If I gave you a list of well-known movies, I bet that you’ll quickly identify what the theme of the movie is. For example, we know Indiana Jones is pulp, we completely “get” that Army of Darkness is a comedy, and we understand that X-Men III was supposed to be an action movie where Phoenix was…well…The Phoenix. Looking a bit deeper, we can tie specific elements of those creative properties to see secondary themes based on what the movie is about. For example, we know that Indiana Jones is about Indy playing “the hero,” to triumph over the forces of darkness.
Games, on the other hand, may not necessarily be that intuitive. If you think about what a game actually is, it’s really a set of rules that you either manipulate, avoid, or navigate through. In more times than I can count, the games I’ve been involved with have been designed to target as many audiences as possible. In other words, they are designed so that the player designs the theme so it fits with his (or her) style of play. You decide what kind of a game you want to play: action? mystery? political? With that layer of personal involvement, the theme in many games is really driven by the player not by the creator.
Writing game fiction to fit the theme of a game is very challenging because you have to understand not what falls within the boundaries of the theme, but what doesn’t. To get what I’m talking about here, let’s look at one of my favorite player vs. player video games: Soul Caliber III. Having played this game a hundred times or more I know in my deepest heart of health points, that this is an action game, an “I-can-release-some-stress-in-a-5-minute-death-match-fighting-game.” Now say that I want to write a story based on Sophitia, a character who guards a Greek temple and has a small sword and shield. I have the character’s backstory from different elements in the game, but is it enough? How am I going to write a story about a character so that it fits the Soul Caliber theme?
Well, what is Soul Caliber? Hmmm…there’s this gigantic sword of doom and a quest and bad guys like Abyss and…well, shoot. I guess writing a straight-up fantasy story about Sophitia based on the info within the game probably won’t fit the theme. The primary theme of the game is the conflict for a powerful object — a big, damn sword. So if I’m going to write a story that fits the game’s theme (and not just the character), I had better make sure my story is tailored to a “quest” theme which has something to do with a character’s motivation for that huge, evil blade.
For role-playing games, the themes can be even more convoluted. I’ve written quite a bit of fiction for Obsidian: the Age of Judgement. On the surface, this is a straight-up post-apocalyptic game. But is it? When you sit down to play at the table, you have the option of playing a good or bad character. Each character has their own motivation as to how they might fit within “The Zone,” a monolithic structure which was humanity’s last stand. Here, the theme can be action-oriented, investigative, conspiratorial, righteous, heroic, and a mish-mash of other themes thrown in. In a story I wrote entitled, “Glint,” I purposefully experimented with two character types that, on the surface, appear very similar. This story focused on the secondary theme, the character type’s motivations described in the book, to fit within the setting.
But what is the primary theme of Obsidian? To understand that, we have to take a look at why this setting is considered to be “post-apocalyptic.” In Obsidian, humanity’s evil deeds corrupted the energies of the universe, turning “once wise” daemons into horrific monsters that broke through and slaughtered humankind. Morals are the primary theme of Obsidian for the human characters; anger might be the theme for the daemons, which is something I explored in Part One of a fiction series entitled Triad.
So to fit a game’s theme, game writers should be able to strip out the cool graphics and setting descriptions to see what the game is about at its core. Remember, that themes are not the same thing as a game’s setting; and I strongly recommend structuring your story’s plot even before you worry about describing any game’s setting details.