Hello, I'm Johnnemann Nordhagen, a designer and programmer who has worked on games such as the Bioshock series, Gone Home, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, and Weird West. I am currently a technical narrative designer at Ubisoft Stockholm.
Recently, in recognition of the five-year anniversary of my game, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, I wrote a short piece about its design and production. In the process of doing that, I found out that a talk I gave several years ago (How to Make Jaws Without A Shark, for Full Indie 2019) no longer exists on the Internet, and I decided to break down the ideas in that talk and the anniversary piece into a broader exploration of what I like to call Thematic Design.
Generating Pillars with Themes
The aim of thematic design is to generate design and narrative pillars for a game. I'm assuming most people are familiar with the concept of pillars, but this is the way I think about them: the point of these principles is to provide something to consult when you need to ask a question about your game's direction, to make a decision on something. They provide a set of values you can check yourself against, or a source of inspiration when you're at a loss. And I think there are a number of reasons a thematic approach is perfect for this role.
I'm treating themes here as the core things you want your work to say or concern itself with. For many people, this is a natural way of approaching the development of video games. For others, it might be a foreign technique. I don't mean here that your work has to have A Message, or be didactic, necessarily. But every work we make as people ends up saying something about the world and our view of it, so you might as well set out to make sure it says something intentional.
There are other good reasons for using themes as guiding principles, too. For one, it's worked for other narrative art forms for a long, long time. It's a great place to start thinking about games, as well. The themes of a work can touch every aspect of that work, and since we're looking for a way to answer any questions that might arise during development, themes seem like a rich ground for that. It's possible that your themes might not tell you how to lay out your graphics options menu, but on the other hand, who knows?
And then lastly, themes can be executed at virtually any level of constraint. While some game pillars might give way under budgetary concerns, or technical limitations, there's generally a way to find a thematic resonance no matter how much money or engine you can throw at it. That means that if those constraints change partly through development, you don't have to tear down pillars or erect new ones, you can simply shift how elaborately you're responding to the themes you want to express.
So, how do we do this?
I want to walk through two examples. The first is a hypothetical adaptation of the 1975 movie Jaws—as you may have inferred, that's what I based my earlier talk on.
Jaws is obviously a complete work in itself, and if one were really adapting it into a game, they should probably include a shark, or be prepared to face angry gamers and rightsholders, but the idea of my talk was—if you distilled Jaws down to its themes, could you make a game that said similar things as the movie while being a totally different work?
I broke Jaws down into four key themes, as I saw them (I'm sorry, this assumes that you're familiar with the movie—if not, it's worth watching).
Humanity vs. Nature The classic conflict of wild and untamed nature against civilization. The beast of the sea tearing into the security and comfort of the resort community is clear here.
Greed vs the common good Another classic theme, this is seen in the conflict between the sheriff, who wants to close the beaches to keep everyone safe, and the mayor, who says that will rob the town of the summer tourist business.
Fear of the unknown A staple of horror media, this brings in our common fear of mysterious creatures and places like the deep sea.
Models of masculinity The movie, by putting three very different men (Jaws basically does not contain non-male characters) in the same situation, becomes very concerned with what it means to be a man. As the grizzled shark-hunter, the brilliant scientist, and the dweeby family-man sheriff compare scars and war stories during a round of drinking, the audience is invited to compare these models of manhood.
If we used these four themes as lodestars with which to build a game, we probably wouldn't end up with Jaws. But we would end up with a work that concerns itself with the same basic ideas. And these provide a powerful set of values that we can query when we need to ask ourselves questions about the game's design. For instance, immediately, we can see that there are two themes here that speak about conflict between two sides. So if we're looking at art style, perhaps we want two different styles that oppose each other. Or for narrative, perhaps we want the player to feel these conflicts in the choices they make. And if we're looking at gameplay verbs, fear of the unknown suggests an exploration into mysterious or terrifying ground, perhaps with safe spaces to retreat to. And then the models of masculinity might suggest a different approach to characters, perhaps giving the player three different viewpoints on the game. I've made up all of these, and maybe different answers suggest themselves to you, but I think this shows that these can be fruitful places to look when we're trying to solve problems in game design.
I next want to walk through the decisions I made when I was designing Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, Dim Bulb Games' award-winning narrative game from 2018. While I had not formalized this process yet as much as I have now, I used the same ideas to figure out how to approach that game and solve some of the problems that arose during development.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a game about traveling America during the Great Depression, collecting stories, and spreading them. The player takes on the role of an anonymous wanderer who loses a rigged poker game to a wolf-headed man (played by the musician Sting), dooming themselves to take on the task of collecting stories. The wanderer has small adventures, which become tales they can tell around the fire to sixteen different characters. The player's goal is to collect the characters' own true stories of their lives and times. As the wanderer tells the stories of their adventures, the tales spread and grow more fantastic, 'leveling up' into folklore and becoming more potent to tell around the fire.
This game came from a set of themes that I was interested in at the beginning of development.
Travel, the sense of adventure from being on the road, a classic literary theme.
Folk culture, the seamless sharing and remixing of stories and music that was the norm before the modern era of mass media and copyright
American roots music, blues, jazz, bluegrass, folk and similar styles, and the way those feed into the above folk culture and American mythmaking
Darkness and despair punctuated by flashes of hope, I wanted to make a game about the dark, bleak direction that I saw the world headed in, the political problems in the US and the world (this was in 2014), my own depression, and the ways in which joy, wonder, and awe sometimes tore through the darkness to illuminate our lives.
Combined, these themes led me in what felt like an obvious direction: a game set in the Great Depression, in a world of folk tales and weirdness, traveling like the hoboes of the time. They led me to a gameplay style that was like traversing a JRPG with an overworld map punctuated by adventures, but without combat. Part of the reason I have come to believe theme-driven design is such a powerful tool is that all of these decisions felt effortless and, in fact, inevitable.
The themes helped later in development, too, when I was stuck with an economy and gameplay loop that didn't really work, I went back to these themes and added the idea of watching the stories grow from your own adventures into tall tales. That added another component to the design which really improved the gameplay experience, but in a way that was totally consistent with everything the game already was.
The application of themes to the design of narrative games and narrative-heavy games is easier to swallow, but I think this is actually applicable to any genre. Remember, the goal here is not to hit your audience over the head with these themes, but rather to provide yourself with a good source of creative answers to the challenges of making a game. If you have a strong thematic base it helps every part of your game sing, and provides a level of natural cohesion that otherwise might be missing. If you decided you wanted to take Jaws' themes of nature vs humanity and greed vs the common good into a racing game, perhaps that only ends up showing up in the design of the track environments and some flavor text in the racer bios, but at least those things will be consistent throughout the game, and if you end up saying something to your players it will be something you meant to say! And who knows, perhaps the inclusion of these themes will give you a radical new idea for how your racing game should work.
Themes at Any Level
Unless we're a solo indie, most of us are not in the business of inventing a game whole cloth—usually, at least some aspects of the game are handed down from somewhere, and the constraints we're given this way are probably not phrased in terms of themes. "A multiplayer shooter for the 18-25 demographic with a crafting system" is more likely. Or perhaps our role is not overall creative leadership but one portion of the game, like UI design. Going to basic themes can still be a good guide for our work, and these themes can be extracted from or inspired by the constraints that we have. For instance, a crafting system implies an interest in building things or perhaps reusing things. Or if a narrative world has been created, perhaps themes can be extracted from the setup you've been given and can provide an important lens onto your own creative decisions.
Themes for Everyone
Your game will say something; it will have a message of some type for your players. It may go unnoticed by most if it aligns with a status-quo vision, but even in that case, it's saying something. It might be saying multiple different conflicting things if different people put differing perspectives throughout the game. In the end, I think it's better to know what you're saying and to have control over it! Approaching your design grounded in what you want to say is a way of achieving that, as well as an effective approach to answering the many, many questions that always arise throughout the development process.