Theory: Theme By Doing

One of the most thematic games I’ve ever played is also one of the simplest. Utopia Engine is a print-and-play game that uses a greyscale map, a pencil, and some dice to simulate an artificer trying to rebuild an ancient machine. The game accomplishes that by transmitting, not the mental experience of building a singular work of mechanical brilliance, but the physical experience of fiddling with knobs trying to get the darn thing to work. In doing so it reminds me that a game’s theme can be implemented, not just at an intellectual level, but also through the actions players physically take during the game.

When we think about a game’s thematic power we usually take a bird’s-eye perspective. Is the artwork compelling? Do the mechanics produce the same incentives that a similarly-situated person in the real world would encounter? Are the rules of the real world enforced in a sensible way?

By contrast, we rarely worry about the more grounded issue of what the players are physically doing. If a board game about World War II aerial dogfighting has realistic art for the planes, mechanics that encourage players to use strategies real pilots used, and limits on maneuverability appropriate to the era, it’s a thematic game. We forgive the abstraction wherein players fly by moving pieces on a map rather than using a joystick and throttle.

We shouldn’t assume, however, that the players’ physical actions must necessarily be abstract. To the contrary, getting players to do something that feels like the activity being simulated can be very powerful. It’s like food that both tastes good and smells good; just the former is great, but having both is amazing.

That’s where Utopia Engine comes in.

Utopia Engine is about putting together a half-understood device using scavenged parts and incomplete blueprints. It could have simulated the painstaking work of getting old and weathered pieces of a machine to work, and work together, in many ways: completing sets of cards, perhaps, or drawing specific chips from a cup.

Instead, the game has players roll dice and choose boxes in which to put the results, trying to set up arithmetic equations that produce desired answers. It feels exacting, unpredictable, and even math-y. It feels, in other words, just like we imagine the work of a semi-mystical artificer trying to rebuild an ancient and complex artifact would feel!

Utopia Engine has nice art and sensible mechanics, but it’s the feel that really brings the theme home. Playing the game by taking notes and doing math—the very sorts of things an artificer might do at the workbench—puts the player in the game in a very immediate way. By asking the player to do thematic things, Utopia Engine creates an unusually compelling experience.

Other games have also taken this approach to good effect. In Thebes, a game about excavating archaeological sites, players “dig” by reaching into a bag full of cardboard chits–some representing treasure, others with simple dirt–and pulling one out. Thebes’ designers could have achieved the same technical result by having players draw cards from a deck, but actually digging for the valuable pieces adds immeasurably to the atmosphere.

Board games are not the only type of game that can deploy this approach. Flight simulators, car racing games, and rhythm games all have spawned whole cottage industries devoted to providing specialized controllers that closely mirror real-world equipment. Those controllers are not necessary for good play; one could very well succeed at Rock Band or Guitar Hero using a QWERTY keyboard. Rather, they are popular because flying a video game plane using a joystick, or driving a video game car with a wheel, makes the experience more convincing and real. The special controllers allow the theme to extend beyond the TV screen and into the player’s hands.

There’s nothing wrong a game whose theme works on an entirely intellectual level. My own Lines of Questioning is exactly that sort of game, one where the theme is in the thinking and player’s actions have no real-world parallels. (“Your Honor, I move to . . . play this tile!”) However, it’s worth remembering that theme can also be expressed through what the player does to interact with the game—and that bringing a game’s theme out in that way can be exceptionally powerful. Keep an eye out for opportunities, like Utopia Engine’s die-rolling-as-machine-maintenance and Thebes’ bags of dirt and treasure, to take advantage of that possibility.

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