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  • Thematic Power

    - James Portnow

  •  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.

    Story Justification
    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)


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