Saturday, 14 November 2009

toolkit: theme

Theme is a proposition set down, a connecting or dominant idea to be explored, the message you want to convey so that when you stand back, you see it writ large on your story or game.  The classics of story and interactive gameplay have strong themes.  You can play without theme - it's predominantly mechanical play where luck, strategy and rapport with other players matter more than thinking out of the box and using your imagination. 

Theme must also speak to the reality the audience currently inhabits, the big picture.  If a theme is relevant to our wider experience it will resonate with us and some stories gain considerable momentum when released at the right time.  Equally some games and stories have social footprints be it raising awareness of health issues or encouraging virtual tourism or even joining a game by donating to cancer treatment.

To communicate a theme, support it with relevant content.  Give the audience situations that fulfill dramatic, informational and emotional needs while discussing the theme or issues preceding from it.  These can be illuminated by genre conventions, amplified by tension and flavoured by sense memory.  Two guys sitting on opposite sides of a table isn't exciting.  An interrogation or police interview?  That's a different story...

Backstory and characters are two additional tools to induce interest.  Backstory has been used to mechanical video games more interesting for a very long time now and even provides context for movies.  Characters are not only story engines by driving the plot forward, they serve as behavioural models to induce empathy, awe  or even admiration in the audience.

By linking the theme and it's related concepts to relevant and entertaining situations, by embedding it in the background and hooking it to characters, a game or story can take it's audience for a ride they'll enjoy and remember.  Finding a good fit and making it feel natural is a matter of craft and practice.  Stories can be owned until they become natural and when this happens it becomes even more powerful.

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