What makes a good theme?

Posted by (twitter: @frozenfractal)
April 14th, 2015 12:04 am

As always, there is a lot of discussion going on on the theme voting post around the current set of themes. So here’s my take on what makes a good theme.

  • A good theme is specific. By which I mean: it has to exclude some possible games. The theme must not be a carte blanche to make any game you can think of; otherwise, why have a theme at all?

    “Connected worlds” is great because it has to be about worlds – plural – and they have to be connected. That sounds vague, but look at any random game and you’ll probably find that it does not fit this theme. “Alone” was similarly good: specific, but not prescriptive.

    “Entire game on one screen” is a perfect counterexample: almost by definition, every game takes place on one screen, except Nintendo DS games. Sure, you can take this to mean “one level” or “no scrolling”, but then it’s your choice to narrow it down. “Minimalism” was similarly bad, because Ludum Dare games are made in a weekend, so they are minimalist by definition.

  • A good theme is ambiguous. By which I mean: it has to be open to interpretation. This sounds contrary to being specific, and indeed it is. We want to limit the spectrum at both ends: not too generic, but not too specific either.

    “Connected worlds” again fits this criterion. What are these worlds? Are they planets? Parallel dimensions? Imaginary worlds inside people’s heads? And how are they connected?

    Fortunately, most of the non-ambiguous themes did not survive the Slaughter, but “Two enter one leaves” and “Take one, leave the rest” are some counterexamples from the current set.

  • A good theme does not prescribe or suggest a mechanic. Different LD participants have different skills, use different tools and have different preferences, so if only platformers reasonably fit the theme, the vast majority will be disappointed and we get less fun games as a result.

    “10 seconds” is my counterexample here. It takes a lot of imagination to create a game that doesn’t use some kind of 10-second timer. I did consider making a game about a very big dinner with lots of second helpings, but since I couldn’t come up with a suitable mechanic, I ended up making a timer game like everyone else. Many other themes assume some kind of combat or at least conflict, such as “Enemies as weapons”. We are also seeing a wave of time-related suggestions,

As a lithmus test, I get the sense that themes with fewer words are generally better. With too many words, you quickly descend into the overly specific.

Some themes in the current voting rounds that don’t fit all of these criteria, and that I downvoted as a result: “An unconventional weapon” (implies combat mechanic), “Indirect control” (seems to be purely about the mechanic), “Time loop” (not sufficiently ambiguous), “Limited resources” (not specific enough, could apply to any game).

But I’m also seeing some great themes. Some of my favourites so far: “Discovery”, “Day and night”, “Four elements” and “Infinity”. Let’s hope one of the good ones wins!

4 Responses to “What makes a good theme?”

  1. Eskoala says:

    I have some ideas about “An Unconventional Weapon” that are part of a game of intrigue and diplomacy, not combat.

  2. KeyboardCat says:

    I totally agree with you, but sometimes some themes like “symmetry” can be good ones I think, even if they’re not really specific or are suggesting a mechanic.

  3. Jezzamon says:

    One thing I’m thinking more recently is that Ludum Dare has a variety of different types of themes, and I think that’s great!

    I think I view themes from a different perspective though. I think of themes from the perspective of someone what wants to use the theme in an awesome way.

    People can always shoehorn some game idea into a simple theme, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good game. The games that interest me the most are the winners for the theme and innovation categories, that find some way to use the theme in an awesome way. Just because it might be easy to fit your game to the theme, doesn’t mean it’s easy to use the theme well.

    I think we should rate theme based on what the best games are/could be, rather than on what the average game will be, because, lets face it, many bad games get made each Ludum Dare, that go mainly unnoticed and don’t have much of a lasting impact after the competition. Whereas the winners often have quite a big impact!

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