Back in the 80s, I spent rather a lot of time playing Elite. It was the first computer game to have 3D graphics (that I can remember). Up until then, it was all platform games and scrolling shooters. Elite was a space adventure simulator. The ships and space stations were only wire-frame models, but when your whole experience has been 2D, any kind of 3D looks amazing.
A large part of the game involved buying goods at one space station and selling them for a profit at another space station. You would spend the profit you made upgrading your ship or buying bigger and better ships. The rest of the time you would be fighting off pirates trying to steal your cargo. And get this: you would be flying around shooting those pirate ships… in 3D!
It was incredibly immersive. One of the key reasons for that was the theme. I could really imagine myself flying around the galaxy, trying to make a living while ridding the popular trade routes of pirate scum. It was as close as I could get to Star Wars. And did I mention it was in 3D?
Theme is really important to me. I have a vivid imagination and tend to think in pictures. When I play a game, whether it’s a board game or a computer game, I like to imagine myself in the universe that the game has created. It’s a form of escapism.
Mechanics can be engaging, but without theme there is a limit to how involved I will become. To be a great game, theme must be part of the package. Otherwise you’re just pushing cubes around in a mental efficiency exercise.
Personally, I love sci-fi and fantasy, but many people don’t. They prefer themes that are more grounded in reality. I think this is part of the reason why Pandemic has been so successful. People relate to the theme. They can easily imagine diseases spreading around the world and the logistics challenge that would be involved in combatting such a disaster.
You get to choose a character to play: a scientist, a medic, an operations manager – it makes sense. Despite the rather abstracted nature of the game (at the end of the day, you are literally pushing cubes around), people are able to suspend their disbelief.
My sister is generally not bothered about playing games. She is a very practical person. I introduced Pandemic to her and her husband late one evening after all the kids had gone to bed though, and she was hooked. “Again!” she declared, after we lost the first game.
“Again!!” She was even more determined after we lost for the second time. She clearly wasn’t going to let herself be beaten by a game. ‘I really hope we win the next one,’ I thought to myself, ‘or we’ll be here all night!’ Thankfully we were able to pull it out of the bag on the third attempt and I could go to bed.
My sister wanted to save the world!
It wasn’t the clever mechanics that got her. Although Pandemic combines strategy with simplicity exceedingly well, my sister wanted to save the world! That was what got her coming back for more each time. That and a healthy dose of competitiveness!
So when I look at new games, very often I look at the theme first. Is the theme clearly evident? If I can’t tell what it’s about quickly, that’s always a worrying sign. When people explain the rules of a game to me, I don’t want them to start with mechanics. I want to know, ‘What’s the big picture? Who am I? What am I trying to do?’ I want theme!
To finish today, I thought I’d share a few of my favourite games that do theme really well. Games where I actually imagine myself as one of the characters in the game. Immersive games. If theme is as important to you as it is to me and you haven’t tried one or more of these, check them out!
Not for everyone. This is very heavy, but very thematic as well. A fantasy adventure. Kill the monsters, get the treasure, level up and defeat the bad guy in an epic final battle.
Survive the haunted house with your sanity intact. A Cthulhu-themed adventure with an integrated app, which really adds to the atmosphere.
This is THE epic, two-player, good vs. evil, war game for Lord of the Rings. Captures the whole saga in one thoroughly engrossing game. But maybe evil will win this time!
This is THE epic, two-player, good vs. evil war game for Star Wars! Like War of the Ring, this one really encapsulates the whole Star Wars universe. And yes, the Imperials get to blow up planets!
A co-operative adventure where the players keep looping back through time, playing the same events over and over until they manage to accomplish their designated task. Think Groundhog Day with more action and wildly varying themes from one scenario to the next.
How important is theme for you? Does it make or break the game or is it just nice to have?