How to Find your Gameplay Themes

One of the best ways to tap into the sheer storytelling power of video games is to utilise your gameplay to help tell your story. This article looks at a simple technique used to do this, and gives some simple steps on how to use it to enhance your games.

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One of the best ways to tap into the sheer storytelling power of video games is to utilise your gameplay to help tell your story. This synergy hooks the players’ individual actions into the narrative, amping up the effectiveness of your message.

The simplest way to do this is mirroring: this involves figuring out the themes of your gameplay and utilising them within your story*. Excellent examples of this are Portal’s use of training/testing, Braid’s puzzle-based and timey-wimey narrative, and Bioshock’s exceptional use of linear gameplay.

*This method assumes that you’re starting with gameplay rather than starting with story. At some point, we might start doing things the other way round, but the fact is that at the moment it’s easier to construct good story around mechanics than the alternative.

Earlier today, I found a couple of gameplay themes for Particulars that we’ll consider using in our story: having to avoid something that you’re inherently attracted to, and having to sacrifice something good to get rid of something bad. These are far from the only themes that exist in our gameplay, and I’m guessing we’ll go through quite a few of these before we settle on a story arc that truly clicks.

So if you’re making a game, how do you find your gameplay theme? A gameplay theme is an inherent fact about what the player is doing from moment to moment. Finding it comes down to determining the essential actions that either the player or their character are making. It could be genre-based (most RTS’s have a strong theme of control), level-based (training levels versus challenge levels) or mechanic-based (a dialogue tree has a strong theme of choice).

So to find all your gameplay themes, all you need to do is to brainstorm what the player does at each of these levels. Concentrate on verbs: they choose what to say, learn how to use momentum, control their units. If your game mechanics differ from the norm, concentrate on these differences: what do they mean for the player and how they play the game?

This list becomes your list of gameplay themes: the thing from which you can then pull story ideas (or in our case, sculpt existing story ideas). This can become a two-way process, as you choose to accentuate a certain mechanic based on your story.

Have any games you’ve played used mirroring effectively? Or is there a game which could be vastly improved by the use of mirroring? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Further Reading

  • A long, long time ago on a blog that’s also on the internet, I wrote an article on Achron, an RTS with real-time time-travel, and the gameplay themes that this (simply amazing) gameplay might allow.
  • “Ludonarrative dissonance” is a term that has caused a lot of stir in the game criticism community, with every angle from “oh god this is the problem with current games” to “well it’s only a problem if you use it wrong” and “this is complete bullcr*p” being touted. The whole thing started with this post by Clint Hocking (I personally agree that Bioshock is ludonarratively dissonant but thought it enhanced the game) – it’s pretty interesting stuff, whichever way you look at it. 

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