GDC 10: Theme is Not Meaning

Soren Johnson spent five years working on the Civilization series for Firaxis, eventually landing the job of lead designer for Civilization IV. He also did work on Spore, amongst many other things. He also gave the keynote address of the 2010 Serious Games Summit.

Johnson’s talk, “Theme is Not Meaning,” opened with a simple question: who decides the meaning of a game? The designer, or the player?

Hit the jump for the answer to that question, and a summary of Johnson’s keynote.

It’s the player.

The designer might want a mechanic or a story to mean one thing, but the player is the one intimately dealing with that game, and so his decision as to what the overall theme is will always be the correct one.

When comparing a game’s theme versus a game’s mechanics, though, what defines that game’s ultimate meaning? The theme is, in Johnson’s words, “essentially the skin of the game.” You can buy Star Wars Risk or Lord of the Rings Risk, but it’s still Risk from a mechanical standpoint no matter what the game tokens look like. But to the player, theme is important: you buy Star Wars Risk because you really like Star Wars.

So, thinking about theme, which is the true successor to Warcraft: World of Warcraft, or Starcraft? One takes place int he same fictional universe but with drastically different gameplay, while the other is basically “Warcraft in space.” Depending on whether you value theme over mechanic or vice-versa, your answer may differ.

Johnson moved on and talked about Ticket to Ride, which he called “one of the greatest board games to come out of the last decade.” Over the course of the game, you draw cards and create routes, and you get more points based on how long your route is. It’s a typical railroad management game.

The problem is that the manual thematically frames the game as a sort of Around the World in 80 Days-esque adventure, where the objective is to see which of the game’s characters can travel by rail to the most US cities in just 7 days. According to the manual and the designer-authored theme, the game isn’t about management and building an empire, it’s about travelling.

The actual mechanics, however, don’t jibe with this. If you’re just a traveler, why can you claim routes in any order? Why do claimed routes close for other players? Why does your physical presence on the game board not matter?

So, who decides what Ticket to Ride is about? The player will say they’re playing as a rail baron, and they’re not wrong just because the manual says otherwise – it’s their experience, and they’re the ones playing.

Going back to Risk, Johnson compared it against a similar board game called Diplomacy. Both games involve conquering territories and using army tokens, except for two seemingly minor distances: Risk has sequel turns while Diplomacy has simultaneous turns, and the combat in Diplomacy doesn’t involve any die-rolling.

Though these may seem like small changes, they completely change the experience of playing each game. Diplomacy is about mystery, and trying to read your opponents and imagine what they’ll do, and Risk is about everyone knowing what everyone else is doing, and potentially taking risks to go reach their objectives. There is a great coupling between the the thematic and the mechanical: “Risk is about risk,” Johnson said, “and Diplomacy is about diplomacy.”

Having worked on Spore, Johnson brought it up as a thematically contentious game. It was pitched as a game about evolution, but the creature creator was more about encouraging and exploring the player’s creativity. The theme and the mechanics didn’t sync up.

But are there any games that are truly, mechanically about evolution? Johnson argued for World of Warcraft as a possible contender, due to the community-created idea of builds. Whatever type of character you wanna create, there is an optimum series of upgrades and things you need to do. Johnson referred to this as “Paladin Natural Selection,” as the idea of optimizing your own specialized character shares a lot in common with Darwin’s finches, even though the authored theme is about orcs and war.

Similarly, the Mario games are about timing, not plumbing. Peggle is about chaos theory, not unicorns. Even though Battlefield 2 and Left 4 Dead have different outward themes — “modern combat” and “zombies,” respectively — they are both actually about cooperation.

X-Com is about limited information, not aliens, thanks to the fog of war.

Gears of War is about cover, not aliens.

Starcraft is about asymmetry, not aliens. The three races are fundamentally different gameplay-wise. You can rush, you can boom, or turtle.

Galaga is about pattern matching, not aliens. The player has to predict where are the aliens gonna come from, where are they gonna end up.

After four consecutive examples in this vein, Johnson pointed out that “aliens” is a really common theme for games because it’s an easy theme to map your own mechanics onto.

Players come to certain games with expectations of what they should be, and sci-fi prevents you from relying on those sole expectations. When you play Civ IV, you feel that archers MUST do a particular thing based on what you know about archers — they’ve gotta be long-range attackers. Conversely, in Alpha Centauri, you have no idea what a “mind worm” is, so the designers can create totally new mechanics for that unit without worrying that they seem thematically wrong, in some way.

But what happens when a game’s mechanics don’t match its theme? Johnson brought up Jon Blow’s argument that BioShock claims to be about altruism and the difficulty of being a good person, but the fact that you get the same amount of Adam for either killing or harvesting all the little sisters makes this a thematic lie. “Players see right through this,” Johnson said.

So, who decides what a game like Spore is about?

Science magazine reviewed Spore‘s basic depictions of biology, and found it a total failure.

That’s because they were sold on the idea that the game was specifically about evolution. Not only was Spore not giving you something meaningful about evolution – it was giving you WRONG information about evolution. If you bought into the whole “evolution” theme, that was a real problem.

Does that mean Spore, with its creature creator and focus on player creativity, is actually a game about intelligent design? The dev team joked about it, but that’s the reading most supported by the mechanics.

Johnson moved on to a concept he calls “the agency problem.” Civilization‘s theme is ostensibly about world history. Its mechanics are about becoming an awesome, all-powerful god-king. But in order for Civ to work as a game, the player needs to have abilities that break this theme: you need to be able to know the consequences of your actions, and have top-down decision making, and even be allowed to decide when your nation will undergo a revolution.

The fan community called this the “Eternal China Syndrome”: at some point the game no longer looks like history because the states become very static. No breaking apart, no ups and downs. Everything is as it was. In Civ 3 the team experimented with a Dark Ages feature, but people hated it. In Civ 4, the team allowed players to choose government types in order to create bottom-up decision making, which just really wasn’t all that fun. Nobody ever used them, because people like making decisions.

Louis the sixteenth would ahve really loved a “revolution” button, Johnson said, but Civilization isn’t scholarship. It’s a game.

But can games be scholarship?

A while back, Johnson really wanted to make a game like the book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, which tries to explain why Eurasians were the ones to create guns and steel and conquer the entire world, rather than the Incans.

According to the book, the Incans were simply in a crap part of the world; early on, civilizations could easily share crops and agriculture to the east and west  of a continent because of basic climate uniformity. It’s not possible to share crops between the northernmost and southernmost parts of a continent, because the climate changes are too problematic. Additionally, the Americas only had one domestic animal (the llama) where the Eurasians had a bunch.

“The long and the short of it is, you know, the Incans are doomed,” Johnson said. “There’s no way they can win under these situations.” This sort of geographic determinism may be good scholarship, but it’s really bad game design — who would want to play as a game where your starting location decides everything about your future?

Can Civilization‘s mechanics ever match its theme? Can you make a game that is engaging AND about world history in a meaningful way? Maybe not, Johnson argued, but other mediums are equally incapable of doing the same. Movies are more about stories than world history — if you want history, books are really your only choice.

Instead, why not let the player “play a life”? Why not put them in the shoes of a historical figure and force them to make difficult decisions, like what The Redistricting Game does? The game is about gerrymandering, and the actual gameplay is about drawing districts to further your own political goals. Considering this is exactly what real-life gerrymandering entails, the game has a great theme/mechanic marriage as well as teaching the player something valuable about real life.

Have there been any thematic/mechanic successes in mainstream games? Sure, Johnson argues: sports games, management games a la Sim City, and tactile games like Rock Band. Two of Dan Bunten’s games, MULE and Seven Cities of Gold, were also singled out as great examples.

Johnson pressed that realism wasn’t the key to thematic harmony, however. It can help, but it’s not necessary. Which is a more effective statement about the bombing of Guernica — a photograph of the wreckage, or Picasso’s famous painting? Which feels more right?

Which conveys the feeling of what it’s like to be in a race — Gran Turismo, which focuses on car design and realism, or Mario Kart, which is about unpredictability and constantly shifting player standings?

Theme still matters, though. GTA3 and Crackdown are both fundamentally about open-world stuff, but they have different themes. People look at GTA and complain that it’s indicative of everything that’s wrong with games, and maybe that doesn’t matter, but it’s still true that GTA didn’t HAVE to be about crime. Crackdown wasn’t.

Johnson briefly quoted from Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, where Koster postulates that a Holocaust-skinned version of Tetris could have great mechanics, but also suffer from a repugnant and distancing theme.

But what about Brenda Brathwaite’s Train? It’s another board game about trains where you wanna delvier the most cargo and defeat your opponents, but at the end you find out that your ultimate destination was Auschwitz — that you’re a Nazi trying to get the most Jews to their deaths. And that’s a powerful moment, but does that mean the game is really about the Holocaust if most of its mechanics are still about trains and winning?

If not, can we actually make a true game about the Holocaust, or about evil? If we force players to “play a life,” as Johnson suggested, can we get them to play an evil life?

Going back to The Redistricting Game, Johnson argued that, yes, we can. Gerrymandering is evil — not on a Holocaust scale, but still pretty evil — and the mechanics encourage players to explore and further that evil. The Holocaust itself was actually kind of ironic and self-destructive in that Hitler got the exact opposite of what he wanted in nearly every way, but it might not work to have all of a player’s actions in a game massively backfire just to prove a thematic point.

You may have to do the “Star Trek solution,” where you put everything in the future and then you can talk about it freely — the show couldn’t deal with interractial romance, but it could create green alien women and have Captain Kirk make out with them. 

The Ultima series tackled these sorts of ideas (er, evil and irony, not hot green chicks). In Ultima V, part of the goal of the game is to destroy the underworld, which is full of typical demon Gargoyle dudes. But when you get to Ultima VI, some of the gargoyles appear in your world and start causing problems for humanity. But as the game goes on, you realize that they’re not fundamentally evil characters: they’re just creatures who lived in the underworld who lost everything at the end of Ultima V. The thematic and mechanical answer isn’t to kill the gargoyles, it’s to find a peaceful solution.

So can games actually be about something? Johnson argued that they could, but only if the mechanics deliver on the promise of the theme. Furthermore, the theme only matters if the mechanics enlighten us about it.

At this point, Johnson took audience questions.

One audience member asked why Johnson accused Train thematic disharmony if Train is, in fact, supposed to be about the banality of evil and the fact that the player, even if unthinkingly, is an administrative Nazi who just doesn’t care about anything but his bottom line?

How are those mechanics not enlightening you about the theme?

Soren agreed that those mechanics do sort of enhance the theme, but that he was trying to make a larger point about what a Holocaust game would actually entail. There’s a bit of a problem with a game like Train where the mechanics make you do one thing and then someone arbitrarily says, oh, you’re not really doing that thing. It’s a one-off game. Train is, in Johnson’s words,  “one of those pieces of art like 3 ½ minutes of silence.” Somebody had to make it, but we can’t keep making stuff in that direction.

The next audience member asked, who are you designing the mechanical meaning for? Are you narrowing the subset of players who want to play your game if you want it to be “about” something? Not everyone’s gonna wanna play The Redistricting Game. Johnson said that he’d think of it as a designer with a target audience in mind, though he’d still hope that everyone could play it because it was fun in some way. Johnson was quick to point out that while every game needs to be a little fun to compel people, “compel” shouldn’t just mean “entertain.”

The final audience question concerned game type and formula, and how much things like the number of players or the length of a game impact the theme.

In Civ 4, Johnson said, they needed to add an option to extend the length of the game. Average playthroughs felt too fast, and didn’t feel like you were building epic civilizations. The basic game scenario is an important issue to Johnson, and also leads into the question of singleplayer vs multiplayer. Certain things you can only explore in singleplayer. Multiplayer games are all about beating other people, and singleplayer games aren’t so limited.

Anthony Burch