Principle On Choosing The The Right Theme For Your Game

Bit over two years ago I wrote about choosing core values for game projects (after hearing this from somewhere). In this week, I used this principle to help me find a good theme for my traitor game project.

The principle is quite simple: choose theme that support the core gameplay.

That might seem obvious, but I believe that there’s games that do well and games that do poorly in choosing the theme. I think games like Saboteur and Thief did well – at least for some parts – when they choose their themes. Sneaking in nazi camp or having a silent thief sneaking in a castle supports the core gameplay (unlike the map where you had to kill zombies in Thief). A fun game called Trine did quite fine on choosing the fantasy theme, but one of the characters (the warrior knight) doesn’t fit so well in the “physics puzzle game” as his specialty is fighting & killing. In this aspect, this fine game is choosing partly a character (inside the fantasy theme) that does not support the core gameplay.

I guess there’s also themes which might be difficult to categorize, and it isn’t always necessary to have a theme that reinforces the gameplay. For example, in Meatboy game you control a meat boy that has no flesh… which makes the guy drop blood wherever he goes. I’ve yet to know if this supports the core gameplay (hardcore platform jumping), but it sure is fun and memorable.

But even then, I believe that well chosen theme that supports the gameplay translates into a fun gaming experience.

Some details about my own thoughts

In the very core of traitor game I can find keywords such as “traitor” (quite obvious) and “deception” and “paranoia”. The game is about “finding out who the traitor is” (or “infiltrating the group”, if you happen to be the infected in the group).

When I was thinking of themes, I got some great suggestions and had plenty of ideas. Here’s some of them:

  • Werewolf theme (one of the characters is a werewolf, disguised as one of the villagers)
  • Mafia (one of the characters is a rat, or undercover cop)
  • Rome – and the death of Julius Cesar (never really liked this idea, but it popped in my mind at some point)
  • Zombies (one of the guys is infected and becoming a zombie at some point)

And so on.

Some of these ideas were not quite practical, as in I could not figure out how the gameplay could work – and so that the game does not turn into too big in terms of resources needed. I thought that zombie genre could work, and it would somewhat make sense to have this infected “traitor” in the group.

But something didn’t feel quite right.

I felt that while zombies could be okay option, I felt that that it was lacking something.

I thought hard and came to conclusion that theme did not support the core gameplay/value (“traitor among us”) well enough, and thus after hearing the idea about “like in The Thing”, I somehow felt that this isolated place where one of the group is “infected” supports the traitor gameplay more. When we hear about zombies, I immediately think of “shoot them in the head”. The zombies have been “branded” much to be about headshots and blood, not about traitors.

For this reason I felt that “group of scientist trapped in Antarctica” might give a better setting to my traitor game. I believe this theme supports the core values.

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. Yeh, I have tried out Penumbra demo – I really like the opening scene, and the atmosphere is just superb. Also enjoyed how they explained in their blog what issues physics puzzles (without “levels”) might have.

    I’ve only read some Metro 2033 hype, it sounded cool thing… but not so sure anymore :)

  2. One game that came to mind while reading this is Metro 2033. In the game they try to create stealth situations, but they are very poorly done imo. There aren’t a lot of stealth tools in the game, and the AI just isn’t realistic enough for stealth. (EG: If you step on glass, the entire camp goes up in arms and never cools back down…seriously, you heard one glass crunch!)

  3. Sounds cool. Did you ever try out Penumbra? Also set in a base in a desolate location with great atmosphere.

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