrower interpretation held by my partners more in line with your own? What does the term mean to you?