The Mechanics of Theme

November 24, 2016

One of the major differences between the video game and board games is their ways of treating "Theme". It's something that I touched upon during my IndieCade talk, (I swear, I'll get that recorded one of these days) but it's really a topic that we could talk about for hours and still have more mysteries than answers.

 

Video games have a number of tools at their disposal. They have expensive voice actors, fancy cut scenes, scrolling text boxes, beautiful graphics and visuals and so on.

 

By combining these tools a developer is able to create an entire universe for the player to explore, people to meet and a well crafted narrative to guide them along. Even more important, the prevalence of these aspects means that you can easily adapt the same gameplay loop into brand new experiences. 

 

Now, board games have to approach design in an entirely different because we don't have access to all those fancy-pants tools. A handful of games shoehorn them in with Apps or story booklets but those are the exceptions, and still don't come near even low budget games.

 

You'd think the lack of capabilities might lead to players being more forgiving to theme, but even a glance at board game reviews shows that they're even harder on this front. 

 

They use terms like: "Pasted on Theme".  This basically means that the theme relates so little to do with the experience, that it could have been anything. This is quite a sin in the board game world. 

 

They also have a term for replacing the assets while keeping the core gameplay loop, "A Retheme".This isn't really a negative, but they make it a point to differentiated between games that were uniquely designed and ones that were clones regardless of asset differences.

 

Despite lacking the vast array of tools that video games use to craft theme, board game designers are forced to achieve that same effect. 

 

In fact, Id like to introduce you to a couple all-too-common video game scenarios that I'm sure you'll recognize. 

1) "OMG! THE WORLD IS ENDING SOON!"

And then you spend 50 hours fishing, farming, grinding gear, training, collecting achievements and so on. 

 

It's common for a game's narrative to instill a sense of urgency yet mechanically ignore it. Timed game mechanics instill a feeling of stress in players, which is a big negative to the casual mass market player base. 

 

 

2) "I'll spare your life (Good Guy Points)  /  You deserve to die (Bad Guy Points)" 

I'm sorry, but game moral decisions, YOU SUCK!

 

It doesn't matter whether it's Grand Theft Auto or Mass Effect, games like to allow you to spare the lives of a villain to prove your heroic heart. But it's absolute bullshit!

 

How many people has our hero gunned down to reach this point? 50? 100? 500? Video game heroes are part of some ultra-violent worlds and they do what they need to do. 

 

Yet, this one guy suddenly determines your decency?

Scholarly folk like to throw around words like "Ludo-narrative dissonance", but for us normal folk, it just means the story doesn't mesh with the mechanics. This creates an awkward disconnect between the player and the story.

 

The question is, how can board games put such emphasis on theme when they lack most of the tools to create it, and how can video games create sometimes fail with so many advantages at their fingertips?

 

Far too often video game designers become reliant on their advantages and fail to realize that the ways that the player interacts with the world is equally important to the way the world is portrayed.

 

When the directly mimic the gameplay of other popular games you sacrifice your ability to meld your mechanics with your theme. 

 

The thing is that a modern day military engagement is a vastly different experience than World War 2. Our technology, our tactics, and our enemy have all adapted over the years.

 

When you consider the changes that have happened in 60 years, why the hell do developers think they can use the same "Space Shotty, Space Rifle, Space MG" weapon triangle as they did in WW2 games?  I know they use it because it works and it's expected, but they can do better.

 

This isn't to say that all board games are good and all video games suck at this. This is absolutely not the case. There are plenty of video games that nailed this and they it's clearly something that audience appreciate, even if they don't know why.

 

For example how about Dark Soul's with "it's all hopeless" narrative combined with the punishing permanent loss occurs when you make a mistake. Both mechanics and narrative tell you that life is hell, you should give up because you can't possibly win. The experience meshes together in a way that lets you feel like you're trapped with your hero... and just like in that world, most players give up.

 

How about the newer Call Of Duty games that embraced jetpacks and hookshots? This isn't "Space modern warfare"... this is the future of warfare. To hell with the story, the gameplay alone tells us about this new battlefield.

 

How about the quirkiness of Deadly Premonition when you get up and need to shower, shave and find breakfast before starting your day of police work? In any other game this would be insane but it ties into the narrative and helps you become the imaginary friend of a rather unusual FBI agent.  

 

When the mechanics and the narrative blend together into one tale you create an experience that draws the player in entirely.  

 

It's getting late so I'm going to log out for the evening. In the next couple days, I'd like to continue this talk by going into how specific mechanics directly impact the player experience.

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