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Identifying themes for you game by looking inward

Themes are an exploration of the human condition. So how do you formulate a thematic question that resonates with your audience?

his essay is more writing focused in the grand scheme of game design, but I wanted to lead with this before diving into thematic design for games. So consider this a part 1 of a 2 part series exploring themes, how to pose them as questions, and how they can elevate your game.

Themes are the sinew that bind all your literary elements together. This is different from theming — the dressing we drape over a game to give it an aesthetic. Gothic, Cyberpunk, modern day San Francisco, are all examples of theming: a place, time period, and style. Themes are a central issue, ideology, or question, that saturates your world and influences your characters. Through these characters, we peel back the layers of the thematic question.

The thematic question is the umbrella that casts its shadow on everything beneath it. Consider it your thesis statement, like — How is your sense of self affected if you don’t own your body? A Gothic take might be about an heiress questioning her loyalty to her family when they arrange her marriage; an exploration of personal identity under the hierarchy of family and courtly favor. A Cyberpunk take might be about a prosthetic junkie addicted to replacing their limbs when suddenly, corporate repo-men come to reclaim their property; an exploration of the commodification of self. Both are about finding yourself in a world against you.

Ancillary themes to support the main question can be more specific to their theming. For example, politicking in the 15th century, or the line between personal accomplishment vs corporate ownership. But you’ll find a good thematic question is often timeless and speaks to the human condition. It’s more than likely that your question will change over time as you start delving into it, and that’s part of the fun of exploring these concepts.

This next bit might be personal preference, but I think every question needs an answer. That’s not to say it can’t be open ended, but without a well developed conclusion, as a writer or designer you’ve only done half the work. Anyone can pose a question. Providing an answer to those questions is the journey of self-discovery, empathy, and worldly understanding we embark on.

In choosing a theme, I think everyone will have a different process. You could be inspired by music and ask yourself, what is it about this song that makes me feel this way? And then ask why do you feel that way? You can do the same with a book, movie, theater, any experiential medium.

Another option might be to ask why you gravitate towards certain genres. You might find some similarities from your own life that are reflected back at you. Maybe it's a total fantasy and just escapism. But why does that type of fantasy appeal to you? There's probably a deeper connection going on that you aren't yet aware of.

A lot of it begins with why. By unpacking those kind of personal experiences, you'll likely find a strong thematic question hidden away there.

With Death’s Gambit, we wanted to explore respawns in video games as a central element of our story and gameplay. In other words, immortality. More specifically, What is the price of immortality, and is it worth it?

I wouldn’t say we had a definitive answer going into it. Immortality is understandably tantalizing in the face of death, which is inevitable by the way. But there was an understanding from the get go that doing anything forever would ultimately lose its luster.

We created Siradon, a continent plagued by immortality, brought to ruin by the manipulations of an eldritch god called Thalamus. As years became decades, and decades became centuries, life lost its meaning and lethargy consumed the hearts of men. Siradon’s Golden Age came crumbling down.

But to the outside world, immortality was a coveted prize. So year after year, they sent their best to besiege the capital of Siradon. Year after year they were slaughtered by its immortal thralls, but still, such a promise was too good for kings to pass up. When Death became wise to Thalamus’ machinations, he intervened, selecting Sorun as his champion. Death, after all, is not a fan of immortality. And so, the stage was set.

  • Thalamus, the devil with a deal.
  • Death, the antithesis to immortality and champion of the natural order.
  • Sorun, a young man out to immortalize his legacy.
  • Endless, the Queen of Siradon and slave to immortality.

Through these four characters we explore the spectrum of life, death, and immortality.

The following has spoilers for Death’s Gambit.

  • Sorun has an idealized perspective of immortality. He thinks it’s his ticket to greatness, willfully oblivious to the ruins that surround him, but is still tasked with destroying the source of immortality. These stakes dramatically ramp up when he discovers his mother (Endless) who was missing, is sustained by the immortal source and destroying it will also kill her. An internal conflict which Thalamus preys upon and ultimately is up to the player to decide. Sorun explores the concept of immortality not in its literal sense, but in legacy and remembrance.
  • As a mother who lost a husband and child to the whims of kings, Endless is seduced by Thalamus, fulfilling his desire to spread immortality under the pretense of her own vengeful zeal so that no one will ever feel the pain of loss as she has. But in doing so, she abandoned the family she should have been fighting to be with; Sorun. Endless is an acknowledgement of the hardships of death and the all-consuming grief it can subject people to.
  • Death is callous and single-minded in his mission, but offers empathy and understanding to Sorun when he confronts the death of his mother. He is neither good, nor evil. He simply is. And it is this deliberate neutrality that sows doubt into player’s heads about whether Death is worth helping. We often try to make sense of death, but in the end, it’s just part of life. Death is the unstoppable force.
  • Thalamus is the devil on Sorun’s shoulder, coercing him to renounce death so that he and Endless can be together forever. Endless was absent for most of Sorun’s life, so this proposition would give them a re-do, away from the life of violence and loss. What he doesn’t tell Sorun, is that such a reality can only be conjured in his dreams. A sweet lie, instead of the bitter truth — that his mother has long since died and is only alive due to dark magic. Thalamus is the temptation, the selfish goal Sorun can attain at the cost of his and everyone else’s freedom.

You can see the distinct ideologies pitted against each other. Where Death is about acceptance, Thalamus is about denial. Only by reconciling with death can we understand the beauty of life. That we cherish what is transient because it doesn’t last forever. Is immortality worth it? Some players certainly think so, but ultimately, the lesson is in empathy and finding the strength to carry on. Through remembrance, we keep the spirit of the people we love alive. And if they are with us until the end, isn’t that forever?

That was the core arc of the dramatic question. But explorations of immortality are present in all the background lore and supporting characters; from the king who conquered death, to the fallout of the civilization that manufactured immortality, and the lizard-kin who make the most of every second because their lifespan is so short. We explore survivor’s guilt, perhaps the strongest indictment against immortality through the eyes of four different characters, each with their own unique circumstances. We celebrate the little things, the friendships, and the endurance to overcome. Everything always ties back to what is the price of immortality? However, to quote Robert McKee, “A story is not an accumulation of information strung into a narrative, but a design of events to carry us to a meaningful climax.” Having a thematic question means being picky with the moments you explore, so choose wisely.

As a practical tool, I’ll posit some questions to help you think about ways to explore your thematic question:

  • What is the conflict that explores human nature?
  • How does it affect people, both positively and negatively?
  • How can its effects be seen in the “world” around the character(s)? Use the setting as a reflection of the character.

In developing Death’s Gambit we talked a lot about legacy and the obsession people have with leaving a mark in this world. Will we be remembered for making this 2D pixel art Soulsvania? Probably not, but we still put 8 years of our lives into making it something we’re proud of and I think that is the essence of what Death’s Gambit is all about. We as developers, our players, and Sorun all go through this arduous journey with only our willpower to see us through to the end.

For all we sacrificed to make this game, was it worth it? When I think about the people who reached out to me saying the game gave them the courage to overcome suicide or come to terms with a death of a loved one, the journey was undeniably worth it. My answer to the dramatic question (kept you waiting huh) — it’s better to live a life with shared experiences than one of endless solitude slaving away at a magnum opus. Death’s Gambit is not perfect. But life goes by, and spending that time with the people you care about is more important than any work-related endeavor. We don’t get a re-do. So be there for the people you love.

The point is that the dramatic question you pose should be personal, because through the specifics of your experiences, you’ll start to reach the universal.

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