Why Themes Are Impactful! Century: Golem Edition

Good themes can make games better.
Let’s see why, then ask what this means about us as humans.


Case Study: Golem Edition

Century: Golem Edition is basically the exact same game as Century: Spice Road. Some players like the theme of Spice Road because of the wooden bowls and/or the familiarity of the theme. I much prefer Golem Edition, however. The ‘story’ of Golem Edition - discovering crystals, trading them up for better crystals, crafting golems - feels way cooler than farming and trading wooden cubes (spices) for what Spice Road vaguely labels as “score cards” (pictures of cities).

First I’ll describe three good parts of Golem Edition’s theme. Then, we’ll talk about human experience!

1. The theme is unique and invokes wonder.

Exploring for crystals, trading them up with friendly folk, getting big golems that do stuff like build boats or play music: this is a unique theme, and an idyllic world.

To play this game is to be a part of this world. If nothing more than curiosity for what it feels like to DIY golems, this theme makes engagement with Golem Edition sound appealing even before knowing the rules.

2. The crystals feel cooler than wooden cubes.

Fun fact: these crystals are all the exact same cut. However, their design (weight distribution, balancing points, translucence) makes them look unique from one another. Nice!

Considering that players hold and move crystals dozens of times each game, the amount of quality that goes into those pieces is very important as it’s the primary point of contact. Luckily, they feel great, look great and even make cool colour palettes with each other.

The fact that these actually look like crystals is a victory over the abstract cubes that Spice Road uses. Players of Golem Edition engage with the theme (crystals) almost every turn, keeping them in the fantasy of the game.

3. The art is cute - each golem tells a story.

This is how I got my parents into Century. Each golem does something different! These giant powerful beings, acting as playgrounds and anchors and grape-stompers… it’s super endearing. The constituent crystals are even visible in the golems!

This art sets great tone and makes each golem feel desirable; e.g., instead of working towards “score cards” (as labeled in Spice Road) you work towards making giant rock friends. Yeah, they’re also only worth points. But on the other hand, you’ve just assembled a roaming desert house. Acquiring cards to your section of the table, in a direct physical way, lets you look closer at the art and appreciate what’s going on.

Playing any game multiple times wears away its theme, but giving you extra reasons to want these cards is a great way to get you into the game in the first place.


Extrapolation: “Experience”

There’s plenty of games without themes. Many puzzle games like Tetris do just fine.

But when games do have themes, I believe they provide opportunities for us as humans to live multiple experiences: we simulate multiple lives through the lens of imagination and the robust ability for us to (amazingly!) draw experience and conclusions from the things we imagine.

golem.png

It’s altogether not that different from practicing instruments or doing mock presentations, except with one additional layer of abstraction.

I posit that when we practice most things, it makes us better at the specific thing we’re practicing. But when we use imagination [whether in a book, movie, game, etc], in exchange for not developing one focused skill, we see a multiplicity of experiences that we can draw from.

For example, while one person’s experience playing Golem Edition may develop efficient planning ability, another person’s experience with Golem Edition may develop their ability to set goals and highlight what they need to get there. Still, others may get value and rejuvenation out of spending time in an idyllic setting with no visible human conflict.

A good theme makes games more interesting to play, yes. But more than that, a good theme makes it easier for players to extrapolate experience from whatever’s going on in a game. Themes helpfully demonstrate how mechanics relate to real-life problems like ‘thinking ahead’, ‘finding efficient opportunities’ or ‘setting goals and working towards them’.

Experience is difficult to qualify yet seems to be an integral focus of desire for many humans in their everyday lives. Seems good if a game can do that.

 

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Deltarune: Making Meaningless Choices

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

In case you couldn’t guess from the title, this blog post contains spoilers for both Undertale and Deltarune. If you haven’t played those games yet, you should because they are really really good. Undertale can be found here (~15$), and Deltarune can be found here (FREE). Once you’ve played them both (or if you don’t care about spoilers), I welcome you to read on. All good? Okay.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

If you’ve played Undertale before (and I’m assuming that you have), you’ll know that one of its defining features is player choice. It’s a game that allows you to kill literally everyone you meet (genocide run), befriend everyone you meet (pacifist run), or do something in the middle. Each of these playstyles results in significant meaningful changes to the gameplay and story. So naturally, when you start playing Deltarune, you would expect to be able to make the same range of choices.

But here’s the thing about Deltarune. Your choices don’t matter.

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Deltarune 7.PNG

At the very beginning of the game you’re presented with a character creation screen, and you go through the whole process of creating whatever avatar you want. But as soon as you’re finished creating your character, it is discarded and you’re forced to play as Kris. Later on, you get to customize the blueprint for an evil machine that you expect to fight. But when you find the machine it is immediately destroyed without you interacting with it in any meaningful way. It doesn’t matter what you choose, the game is going to be the same.

Wow those legs are very different and not the same at all…

Wow those legs are very different and not the same at all…

But what about killing and sparing characters? That must be like the previous game, right? Nope. In this game, a genocide run is impossible. All characters run away from you before you can kill them, so you cannot actually kill anyone in the game. So then are you supposed to be a pacifist? Nope again. At the very end of the game it’s revealed that your character Kris is actually Chara from Undertale (or that Kris is possessed by Chara? It’s kinda unclear), implying that your character is going to murder people anyways. Despite your best efforts to prevent harm, you still ultimately fail.

It looks like you’re gonna have a bad time.

It looks like you’re gonna have a bad time.

Why does this matter?

Deltarune is not the first game to have a linear story. In fact, there are many games where players have even less agency than they do in Deltarune. But the reason Deltarune’s lack of choice is so important is because choice mattered so much in Undertale. Since most people playing Deltarune have already played Undertale, we all assumed it was going to be a similar game. We were primed to think that our choices would matter. We expected to be able to play as a pacifist or a genocidal manic. We thought that we could influence how the story would end. However, by stripping the player of their agency, Deltarune creates this looming sense of helplessness that I haven’t felt since Spec Ops: The Line or the ending of The Last of Us. But this feeling only exists because Undertale showed us what meaningful choices are supposed to be.

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TL;DR:  Your choices don’t matter. But they used to matter.

Doomed to be Doom Clones? How Genres Are Created

Recently for my Games and Society course I wrote a paper about how to define Roguelikes as a genre. Turns out that topic is a bit complicated, and once I’ve figured out how to break that paper down into a manageable blog post I’ll share my thoughts on it. But today I wanted to share something broader I learned while researching that paper about how video game genres come to be.

The Four Step Process

Genre creation is a fairly simple process made up of four steps. The first step is someone makes an innovative and successful game (I said it was simple I never said it was easy). The next step is that that game gets copied. A lot. People try to emulate and capitalize on the success of the original game by cloning it over and over again. The third step is that the clones start to get…weird. They start challenging fundamental aspects of the original game or mixing it with elements from other genres. Sometimes these new games change so much that they look almost nothing like their original inspiration. Finally, after enough time, we move to the final step where a few core traits emerge consistenly across all the games. Those traits then form the basis for the genre.

I love that this guy’s name is literally “Doomguy.” [   image source   ]

I love that this guy’s name is literally “Doomguy.” [image source]

Take the First Person Shooter (FPS) genre as an example. When Doom was originally released back in 1993 it was a critical and commercial success. Trying to capitalize on that success, the market became flooded with Doom Clones, games which shameless copied Doom’s gameplay as much as possible. But eventually, developers started to branch out and experiment. Borderlands mixed Doom with the loot system from Diablo, Portal transformed your gun into a puzzle solving device, and Fallout added RPG elements and an open world. Now FPS games don’t all have to be about using guns to shoot demons from Mars, but instead are really just any game with a first-person perspective where you primarily use some sort of projectile-based “weapon.”

Why does this matter?

This matters because a lot of people get caught up in whether or not a game should be part of a genre, but I think this misses the point. These arguments tend to pop up a lot when genres start moving from step 2 to step 3 and the “clones” start diverging a lot from the original. At this point, fans start getting protective and feel like the genre is getting corrupted or expanded and losing what made it special. But this isn’t the case! We want the clones to get as far away from the original as possible so we can know everything the genre has to offer. Imagine if every FPS game today was just like Doom. Then we wouldn’t have games like Battlefield, Call of Duty, Overwatch, Team Fortress 2, Antichamber, Far Cry, Half-Life, Splatoon, etc. It’s only by letting the genre evolve that we can keep making fun and innovative games. So don’t worry if a genre is faithful to where it came from. Instead, get excited about where it’s gonna go next.

TL;DR: If you want to make a genre, here’s what you gotta do: make something cool, get it copied, and then let the copies get weird. Eventually, you’ll have a genre…in like 10-30 years.

Want to learn more about this? Check out Mark Brown’s fantastic video on the Soulslike Genre, Amr Al-Aaser’s excellent essay about mythologizing games, and Greg Costikyan’s interesting article which takes a more historical perspective on genre.