Drawing a connection: mechanics & theme

Games today focus heavily on theme, whether we are talking about board games or video games, theme plays a major part in deciding what games get published. A byproduct of this mentality and marketing strategy is that we often see the exact same mechanics being reskinned over and over to sell to a demographic based on theme.  “This action adventure puzzle’s gameplay is fun but doesn’t have a market, let’s reskin it with a candy theme and market it to the larger demographic.”  What we end up with are games that are fun to play, but whose themes are irrelevant to gameplay.

I have always believed in using theme as a way of reinforcing mechanics and vice versa.  Within The Last of Us the player has a limited carrying capacity as opposed to other games which allow the player to carry tons of loot; TLOU’s inventory limit is a reflection of the survival theme. In Skyrim the player may level their skills through reading specific books on the subject, while this grants a leveling advantage it also incentivizes the reading mechanic and roots the player in the game world’s rich lore and history.

The Harold and the purple crayon paradox 


Line draw is a mechanic that has been incredibly popular in the mobile scene; its gameplay design is typically composed of selecting a gem of some kind and drawing a line to collect other gems of the same kind.  Since line draw puzzle games are easy to understand and develop, line draw as a mechanic has entered a perpetual cycle of being used in games without any innovation past its original concept. The primary areas of innovation have come in the addition of explosive mechanics to help clear the puzzle space for a high score, and the incorporation of eye-catching themes. Beyond that, the abundance of games using the line draw mechanic and gameplay model all play the same.

As a kid one of my favorite books was Harold and the purple crayon, in the small children’s book a young boy decides to go on an adventure, which he creates using his purple crayon, drawing everything from his walking path, to the moon. The distinction of what line draw should be versus what line draw is represented as, comes when we look at what the player is creating with their lines. If the lines they draw are simply a mechanism for connecting points then these games are sorely missing the opportunity to have the sensation of the draw mechanic being a creative process.

Line draw games more closely resemble word search mechanics than drawing

This is where line draw as a mechanic has faltered, it hasn’t made the drawing element meaningful.  We have been using “line draw” as a description for the mechanic, but we have been creating “connect the dots” gameplay.  In games where the only goal is to collect items in a row, the core mechanic is more akin to the search and circle mechanics of word search puzzles than, the gestural feel of drawing.

Choo choose a line and draw it

Train Conductor World is a mobile game which decides to forego the traditional puzzle board space and apply the line draw mechanic to puzzle pieces with a bit more locomotion.  The player’s puzzle space is a series of train tracks with numbers designating the trains that should travel across them.  As the trains come down the track the player must reroute them onto their proper tracks while avoiding collisions. The reroute action is accomplished through a line draw mechanic which feels natural and fluid.  It is immensely satisfying to see the trains glide effortlessly across your artfully drawn tracks to reach their proper destinations without incident.

In this instance we see that how and where the player draws their line has a big impact on the game, but more importantly, that it feels like an extension of the gameplay’s flow.  The game is about trains and railroads and the player gets to express themselves creatively by drawing the tracks that will fix the breaks in the flow of traffic.  The mechanics inform the theme, the theme reinforces the mechanics, as it should be.

What do you think about theme’s role in games? Do you believe a game’s theme can have an impact on gameplay, positive or negative? Have you ever played a game which you thought was fun mechanically but whose theme you found uninteresting? I welcome discussion on this topic, if you liked this article or have something to share, please leave a comment below or write in to playprofessor@gmail.com.

Play Professor is the blog of ludologist and video game journalist Andrew Mantilla. You can check out more of his content on FacebookTwitterInstagramand Youtube.

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