What’s in a theme?

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December 26th, 2016 6:06 am

Happy holidays everyone!

Ludum Dare and the awesome games you guys create always gets me inspired; so I put together my thoughts on what can make or break a theme in a game jam. It’s really interesting seeing the reactions people have when the theme is announced and seeing how differently people view different theme ideas in the voting. I would love to hear your guys thoughts too, so feel free to add to the discussion in the comments!

Theme Interpretation

In my mind, a great theme should be able to be interpreted in many different ways. This allows for a ton of creativity and variety in the games that are made. A theme can be too specific, which can restrict creativity and lead to the theme only inspiring a few “obvious” types of games. Alternatively, themes can also be too wide or too general. There is a common saying: “Restriction breeds creativity”, which I really feel captures the spirit of Ludum Dare. For me, the perfect theme is one that is open enough that there isn’t an obvious game to make, but restrictive enough to inspire ideas and make people build their games around the theme rather than tying the theme into their games.

One thing I’ve found is that a lot of good themes can be extended. A good example of this is the theme Guardian (from LD #1): you can add different adjectives to the word to completely change its meaning and evoke different thoughts and ideas. What would a malicious guardian look like? How about a reluctant guardian? What is it a guardian of? The central idea here is that the theme of Guardian immediately gets you thinking and can evoke different responses from different people depending on what kind of guardian comes to mind for them. For me, this is the perfect sweet spot of restrictiveness in a theme.

Theme Application

Another important aspect of a theme is how it can be applied in a game. Typically, a theme can be applied in three ways: through the story, through the visual style and through the game mechanics. In my opinion, these are in ascending order of difficulty (ie it is extremely difficult to plan the central game mechanics around most themes). A good theme should be able to be applied in any of these three ways, as this helps cater to all skill levels of the jam participants. It allows newbies to focus on just making something and serious veterans to challenge themselves. This also feeds into the previous section on theme interpretation: if the theme can only be applied in one of these areas, it is probably too narrow/specific. Of particular note are the purely mechanical themes such as Control the environment, not the characters (from the final round of LD#37 theme voting) and Two button controls (the joint theme of LD#34). These kind of themes can be extremely intimidating for new developers wanting to make their first game and often result in extremely similar games being created because they are so “narrow”. Interestingly, the theme that tied with Two button controls perfectly illustrates how good themes can be applied in any area of development. Growing can easily be applied through the story, aesthetics or mechanics of a game.

I would like to present my system for judging use of theme in a game:

  • 1 star – mentioned the theme
  • 2 stars – made use of the theme in the story
  • 3 stars – made use of the theme in the visuals or game mechanics
  • 4 stars – made use of the theme in the central game mechanic(s)
  • 5 stars – made surprising/original use of the theme in some way that is central to the game

I like this system because I think it rewards people for the effort they put into using the theme. In particular, I love games that surprise me in how they used the theme. The games which make best use of the theme are those that could not have been inspired by any other theme: you could guess what the theme was simply by playing the game. Judging this way becomes more difficult when the way themes can be applied is restrictive. Some themes make it a binary decision between “did” or “did not use the theme”, so I really appreciate themes which can be applied in many ways. That said, I think mechanical themes can inspire some awesome games, and are often a great fit for Mini-LDs.

Previous Themes

This shouldn’t need a whole lot of explanation, but I think most people would agree that recent themes shouldn’t be repeated. Often a lot of the design space has already been explored (particularly with 1000s of games being created for each theme) so it becomes difficult to create something original. This includes themes which bear huge similarities to past themes such as Small World (similar to LD#23 Tiny World) and Wait, are we the bad guys? (similar to “LD#25 You are the Villain). Of course, this applies less and less the further back you go: the first competitions had fewer than 50 entries, so I wouldn’t be opposed to revisiting them! Additionally, themes that haven’t really been explored by videogames in general get bonus marks from me because I love seeing the creative stuff people come up with!

NOTE: You can see previous themes here, and PoV has marked them on the fancy new site’s theme voting!

Convoluted Themes

A great theme should explain itself: generally if you have to google a theme, it isn’t a good one. The main reason for this is that it is really easy to fixate on specifics of an idea that you are unfamiliar with. These kind of themes are also generally pretty narrow and restrictive in terms of what you can do with them. As an example, the theme Ouroboros (theme of Global Game Jam 2012) is really cool, and can inspire a lot of ideas, but if you don’t know what it is at first, you can fixate on the specific image of a serpent eating its tail. However, a lot of what makes the theme cool is the idea behind it, and how it represents many different things such as the cycle of life and death. A good theme should be simple enough that it is easily understood.

Closing Thoughts

This has been my two cents on what makes a good theme. Thanks so much for reading this, and I would love to hear your thoughts! Has there been a theme you particularly liked or hated? Do you judge the use of theme differently? How have your holidays been going? Feel free to join in the discussion below!

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One Response to “What’s in a theme?”

  1. Naca says:

    Nice article! I find your thoughts very interesting, and I subscribe everything you’ve said here. One of my favorite aspects of Ludum Dare is to see how people can twist the theme in order to make something new and different, to explore the vast space between literal interpretations and subtle metaphors. My theme rating system is based in something you’ve noted here:

    @Bumblepie quote:
    “For me, the perfect theme is one that is open enough that there isn’t an obvious game to make, but restrictive enough to inspire ideas and make people build their games around the theme rather than tying the theme into their games”.

    Ouuuuh yeah man! That is the exact definition of a good theme! When I’m rating the theme category, I ask myself the question “was this game built around the theme or was the theme artificially inserted into the game?” I don’t really mind if the use of the theme is in story, visuals, sound or game mechanics, as long as it is part of the game core. Also, good use of the theme is kind of a (soft) evidence that proofs the game was made within the three days of the jam.

    When I’m making my game, I like to follow a theme-based approach, trying to play with its meaning and possibilities. Maybe you’d like to try out the one I’ve made for this jam 😉 You’ll find it in my profile page.

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