I was reading an analysis by Daniel Cook over at Gamasutra that at first made me nod in agreement. Games have repetitious themes and often implement them in disjunction with or with disregard for their game mechanics. It’s good to see yet another member of the games industry catch on to this endemic problem and suggest a solution. But then a curious thing happens, Cook goes from talking about literary themes to what I’d rather call genre, but he keeps on calling it “theme”. Piracy in a work isn’t, as Cook assumes, a literary theme like “redemption” or “estrangement”. It’s a theme in the same sense that you can have a costume party with a pirate theme… but that definition doesn’t do us any good here. A literary theme arises from the interplay of plot, setting, character, conflict, and tone. According to Cook:
The theme you select directly influences how you present your initial skills to the user. By saying “pirates,” I turn on a particular schema in the player’s brain and a network of possible behaviors and likely outcomes instantaneously lights up.
“Pirates” here is more of a genre, a mental model for what is expected of the structure and content of the work. It isn’t the same as a story about redemption, something much more intangible and difficult to communicate. But whatever you want to call it, mixing up this “theme” with literary themes only leads to a confused analysis of how themes and games interact. To implement a literary theme, let’s say redemption again, would require well thought out and coherent game mechanics that convey the essence of what it is to be a protagonist experiencing or delivering redemption. There isn’t a simple mental model for the representation of a literary theme, since these are generally aspects of the human condition that have confounded us since the dawn of recorded history.
I mean, okay, this kind of stuff is generally dismissed as quibbling. Getting into arguments about terms and definitions is usually the quickest way to say a whole lot of nothing while annoying the hell out of everyone. But, clearly defined terms are the only way we can have productive conversations. It seems everyone in this industry has their own definition of theme, story, plot and narrative; and we wonder why no one can agree on what it means to have a game that tells a story.
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