When talking about theme in video games, it’s a struggle just to settle on a definition. In pop-culture, theme can describe the style of decorations used for a party, the sub-genre for a movie, how all the furniture in a room has the same accents, and occasionally people will use theme in the LIT 101 sense which is “the main idea or moral lesson in a literary work.” The word theme has become so bastardized in the English language, it’s hard to tell what it even means anymore.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use “theme” to describe the dramatic situation in a game. If you’re unsure what I mean by dramatic situation, think of it as the characters plus setting plus conflict. For example, it’s the 13 playable races vs. each other and vs. the Antarans in Master of Orion II, or the humans of Earth trying to fight off the aliens in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. In this sense, theme involves a good bit of atmosphere (the presentation of the game world), tone (the designer’s attitude toward the subject matter), and mood (the feelings evoked in the player as he or she plays). All of which I feel are best communicated through three elements in a game: the visuals, the text, and the mechanics.
Theme can be a difficult thing to get across in a 4X game, especially in sandbox play. Yet, it is clear that this is some potential design space that designers are very interested in exploring. In order to foster some more discussion in this area, I’m going to compare and contrast two games in which the developers attempted to put theme front and center: Sorcerer King and Thea: The Awakening.
I chose these two titles because they have so much in common. In fact, in a recent Three Moves Ahead podcast, the hosts wondered out loud if the team at MuHa had maybe heard of SK and tried to design a game that was like it. Each title launched with only one playable faction: humans. Both allow you to recruit members of other, non-human factions through quests or events. Both start you with a single, underdeveloped village. Each game has a robust crafting system and provide methods for collecting crafting materials through exploration and adventure. They also borrow heavily from the RPG genre. Experience points, levels, stats, skills, and special abilities are key aspects of advancing your cause. And even though their executions could not be more different, each of them includes tactical combat.
Those are all mechanics, but what other overarching element do they have in common? Theme. In both games, the world has just suffered some kind of cataclysmic event. Darkness won. Whatever is left of the beings of Light (whatever that means) are reduced to a rag-tag bunch that is totally outmatched by the power of Darkness. The player’s job, then, is to take this beleaguered redoubt of refugees and restore goodness to the world in a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting. In fact, SK basically comes right out and says this right in the help menu:
Why then is Thea sitting at a very positive 90% approval rating on Steam while Sorcerer King struggles to stay out of “Mixed” territory (as of this writing) despite both receiving a “Recommended” from us? Well, there are a multitude of reasons, but I’m going to say at least one reason for me is that Thea hits its theme directly on the head while SK swings and misses.
For Thea, the theme shows up in nearly every aspect of the game. In SK, I feel it’s really only present at the climactic finish. I’m going to make a bold statement here that I hope game designers in the future wrestle with as they begin their projects, “If your theme is not present in the most common things the player sees and does, then it’s not really your theme.” That means, if you’re going to make a more gripping and thematic 4X game, the atmosphere, tone, and mood must be present at every level in your visuals, narration, and mechanics.
Theme Through Visuals
All this is starting to sound a little too much like theorycrafting mumbo-jumbo, so let me give you some concrete examples. I’ll begin with cities. Consider the two images below. The first is what a well-developed city looks like in Thea. The second image is the same type of thing in Sorcerer King:
Now let me ask. Between those two images, which city looks like a beleaguered settlement in a post-apocalyptic world? When I see the city from Thea, it instantly resonates with me because it looks like a frontier settlement that is hunkered down against an inevitable onslaught. By contrast, the city from SK looks like Cinderella’s Castle!
These are both non-traditional 4X games that are asking me to buy into their “dramatic situations” in order to really enjoy them. I’ve got to feel like I’m an underpowered force for good facing an overwhelmingly powerful force for evil. It’s hard for me to do that when I’m building Disney World in SK. In these games, I want to get engrossed in the world and in the story. The disconnect between SK’s theme and its visuals in this case just totally breaks it for me.
It doesn’t stop there, though. There is a striking difference in what types of buildings you can construct in each game. In SK, I can build things like a Jeweler in my capital and an Onyx Throne in every town. As a leader, if I’m trying to avoid the eyes of the eponymous Sorcerer King and help sustain my scattered and broken people, what business do I have building luxury shops and thrones? In my mind, it is unconscionable! You can check out the full building list for Thea here and see if anything you can make in that game rises to the tone-deafness that the Onyx Throne does in SK.
Let’s move on to units. In any 4X or 4X-like game, you spend a lot more time moving your pieces around the board than you do staring at your city and managing your building queue. Check out these images from the soldier units in SK.
Do they look like they come from a land that has been completely decimated by an all-powerful force of evil? Or do they look like they are pimped out high-level characters from some MMO? And this is what they look like BEFORE you start crafting weapons and armor for them. When I first saw these units, it totally destroyed any suspension of disbelief I had. The visuals did not communicate that I was some scrappy small-time ruler trying to stay under the radar of the Big Bad. If my castle reaches to the heavens and my soldiers come out wearing full plate armor and wielding fancy weapons while riding mythical beasts, there’s no way I’m going to go unnoticed! Now compare that to the units from Thea:
Now we’re not exactly comparing apples to apples here since Thea uses a lot of 2D art, but there are still some good comparisons we can make. Thea does have 3D models of villagers; their clothes are plain and drab. The weapons they use are crude.
In the 2D image above, we get a better view of what a villager might look like. Thea uses a card game to handle tactical combat (see my review for a more in-depth explanation), so that is why I can’t show you 3D models of villagers in battle. But you can easily see that the weapons and armor used by these people are just a hodge-podge of what can be found or scavenged. They aren’t dressed like newly-minted paladins from EverQuest or World of Warcraft. When you look at them, you can’t help but feel pity that they have to fight zombies, bandits, and giant spiders armed as such.
The crafting system in Thea is deep and you certainly can craft some epic items for your villagers. It’s clear that their craftsmen are capable but lack refinement. The illustrations never seem over the top or showy. SK, on the other hand, makes it appear like I have a military-industrial complex pumping out chrome plated armor that’s as common as dirt. As a result, it makes my forces seem as if they are the equal or maybe even superior to the Sorcerer King’s armies. How can that be? The game clearly states that the Sorcerer King won a war that decimated the world. How can I be left with such fine equipment to hand out to regular units? Ok, I have the Forge of the Overlord, but I always associated that thing with painstaking task of hand-crafting epic weapons for heroes, not pumping out set after set of generic gleaming armor like like some kind of factory. Making such embellished armor that common just destroys the illusion of David vs. Goliath in the game.
The last place I want to draw a contrast between these two games is in the presentations of minor factions. Again, we see SK go over-the-top in its Warcraft inspired visuals:
While Thea maintains its understated moodiness:
Yet again, I believe it’s easy to see which game visually communicates its theme better. When you look at the image of the haggard elf above, you instantly want to know what circumstances led to this miserable outcome. When you see the over-compensating dwarf in the first image, you only want to roll your eyes.
Theme Through Narration
But it isn’t just in the images, it’s in the text too. SK relentlessly delivers corny and borderline offensive short jokes any time you deal with the Frozen Realm, while Thea stuffs its text full of mystery and sadness. Both games clearly had talented writers, but the storylines in MuHa’s game are gripping and serious while the offbeat humor in SK is mostly juvenile.
Perhaps that’s the point of SK, though. Maybe I’m reading that game all wrong, and it’s supposed to be all about having juvenile humor. Fine, I might concede that. But before I do, I would ask – who is the target audience for SK? There is nothing in this game’s marketing, mechanics, or visuals that looks like it’s targeting adolescents. It’s clearly aimed at grownups. And while we can all enjoy childish humor at times, I feel it needs to have the right context in order to really resonate with the audience. Either way, SK’s over-the-top humor stands in stark contrast to its stated theme. Imagine if ABC set Galavant in the world of HBO’s Game of Thrones. I don’t think it would work. That’s the kind of situation I think SK puts itself in, and I believe the game suffers for it.
I’m not about to let Thea off the hook entirely, though. The developer made some missteps I’d like to see corrected. For instance, most of the dialogue in Thea’s multitude of quests is very well written, and they often force the player to make tough, moral choices that survivors of an apocalypse might face. Not many games, certainly very few 4X games, ever do that. Bravo! On the other hand, one of the things many fans complained about in Thea’s Early Access was the examples of text-speak it used in the quests. I have to agree.
Seeing abbreviated language like this totally out of its context is about as mirage-breaking as anything I’ve seen in SK. Specifically, the game uses “Cya” instead of “See ya” in several places. They’ve explained their rationale as a choice in diction popularized by the author of The Witcher novel series, but still. When I’m saying goodbye to someone, the words I imagine in my head are “See ya!” not “Cya.” I’m not saying that MuHa should have gone the full Shakespeare with, “I bid thee farewell, good and gentle lady…” but language where “Cya” is a common phrase that is at complete dissonance with the game’s grimdark medieval theme.
Theme Through Mechanics
If there’s one area where I think SK competes with Thea on theme, it is in the core mechanics. One of the things that people in SK’s Early Access complained a lot about was the inability to settle new cities anywhere. In SK, only a very limited number of tiles on a map will allow you to establish a new city. I actually think that’s brilliant, not from a mechanics point of view but from a thematic point of view. The Sorcerer King won the war and laid low all the world’s great empires. It makes sense that this maniacal evil entity would salt the earth and destroy all that is green and good. It’s one of two places I feel SK’s mechanics really reinforce its theme.
The problem is, though, that the game did not communicate this mechanic well enough through its visuals. Fertile lands look only subtly different from sterile tiles. It’s the difference between dark green and regular green (see below). It would have been better if all the rest of the tiles looked unhealthy or corrupted in some way rather than just slightly pale. Visually emphasizing the sickness of the land may have helped draw a better contrast between SK and the Fallen Enchantress games, which I know was a problem for Stardock when SK launched. The developers missed a great opportunity, in my opinion, to use the aesthetics of the world to help tell the story of how the Sorcerer King won.
One place where I feel SK absolutely trumps Thea is in the endgame. The Sorcerer King has powers and minions that the player does not. In Thea, anything the monsters can do, the player can do, too. Thea lacks any kind of special or unique abilities for the high level evil creatures of the world. A ghost is no different in combat from my villager. Stats might be different, but the abilities are the same. Not so in SK. The Sorcerer King can do things I can’t, he has a tactical advantage on the final battleboard that I won’t, and has a look and feel that none of my units ever will. In this respect, Thea could learn something from SK. The last few fights are not mechanically different from any other fight. Hopefully it’s something they can implement if there’s ever a Thea 2.
In closing, there may be those who disagree with me – perfectly alright in a creative field like this one. Still, I would submit that a developer who wants to make a more thematic 4X game is going to be on much firmer ground when the theme of their game is present from top to bottom in all the visuals, text, and mechanics of their games.
Sorcerer King and Thea: The Awakening are similar in so many ways, yet their thematic executions were different enough that it made a huge impact in the end. Thea does a fantastic job of lacing everything the player does with the dramatic situation. By contrast, SK fumbles its theme in both its presentation and marketing. It only manages to shine through in the endgame. There are lessons to be learned from both titles, and I hope they have a palpable effect on 4X design going forward.
Ben’s Additional Perspective
“How do you kill a god?”
Thus reads the official tag-line for Sorcerer King. Emblazoned prominently on the official material, including the game’s thumbnail on and off Steam, these six words serve as many players’ introduction to the game. Like Mirdoth himself, the question is ominous, and ever-present, and casts a long shadow over the Sorcerer King experience.
While the gravity of that tagline absolutely resonates with SK’s purported theme, this godslaying angle is at odds with the goofy, bright, spritely gameplay. But there’s a bigger issue, in my mind. This question – emblazoned across more promotional materials than you can shake an immaculately-shiny gauntlet at – has nothing to do with the game itself.
As far as I’m able to tell, the question of how to kill a god never comes up in the gameplay or in any of the backstory. The Sorcerer King is never said to be a god in-game. In fact, it’s explicitly stated that he’s trying to attain godhood. This precludes him actually being a god, rendering the question moot. Further, nothing in the game has anyone wondering, “How do we kill the Sorcerer King?” There’s no real quest-for-the-magic-MacGuffin or search-for-the-villain’s-Achilles-heel. Other than leveling up and making some gear (not much mystery there), all you need to do is find the guys who he gave his spare keys to and walk in. Killing him is even simpler – train guys, gain levels, and hit him until he’s dead. The final fight is definitely fun and challenging, but it doesn’t deliver on the promise implied in the tagline.
If the game were about finding some chink in Mirdoth’s celestial regalia, or if the killing-a-god thing were just some throwaway line in an early marketing kit, that would be one thing. But having the game’s tagline reflected nowhere in the actual game or its backstory, while going against the information that’s supplied by the game itself, seems… well, right in line with the rest of SK’s theme: disconnected.
Yes, this is a small thing – just six words that don’t even appear in-game as far as I know. But taglines are instrumental in communicating the identity of a game or any other piece of popular media. They play a big part in setting expectations and establishing intended themes and impact. In that way, they’re like subtitles. Nobody would see the original Star Wars in the same light if the subtitle had been “Criquet in the Imperial Parlor.”
A game, like any mass media product, is a rhetorical act. The narrative elements are as much a part of its identity as its technical execution. When the data (the gameplay) and the metadata (the communication) are this out of alignment, it shows. While it’s true that this is in some ways superficial, it still has a palpable impact on the player’s narrative experience.
Thea has somewhat similar dysfunction with how it treats deities. When starting a game, you get to pick one among several different gods and goddesses. Each is presented with a unique avatar and backstory. They’re actually quite well done and certainly spur the imagination.
But what happens once you are actually in the game? Do the recently restored divine masters of Thea have any palpable impact on gameplay? No, not really. Your villagers do not get special abilities, merely a bonus to one skill or another. There are no spells, miracles, or prayers that are associated with the various divinities. They merely become a prop, or at best, one waypoint on the main quest where any deity could be interchanged with the others without any real impact on the gameplay experience.
There is no question that “BEING A GOD!” is quite a compelling thing. Many gamers still remember fondly their experience with games like Populous or Black and White. Encapsulating the aura and majesty of celestial beings in game mechanics holds great design promise. But to capture the experience of playing as a deity, a game needs to give me a way to actively express my divine powers. For me to really feel like a god, the game needs to give me the ability to act like a god – not passive like a god. Granted, this is a formidable challenge, but it’s one I don’t feel Thea really succeeded in that.
Incidentally, while the PC in Sorcerer King is not a deity, it does a great job of capturing the feeling that Thea lacks in this regard. My ability to affect the world as a Channeler make me feel like quite the omnipresent badass. Credit where credit is due!
Troy, in his section, focused on the main theme: a destitute band of survivors fighting against a near-omnipotent malevolence, and showed where the games either succeeded or failed. But sub-themes are important as well, and I’m afraid that both games fumbled them to a degree.
That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend these games. As Troy mentioned, we’ve already done that, and making a recommendation one way or the other isn’t the purpose of this piece. Our purpose here is to point out areas of growth these games have in the hopes that either the devs who made these games or devs in the future who are inspired by these games can improve on what has come before.