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Three Moves Ahead Episode 93: Theme, Mechanics and Meaning

December 3rd, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 10 Comments · Design, Podcast, Three Moves Ahead


GWJ’s Lara Crigger and JTS’s Todd Brakke join Troy and special guest Soren Johnson in a wide ranging talk about how how theme and mechanics work together or fight each other. What is Left for Dead really about? Why are themes so important to Lara? How do mechanics translate meaning? Why is Civilization so ahistorical? What about Facebook’s cookie cutter games? Do only game designers care about this stuff?

Lara loses her train of thought for the first time ever, Todd makes some sense and Soren is his usual impressive self. And more on X-Com.

Listen here.
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Theme is Not Meaning Part 1, Part 2
Redistricting Game (referred to as “Gerrymandering Game” on the show)
Soren’s GDC talk as summarized by Destructoid


10 Comments so far ↓

  • Wolfox

    To add to the conversation, here’s a list of a few strategy games (not mentioned in the podcast) that marry theme, gameplay and meaning very, very well, IMHO:

    Armageddon Empires – this is a game about small groups of survivors fighting for resources and survival in a post-apocalyptic world, and trying to establish “pocket empires” out of the leftovers of global destruction. Everything about it works in order to meet that theme, and give it meaning – from the low amount of resources, to the small number of units, to the importance of each command unit you have – everything works together to give you a glimpse of such an apocalyptic world, and what it means to survive and perhaps “thrive” on it.

    Solium Infernum – this is a game about archfiends fighting to rule Hell. Again, the game mechanics fit the theme perfectly (diplomacy, deception, second-guessing, double-crossing – you have to *think* like a “devil” to succeed).

    AI War – this is a game about survival, about guerrilla war against a much more powerful enemy (the AI in the title). And the gameplay suits that extremely well.

    Dominions 3 – “pretenders” fighting to take the place of a vanished God. Epic high fantasy. Regular readers of FoS will know this one very well, and thus I don’t have to talk much about it.

    Sword of the Stars – this looks, at first sight, as a typical 4X game. But as you play, you notice how the theme works well with the gameplay, and the lore behind each of the races. Granted, much of the meaning is provided by the “lore” of the game, but there’s quite a bit that appears in the gameplay – for instance, playing as Zuul and Hivers is completely different, for reasons that have everything to do with the way races are set up, the overall theme for the game, and the lore behind it.

    Uplink – this is a game about being a hacker, and even the “main plot” can only be found through hacking. It’s brilliant.

    Blood Bowl – no comments. The title is self-explanatory. :-)

  • JonathanStrange

    I really enjoyed the conversation. I think if I had thought of theme and gameplay more before, during and after a game, I might have avoided some purchases, understood more games, and realized why others probably never were intended for the goals I wanted out of them.

  • krise madsen

    Great podcast, great guests, great host, as always.

    At least as far as X-COM, Soren hit the nail: The game mechanics really made me feel as if I was in charge of defending the earth. Which is why Terror from the Deep worked just fine, despite the oversize maps. And why Apocalypse didn’t: Sure the game mechanics might have been somewhat flawed (but this was X-COM after all, so my tolerance threshold was unusually high). But I didn’t feel like I was in charge of Earth’s defence. More like a CEO trying to expand my business in competition with others. The game mechanics suggested a Syndicate-like game rather than X-COM.

    Lara mentioned Pirates, which made me remember something about MicroProse games. Playing them, I repeatedly found myself thinking “these games play just like I’d expect such a game to play”. I.e. their game mechanics matched the themes. Just like Pirates.

  • Ruskov

    Facebook-type games are for people who are not gamers.The goal of playing them is not the same like video gaming.Like the example with Millionaire city is a simplified and stretch in time SimCity.
    And i feel that we lose great man like Soren for video gaming.

  • mrEvans

    As usual, another great podcast.

    I couldn’t help but think though that the mechanics may be somewhat overweighted in the discussion. We may be missing the forest for the trees here. Good game mechanics are certainly a very important aspect of the game. Mechanics drive tactics. However, scenarios drive strategy. Virtually all games involve some strategy. The theme of the game allows a designer to put the player in a scenario where tactics must be employed. The really great games involve scenarios which are quintessential to the theme and fitting environments for the application of mechanics. If said scenarios can be structured into a narrative with some smooth transitions and elements of player choice (and perhaps chance) then we’re talking about a great game… as long as it isn’t ruined by dumb AI or technical bugs.

  • Bridger

    Great Podcast!

    As for how to make diplomacy a game where you feel less bad about backstabbing your friends:

    Enforced Role Playing (This may not work well for all groups). Give each nation a leader from their history (Napoleon, Bismark, King George, Czar Alexander, etc.). No player may ever address a person by their actual name, but only by their title/psydonym. So you may address the leader of britain as “your majesty” or “the king” and Leader of germany could be “Otto” or “Chancelor” etc.

    This alone might be enough to make it feel like it isn’t your friend tom that you are backstabbing, but it’s those dirty english/french/whatever. In addition, your friend will not think you are turning aginst them, but rather that it’s that damned Bismark and his barbarian horde!

    I’ve always wanted to try this, not sure how you’d enforce it though. Maybe a slip up of mentioning a real name in the context of the game means you may give n-1 orders this turn (where n is the number of armies/navies you have). Obviously, if people want to take a break and grab food or whatever, that issue would be lifted. But this might be enough to get people into the right mindset to play the game without it being too painful for the betrayer, or the betrayed.

  • Andrew Doull

    While the zombie theme doesn’t fit what the players do very well in Left4Dead, it does fit the AI director mechanic to a t.

  • Michael

    To expand on what Wolfox said in the first comment, I’ve been playing a lot of AI War lately and have been very impressed. Among other things, I think it does a great job of marrying the mechanics to the theme of the game: overcoming seemingly-impossible odds.

    One could say that, by design, AI War will inherently come together thematically and technically the way few others can. It’s a story about fighting a computer program where the main mechanic is… fighting a computer program. (To point out that the game itself is also a computer program is getting a little meta.)

    It’s hard to argue with the results, though: the constant threat of the AI hangs over the head of the player, creating an oppressive environment similar to what the fictional remaining human are up against. If they attack the AI it will see the players as a threat, learn from what they did, and kill them. If the player does nothing, the AI will still grow stronger while the player’s resources will dwindle. After that, it will kill them. Those last two sentences described both the theme AND the mechanics – which might be a good indicator of when a game is successful in this regard. (Or, again, that it happens to occupy the almost too-easy space of having the task of “beating the computer”.)

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    Great show, one of my favourite 3MAs in some time. I’ve been thinking about this topic for some time, loved Soren’s article, and loved the discussion itself. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that two of the strategy games that addressed this issue very well, Dominions and X-Com, are also among my all-time favourites.

    It’s not just strategy games that have this problem. Following on from the talk about Left 4 Dead, I think JRPGs are particularly bad offenders: the ostensible theme is about saving the world, but the mechanics are about hitting ‘attack’ to mow down row after row of all-too-cute random monsters (there are, of course, exceptions).

    In contrast, Star Control 2 melds theme and mechanics really, really well — one reason why I loved that game. I blogged about this a few days ago (see my website link), though not in those exact terms. SC2, thematically, was about being an Exploring Space Captain — and mechanically, it was about being an Exploring Space Captain who took notes, solved puzzles, met weird and wonderful new alien species, and saved the galaxy. Every RPG designer should play that game.

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