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  • When Theme And Mechanics Collide

    - James Margaris
  • Today I'm looking at the importance of well-aligned theme and mechanics. "Theme" here is less "meaning" or "narrative" and more "theming" - Marvel Super Heroes is superhero-themed and Darkstalkers is themed around Universal-style classic monsters.

    Misaligned mechanics and theme can be an invisible problem. Complaints often focus on the expression of the problem rather than the root cause: that the rules are hard to remember and unintuitive, that the game never quite clicks.

    This piece comes in two parts: in the first I'll look at examples of theme and mechanics in and out of alignment, and in the second I'll draw distinctions between that analysis and an ostensibly similar but far less valuable critical concept.


    Player and critic reviews of the recently-released Overland read similarly and repeatedly touch on a few core issues.The game is opaque and it's hard to know what things do without trying. Rules feel arbitrary: why does a 4-person car hold hold 3 people, and why do dogs count as people in that restriction? Can dogs use objects and weapons? Why are enemies, who detect based on sound, drawn to a car that's turned off? Why can an able-bodied person with two hands carry only one small item, while a backpack gives them space for just one additional item? Why does a car trunk have the same inventory space as a backpack?

    Let's examine one particular complaint in detail: that the car looks like it should fit 4 people but only holds 3. By itself this isn't a crippling issue with the game, but it's representative of a pervasive problem.

    How many people and dogs can fit into a 4-seat car, in an apocalypse scenario where not fitting into a car means death? Probably 5 or 6 people and another 2 or 3 dogs. But let's say, despite the apocalypse, you demand a comfortable fit. In that case a car can hold say 4 people and 2 dogs? But in Overland one person and two dogs fill a car that's themed as a 4-person coupe.

    Overland is a game that can be understood on a purely intellectual level but that defies intuitive understanding. With time you can learn that cars fit 3 and have the same item space as backpacks, but that will never make sense unless you give up, admit "it's just a game", and ignore the thematic cues.

    Overland is full of these sorts of issues. Here's an excerpt from the Touch Arcade review:

    While the game can be forgiven for some level of contrivance to increase the tension, some of the developer's decisions strain believably. [sic] Vehicles, which can helpfully run down the game's smaller creatures, can't make U-turns, meaning that going backwards requires painfully backing up one a single square at a time. Between each level, characters stop to rest and talk to each other about what's happening, but they can't use their items during this time, leading to absurd situations such as an injured character sitting by a campfire and complaining that they need to find a medkit while one is fully in view, strapped to the back of their car.

    I'm sure there are good gameplay reasons for these decisions. U-turns would require extra UI and add level layout requirements. Characters can't use items between levels because a key conceit is that actions are a limited resource with tradeoffs.

    But those good gameplay reasons don't fit the presentation layer. According to the wiki the minivan can fit 5 people but no items - somehow a minivan can't fit a single knife! I assume this was done to differentiate the minivan from the car: the car holds fewer people but more items, and the truck holds even fewer people and even more items. According to some this is "good game design" - games should pose a series of interesting decisions, after all.

    Many Euro-style board games get away with bottom-up mechanics with a weak theme thrown on top. Overland feels like it would work better as a board game. If the car was a little plastic piece it could represent any sort of car, including a 3-person one. A single knife fitting into a backpack is easier to swallow if all items are abstract representations like counters or cards. Nobody cares that in Monopoly you can play as a shoe, an inanimate object that can't legally own property. But Overland couldn't get away with a playable shoe. The 3d rendered game world of Overland is a realization, not an abstraction. You can see a car. Not a representation of a car, but an actual car. And see that it should fit four people.

    The developers are doing what they can to add UI and explanations, but the underlying problem is deeply entrenched. The ideal fix would be changing the mechanics to more closely match the presentation: the car should fit four people, characters should be able to use items at campfires, etc. Or the theming should be changed to match the mechanics: the car should be remodeled to be a tiny smart car with one row of seats. The campfire scenes should be replaced with frantic chases that imply no time for idle action.

    The Implication

    Examining theme and mechanics by isolating one and asking what it implies about the other is a useful tool in the designer's toolkit. This is commonly done in the theme-to-mechanics direction: an army-themed game is going to include firing a gun and lobbing grenades. It's less common, but still useful, to think in the other direction: given just the mechanics of the game what sort of theme do they suggest?

    Let's strip Street Fighter down to pure mechanics. You might describe it like "you kick and punch each other until you one of you is knocked out" but that's not quite right: Ryu only punches because they drew him that way. Punching isn't a mechanic, it's presentation.

    The mechanics, at the most pedantic level, are more like this: "you press buttons that activate hurt and hit boxes. When your hit boxes overlap their hurt boxes their main resource number drops, and when that number hits zero you win the round." Another way to think about this is what is the minimal representation of Street Fighter that still conveys the mechanics? It's a line for the ground, some blue (hurt) boxes, some red (hit) boxes, maybe a green box for character position and dimension, and numbers for the timer and HP.

    Guile doing a low fierce

    Even with all traces of theme stripped away the mechanics of Street Fighter still strongly imply a game about one-on-one fighting. The two characters have roughly human proportions, even when only viewing the hit and hurt boxes. The hitboxes appear where legs and arms would reasonably be located. Without graphics Street Fighter could be a game about robots fighting, but it's probably not a game about cars ramming. This is a good sanity check on the integration of mechanics and theme - the game is thematically about what the mechanics alone suggest.

    Moving forward I'll apply this sort of examination to the games discussed.


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