Welcome to the third article in a six-part series about our Pillars of Game Design!
At Coalition Game Studios, we evaluate games in six different areas that we believe are the fundamental qualities of good games. Awareness of these six pillars can deepen your understanding of the craft and improve your ability to create a player experience.
Games, of course, are a frontier. We are exploring new ways to entertain the world as the industry continues to grow. There can never be a true metric for evaluation that fits all games. Their very nature defies uniformity.
As such, I believe that these Pillars of Game Design should always be considered, but they should be considered differently for each individual game.
Today we take a look at our third pillar: Thematic Index
What is “Theme” in Game Design?
“Theme” is a troublesome word to define. As a culture–and even in the board gaming subculture–we use this term as a descriptor of various ideas. These ideas are often vague and difficult to capture with language, and can be quite different in context.
For purposes of our evaluation, and for this article, we will use a wide-scope definition:
Theme is the procedural abstraction, aesthetic, and/or narrative surrounding a game’s systems, intended to provide a context to which players can relate at an emotional level. Thematic index is the relative measure of a game’s thematic strength as compared to its experience.
This idea of emotional relation is rather unique among the Six Pillars. Let’s talk about the value of theme, and how to determine and design for your game’s thematic appeal.
A False Dichotomy
Spend any amount of time on hobbyist forums, and you’ll run into the “theme vs mechanics” debate. As a designer, should you focus on your game’s story/setting or its systems?
I can’t stress this enough: “theme vs mechanics” is not a healthy approach to modern game design. It is unfortunate that many newer designers take this debate to heart and unduly pigeonhole their design process.
To quote a previous Coalition article on a similar topic, a game is an ecosystem, sculpted by the designer for the benefit of the player. Theme and mechanics are different beasts with different needs, but with special care, we can create worlds where both can thrive.
The Value of Theme
The value of theme is parallel to the value of your game’s other elements. Players experience gratification through gameplay, but they experience emotional connection through theme and presentation. As fundamentally different as these two values are, they require attention to different details. This dissimilarity is likely the origin of the “theme vs mechanics” debate.
Much like any other part of your design, it is possible for theme to obstruct the game experience. This obstruction most often takes the form of making your game systems “clunkier,” but this effect isn’t to be mistaken with theme directly opposing mechanics.
Plenty of games that are devoid of theme have become cultural staples, and some have even been successful on the modern market. So…why bother adding theme at all?
Theme has value in design for two reasons:
- Theme attracts consumers – This is simple. A powerful and unique theme can give you what’s called a thematic hook–something we’ll talk more about in another Pillar. We are drawn to what inspires us, to what evokes our imagination. This value can go a long way towards getting your game on a shelf.
- Theme engages players – In fact, it engages them in a way that your systems and structures won’t be able to otherwise. Immersion in the game’s diegesis is an emotional investment. Players that care about what’s happening are more deeply affected by the game’s experience.
Case Study: Tak, A Beautiful Game
Tak is an abstract game played on a square-ish grid, where players are trying to manipulate chess-like wooden pieces to build a bridge across the board. That’s more or less all that I know about the game, as it hasn’t been shipped yet.
I suppose I do know one more thing about the game: Over 12,800 backers raised more than 1.35 million dollars for Tak’s Kickstarter campaign.
Tak is the only abstract game that I know of to even come close to a million, much less exceed it. So…what’s different?
It turns out, Tak has some story behind it. It is a game played within the story of Patrick Rothfuss’s popular fantasy novel, “Wise Man’s Fear.” The protagonist plays the game with a likable and practical nobleman, one of his few allies in a new city, and the game is the setting for many interesting conversations. The nobleman, a highly-skilled player of Tak, says more than once that he is not looking for an easy win–he only wishes to play a beautiful game.
This lore fits the description of theme: it surrounds the game’s systems, and is intended to provide a context to which players can relate at an emotional level. Wise Man’s Fear has sold over ten million copies, and Patrick Rothfuss has even appeared on an episode of Tabletop with Wil Wheaton.
The lesson here is that theme doesn’t always have to be layered on. It can come in many forms.
Would Tak have been as successful without this thematic value? I can’t say for sure, but my money would be on no.
The Three Elements of Theme
Theme can be broken down into three parts. This isn’t to say that there aren’t more–the lore behind Tak doesn’t quite fit any of these three. However, in design, you can effectively evoke theme through three common media:
Narrative is the story that the game tells, an element that answers three important questions: who or what does the player represent in the game setting? What does the player wish to accomplish? Why would the player wish to accomplish this?
The questions are simple, but your answers should tell (or imply) a story that aims to be every bit as gripping as your favorite shows, screenplays, or books.
Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done. Creating this kind of story is difficult enough in the first place, but as game designers, we face additional challenges. Player agency–their ability to affect the game state–can be quite troubling for deliberate narrative. Furthermore, players caught up in group dynamics are generally less inclined to fully immerse themselves.
Good narrative takes art and an expert touch–a topic unto itself. For now, the take-away should be: don’t underestimate the craft involved in good storytelling.
Aesthetic (in this context) is your game’s visual direction–specifically, its presentation as a vehicle to make an impression or express a story. Aesthetic is more than just nice art. Visuals can affect how we feel about a game, perhaps even more than anything else.
Conveying a feeling through art, unfortunately, isn’t a topic that I’m qualified to talk about. What I can say is that we should still consider aesthetic throughout the design process. Outsourcing your graphics and illustrations doesn’t absolve you from being the guiding force behind the project. Having a clear vision and idea for your game’s presentation can be invaluable–even if you’re having to explain it to your artist.
Also, consider the style of your art. Some of the most visually appealing games on the market are games illustrated in a unique or striking method. I don’t even need to read the rules to know that Matagot’s upcoming release, Inis, is a game that I want to have on my table.
Procedural abstraction is the portrayal of believable deeds through representative actions in gameplay. We obviously don’t trade actual sheep for actual wood. In this regard, all games are abstracts.
Players’ actions in the game don’t always need to have a direct explanation. There’s no way to rationalize the mancala-ring in Trajan, but many players find it delightful (myself included).
When the game’s procedures reinforce the narrative, however, it sets the table for greater immersion. The less players have to hit “pause” on the diegesis, the more engaged they’ll be.
The best and simplest way to create a more representative abstraction is to make sure you’re using the right verbs to describe the procedures. Trading, searching, harvesting, marching…these things matter.
Abstraction may be the most commonly overvalued element of theme for newer designers, who often want the actions in the game to be as realistic as possible. Realism is admirable, but requires details, and details can ultimately distract from your game’s core experience.
Designing the Thematic Game
We know that theme can provide great value to players and consumers, but can obstruct the game experience if taken too far. We know the primary ingredients to add to a game to make it more thematic–narrative, aesthetics, and procedural abstraction. The last question to answer is, how much theme is the right amount of theme?
Common perception is that more theme is better, but this is incorrect. Your goal should be to offer the desired experience as inobtrusively as possible–the same approach we take when we design rules and systems.
It can be more powerful to imply theme and narrative as it is to bludgeon the player with a wall of text or contrived events. The best example of this to date is Scythe.
This card is one of many encounter cards that appear throughout a game of Scythe. There’s no name or flavor text, only very brief descriptions of your choices and a display of their results.
Between these blurbs and the art, the player is able to infer a sense of what’s happening here: We’re out in the snow, and a mech looms nearby, but nobody appears to be alarmed by it. It seems that we’ve just brought on a new soldier. The family seems distraught, but these are the realities of war. Just looking at this card, I feel like I’m a central figure in one ordeal of many in a long war, but I can’t permit myself the sympathy I might otherwise have afforded.
The beautiful thing is, you might feel something completely different. That’s how art works.
Less theme can be more.
Opting out of Theme
Even though we’ve established that all games are abstracts, there are certainly abstract abstracts out there. How do you value thematic strength in a design that, essentially, opts out of theme altogether?
No game is devoid of theme, by the definition outlined in this article. There are only games for which theme is less essential for the core experience.
Even Chess evokes a certain feeling. When I play Chess, I think of the great minds that have devoted their time to the game. I think of the pieces as characters, or anthropomorphic representations of themselves being moved by some unseen force. The 8×8 grid feels sleek and functional to me. The feel of the pieces of wood or glass, and the grit of the worn timer…these things create an emotional investment in me. When I play a game, I submit to something larger–even if the events of the game don’t tell a story.
Younger games–Yinsh or Blokus, for example–still present themselves with a certain aesthetic, and evoke certain feelings.
Theme is feeling.
Pick a game off of your shelf at random.
Who or what do you represent when playing that game?
What is your objective, from a thematic perspective?
Why would you be interested in completing that objective?
How could you redesign the game so that you had better or more interesting answers to those questions without altering the game’s experience?