The Importance of Theme

“Theme” is the word I use to refer to the metaphorical names, images and concepts that game designers apply to their games. Why do we do this? The reason most people jump to is “fantasy simulation”:  the idea that “I get to be a superhero, saving the kingdom from a dragon!”, or “I get to be Spider-Man!”. While this is definitely a possible reason for adding a theme to a system, and while there may be some benefits to working in this way, it’s generally not a plan that is structurally sound. Don’t worry, I’ll explain what I mean by that.

Firstly, it’s good to recognize that not all games have a theme. Abstract strategy games such as Go or Checkers don’t have themes. I’ve heard people try to argue that Go does have a theme, and while I’m sure you can figure out some way to make that statement true, I think that in doing so, you’re stripping away the usefulness of the term.  A videogame such as Tetris could also be said to have no theme. Most word games like Scrabble, Boggle or Letterpress also can be said to have no theme.

To say there is no theme to a game is to say that there is no metaphor blanketing the game. In Go, when I place a stone, that action does not “represent” anything thematic.  I am not “placing a Samurai warrior”, nor am I blasting a hole in an alien ship’s shields.  I am simply placing a stone.

With regards to representativeness, that move can certainly “represent” mechanical concepts. In Go, playing a stone close to an opponent’s group might “represent” the player’s challenge to his opponent, for example. This would not fall into the category of theme as I mean it, however. Theme is only referring to non-mechanical information.


Literal, Metaphorical, Thematic, Abstract

Some people use the word “metaphor” where I use the word “theme”.  That’s fine, but there’s one weird thing that happens with these words regarding this topic that makes me stick with using “theme”.

Firstly, here’s a chart that I pulled from my book that shows an example of the continuum as going between “More Literal” and “More Abstract”.



By “literal”, I mean “taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory” (got that from the dictionary). So, as we travel away from abstraction, we move towards it being strangely more literal and more figurative at the same time.

Tetris is on the bottom, being totally abstract. Just above it is Chess, which has a very slight “war” theme, with pieces being represented by carved images of actual military units (or, at least, symbols that represent them), and a general structure that we can accept represents two fighting armies on a battlefield. Then, Super Mario Bros., which lives in a sort of no-man’s land between abstract and literal. Finally, at the top, we have the simulation type of stuff which is doing its best to be as literal as it can be. In Gran Tourismo, that image of a car represents: a car.

Granted, in reality, it is not a car. A car is something that exists in the physical world and is made of metal and burns gasoline. This image we are seeing does none of that, but it is still doing its best to be as close as it can to being a real car.

So, here’s what’s weird.  It almost makes sense to call this “no-man’s land” the “thematic” zone, with the top area being called literal and the bottom being called abstract, like this:


In Super Mario Bros., a mushroom represents a power bonus item.  It’s not abstract, per se – there is some thematic/artwork representation going on – but it’s also not literal.  The mushroom isn’t trying to be, or evoke the idea of “a real mushroom”. Instead, the creators are using the image of a mushroom to represent something totally different than a mushroom; an icon, if you will. Perhaps you could also use the word “poetic” to refer to this kind of theming.


Importance of Theme

Now that we’ve gone into some of the ways in which games can be thematic, we can ask:  why do we theme games at all? Or, alternatively, why do some games lack a theme?

The greatest game ever designed isn’t worth anything to people if no one knows how to play. So a big part of our jobs as designers is teaching players how our games work.  The most basic way in which this is done is the classic “game manual”, wherein the rules are listed in their totality.  While this is certainly something every game should have (as it’s great as a reference), there’s a large number of players who aren’t going to take the time to read a manual for a game that they have no idea whether they’ll like or not. I got the boardgame Power Struggle almost a month ago, and I still haven’t played it. Let me tell you, it’s a Power Struggle getting through the rules to that damn thing.

The classic game manual is simply not the best way to teach people. Most videogame developers realized this in the last decade or two and have since turned to the tutorial as their preferred method. The tutorial is sort of an interactive manual: it’s linear, and quite like the manual, it’s something you have to “get through” before you can begin to play.  Because of this, tutorials can be boring and annoying to endure, even if they’re probably a step up from game manuals.

Is there any other way that we can teach people the rules to our games? This is where good theming comes in. Generally, theme works as a kind of shorthand. Human beings already know tons of little bits of information about the world and how various things work.  If you give them a mouse-cursor that looks like a hammer, that tells the user a lot.  “I’m probably going to be whacking something down with this, or possibly building something”, they’ll likely think, because those are the sorts of things we generally do with a hammer. If you flash a little silhouette of a nail, you can be sure that they’ll feel like they should click on it. You don’t even have to tell them anything: this is basically free information.

You’re almost certainly not going to be able to teach someone all of the rules of your game with theming alone, but you might be surprised how much you can teach them.  Going back to Super Mario Bros., the Goomba monster was designed to look as though he could be squished.


Theming is also important before a player even gets to playing your game. When they first see some kind of promotional image, they’ll already start putting together some imagined version of what general kind of stuff you might be doing in this game.  Our early version of Prince Auro had one really massive problem in this regard: no one knew what the hell this guy did! When we redesigned him, we gave him a magical looking staff, and suddenly everyone who looked at him knew, at least, that this was a game about casting spells. Free information!

Theme can be thought of as a scaffolding, or rails, for the player to hold onto while learning the game.


Bad Theming

So, we can basically get free information into the brains of our users by selecting the right graphic or icon or word or setting for our game. But if we’re not careful, theming can actually work the other way, and be counter-intuitive.

For instance, I’m not so sure that the mushroom is the best icon to represent what a mushroom actually is in Super Mario Bros. – the closest connections I can draw between “getting big and strong” and “mushrooms” would either be an Alice in Wonderland reference, or a reference to psychoactive mushrooms. Further, the mushroom slides around. How does that make any sense? Shouldn’t it be something that looks like it can slide around?

Modern videogames are much more held back though in this regard. Unfortunately, most modern developers do not think along the lines of:

“How can we choose images that help convey how this game works?”

but rather, they seem to think along lines such as:

“What would be thematically consistent, or realistic?”

In other words, modern game developers tend to use theme for theme’s sake. The theme is not subservient to the gameplay, but rather, quite frequently the other way around. The story calls for a battle to take place in an elevator, so now you’re fighting in a small constrained elevator. Is this the best setting to bring out the best gameplay this system has to offer? Probably not, but it’s what the story calls for, so – sorry, gameplay!

This is problematic, because games are all about the playing of them – that’s what makes them games. You can (and many do) completely ignore the thematic elements such as story and music and even much of the artwork in a game, but you can not ignore the gameplay.  he gameplay is what you are doing.

Further, even if you strive to, as a player, “focus on the thematic elements”, the problem is that this tends to wear off the moment you’re presented with a problem that needs solving. During problem-solving, the brain can not afford to continue processing information that’s irrelevant to the problem at hand. It no longer matters that you’re “in an elevator at the Evil Corporation Hotel and your name is Trevor Porter of the NYPD and you’re in love with your sidekick but don’t know how to tell her”. That information is completely gone from your brain the moment that you have to calculate the trajectory you’d have to jump at in order to clear this table and be safe of the grenade that’s about to go off.

So this is really my major point here: theme is incredibly useful, and incredibly important. But it must be subservient to the gameplay.


Starting With A Theme?

The question of whether to “start with a theme” in a design process or not is interesting.  Some people have argued whether or not it’s OK to start with a theme or not, but I actually think this conversation has it wrong. With a possible exception of the simplest sorts of games, it’s usually impossible to design with no theme in mind.  Just as the theme helps a game-player understand the system he’s working with, a game designer often needs theme as a scaffolding for his design.

However, it’s important that you, as a creative architect, not let the scaffolding dominate your work. Do not get committed to a theme early on; build a lightweight, flexible scaffolding (a broad theme) and be prepared to change it when better mechanical ideas come along. Your theme should be iterative and change as the gameplay requires it to.

  • Kdansky

    Sometimes, themes are annoying: I was trying to design a game (even if it never gets written, I enjoy doing it) somewhat similar to dwarf fortress. And the thing is: I found it incredibly hard to change the theme. Digging tunnels, building an industry, fighting off enemies, that stuff works so incredibly well for dwarves, and really badly for anything else. When I tried to change it to Vampires, the focus shifted from building to interpersonal relationships.

  • Curly

    “Now that we’ve gone into some of the ways in which games can be thematic, we can ask: why do we theme games at all? […] The greatest game ever designed isn’t worth anything to people if no one knows how to play. So a big part of our jobs as designers is teaching players how our games work.”

    I think most mainstream game developers have a different aim in mind when they theme their games. For them, the value of a theme is in its power to alter the player’s emotional response to the game. The realistic graphics of Gran Turismo are there to fool enough of the player’s brain that he experiences some of the visceral thrill of driving at speed. If instead a game shows the player the view from a high ledge, he’ll feel vertigo. Virtual violence excites and sates bloodlust. And a story can make someone care about fictional characters and mentally model them as people, even as the more rational parts of him remain aware that those people don’t exist.

    This, incidentally, is why I believe developers will and probably should go on making games with stories, despite the videogame’s shortcomings as a storytelling medium, and no matter how much the imperatives of linear fiction conflict with those of game design. If you have a story to tell, and want to make your audience feel like the events of a story are happening to them, that they’re the heroes defeating Bowser and saving the princess (or even something less childish and trite), you can really only do it with a videogame.

  • keithburgun

    Ha, that’s interesting. Do you have any games of yours online?

  • Dasick

    That’s the point Keith is trying to make, that when you’re playing a game, those kinds of things get sifted out by the brain. When you have meaningful decisions to make, you start to think in abstract terms, and when you have no meaningful decisions to make, pressing the button to follow the script feels like a chore.

    I know that’s the ultimate goal of many videogames, but I’ve personally have never experienced the feeling that I’m the videogame’s character. Funnily enough, the most immersed I’ve been in a videogame is Doom. In the thick of the battle, I would try to dodge back in the meatspace. Very little story, though the theme is pretty spot on.

  • keithburgun
  • Curly

    I think that’s a little too binary. It overstates the case to say that you can only view the elements of the game through one frame at a time, and that thinking about the game-meaning of the characters prevents you from keeping in mind their story-meaning as well.

    The most recent example for me was Bastion. Toward the end of the game, (spoiler follows) after learning that the Ura were the victims of an attempted genocide, and that their enmity toward you is the result of a misunderstanding, you have to fight them, whether you want to or not. And I did not enjoy it. It didn’t stop me from working to kill them as efficiently as possible, but I felt gross doing it, exactly as the developers intended. Story is not so easily shaken off.

    I’d be interested to know how many people were able to harvest Bioshock’s Little Sisters without flinching. They’re just playing pieces, right?

  • keithburgun

    Yeah, if gameplay is easy and doesn’t make you think at all, then yeah, story can take center stage in your brain.

  • Curly

    Precisely. Although I’d want to add that gameplay can be easy without it being an ‘easy game’. Games often have a stair-shaped difficulty curve, alternating between the challenge of learning a new skill and the ease of executing it once it’s learned. Or, for pacing reasons, they have both bursts of intense action and quieter, easier interludes. Valve’s developer commentaries talk about the way their players respond better to this sort of pattern, and I’m certainly a fan of this inhale-exhale rhythm myself. So there are plenty of opportunities for reflection and emotional response even in a well designed game.

  • Dasick

    It’s a playing piece that can provide me with a resource but it brings about lots of nasty consequences… at least that’s what the theme is telling me. The pity, the ‘danger’, it all seems to communicate the message that harvesting a little sister is not something you should be doing unless you really have to… but that is not the case with the actual gameplay is it? Once you’ve played BioShock once or twice, there are no consequences for harvesting a sister you can’t handle, and you might actually do it just to see what happens. The brain is confused… the theme is telling it one thing, but the mental model of the game it has is completely different. That kind of theme is just noise, it’s distracting you, and I believe that the brain WILL ignore it.

    That’s not to say that I agree with the binary portrayal of emotion vs problem-solving. I know it to be false, since I’ve felt emotions while playing incredibly challenging games. But in order to enhance what we feel, the theme MUST express the relationship of the game pieces in a meaningful way, otherwise we will have to make the choice of which one to pay attention to.

    The Bastion segment you are talking about, in my opinion, is a good example of that because thematically you do not want to fight the Ura, and mechanically fighting them is undesirable (more so if you suck or have idols active), and there is the option not to fight them if you save Zulf.

  • Dasick

    It’s interesting that you keep linking to this blog. The author is a really smart guy, but he just doesn’t get the concept of game. He makes all the correct connections, but his conclusions are weird.

  • 2DArray

    I’m not so sure about some of this. You say that games like Go and Tetris don’t have themes, but the theme of Go seems to be territorial acquisition, and the theme of Tetris seems to be packing stuff into a small space. Aesthetic styles like realism and abstraction don’t really have much to do with the theme – they’re just different approaches at conveying one. Also, the war theme in Chess doesn’t seem “slight” to me…you send military units to tactically defeat/capture other units and protect the royal family.

    And what makes you think that the theming disappears when the action starts? Meaningful context reinforces the weight of any situation – especially if you’re directly involved.

  • keithburgun

    >You say that games like Go and Tetris don’t have themes, but the theme of Go seems to be territorial acquisition,

    I tried to make clear that this was explicitly *not* what I meant by the word theme. Of course by THAT definition of the word theme, all games have themes.

    What I meant by theme was stuff like story, names of characters, places, illustrative artwork, etc.

    >And what makes you think that the theming disappears when the action starts? Meaningful context reinforces the weight of any situation – especially if you’re directly involved.

    When solving a difficult problem, your brain simply cannot afford to think about anything but the problem on abstract terms.

  • 2DArray

    In that case, I don’t understand the purpose of this article, or even what you’re trying to say by the word “theme.” Is it a metaphor for what the game represents or is it the parts of the process that aren’t mechanic design? You seem to be saying both.

    Either way…

    “With a possible exception of the simplest sorts of games, it’s usually impossible to design with no theme in mind.”

    If this is the true (and I agree with you that it is), then why do we need a full article to explain to people something that they’re just going to do innately anyway?

    And maybe your brain can’t heavily focus on the task and the context at the same time during an especially intense moment of either one, but that’s momentary. You don’t completely forget the storyline for an entire five-minute combat encounter – just during the instants when the action is the most intense.

    Also, having art assets that imply useful information is not “free information.” It’s information that you worked into the art assets.

    I don’t totally follow your reasoning and I feel that you’ve made some explanations of simple ideas unnecessarily complex without providing enough useful insight to make it worthwhile to the reader.

  • Dasick

    The basic idea to take away is that you can (and really should) encode the rules of the game into the pieces themselves, so that the player understands the basic interaction of the elements just by looking at the game. There is also a trap where the designer feels the need to bend the rules to fit the “theme” elements, so the game suffers.

    This is an idea that you’d think is obvious to Videogame “Designers”, but in practice, it rarely is.

  • Dasick