Theming is the process of making sure all the small elements of something, such as a film, fashion show, or video game, contain and represent a larger theme. A clear and example of theming appears in the Walt Disney amusement parks. Go to any Disney World or Land and you'll notice that all the trash cans fit into the setting. You won't find a single ordinary, everyday waste bin in the entire park.
While this may be important for Disney, it's even more important for game developers.
Why Theme a Game?
Plain and simple, themes help maintain the fantasy of a game. They support and strengthen the magic circle and aid the suspension of disbelief. A clear theme helps people forget they're playing a game and provides a more immersive experience. In short, themes allow the player to have more fun.
Theming is also an excellent way to communicate information to the player. Theming gives context to game mechanics, making them more approachable and easier to intuit.
Knowing Your Theme
The first and most important part of creating a thematic scheme is to know what your theme actually is. This sounds simple, but it's actually deceptively difficult. The key to knowing your theme is specificity. System Shock 2, Mass Effect, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic are all sci-fi space games, but they have vastly different themes.
So, how do you define your theme?
Themes are a combination of two things: setting and tone. Figure out everything you can about your game's setting. If you're working on a licensed or pre-existing IP game, go back through all the source material and learn it through and through. If you're working on original IP, spend some time fleshing out your IP. Know things about your setting that you can't possibly say or show explicitly in the game.
Two games that know their setting inside and out are BioShock (an example of new IP) and The Lord of the Rings Online (which uses licensed IP).
Tone is slightly more difficult to define because it's something you simply have to decide on then commit to 100 percent. Portal is a fantastic game in part because of how thoroughly Nuclear Monkey and Valve embraced the tone of the game.
The hardest part of defining a theme is deciding which is more important: tone or setting. The best games weave the two together seamlessly, as Portal has, but even then there will be times when the game designers have to decide which side to err on. Fallout is a fantastic example of a game that chose tone over setting whereas Brothers in Arms chose setting over tone.
For what it's worth, my philosophy is that tone is almost universally more important than setting.
I'll go over general theming techniques later, but right now let's cover what specifically theming is. Earlier I stated:
Theming is the process of making sure all the small elements of something ... contain and represent a larger theme
Let's look at this in the context of games -- specifically games that have poor theming. I don't mean to pick on these games, but sometimes the best examples are bad ones.
Medal of Honor: Airborne has a very futuristic-looking UI. This shreds the World War II experience. Halo can get away with that type of HUD because the game is set in the future. Halo's HUD is actually part of the theme. Players are supposed to feel as if they are looking at readouts on the inside of the Spartan helmet, whereas in Medal of Honor: Airborne the HUD forces the player to ask, "How do I know all this stuff? And why is it so shiny?"
The user interface and heads-up display are the two elements that teams most commonly fail to theme well. My guess is that this happens because UI and HUD are the most "gamey" and out-of-place components of most games.
Let's go back to Medal of Honor. How do you get a mini-map to fit in with a World War II setting? Clearly, you have to have one because it's vital to gameplay, and gameplay always trumps theming.
The most common answer is to set the mini-map in something that looks like a WWII compass. This little nod to the setting might be enough to maintain the player's sense of fantasy. Other teams have tried creative workarounds that such as removing the mini-map entirely and replacing it with a compass ribbon, deciding that the same game function could be or that the gameplay loss was so minor in comparison to the disruption in immersion that it was worth the sacrifice. Other games have given storyline justifications such as "you're an excellent tracker" or "you're in constant communication with the base of operations."
Music is another element that weighs heavily on a game's theme. Take Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within, which is a departure for the franchise. Ubisoft took the existing Prince of Persia setting and decided to make it dark, adding hard rock music from the 21st century. More ridiculous still, they happened to choose the musical theme for The Scorpion King, leading some reviewers to draw parallels between that terrible movie and the game.
The problem wasn't that Ubisoft wanted to make the series dark, or that hard rock doesn't fit into games (Silent Hill and Ace Combat make great use of hard rock, and that's not even looking to obvious games like the Tony Hawk series). The problem was that hard rock just didn't fit into the dreamy Persian setting that the series had clearly established. The music shattered that setting and made the "darkening" of the series seem silly and out of place. Be careful with your music! Just because it's cool, doesn't mean it fits.
Theming and Functionality
What is a game? For the most part, a game is math. The object of theming is to keep the math from showing. This is an oversimplification, but it'll due for a rule of thumb.
Take a first-person shooter. In most FPS games what you're really trying to do is make two equations equal to each other and then press a button to indicate when they are. To do this, you move the mouse to adjust the variables in one of the equations and click the button when you think they're close. Bang! Now you've just shot somebody.
As players, though, we don't care about any of that math. We don't want to see it because that's not the fun part. The fun part is in the power fantasy and in the test of skill.
In order to make the game fun, we need a theme that communicates to the players a lot of the information they need to know. In an FPS, you know exactly what to do with a gun just by picking it up, whereas you might have no idea what to do if you just saw the underlying math. The abstraction here is more powerful and more communicative than the underlying systems.
This is where theming and game design really meet. As a game designer, you can use your theme to make all game mechanics more intuitive while enhancing the sense of immersion. The health system in Silent Hill 2 is a great example. In Silent Hill 2 the controller has a heartbeat vibration that becomes more and more emphatic as the character takes damage. This feature added to the tension and fits perfectly with the theme. Moreover, conveying the player's health-status in this manner eliminated the need for an on-screen health bar, which would have been jarring and out of place in the setting. (The player can access a health bar from the pause screen if she wants exact information.)
Remember every part of a game can be used to improve the game's design.
Supporting the Fantasy
Let's look at Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates for a moment. If anyone can tell me what Bejeweled has to do with being I pirate, I'll give them my hat. Anyway, Three Rings did something brilliant in Puzzle Pirates. Rather than try to fit the fun into the fantasy, they took a lot of things that they knew were fun (but outside the fantasy) and brought them into the fantasy with some clever naming and art. For example, to make progress sailing their pirate ship, players have to play a puzzle that is very much like Dr. Mario's gameplay. The two components -- sailing and color-matching -- have nothing to do with one another, but the blocks that fall in the puzzle are themed in color (gold, blue, and gray) to maintain the pirate ship theme by representing rope, wind, and waves.
Puzzle Pirates is probably the world's best example of a game that has themed things that are clearly game artifice. That is to say Three Rings did an excellent job of taking mechanics and painting them with a thin veneer of fantasy even though the actions taken in the mechanics in no way resemble the actions in the fantasy.
This technique allows a lot of flexibility in game design. Just be careful; it's easy to destroy the fantasy of a game by relying on this technique.
Often you'll see games justify game elements by making them part of the game world (the resurrection mechanic in Prince of Persia, for example), but this can easily go too far.
Assassin's Creed is a game that, in my opinion, did too much to justify its gamey aspects. In fact, the story appears to be built around justifying the HUD. This ended up limiting the designers rather than freeing them. Moreover, it ended up just pointing out the thing that they were trying to hide. The HUD elements in Assassin's Creed ended up being glaring and obvious in order to point out (read: beat the player over the head with) the fact that the character is really just part of a machine and the whole adventure is actually just a simulation. This attempt to justify the HUD within the story ended up being more intrusive than never mentioning it at all.
Storyline justifications are good if done subtly, but be wary, here the tail can easily end up wagging the dog.
Keep the Dream Alive
I'll leave you with one rule of thumb before I go: Find the most out of place thing in your game, then decide if it's too out of place. This technique will force you to really look at how you've themed your game.
If you're doing a swords and sorcery game and you have a gun-toting marmoset from the future with an ad for cigarettes on his shirt, you might have to rethink things (maybe not, who knows?). But don't be afraid to break the mold. Just don't break the fantasy.
Email James Portnow at jportnow(at)gmail.com.