I nearly fell into a classic game development blunder. At least I assume that it’s a classic, I haven’t really made enough games to know the full spectrum of blunders. I figure if I drunkenly stomp my way into a few of them every week or so I’ll eventually get to all of the classics.
This particular blunder was trying to shoehorn gameplay into a theme.
Most games will hang some sort of story, even very loosely, around the mechanics of the game. Chess names the pieces as if they were mock kingdoms at war. Chess needs no story. It could exist entirely in the abstract. The pieces could be ranked by size, or numbered, or have their movement options etched into them. Any of these options could actually serve the game better, by making it more user accessible. Rather than having to teach a new player that the horse is actually a knight, maybe, and its movements are completely different than any other piece on the board. At one point during the evolution of chess from a much older Indian game, Chaturanga, the horse made good sense. Now it is just a weird relic achieved by having a game adhere to a battlefield theme.
Of course there are several games that are completely abstract, like Reversi (which had theme applied to it when it was later marketed as Othello), Go (which may or may not have arisen from siege tactics), Backgammon, and Tetris. In the case of videogames, a game without a theme is rare. It might have something to do with how we experience them. Fast action on a screen is the domain of drama. We are accustomed to seeing and hearing stories delivered through screens, so adding story, theme, and characters to videogames might be a natural extension of that familiarity.
Whatever the reason, videogames are historically linked to theme, and I made the mistake of prioritizing theme over mechanics. The truth is, games are a do, don’t show, medium. Mechanics always trumps theme. Or always should. Even the mechanic of a Choose Your Own Adventure story is more important than the theme, since the story devolves into nonsense as soon as you diverge from the mechanic of making choices and turning to the appropriate page. The theme is interchangeable with other themes, but the mechanic is not. It is the mechanic of choices in a branching narrative that makes a Choose Your Own Adventure book what it is, not the story.
I had, or maybe have, a theme based around chemistry, or at least a comedic outlook on chemistry. I had done a fair bit of research into actual, real world chemical reactions, and began applying what I learned to the mechanics of my game. I am certain that a game could be built around atomic interactions as we understand them, but I was finding that it was becoming more and more difficult to make the game fun. Or at the very least, not needlessly complex.
I really enjoy the theme I was working with. I even liked some of the jokes I had written based around that theme, but I had lost sight of what makes a game, a game. What is it they always tell you when dealing with creative works? You have to be ready to kill your darlings. If the theme isn’t working for the game, then the theme has to go, not the game mechanics. The very moment this sunk through my head, I came up with (and began implementing) several ways to make the game fun. They will have to be tested as abstract game mechanics to see if they work, and they can’t rely on theme to prop them up if they don’t. Maybe, eventually, I’ll be able to draw the original theme back into the game. If so, then great, but if the game mechanics and the theme are at odds, it is the theme that has to be cut loose every single time.