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.
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...