I wanted to set down some thoughts about story theme as we at Talespinners use it in computer games, because it’s been coming up in conversations with our mentees. I wanted to talk about why finding a theme early is practically useful and can be a positive influence on the game as a whole.

Theme in narrative is a nebulous concept. It’s defined in different ways depending on who you listen to, but here we’re using it to mean ‘what is this story about’?

While it’s perfectly possible to have themes that are short phrases — such as ‘betrayal’ or ‘falling out of love’ — we try to find themes that are questions. We think this focuses the narrative more clearly, and is a better fit for interactive fiction.

As an example, compare a theme phrased as ‘Euthanasia is bad’ to one phrased as ‘Is Euthanasia bad?’. The former is a moral tale which lays out a clear message, a clear linear path, and focuses around the story’s author and their opinion. Whereas for the latter, you can give the player the opportunity to explore both sides of the question, gaining a fuller understanding of the issues involved, and it naturally leads to the player forming an opinion which potentially leads to interesting variation and branches. That doesn’t mean your work can’t have a moral core, but it does mean that you are laying out a broader canvas and give the player space to form their own ideas.

It also lets you create scenes or characters deliberately aligned with aspects of the theme. You could have different characters supporting different sides of a core thesis, for example — think about the mage/Templar conflict in Dragon Age and how key supporting character viewpoints clash around that central conflict. The central thematic question matters to those characters, and they embody aspects of it, and so bring it to life for the player.

Themes don’t need to be questions, but if you can find one it is often a good generator for story ideas and features.

A good example is Soma. The theme is ‘What does it mean to be human?’ If that were rephrased as statements, for example ‘Copies of a human mind aren’t really humans!’ or ‘Artificial minds can never be real people,’ then it makes for a much shallower experience.

Often people aren’t certain what a theme is when they write their story; it might emerge as the work comes together, it might only come out in editing, or even when you read your first reviews! You don’t need a stated, overt theme for a piece of writing; you certainly don’t need it before you put words on paper.

That said, if you’re developing a game narrative, at Talespinners we think it’s really useful to try and find a theme early on because then you can make good use of it throughout the development of all aspects of the game.

Once you have found your theme, you and your game team can use it as a lens through which to view any feature, scene, character, piece of text, or even mechanic that you are putting into your game. You can ask yourself: this thing that I’m adding, does it enhance the theme? Does it support the theme? Is it totally unrelated to the theme? Does it actually work against the theme?

If it supports or enhances the theme, fantastic!

If it is totally unrelated to the theme — well, that’s not a critical problem. Not everything needs to be directly linked to theme; in fact if everything is it can make a story feel constructed and sterile. But it might make you put this feature low on the priority to include in the game, or make you rethink aspects of it to bring it closer towards the overall theme.

If it works against the theme, then it’s worth considering dropping the idea, or radically reworking it.

While this shouldn’t be the metric you’re using for everything, having the concept that you can take another look at whatever you’re doing through this particular lens is really useful — it helps you take decisions and it helps you come up with relevant features.

We’ve found in the past that when we set off knowing clearly what the theme of a game is, it’s much easier to work it through the fabric of the game and make the gameplay and narrative resonate.

As a case in point, back when Crooked House ran the horror larp game God Rest Ye Merry, we had settled on a theme of reconciliation — everything in the game was tied in to that theme. The main story was focused on it, but so were lots of little sub-stories and personal dramas, even if they were completely unrelated from the other plots in the game.

It set up a resonance to the story; humans are very good at unconsciously being able to discern patterns. I remember a player coming to me after the game and saying that they could feel how the story was going to go at a particular point. It wasn’t a criticism — it wasn’t a feeling that the story was being railroaded. It was ‘oh, I can feel this thing coming, it feels inevitable, and it feels right’. So that when that moment resolved, it felt satisfying.

I believe this was entirely due to us making sure that our stories, our atmosphere, our mood, all resonated with each other and built on each other, focused around that one idea.

An associated idea is the concept of design pillars.Design pillars are key concepts of the game that the game designers use to define that game. For example, ‘it is a stealth game’, ‘it is a horror game’, ‘it explores the relationship between two characters’. These are less specifically about story, and more about game design. However, these pillars are equally useful as lenses to view your story through; you can treat them in the same way as you treat the theme. Does my scene support any of the design pillars? If not, could it? Or should we cut this? Can we make it support more than one pillar? How about a particular character— does that character support any of the pillars?

If you only find your theme late on in story development, it can lead to substantial rewriting to refocus the rest of your story to make sure it reflects that theme — which can mean cuts and late changes.

That may be fine if you’re editing a book. But if you’ve got entire art, animation, and coding teams creating scenes for you, you want to minimise the changes needed to those in the writing process rather than late in production. If you don’t, there can be costs, delays, or even a game that releases with some elements fighting against others.

Ian is a narrative designer and writer of games, films, larp, and books. He is Narrative Director at Ubisoft Stockholm. He is co-founder of Talespinners.