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All Around a Theme

Bioshock

Bioshock

One of the things I teach in my game design courses, and to which I’ve dedicated a whole chapter in my Ludotronics book, is the use of a theme—for a story, a novel, a video game, no matter.

The important point is, “theme” is not about some message or moral, it’s about coherence and design decisions. Every element in a game should be valuable, relevant, and consistent, and that’s what a theme helps you with.

Thus, as a definition I work with, “theme” is a tool for design decisions that represents a complex human experience—e.g., ambition, fear, jealousy, identity, friendship, justice, power, vanity, greed, love, loneliness, trust, and so on. Each of these can be differentiated into different motifs, in turn, which can then be used to design assets of all kinds—levels, locations, characters, tools, weapons, even crates. There are three major advantages to working with a theme, particularly for video game designers:

  • A theme helps you create a coherent world where everything is connected by and through that theme: assets, aspects, attitudes, conflicting and complementary viewpoints, all set to empower players to create their own meaningful perspectives and interpretations.
  • Against the background of a theme, your team members, who have all different talents, can form and offer informed opinions about every element during the design process, without team meetings devolving into personal taste debates.
  • Thematic unity enables you to make informed design decisions all the way through the development cycle: you will always know what elements to hang on to when funding gets scarce, and you know even better what to implement and what to reject when your team (or your publisher) enters into the scope creep/feature creep phase. In that regard, at times, your theme can turn out to be even more reliable than your vision when you and your team are forced to make hard decisions!

For example, your forest level would look very different if your theme were fear, hope, or trust. Or, as a well-analyzed example, take greed in Bioshock (this post’s featured image is a screenshot presented by Matthias Worch & Harvey Smith in their GDC 2010 talk “What Happened Here: Environmental Storytelling”). Themes are notoriously difficult to reverse-engineer, but I tend to identify Bioshock’s theme as “greed” rather than “social decay.” But, certainly, greed and social decay are closely related—and even, not only in this case, mutually dependent.

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