What to Do When the Announced Theme Isn’t Working for You

Posted by (twitter: @incobalt)
December 8th, 2016 11:04 pm

It’s inevitable. When the theme is announced, more than a handful of people don’t know what to do with it. The theme might be too esoteric or vague. The theme might be too restrictive. It could suggest a particular kind of game, and that’s not the kind of game they want to make. Maybe they just simply don’t like the theme. We’re a diverse community, and so the theme doesn’t work right away with every one of us. This was me when “An Unconventional Weapon” was announced for LD 32. If this is you, this post is here to help you work through the theme so you can get to working on your game. Don’t give up at the start because you don’t like the theme! Remember, Ludum Dare is about making a game. The theme is there to help. This post is meant to be encouraging and helpful.

What is a Theme?

First things first, let’s explore what a theme is and how it helps you. A theme is a starting point. It’s there to combat the blank page problem. Many writers will tell you that the hardest part of writing is staring at a blank page and writing down the first words. With a theme, the first words are already written, so it’s easier. You don’t have to think about literally everything that could go into a game. You’d be paralyzed with thinking if you did. So a theme is there to get you started. It’s there to narrow down the possibilities, so that you can get to making your game quicker. After all, you don’t have that much time to be dwelling on the concept. You need to start making your game as soon as you can!

What the Theme is Not

The theme is not a prescription. The Ludum Dare theme is not there to say that you absolutely must make the same game that everyone else is going to make. It’s just a starting point. Your game concept might morph to have very little to do with the theme, and that’s ok. Not every part of your game needs to drip theme. In fact, too much theme can be overwhelming. The theme can be a challenge. The theme can be a crutch. The theme can be whatever you need it to be. You’re the one making the game, after all. The theme isn’t there to hinder you. It’s there to help you and make things easier.

Working With the Theme

So, the theme has just been announced, and you don’t know what to do with it. The theme doesn’t make sense, or it sounds silly, or it seems completely unhelpful. It might just sound bad to you, and you don’t understand how it could have won the vote. It’s there, and you want to make a game with it, but you don’t know how. Don’t quit! There are options for you! Here are some things you can do to make it work.

Just Go With It

Many themes suggest a very obvious way to be built. Sometimes, we overthink it and want to try to do something really different, but if this is giving you problems, just go with what the theme suggests. Sure, it may not be glamorous or spectacular, but what’s even less is not making a game at all. During LD 34, there were a bunch of laments from people about how the “Growing” theme just suggested to them that they should make a snake game. People didn’t want to make something that everyone else was going to make. Don’t worry about if other people will be doing your idea. That’s ok! What’s important is that you make a game. This is the most straightforward approach to using a theme. It doesn’t appeal to everyone. I personally don’t like to do this, but in LD 34, we also got the theme of “Two-Button Controls” and I just took that at face value. I didn’t have time to worry about how it fit in with my game, so I just went with the most obvious decision: left and right mouse buttons. If this isn’t the method for you, read on! If it is, then go make your game!

Play With the Theme

Themes are just words. Words are language, and we have years upon years of experience playing around with words. Languages develop over time by morphing and changing to suit situations and cultures. As themes are just words, we can play around with them. You can take the words of the theme and consider what they actually mean. You can take the words and make a pun out of them. You can take how the words sound and make them sound a little different. You can add spaces, make punctuation, smash words together, or obliterate letters. Type it into a search engine and see what comes up. Check it out on an image search. Run it through a translator a few times. It’s ok. They’re just words. You’re the one with ideas.

LD 32 “An Unconventional Weapon” was particularly annoying to me because I don’t like making games about combat or fighting. To arrive at my concept, I asked myself, “What is a weapon, really?” A weapon is a tool. It’s a means to an end. It doesn’t have to be a physical object, it just has to be something that is used. So, an unconventional weapon is something that is used to achieve an end, but which isn’t used in the way we expect it to be. A person can be used as a tool if they are manipulated and their expectations are played to. The result was a game where the player was used to cause an end through the expectation that they should be following the on-screen mission prompts. It was a far stretch from the words of the original theme, but it was a game I could feel excited to make. By playing with the words of the theme, I was able to make a theme I didn’t like, into a theme I did.

Looking at the theme of “An Unconventional Weapon”, there are other things you could do to manipulate it. Unconventional contains the word “convention”, so maybe you can make a game that is set at a convention. Weapon could become “weap-on”, and even though it’s misspelled, you could have a game where someone weeps on something. Play with the theme. It’s yours to do with as you please.

Get Help

People, especially veterans of Ludum Dare, like helping others get over that initial hump of the concept phase and onto making a game. Everyone is wrestling with the theme, and so everyone is going through the same process. Some people, especially those with a lot of experience, will have an easier time with it, though, and it won’t hurt to ask for help deciding on a concept for your theme. You can use the Ludum Dare IRC channel to talk it out with people who hang out in there (usually these are people who have been with LD for a while). There’s the reddit page if you’re more open to that format. You can even ask your friends, post on twitter, whatever you want. I would say that the best place for this is probably the IRC channel. You don’t need to know anything about IRC to use it, just use the link on the page (http://ludumdare.com/compo/irc/ for LD 37), type in any name you want (or leave the default) and hit start, then ask away. Be open and kind with your questions. Understand that people are probably working on the same thing you are. Sometimes, there are people sitting in the IRC that aren’t doing LD because they don’t have time, but they’re happy to help out people who want it. Mention the half ideas you have. Say what you don’t want to do. This will help people give you better advice and it might help other people in the same situation.

See What Others are Doing

People livestream. They post about what they’re doing. They talk about it in the IRC and on reddit. See how other people are interpreting the theme. Ask them how they got there, if it seems unclear. Some people might toss out ideas you think are really cool and get you thinking. Try not to just go to one of these places and copy what someone else is doing. That’s a bit underhanded, but you can use these as a springboard. Plus, it can suggest a way of looking at the theme that you hadn’t thought about. If someone says an idea that you really like and get excited about, ask them if you can do something similar. Add your own personal flair to the idea if you’re doing this. Treat it as a starting point. Also, who knows, the other person may get just as excited as you about the idea, and you end up jamming on it together as a team.

Ignore the Theme

If all else fails and the theme is just not working for you, then get rid of it. The theme is a tool, and it doesn’t work for everyone. Don’t spend too much time worrying about the theme. Figure out an idea that you want to do and do it. The theme might come later. It might not come at all. That’s ok. The theme is optional. Sure, you might not get many points in the theme category of judging, but that really doesn’t matter. You won’t get any points if you don’t submit a game at all. If you’re worried about it, you can turn of theme judging for your game. It really doesn’t matter, because at the end of it all, what’s important is that you make something. If you’re hung up on the theme, then take it out of the equation and get to work on your game. During theme voting, did you see a theme you really liked? Use that one instead. Would it help if you had more themes? Pretend there was a tie and use two themes, or three, or all of them. Hit the random page link on Wikipedia, type some words into a search engine and look at what comes up. Get an idea and make it. Who cares if it fits the theme?

Above All Else

Make a game. That’s it. Just make a game. Make something you enjoy. Make something that you want to make. Finish something. It feels really good to look back at the end of Ludum Dare and say, “I made this.” Don’t quit because a theme you didn’t like gets chosen. You’ve got options.

I made this post because many Dares I’ve seen people quit because a theme they didn’t like gets selected, or I see people post that they ran out of time because they couldn’t come up with an idea that fit the theme. I like themes. I think they’re helpful, but I know others have problems with them. I don’t want people to struggle with something right at the start, since it’s discouraging. People shouldn’t be discouraged by something that is designed to help them, but some are, so I wanted to help those people get over that slump quickly. I also like weird games, experiments, and entries that really bend the theme into something their own. Take this post as you will. I hope you all have a good Dare. Let’s go make some games!

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4 Responses to “What to Do When the Announced Theme Isn’t Working for You”

  1. KunoNoOni says:

    I completely agree with all of this! For LD32 I used the power of love as my weapon, and for LD33 which was Entire Game on One Screen I honestly had no idea what to do. I gave up on Friday and around 11am on Saturday I was looking at what other were doing and saw an image that gave me the idea for my game Dragon’s Horde!

  2. Pio6 says:

    This is very helpful. Now I know I’m not alone. This is my first LD and I didn’t really like the theme, but when you play with it there are many more possibilities. Thank you.

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