February 9, 2007 Justin Chin

In The Absense of Theme In Games

The concept of theme has been burning in my mind lately.

Many game teams that I’ve worked with and the ones that I’ve lead, have often heard me talk about this subject. Theme is often a mysterious and elusive concept.

Let’s begin with some context. Here’s how I like to talk about theme as it pertains to story and plot:

if plot = what happens


theme = what the plot is about

Here’s an example using Raiders of the Lost Ark:

The plot follows Indiana as he races to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazi’s can.

What Raiders is about is belief.

We get a hint of this when we hear Indiana say, “I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus. I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance, you’re talking about the boogie man. Besides, you know what a cautious fellow I am.” [throws his gun into his suitcase]

This line and action marks the end of the first act, and from there adventure ensues.

At the end though the power of the Ark is revealed. With that action, he believes, and it makes the final shot of the film that much more poignant. Without that thematic concept the film would have been superficial, and the ending less of a defining moment. Indiana as a character actually changes by the end of the film.

So what does this have to do with games?

This concept can be applied to games without a storyline, but for this post I’m focusing on those that do. Keep in mind, I’m not really talking about story, I am talking about something deeper, memorable, and resonating.

Before I go further we should try and further define plot and theme as it pertains to games. I believe it works like this:

plot = game events accomplished by the player

theme = why they are moving through those events

The above statements are lacking, and if you look at the Raiders of the Lost Ark example it doesn’t work. Indiana’s theme, as I defined it above, isn’t to, “save the world.” So when going through this exercise, you must remove goals from the theme equation, because it’s deeper than that, it’s about meaning. We should further this thought using a game as an example, because after all we’re talking about games.

Dead Rising
This game is an excellent example of theme playing a major role in gameplay. Here’s my breakdown:

plot = survive for 72 hours

theme = what’s the cost of survival?

Theme in this game is important because the player has choices. Dead Rising is a sandbox game so choices are integral within that game mechanic. But Grand Theft Auto 3 was a sandbox game and though you had choices as to what you can play around with, you still pretty much had a single thematic storyline.

As for Dead Rising I see three things that puts the theme into balance:

  • survival
  • the mystery
  • saving others

You don’t have to do any of the missions to find out the mystery. You don’t have to save other people, and you can just choose to survive the 72 hours (game hours not real hours), there are plenty of things to do. Or you can dive into the game and master the challenges that are provided to you. The challenges are difficult, and can be frustrating, but they are thematic and they let the player create their story. That story is your of your own design, and you make it in “real time.”

The great thing about the design is the collection of mechanics that drive you to make decisions. In Dead Rising you can actually win some and you can actually lose some. Most games only allow to win, and they force you to win, because otherwise you can’t go on. Dead Rising often drives you to decide who to save, and who to let go. You have the choice to just keep moving forward through the temporal time frame or you can reload (at a cost). Can you actually save all the living people?

Hands down the most brilliant set of over arching game design mechanics this year. The designers delivered on the theme 110% and by doing this they have created a game that’s more than the sum of its parts. They’ve made something memorable, and in addition they’ve made something memorable in the marketplace before you even have a chance to play it.

Designers should consider this at all times. Sadly most do not.