Theme in Adventure Games
What is a “theme”? What is a “thesis”?
A theme is an idea that comes up a lot in a creative work. A thesis is the central idea around which a creative work is based. There are more comprehensive definitions available in dictionaries both online and off, but these definitions will serve us for now. Themes and theses are meant to work unconsciously – we should not even be aware of them as we experience the work.
Alright, you’ve defined it, but can you give me some examples?
Absolutely, nameless construct of this essay. A good example of a theme can be found in the Disney movie The Lion King. In the beginning of the movie, before we’re even introduced to any named characters, we see the iconic “Circle of Life” song and sequence. For those who aren’t already humming it in their heads right now, here’s what it sounds like:
It’s a nice opening song with beautiful visuals, sure, but what is it telling us about the story that’s not obvious? How is it working on our unconscious minds? Obviously, the song is about the titular circle of life. We are born, we consume, and we die, and in our dying we are consumed by others, either directly in the case of the antelope, or indirectly in the case of the lion. This is the thesis of the movie. In The Lion King, it is a note that is sounded again and again – there are natural cycles, they are inherently good, and we are all a part of them. Implicit in this thesis is the idea that going against our natural cycles is evil. This aspect of the thesis comes up later in the movie, with Scar, who takes over the pack from his brother Mufasa when by the natural cycle of inheritance it should pass to Simba.
But let’s dig a little deeper and take it beat by beat, see if we can’t dig out some themes. The first thing we see is a montage of animals waking up and getting ready for their big day. We’re still getting used to the art style, so they give us some time. The dawn imagery cleverly suggests the idea of beginning to us, appropriate since this is the beginning of the movie. I wouldn’t say that it’s technically a theme, but it is smart. As the first English words in the song are sung, we see the image of a mother giraffe and her baby, entering the sunlight. This image begins to implant in our minds the idea of “growing up”, which is a huge theme in the movie. Disney is all about visual cues for their themes, and this seems like an important moment, so let’s take a look at that:
Warm colors, some muted and some vibrant, notably muted in the mother (shouldn’t she be in full light too, if the baby is?). Let’s look at a later frame from the opening:
Woah! A bunch of the same warm, reddish/brownish colors show up here, and they’re quite muted in Simba’s mother. We don’t consciously know it, but by this point in the movie, we’re already familiar and comfortable with the themes of growing up, being a child, and caring for your family, and they’re already coded to the colors of a lion.
I could go on with some of the other images in the opening sequence (for instance, the images of the ants contrasted with the zebras and the birds contrasted with the elephants introduces us to the theme of largeness and smallness, later brought to a comic point by Timon and Pumbaa) but I won’t. You get the idea.
That’s all well and good, but how does this apply to me?
Slow down there, buddy, I’m getting to it. As a game writer, your job is very different from the job of a movie producer or animator. You have to worry about the fun of upwards of eighty people, not just your singular viewer, and all of those people are not just watching the story, but enacting the story, choosing what direction it goes in. They ARE the story.
Doesn’t this make theme and thesis less important?
No, dummy! It makes them more important. If we as game writers want our players to have a good time (and we do), we need to provide them with a game that is fun to play. What makes a game fun? A lot of things, one of which is coherence. If a game takes place in a coherent world, filled with coherent ideas, it feels real, and it allows the players to lose themselves in it more fully. When a player loses themselves in the game world and experiences tragedies and triumphs that feel real, it provides a powerful, cathartic experience. It might even make them cry. This is fun. Trust me.
Two of a game writer’s most powerful tools in creating a coherent world are thesis and theme. Communicating a thesis and some themes to your players lets them know what you were thinking about when you wrote it and what your intentions were, so when they go off into your world, they won’t create something out of place. In fact, if you communicate your thesis and your themes effectively, they will actually go out there and make them stronger for you. A good game writer can get her players to write her game for her.
How? TEACH ME YOUR MAGIC, WIZARD.
Gladly! Let’s begin with the most obvious method of communicating a thesis:
Tell them. Seriously. When me and Mike Grant and Josiah Mercer were running Apocalypse Camp, we came right out and said it. “These games are about the apocalypse. The world has a good chance of ending upwards of three times in these three games,” we said. Well, something like that. It was called Apocalypse Camp, after all, there’s no hiding it. So we came right out and said it.
For some game writers, this might be a bit too obvious. If you choose to go with the “tell them” method or not, there are other things you should be doing to communicate your themes and thesis.
Put it in your teaser.
If you choose to have a teaser (and why not?), it’s a wonderful way to get some ideas across about your game before your players are even at camp. If you want everyone to be sad in your game, make all the characters in your teaser sad. If you want the world to be full of adventure, make your teaser a fun, exciting action story. If you want everything in your game to be tinged with delirious, manic energy, write your teaser so it’s shifted just off normal in an energetic way. There are obviously a million ways to experiment with this, just remember that the teaser is the earliest introduction to your game that most people get. Use it well.
Put it in your production lists.
This is a huge one. If you want to be able to control the visual look of your game, you NEED to communicate well with the production departments (we have a blog post about that coming up, in fact). Humans understand things differently if you communicate them through the different senses. If you just tell someone something, they’ll understand it with their conscious mind (literally their forebrain), but if you SHOW them something, they’ll understand it with their unconscious mind (literally their hindbrain). For instance, if you want to communicate to your players that one group is snobby and entitled while the other group is down to earth and working class, put the first group in fancy clothes and wigs and the other in coal-dusted working clothes and bowler hats (or whatever the equivalents are in your world). If you want your players to understand that the Demon Crystal is evil, make it huge and black and spiky. If you want your players to know that a particular group of knights is not to be messed with, give them really huge weapons. If you’re having trouble communicating a particular theme or thesis to your players, talk to production about it. They will probably have some good ideas. They are very, very talented people who were hired specifically because they have a unique, well-developed visual sense (which is something that we, as writers, often lack).
Put it in your world background, group backgrounds, and character sheets.
This one is pretty tricky, but probably the most important. You don’t want to be too obvious about it, but you also don’t want it to fall completely by the wayside. Try making things implicit rather than explicit. What does this mean? In this case it means showing things rather than telling about things. One of the all-time great examples of thesis in a game was Brennan and Griffin’s game, Graduation Day. The main thesis of that game was “Magic is Dying, but Friendship Heals.” In running that game, Brennan never explicitly said the words “magic is dying”, but he let us know in a million subtle, clever ways. There were fewer magic users in the world than there had been in a long time. Many magical societies had already crumbled. The Gardenborne, a group that represented evil conformity and old seats of power, were gaining ground financially and influentially. To top it all off, the literal incarnation of Hope was literally dying. At the same time, it was very clear that the most important thing to our characters was our small, tight-knit families that we had constructed from the ruins of our shattered lives. The Academy was all about friendship as a group, and each character sheet emphasized the importance of our friends. By the time game started, we all knew what was up, but because Brennan had never explicitly said it, we didn’t know it with our minds; we knew it with our hearts.
Ultimately, what I’m saying to you is, every single thing in your game has to reflect your thesis, and as many things as possible in your game should reflect your themes. However, you should avoid saying it out loud, even to yourself. I have a playwriting professor at my college that says you should never write down summaries of your characters until you’ve written the whole play, because if you write down “ERIC: 23, architect, is in love with Ashley” suddenly Eric is dead, trapped on the paper. Eric’s love for Ashley will no longer hold any truth for you because you’ve tacked it down and examined it like a butterfly with ether and pins. I believe that the same can be true for game writing and your thesis and themes. At least while you’re writing it, allow the thesis to evolve and become full of meaning and complexity for you. Feel free to act more mercenary when you’re actually in the field. In fact, sometimes, a literally stated thesis can act as a lightning rod for a game gone wrong that needs quick rewriting in the moment. My point is, use these tools carefully, because they are powerful, and also so weak that you might break them without realizing.
Happy game writing!
Oringinal Post 12/11/13