TGDRT #63: Theme (Plus, My Thoughts on Abstraction)


Episode #63 is live!

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?

– Jon

3 thoughts on “TGDRT #63: Theme (Plus, My Thoughts on Abstraction)

  1. (Disclaimer: once again I haven’t finished the podcast yet.)

    I’d start much simpler and say that theme is anything that connects game elements to non-game elements. If the game is entirely described in terms of the physical appearance of its pieces and their placement or movement rules, then there is no theme. Examples include checkers and go. Adding any relationship to the outside world constitutes theme, beginning with the symbolic nature of chess pieces.

    The you can look at how well such a theme constitutes a coherent model of the fraction of reality its elements are taken from, i.e. to what degree an isomorphism between mechanics and labeled reality exists. That excerpt of reality is always itself an abstract model as you point out, so I would rather focus on the equivalent interaction of equivalent elements to determine a game’s theme-ness. How’s that for a nice philosophical definition? 🙂

  2. Theme allows for role-playing. It adds to enjoyment but if it does not suit mechanics quite well, irritation may arise in player which is bad….

  3. I just started listening to this episode but had to pause just to come here and respond:

    * Rob Daviau is such a pleasure to listen to. Every time I hear him speak, I feel inspired and enlightened as an amateur game designer.

    * A great example of elegance in thematic mechanics are Mafia’s grandchildren Werewolf, and The Resistance in particular. In each case, the rules are so simple and yet they beautifully evoke the experience of paranoia and subterfuge.

    * Dirk’s comments about Nations reminded me of my first time playing Through the Ages. The entire game is balanced on a knife edge with ruin on either side. Even though the mechanics seem totally abstracted and removed from civilization-building, you can really feel how precarious even successful civilizations are, and how easily they fall. After the first War resolved, we looked at each other and said, “huh, wars are only really worth it if you can crush the opposition.” Then, thinking on our continuing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, we both burst out laughing.

    * Rob’s comment about playtesting incomplete games and making up rules on the spot during sessions was fascinating to me. I’d love to hear more about this aspect of his process and how specifically he thinks about this.

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