Monday, August 19, 2013

Why Theme Matters

For a long time, I wasn't interested in the wild west. Sure, I owned the occasional LEGO set that involved bandits or what have you, but as a setting it didn't hold much interest for me. When it came to entertainment, I was much more of a Batman/Spiderman/Sci-fi kid. In fact, two of those things are still a big part of my life (sorry, Spidey).

Recently I've developed an appreciation for all things Wild West, and I credit all change of mind to 2008's Fallout 3.

Now, if you don't know what Fallout 3 is, here's the brief rundown: It's a post-apocalyptic roleplaying game made by the company who made Oblivion and (later) Skyrim. Fallout 3's world is almost Jetsons-esque, with silly space-cars and funny, clunky computers. It's like the 50's came and never went; when the nukes fell it left a wasteland with all of these weird signs and products that are very old-timey.

For those of you who don't have much interest in post-apoc worlds, here's why it's interesting to me: Short of inventing a time machine, there's no way to experience the past. A time without indoor plumbing or electricity. I've written about why the apocalypse can be appealing and I think it has something to do with changing the status quo. It's appealing because it makes life new and exciting and different, at least on paper. Nevermind the fact most people would die of starvation, radiation or murder in such scenarios. In many ways, it's like communism.

Here's a great matte painting from Fallout 3. You should definitely see the full image.

I digress.

Certain themes excite me more than others. If I were to read a book about a Cherokee tribe migrating from one place to another, I'd be bored. Sure, the book could be very good, but the theme wouldn't interest me enough to ever pick up the book. If you took the exact same book and slapped a sci-fi or fantasy theme on it, suddenly I'm paying attention. Make those Indians into Dwarves or some weird kind of space alien and I'll read the whole thing in a day.

In a way, it's like I'm allowing myself to be manipulated. Conversely, many people are the exact opposite, rejecting anything sci-fi in favor of almost anything else.

The same thing applies to my entertainment; movies or games with fun themes attract me much better than any other. One of my favorite games right now is Wiz War, a game where four wizards fling spells at each other until everyone is dead. If you replaced those wizards with, I don't know, French soldiers, I'd have probably overlooked it. That's why I don't get into wargames more, because I don't care if General Patton took the Hill of Something Something from General So and So. I just don't care. Take that same game and make it Sergeant Ragnar the Crude throwing warbands of Orcs at the Knights of the Lion's Reach and you've got yourself a customer.

These games actually use the same underlying game system.
Which one would YOU play?

Up to this point I've made it sound like theme is an interchangeable tablecloth that can be added or removed at will from any kind of entertainment, but that's wrong. 

Look at the Mass Effect trilogy; the universe is what I call Hard Sci-Fi. It's lore is pervasive and thorough. There are things in the story that don't have a 1:1 translation in every other universe. It's hard to tell the same story the same way without space travel, giant killer space-squids and magical portals that accelerate ships to the speed of light. Sure, you could tell a story with the same highlights and characters, but fundamentally some parts would have to be changed.

The best themes are the ones that aren't interchangeable; the universe informs the story, and vice-versa. It shouldn't be easy to separate; they should be like one single entity.

1 comment:

  1. Hmm, interesting! I was thinking theme in the literary sense (you know, the moral), when you're really talking about setting. But yes, it matters! If Firefly had been set in the old west, yawn. But set it in space and it becomes awesome. I think that's why I enjoy the Temeraire books so much. Napoleonic wars? Yawn. Wait, everybody has a dragon air force? Sign me up!