November 25, 2014

The Player’s Point of View: Theme and Framing the Experience

So a while ago I started a Google spreadsheet file dubbed the “Game Tracker,” wherein I keep list of games that I’m interested in playing in the future. As the list grew and grew; and then grew some more – in concert with my available time shrinking and shrinking; and then shrinking some more – putting the games into an assortment of buckets so that I could prioritize my interest among like-seeming games became important. But hold onto this thought!

Now rewind back two years (give or take) when I was working more actively on the Game Genome Project. If you need a refresher, the Game Genome Project is a BGG guild comprised of various individuals looking to develop a nomenclature and/or classification scheme for boardgames. The basic premise of the project is this:

The Game Genome Project is a comprehensive and collaborative effort to identify the full range of traits (aka genes or characteristics) that can be used to describe board games along with the corresponding tools and practices for assessing and assigning these traits to individual games. The purpose of these activities is to provide the board game community with a more effective and commonly understood lexicon (vocabulary) for discussing board games and support analytical investigation of the boardgaming hobby.

One of the “traits” to investigate relates to the theme of a game, and we quickly arrived at two major distinctions: the theme as it relates to mechanics (level of abstraction vs. fidelity), and the theme itself as a subject and frame of reference for the experience. Theme as it relates to mechanics is a highly fascinating topic, and will be covered in more detail in the future. Till then, and to satiate your burning desires, I’ll direct your attention to this most excellent post by qwertymartin: How do you wear your theme sir?

As for theme as subject and frame of reference, there are a few key dimensions we considered: Scope, Setting, and Subject (yes, I deliberately made them all s-words!). To discuss how these work and apply, I’m going to bring us back to my little “Game Tracker” conundrum and see how these dimensions of defining a game’s theme might be used as a frame for understanding different experiences. Here we go!

Subjected to Subjects

First off, let’s consider the “subject” of game. The subject of a game can be a great many things; a nearly infinite menu of possibilities really. It could be trading, or political infighting, or subterranean exploration, or racing, or organized crime, or survival, and so on. Many of these subjects can and do suggest a certain place or timeframe – but I like to think about the subject a bit separated from time and place. You can have a game about “Trading” that is set in space (Merchants of Venus), or Trading in the Mediterranean (not again!), or cargo ship trading (Container), and so on.  When thinking about a game's subject, I try to take a more universal understanding of it separate from its historic or fictional context, zeroing in on the activity the game trying to model.
The specific subjects we might consider are certainly of interest to people. But the sheer abundance of different subjects makes it quite challenging to use the subject as a corner stone of a thematic organizing structure. So let’s consider the next dimension of theme: setting.

Contextual my dear Watson!

If the subject defines “what” a game is all about, then the “setting” describes the where and when that what is occurring. As with the subject, there are countless settings that can be considered. However, more so then with subject, I feel the setting of a game can be broken down into meaningful sub-categories. I’ve found it useful to think about games along these rough buckets:

Twilight Struggle - A "Real World" Setting

“Real World” settings - historic or current era.
The setting is based on current or historic real world events, times, places, locations, etc. Warfare, as a subject example, can be set within World War 2, or the Cold War (Twilight Struggle), or ancient warfare (Command & Colors: Ancients) in the middle east, or Columbian guerillas (Andean Abyss). These are all based on historical events and real times and places.

“Alternate Reality” settings
These are settings that generally take place “on earth” but represent a historic divergence from reality at some point in the past (or in modern day), perhaps even incorporating a bit of the fantastical and outrageous in the process. For example, various steampunk Victorian, or Lovecraft-ian Cthulhu, or zombie apocalypse settings fall into this bucket. It’s imagining “what if” scenarios. What if steam-technology became far more advanced in the past and reshaped resulting history? What if the Old Ones awoke from the deep? What if you walked outside to get the newspaper and found your neighborhood overrun by zombies? What if indeed!

“Fantasy” settings
The overlap between fantasy, alternative reality (above), and science fiction (below) can be nebulous. That said, I find “fantasy” settings to be those where the preponderance of the setting takes place on a fictionalized world or reality that presents a fundamentally different understanding of reality compared to our own. There might be other rules or forces at work (magic, demonic manifestations of good & evil, etc). And most “fantasy” settings operate at level of technology that is pre-mechanization or less-advanced then recent history and might best be viewed as occurring “in the past.”

“Science Fiction” settings
These settings are imagined realities defined largely by plausible technology that is more advanced than the technology of the current day. Obviously, “plausible” has to be taken with a grain of salt, and the line between plausible and “magical” can be thin or non-existent. But even so, whether the theme fits within the idea of sci-fi or not is largely based on technology explaining the nature of reality, rather then it being controlled by “mystical forces” or something less concrete and rational.

“Abstract” settings and fidelity
Games are necessarily abstractions of the subject and setting and they seek to encompass. While we can consider the level of abstraction that exists within the theme and its relationships to the game’s mechanics irrespective of the setting, “abstract” as a setting also exists. What I find intriguing about considering the abstract as a setting is that it recognizes that abstract games can still be about a particular subject; it’s just that the subject is represented in a abstract manner! For example, there is a fabulous iOS games that resembles Go called “Pathogen.” It is certainly an abstract game, yet it nevertheless manages to be about cells being altered by pathogens – it demonstrates a process and dynamic, albeit in the abstract.

Obviously, there can be all sorts of overlaps within the buckets above. Various role-playing systems and have often combined swords & sorcery with lasers & space ships to yield strange science-fantasy amalgamations. Post-apocalyptic settings (e.g. Fallout universe) straddles the line between science-fiction and alternate reality. Ultimately, this is a bucket system that works well for me, and hopefully it’s a useful structure for others to consider.

Pathogen - Abstract but still with Subject

Scope: Scale and Point of View

The last dimension of theme under consideration relates to “scope.” Scope relates to the scale of control and point of view the player is assumed to have within the game. Said another way, it’s what players are given control and sovereignty over – and as an organizing element is the most interesting in terms of how it shapes the experience a player has in a given game.

I see scope as scale progression from very large (e.g. ruling an entire galactic empire) to quite small and personal (e.g. first-person narrative experience). At broader scales, players are typically managing large volumes of resources over large spatial areas, and often in highly abstracted ways. At finer scales, players are directly controlling a single entity or being, often in highly detailed or narratively personal ways. At the broad end, we’re playing Civilization. At the fine end we might be playing a roleplaying game. And of course, some games manage to bridge across scales and have players managing things at different scales at different times. Yet in these cases I feel it is often the largest scale that dominates and drives the gameplay; and hence most influences the scope of a given game.

So, I’ve used the “scope” as the primary organizing element for my Game Tracker and setting priorities. I tend to enjoy science fiction more than fantasy, and fantasy more than history in my games – but I’d be happy playing a great Civ/4X game that feel taking place in any of those settings. But Civ/4X games all share a common broad-scale scope, and on some level deliver a similar type of experience. When it comes to playing a limited number of games but wanting a range of resulting experiences, I’ll get more diversity out of playing one Civ/4X game and one roleplaying game then playing two Civ/4X games each with a different setting.

Onto the breakdown!

Endless Space - Master of the Galaxy!

Civilization / Empire / 4X Games
These are games at the big end of the scope-scale continuum. Players are typically responsible for managing a multi-faceted empire with an array of issues, including warfare, technology, cultural development, trade, politics, etc. The player lacks (typically) any actual manifestation as a discrete character or entity, and players largely play the game from a “hand of god” perspective, which looms over the game world.

Operational-scale Games
These are games where players are typically managing a defined slice of a broader setting. I think train games are a good example, where players are managing a company (or investments in multiple companies) in order to build transportation infrastructure and overseer trade operations. The whole concept is couched within a broader context of human growth and expansion across the continents (which a Civ game could tackle at a higher scale). In terms of videogames, I often feel that RTS (real-time strategy) games fit within this operational scale. Players in StarCraft aren’t managing all of the human empire, they are controlling specific engagements that require base-building and combat at a smaller scale. Likewise, many wargames fit here – with the player assuming the role as a key general or commander in executing a plan of battle.

Group-level Games
Group-level games task the player with managing a group of individual entities, controlling their individual actions, characteristics, developments, and so forth at an individual level. Group-level games can run the gamut, and are usually played out in a finer tactical game space with each member of the group differentiated and unique in some way. This group could include a party of adventurers (e.g. the digital version of Warhammer Quest where the player manages many individuals in their group), or the crew of a vessel (e.g. a space ship in FTL), or the XCOM team (although XCOM has some modest operational scale attributes too). It’s Mordheim and Necromunda and Battletech.

3rd Person Games
3rd person games see the player controlling a single entity/actor in the game, but from an external or 3rd person perspective. This perspective results, generally, in a moderate degree of abstraction in how the player perceives themselves within the game world. Players might see things the in-game character couldn’t. On the videogame side of the fence, this includes the large top-down action-RPG genre (Diablo and derivatives), as well as sidescrollers, point-and-click adventure games, and a great many other games. On the boardgame side this includes most of the dungeon crawling type games (among others) – where each player has one miniature representing their character/persona, which they move around the game’s environment.

1st Person Games
First person games endeavor to put the player into the mind and viewpoint of the character in the game, immersing them as fully as possible. Obviously, there are plenty of examples of first person games on the videogame side of the fence. And I do lump “over the shoulder” perspective games into this category, as the camera is generally fixed to your point-of-view and the control schemes are usually the same whether over the shoulder or truly 1st person. On the tabletop side, the closest approximation are full featured role-playing games that require players to imagine the world in their mind’s eye from the vantage point of the character they are playing, and act and respond to that world from that perspective.

Surviving The Long Dark

So there you have it! That’s my breakdown of the various subjects, settings, and scopes that a game’s theme can take on – and as a result how that translates to the player’s experience and the perspective they have in relationship to the game world. I’ve used this structure to organize my Game Tracker, making note of the general setting (fantasy, historic, etc.) as well as other notable features I find interesting (survival games, roguelike, RPG-elements, turn-based, narrative, sandbox, cooperative vs. competitive, etc.).

My plan is to follow-up this post by focusing on games within each scope bucket (e.g. Civ/4X games) and talk a bit about my perceptions of the genre, games I’m playing, and game’s I’m keeping an eye on. For now, I’d be happy to hear any feedback on the above breakdown of theme and player perspective.


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