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  • The Writing Game: Finding The Themes

    - Gregory Pellechi

  • Themes don't occur without effort

    Sure the first and basest versions of them may occur, but that's the case for any medium. The first draft always has something worthwhile in it. It's why we rewrite and edit. Editing is iteration.

    To do so successfully or well, since the two are not always the same, requires taking a step back. Not just from the script but the game. In the process of writing or designing it can be and is difficult to know what you have. Things automatically make sense in your head because you know what you mean. It takes no effort to describe to yourself what your intentions are. It's different when you're communicating with another person. So, as with all forms of communication, in writing we have to seek clarity and test to make sure.

    Games are no different. By and large they've gotten really good at testing most aspects of them to see that they're working. It's why Destiny 2's gun combat can feel so fun and good. A weird concept when you stop to think that I am actively saying "it feels good to shoot someone in a video games." Games are not so good at testing the story. We don't have screenings like film does to see if it works for an audience. Of course even with film they're not always changing things to make movies comprehensible or logical.

    The fact is there is no firm way to go about finding the themes

    Beyond self-examination and critical analysis at every stage. Every game is created in a different manner. By that I mean some games are created with a mechanic in mind, others want to evoke a feeling, and still others have a story to tell or at least an IP to use.

    Whatever the case, it takes iteration and editing of the story to bring out the themes and hone them to something that speaks to players. That takes time, something to often not given to the story. Some themes exist without the need to do much work. Oppression and fighting are going to be inherent to any work dealing with the Nazis or fascism. Just look at Wolfenstein - you're quite literally trying to fight oppression.

    But Machine Games went one further in the two latest versions - The New Order and The New Colossus - they didn't merely demonstrate the Nazis as being a force a soldier contends with but one society does. As fun as it can be to punch Nazis the games show you a world under the thumb of the Nazi regime and how everyone is affected for the worse by it. They made games where it's not just Allied soldiers who have to fight nazis but women, children, Africans and African-Americans, Jews, Christians, and even former Nazis as is the case of Klaus Kreutz who turned on them when his own son was killed by the Nazis for a birth defect.

    This is further illustrated in The New Colossus when American Klu Klux Klan members, who are Nazi supporters, welcomed the Nazis regime to the US are being forced to convert to speaking German. Even in their own ostensible homeland white supremacists are being oppressed. Machine Games have done brilliantly at showing across two games how Fascism and oppression hit at home. They have written and emphasised a theme and message in such a way that the games reinforce it not just through the story but level design, sound design and world-building.

    Mechanics is another issue. But it wouldn't be a Wolfenstein game if you weren't a Jewish superpowered übermensch. Which itself is clearly a knock at the idea of the übermensch being a strictly aryan ability.

    Your game is going to have a message

    That message can be explicit or implied. Or it can sit somewhere on the spectrum between the two. Where it is and how well it does of course will be determined by your writing. Themes will help convey a message. They will help a player understand what you as a writer or creator are trying to say, or the feeling you're hoping to impart. But they will only do so if you know what you're trying to say. But more on messaging in games on a future episode.

    For now I figure I'll just end this with a mention of some of the themes in Firewatch and Gone Home, which are isolation, connection and the self. It's the same themes for them both. And no, I won't waste your time by arguing those points, you can always hit me up on Twitter if you want to know more.

    Unlike the Witcher 3 or Wolfenstein, both Firewatch's and Gone Home's mechanics help to emphasize their themes. Now it's not always possible, based on the story of the game and its genre. If you want to tie a story's themes to other aspects of the game beyond just the narrative that's going to require two things - 1) the story is written at the beginning to allow for editing and iteration and 2) Those themes are communicated to the rest of the team so they are given the chance to explore them and in turn impact the narrative as well.


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