More About Theme as Metaphor and Narrative (response to Boardgames To Go #104)

Back in January, I posted a breif note about an idea mentioned on a previous episode of Boardgames to Go concerning the differentiation of theme into theme as metaphor and theme as narrative.  The most recent episode of Boardgames to Go is an extensive conversation between Mark Johnson and Greg Pettit about this concept, and it left me with some thoughts that I wanted to express.

Greg's definition of theme is "a tool to make a game more playable".  And to this end, theme as metaphor makes the game more playable by making the rules easier to remember and understand.  Theme as narrative makes it easier to play because it makes the activity more evocative or interesting.

Do I agree with this definition?  Sort of.  It's obviously an incomplete definition attempting to explain the role of theme, rather than what theme actually is.  And I'm cool with that, 'cause that's what the whole conversation was about.  But I want to expand on what I think the difference between these two things would be.  I found myself getting a little confused throughout the podcast because I don't think that Mark and Greg's ideas of what these things meant totally jived.  So, here are my expanded definitions:

  • Theme as Metaphor - a schema involving some out-of-game situation on which play is based.  The degree to which knowledge about this schema will translate into understanding of the game determines the strength of the theme. 
  • Theme as Narrative - the ability for play to create a story.  The degree to which this story is compelling and memorable determines the strength of this theme.
I really like my definition of theme as metaphor, but it's a bit high falutin'.  But first and foremost, I'm getting at the same point that Greg mentioned.  On top of that, however, is whether or not you "feel" like you're actually doing the thing that you're supposed to be doing.  I'll give some examples of what I mean a little later. 

As they said, these two types of theme are in no way exclusive of each other or even on opposite ends of some spectrum.  Instead, the opposite of both of them is how abstract or artificial the game is.  Something with low metaphoric theme could have artificial limits or constraints in it that have no real basis in the theme, but instead serve some obvious balance or other mechanical purpose in the game.  An example would be the 7 coin limit in Valdora that they mentioned.  More obviously, low narrative theme simply fails to tell a story, existing instead as mechanical exercise that may be engaging but not necessarily memorable.

One game immediately jumps to mind for me to illustrate the difference between theme as metaphor and theme as narrative, and that'd be Last Night on Earth.  People rave about how the narrative of the game resembles zombie movies and is so much fun.  But the problem for me is that the actual mechanics of the game don't feel very thematic at all.  You run your characters around (even using a die to determine how far you go), get into a building and draw cards until you get what you want, occasionally dodging zombies when they catch up to you.  And while I can appreciate the big picture of the narrative, the gameplay itself just isn't immersive or evocative of the theme.  LNoE therefore has moderately high narrative theme, but (in my opinion) very low metaphoric theme.       

On the other hand, Tobago is a game that has very good metaphoric theme, but not much narrative.  Sure, you have the story of who beats who out to dig up the treasure and then how the treasure distribution mini-game works out, but it's not really all that memorable or interesting.  But the strength of the theme is instead in the fact that it really feels like a treasure hunt.  The map building is intuitive and works exactly how you think it should, and even the more "gamey" parts of play are pretty well veiled in the theme.    

But I also want to make one last point about the impact of theme on how good or how much fun a game might be.  Now, I like theme.  But more importantly, I like games that are fun and interesting.  If a game is incredibly rich and evocative in theme, but is boring or even broken in play, then it sucks.  And the longer that I'm involved in modern boardgames, the less I'm willing to put up with sloppy or clunky game design.  I'd rather enjoy a low-theme game that has interesting mechanics than put up with inefficient gameplay because of the desire to explore a particular theme.  Because heck, I can read a book or watch a movie to experience theme, but the unique part of playing a game in how you can interact mechanically with the game and the other players.  

So, to me, both types of theme are important.  My "ideal" game would probably have some of both, but only in appropriate measure to support and enliven its elegant and intuitive mechanics and not get in the way of them.  

There's a lot more that could be said about theme, but I think this is enough for now.  So, do y'all have any thoughts about this stuff?  Do you get my definitions, or even the whole idea of the difference between the two types of theme?  Am I just stupid and need to stop talking?  Just in case the answer is "yes", I'll go ahead and stop and leave the ball in your court...

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  • 5/13/2010 10:13 AM Adam Koehler wrote:
    This discussion interests me greatly, as it gets into the psychological aspects of what makes people get into games. Nice post! Now allow me to disagree with you a little.

    I can appreciate your point of view on Last Nights On Earth, but I do disagree with it. I'm of the opinion that the game mechanics make LNOE very much feel like you're in a zombie movie, probably a low-budget B-movie from 70's or 80's. How so?
    Examples include:
    - The protagonist stumbles around, tripping over themselves when they should be doing a 50 yard dash (rolling a 1 on the die when you really need that 6)
    -Fumbling around like an idiot for a weapon as the zombies close in (the search actions)
    -The cockiest character dies a satisfyingly horrific death (Johnny is equipped with the chainsaw, has just blitzed and buzzed through 4 zombies, but then on the zombie player's turn, has the tables completely turn on him via a crap load of zombie player cards and unfavorable dice rolling.)

    I will say LNOE is a game that from one the play to the next can have big swings (that you are not exactly in control) in terms of whose kicking whose butt. This comes via the cards mostly, and a bit of the die rolling as well. For people to truly milk the most out of this game, you need the card draws and dice rolls to facilitate a bit of a chess match (and again, the players aren't in total control of this happening).

    Based on your description of the game, it sounds as though in your experiences you were a player who did not get much interaction with the zombies and the zombies overall were getting their butts whooped due to bad card draws and cruddy rolling. I have had this result myself, and yeah, it wasn't very fun for either side. But I have had some wild games as well. And those rock. For example, one very memorable game in a cabin with two friends in the wee hours of the night ... the killing went this way and that, weapons broke, people stumbled around with maddening inefficiency, and at the very end, the heroes down to their last open wound points, drew the lighter, passed it off and cleverly used the zombie hunger to draw the zombies right into the square that had the gasoline can, which they then blew up just in the nick of time to prevent the zombies from filling up the mansion.

    For you to say the game play didn't immerse you in the sort of tension I have experienced can be chalked up to a difference in your play experiences vs. mine. And as I said before, LNOE is a game that can have lots of variation in play experiences. I'd say only 25% of them are in that top-tier of ideal game play tension, and that is unfortunate. But man, when you are in that game, you really, really like it.
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  • 5/13/2010 10:28 AM Adam Koehler wrote:
    I also wanted to say that how you worded one of your points is darn near perfect.

    "I'd rather enjoy a low-theme game that has interesting mechanics than put up with inefficient gameplay because of the desire to explore a particular theme. Because heck, I can read a book or watch a movie to experience theme, but the unique part of playing a game in how you can interact mechanically with the game and the other players."

    Totally agree with you, and this explains why games from folks like Knizia are so enjoyable and draw in all kinds of board game players (my neophyte dad loves Kingdoms, and my wife is always up for Samurai).

    And this also supports my continued disdain for Smallworld, which I feel is drenched in theme and has the enjoyable aspect of ever-changing-and-humorously-worded army combinations ... and yet is completely lacking in stimulating play mechanics. Beneath that lovable surface, it's just a math fest. There is no excitement in the conquering, only efficiency. That's fine and dandy for other games of other themes, but not for a game based around the concept of killing and conquering.

    Okay, I've duly clogged up your comments section now. Whew!
    Reply to this
    1. 5/13/2010 2:41 PM Chris Norwood wrote:
      No worries; comment as much as you want!

      But I'll have to disagree with you about Small World.  As I mentioned in my review, the cool thing about Small World is that the simple conquest mechanics get out of the way of the "real" gameplay, which is more about the choosing of the races/powers, managing going into decline, and then the social part of the game.

      And I'd definitely be up for playing Last Night on Earth again to see if I can find more interest about it.  Maybe if I played one of the "kill zombies" scenarios, rather than the "run away from zombies and draw cards" ones, I'd get into it more.
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  • 5/17/2010 10:17 AM Mark Johnson wrote:
    I know we DIDN'T really get it in our discussion, because I keep getting confused about it myself. In your own example above, I think Tobago has more narrative going for it in the form of artistic production and a familiar cultural reference of buried pirate treasure. Yet what you DO in the game (the mechanics) don't feel much like what I imagine a treasure hunt would be, especially the collaborative part of it.

    I like your point how the opposite of both types of theme is abstraction. Wish we'd thought of that!

    As to the point about experiencing theme in books or movies instead of games, you're absolutely right. Though it's what makes me love historic-themed games that work well. There is an enjoyment to learning about a subject through the vehicle of a game with your friends that is unmatched by reading. It's just so great when that happens.
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  • 5/27/2010 7:43 PM Greg Pettit wrote:
    Great post! See my additional thoughts on my blog:
    Reply to this
  • 9/8/2010 11:34 AM Magic of Making Up wrote:
    Great article, thanks for writing!
    Reply to this
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