Theory: Themes and Expectations

In thinking about themes for Over the Next Dune, I was reminded of Fantasy Flight Games’ Android. Android was widely, and in my view unfairly, criticized for having a divide between its gameplay and its narrative. It’s a cautionary tale about how themes are interpreted: players rely on a theme’s common associations, and if you’re going to do something different you have to help players bridge the gap.

In Android each player is a private detective trying to solve a crime. At the start of the game there are several suspects. Players put tokens on the suspects which represent evidence that points toward or away from that individual being the perpetrator. At the end of the game whichever suspect the evidence weighs most heavily against is arrested.

Many players hated the way Android handles investigation. The game never tells players who “really” did it, and there’s no smoking gun. It doesn’t flow like a conventional police procedural, where the investigators follow a trail of evidence from A to B to C until arriving at an irrefutable conclusion. Rather, evidence simply accumulates until there’s enough to declare someone the responsible party. A lot of people felt that they were being asked to do a bad investigation, and that the whole game was basically an exercise in framing someone.

However, in my experience as an attorney the accumulation of evidence is exactly how most criminal investigations go. It’s unusual to “break the case open” and be 100% certain about who committed a crime. Even theoretically objective, science-driven evidence like DNA analysis is frequently subject to interpretation and vulnerable to error. Most cases involve evidence that’s still less reliable, like eyewitnesses (studies have shown that eyewitnesses are frequently wrong, even when they say they’re sure about what they saw) and peoples’ recounting of conversations (try to remember everything you said to someone this morning, word for word–it’s not easy, and that’s with no pressure!). All the police can usually do is gather these pieces of evidence, knowing that they aren’t what one might wish for, and see if they sum up to an adequate level of proof.

Android’s problem isn’t that its investigation was implemented badly. To the contrary, I would say that Android’s investigation is unusually realistic. The problem is that many players’ expectations aren’t met. A lot of people go in anticipating the type of procedural story we see on TV and read in books, with a clear right answer to find, and they’re inevitably disappointed.

The lesson of Android, I feel, is that in choosing a theme designers must keep in mind what players will expect. If a game is going to provide something different, the designer needs to go out of his or her way to help the players see where the game is coming from. Android neither delivered what players were looking for nor explained why it wasn’t going to, and so it has consistently been criticized for not doing things it was never meant to do.

I’ll wrap up with an I’m-not-getting-paid-for-this moment: Android can still be found on the shelves and at significant markdowns online. I encourage you to pick it up. It’s much different from other games on the market, and is worth trying out.

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