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Level One: The Enchanted Theme
In the Process phase, right after this one, when you start sketching and fleshing out details for your game concept along the four territories of the Ludotronics map, you will have to make a substantial number of design decisions. For that, you need a theme that keeps everything together. A theme prevents you, and later all hands during development, from making impromptu design decisions or design decisions based on personal preferences. It helps you create your game as a meaningful, unified whole where each and every element is valuable, relevant, and consistent.
Beat 1. Experiences
What is a theme? Looking at lists of themes that are not downright hogwash, themes seem to be, or relate to, human experiences. Which can be experiences like ambition, fear, jealousy, identity, loyalty, forgiveness, or self-sacrifice, for example. But how these experiences relate to creative media like novels, movies, paintings, or games which purportedly incorporate them seems to be a rather complicated matter.
If you go and search for what defines the relationship between theme and creative media, it’s like a game of musical chairs where a theme is what it is at the moment the music stops playing. It’s the “broad idea” or “message” of a work, a “universal idea,” an “outlook on life,” the “central topic,” what a work “is about,” its “central idea” or “central point.” This isn’t helpful at all. Furthermore, what’s not supposed to be a theme—it’s neither the “subject” of a work, nor a “motif,” nor its “plot”—is far from enlightening either. Let alone applicable, even if you have a good understanding of what subjects, motifs, or plots actually are!
Trying to grasp the nature of theme through a dictionary approach will always lead in definitional circles right back to where you started. Which suggests that there is something wrong about the way theme is generally understood, or applied. Two things, specifically, seem troublesome.
To begin with, trying to understand theme through traditional approaches from the humanities leads into the domain of artistic and literary criticism. Now, analyzing and interpreting what a work’s theme is and how it does what it does in, say, a novel, a movie, a painting, or indeed a game is cool and exciting, and it can be exquisitely rewarding and enhance the overall experience. But analyzing and interpreting a work of art is certainly not a necessary part of enjoying it.
Then, and this is an important point to stress, theme is not primarily a tool for storytelling. It can support storytelling, as we will see in the Process phase’s Level Five: Architectonics, but you can tell stories just fine without developing a theme. The world is full of well-told stories from great storytellers who did not think about specific themes when they began to tell their stories. It could well be that one of the things that makes great stories great as an enjoyable, unified experience is that themes emerge from well-told stories. But that would once again point in the direction that storytelling precedes theme and can do without it.
Therefore, we will take a different approach and define theme as a tool for design decisions. Not just any old tool, but one of the most powerful tools in the game designer’s toolbox. It will inform design decisions of any kind for the entire game, and that’s why establishing a theme for a game falls firmly into the responsibility of a game designer, not a game writer.
Here’s how it works within our Ludotronics methodology. First, you create a theme, to be discussed in this level. Then, based on that theme, you create motifs for all four dimensions based on that theme, also discussed in this level and illuminated with detailed demos in Level Two: A Travel Guide to Motifs. Later, in the Process phase, both theme and motifs will drive your design decisions across all four territories of the Ludotronics map, informing choices for every conceivable type of game element.
All this will become clearer as we proceed. Coding provides a useful metaphor here. Not every game designer needs to be able to code to be a club member (more on that in the Proposition phase), but you should at least know a little bit about code. Think of your theme as an object class at the top of a class hierarchy. Actually, you can think of your theme as the superclass for your game from which you derive classes (motifs) across the four dimensions of the Ludotronics map—Game Mechanics, Ludology, Cinematology, and Narratology. From these classes, in turn, you derive tangible objects (game elements) across the Ludotronics map’s four territories—Interactivity, Plurimediality, Narrativity, and Architectonics. Such tangible objects are everything from levels to assets to plot points to characters to dialogues to backdrops to sound effects to music to action sequences to literally everything, perhaps even game physics.
Again, one should not stretch metaphors too far, so we’re not going to press-gang everything object-related into it from methods to encapsulation. Instead, let’s focus on this metaphor’s key concepts, which is inheritance on the one hand, and decreasing levels of abstraction on the other.
What makes this metaphor so useful is that it clearly indicates why we don’t have to figure out how a theme or a motif relates to a work of art. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is inheritance and abstraction. Thus, we can define the theme for our purposes as follows:
Let’s cycle through a handful of examples to show why we need the limitation “but still useful” in our definition, beginning with “life.” Life is an experience, obviously, and you won’t get more conceptually abstract than that. But is it useful for making design decisions? No. Come to think of it, life isn’t a theme, or superclass, at all. It’s the backdrop for every possible theme. In our metaphor, life would be the programming language itself, not a class or superclass inside that language!
Then, what about “death” or “love?” You could make esoteric arguments for both terms to replace life as a backdrop for everything else, but we’re doing game design here, not existentialist philosophy. (Though a game designed specifically around philosophy and existentialist premises would certainly be cool.) Death or love seem better suited to serve as theme than life, but they’re still too broad to provide top-notch guidance for design decisions. They qualify, but barely.
Finally, “danger.” It’s as abstract as it can get. But again, it isn’t useful at all, only for different reasons this time. The range of possible motifs that danger could generate are immense, but these motifs would have very little in common, except for being dangerous somehow. Thus, they wouldn’t contribute to a unified whole, or add up to a better understanding of danger. Compare that to “fear.” Fear is equally abstract, but the motifs it could generate would indeed be able to add up to a better understanding of fear. Danger, looking closely, is not so much a human experience after all. Rather, it’s a situation. But “situation” isn’t a reliable differentiator when it comes to deciding what qualifies as a theme and what doesn’t. Usefulness is, together with abstraction.
You will find that there are many potential themes out there that are abstract enough and bring more substance to the table to aid design decisions than life, death, love, or danger. Some have been mentioned above, like ambition, fear, jealousy, or identity. Other great options are friendship, justice, power, or vanity. And so on. But go check and look for yourself! You will come up with a kazillion more.
Could you start out with a theme instead, and then look for the best possible game concept that fits your theme? Absolutely. But a game concept will constrain the range of possible themes much more effectively than a theme would constrain the range of possible game concepts. Thus, the latter might lead to an arbitrary decision, not a deliberate or even necessary one.
Beat 2. Effects
The theme, as a tool, helps you create a coherent world where everything is connected by and through the theme. The game relates to your theme the way a compendium or a handbook relates to its topic. It presents aspects, attitudes, and approaches relating to the theme, provides conflicting or complementary viewpoints and perspectives relating to the theme, and might offer a multitude of competing or interlocking micro-narratives about the theme. Alternatively, it could offer a meta-narrative (or “grand” or “master” narrative) as a definite position. But one essential characteristic of video games is the potential to empower players to create their own narratives during play and make meaningful decisions, so it would seem undesirable to present an all-encompassing authoritative interpretation related to the theme in games.
Yet, what we cannot do, neither narratively nor aesthetically, is to let things “just happen,” the way most things just happen in real life. Even in aleatoric writing or aleatoric music as writing or music “by chance,” words and sentences or notes and chords do not just happen. The element of chance that is introduced into these works of art is well planned and systematic. In other words, designed. There is a fundamental difference between that which occurs naturally and that which is designed, between what happens in real life and what happens in a story, a game, or a work of art in general. We will dive much deeper into this topic through related concepts like contingency and unpredictability in the Process phase in Level Two: Interactivity and in Level Five: Architectonics. At this point, it suffices to realize that thematic unity will make your design decisions non-random and a matter of, indeed, design.
Imagine your player character has to meet a non-player character to acquire a piece of information. It’s part of your story line, and the piece of information is a plot point. Where should your characters meet? As you can observe in video games and other media as well, high on the list are offices, restaurants, bars, street corners, parks, maybe phone calls, and none of these places or activities has any dramatic function whatsoever. It should! Basically, there are two approaches toward designing meaningful locations. One is to make that location count and use it to advance story or character or the world narrative, which we will discuss in-depth in the Process phase in Level Four: Narrativity and Level Five: Architectonics. The other is to advance the theme and highlight one or more of its motifs, which is the approach that interests us here. (Motifs will occupy us in the upcoming level.) For example, if jealousy is your theme, the characters could meet in a department store at or around the jewelry section, which covers not just one, but two motifs, or aspects, from your theme: jealousy related to romantic love and jealousy aroused by expensive, beautiful things one craves to possess but cannot obtain.
Working with a theme and motifs is a great way to make design decisions count, and meaningful, every time. What’s more, thematic unity enables you to make informed design decisions all the way through the development cycle. In that regard, consider your theme your USP’s twin—or, alternatively, consider the theme your game’s Ba and the USP your game’s Ka, if you paid attention in Assassin’s Creed: Origins. If you have both, then you know even better what elements to hang on to when funds run out, and you know even better what to implement and what to reject when your team (or your publisher) enters into the scope creep or feature creep phase. The ubiquitous advice given to game designers in such situations is to “hold on to your vision.” But visions, particularly those with a capital “V,” are slippery and often joyfully impervious to rational decision-making. By triangulating with your USP and your theme, in contrast, you will never lose your bearings on the seven seas of ideas, and you will always know which courses to follow and which to avoid.
Beat 3. Examples
Except for the rare and largely inadvisable occasion when you have a theme in mind and want to develop a game on top of it, this is how it works. Make a list of human experiences that are sufficiently abstract but still useful and not entirely outside your wheelhouse. (You can research a lot in a few days or weeks, but not everything.) Imagine how each of these experiences would impact your game concept as a theme. Pick the one with the greatest potential to aid design decisions from levels to characters to assets. Voilà, that’s your theme.
Here’s an example that will not only illustrate this process, but also lead us to the matter of motifs.
Let’s say your game concept revolves around aspects and experiences of dissociative disorders, with memory breakdowns, dissociative fugues, depersonalization, derealization, and so forth, and your player character has trouble keeping up with what’s happening and who they are. Working with this premise, several themes suggest themselves. It could be the experience of a mental disorder, e.g., psychological “trauma.” Or it could be “memory.” Or it could be “identity.” Each potential theme is firmly moored to your game concept, but each would impact it differently in terms of your design decisions and the final state of your game as a whole.
Next, let’s assume you feel that the “identity” angle fits your core element better than any other option, and you decide that identity will be your theme.
Now, the matter of motifs. Returning to our metaphor, when your theme is the superclass, your next step would be to generate subclasses from your superclass. A few subclasses that come to mind for identity are self-discovery, mistaken identity, forgery, imitation, ethnicity, cultural identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, social status, identity theft, lifestyle, conformity, uniformity, the doppelgaenger motif, the law of identity, change and so on. There are many, many more. (We will meet quite a lot of them in Level Two: A Travel Guide to Motifs.)
Describing motifs as subclasses, to repeat, is merely our metaphor. It doesn’t define what a motif is.
To define motif, we can make the same basic move that we made when defining theme. While a theme represents a human experience at the highest, but still useful level of abstraction, a motif represents a theme-related element at a lower level of abstraction. So our definition of a motif will be:
That way, you can have your cake and eat it too. You don’t have to agonize about such remarkably unhelpful definitions according to which a motif is a “repeated theme [!] or pattern,” a “recurring element with symbolic significance,” “not the same as the subject of a work,” or something “concrete while a theme is abstract.” And yet, you can still cheerfully plunder and pillage a rich heritage of studies into the history and practice of motifs—Motivforschung in German, where this tradition has yielded an impressive corpus of knowledge—to collect objects, images, and patterns complete with deep contexts to enrich and adorn your game world.
If you have explored your options, decided on a theme, generated a number of motifs from that theme, and stored everything in your Ludotronics inventory, you beat this level! Moving forward into Level Two: A Travel Guide to Motifs, you will see a practical example of a theme and related motifs in action. This example will cycle through all four dimensions of the Ludotronics map, following up on our core element examples from the Preparation phase. It will help you develop a sense for all the amazing things you can do with your theme and motifs.
One final word on the nature of theme, though. If you happen to come across lists with “common themes” in books or on the internet, often adding up to highly suspicious sum totals like 7, 10, or 12, and incorporating items like “Man Struggles Against Nature,” “Love Is Stronger Than Death,” “Crime Does Not Pay,” or “Sacrifices Bring Reward,” don’t be fooled. All these “common themes” are supremely abstract all right, but they are not themes at all but stories on their highest possible levels of abstraction. (We will discuss the nature of stories in the Process phase in Level Five: Architectonics.) As such, besides not being themes, they are singularly useless for making design decisions. What’s more, most of them are authoritative interpretations that constitute the meaning, purpose, or indeed moral of the story in question. Which runs counter to the unique strengths of video games as an interactive medium, offering meaningful player decisions and generating individual player narratives, experiences, and viewpoints.