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Feature: Portnow On ‘Thematic Power’ In Games

Feature: Portnow On ‘Thematic Power’ In Games

January 23, 2008 | By Jill Duffy

Themes in video games, when used well, help maintain the player's suspension of disbelief. In a new educational article on Gamasutra sister site, author James Portnow explains why some games have strong and effective theming and why others fall to pieces, with tips on how to theme a game for students and industry newcomers.

Themes, explain Portnow, should encompass everything in the game: every object, every game mechanic, every character. But certain components of most video games don't lend themselves as well as other to being theme.

For example, most big-budget video games contain a heads-up display and mini-maps, which, due to their purposes, tend to have a very technology-centric appearance. It's a look that doesn't always fit the theme, as the author explains in this excerpt:

"How do you get a mini-map to fit in with a World War II setting? Clearly, you have to have one because it's vital to gameplay, and gameplay always trumps theming.

The most common answer is to set the mini-map in something that looks like a WWII compass. This little nod to the setting might be enough to maintain the player's sense of fantasy. Other teams have tried creative workarounds that such as removing the mini-map entirely and replacing it with a compass ribbon, deciding that the same game function could be or that the gameplay loss was so minor in comparison to the disruption in immersion that it was worth the sacrifice. Other games have given storyline justifications such as 'you're an excellent tracker' or 'you're in constant communication with the base of operations.'"

To read the complete article on the subject, including more examples from Silent Hill 2, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, and other games, visit

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