At the heart of every creation are the themes which inspired it, and form its foundation. Previously, we discussed the reasons why and how to choose a foundation. From therein the creator forms and decides how their work will evolve. Part of making that foundation and weaving the creative result is what themes an artist chooses to use in their work. What a theme is can be almost anything from the overarching genre of the story they wish to tell to a more complex series of references a writer wishes to impose upon a setting. Will discovery be a major element of your creation? Will it be mystery or perhaps hidden truths? These are small little lines that wrap your audience in and draw them closer to the work itself. But, without careful planning and thought themes can easily get lost into the greater scheme of things. Or simply, they can come to overwhelm your reader and players.
Selecting a Theme
Themes should be related to the genre or major focus of the story, setting, or game itself. First, look up the genre you wish to set the creation within and the themes common to it. Steampunk has a particular flavor to it, and so does space opera. Both of these sub-genres have themes tied to them that you can’t remove without removing a sense of the genre itself. If you are trying to create a cross-genre work take time to study what is core to each of the genres you wish to create.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is set in a post-apoclyptic setting far into the future when mankind is reduced to wandering tribes. The general genre of the game itself is Sci-Fi, but many of the elements make it feel like a fantasy game. The low-tech and hardscrabble technology reminds the player of fantasy. The usage of holograms, robots, and other forms of high technology screams Science Fiction. This mash-up works because it utilizes the themes of discovery, and as their primary ties. Throughout the story of Horizon, Aloy, quests to discover who she is and learns more about the world around her.
Even the tribes themselves can be slotted into fantasy tropes with the Nora being nature loving elves; the Oseram as dwarves; and the Carja as imperialistic humans. The tropes chosen here were done so because they speak to the player and entrance them in the world.
Similar to Horizon: Zero Dawn is Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The two share some serious similarities down to the mechanoid apocalypse which over took their worlds. The comparisons can easily end there, but let us consider where both share common themes. Aloy and Link both lack a central sense of identity, Aloy is an outcast while Link has lost his memories. Both worlds were overtaken by a cataclysmic event. Aloy’s world was destroyed by machines, and the machines meant to help save the world in Hyrule were used by Ganon to instead destroy it. Both also have a scattering of tribes. The worlds are also evenly strewn with ruins to the collapsing jungle covered skyscrapers in Horizon dawn, to the burnt out villages found all over Hyrule.
Both games tackle a world past the cataclysm and after the destruction of civilization. But they do it in very different ways. Link covers and interacts with a multitude of different races in Hyrule who are often secluded in different villages scattered across the landscape of the lost Kingdom. Trade exists, but its not widespread and rather the communities have seemingly slowly fallen into a semi-state of isolation. Hyrule is a world still recovering and still venturing out.
The lands of Horizon are vastly different, actual nations such as the Oseram Claim or the Carja Sundom exist with clear lines of government. Multiple villages and even a city are visited int he world where trade is multi-tribal and clearly existent.
Weaving it all Together
Once you’ve chosen a theme or a set of themes, its time to figure out how they will all work together. A central theme such as “Low Magic” can lend itself to many different interpretations. This is where the selection of core tropes to your creation is so important. Is your creation about action? If so how does the foundation along with your largest theme correlate? What other ideas spark from these two interacting? Zelda and Horizon: Zero Dawn both used a post-apoclyptic setting, but in very different ways.
If you pick post-apocalytpic consider timescale as a core aspect of your game. A century or a few hundred years could be “barely recovered” versus “a new world”. Hyrule in Breath of the Wild is recovering, versus Horizon which has a fully new world threatened by an age old menace. These set the tone and build the foundation of your game and permeate every decision afterward. But there are more to theme choices than just the core ones. But, these are the ones you’ll use to decide where things go. From there it comes down to minor things such as architecture, the character types, and the diffferent features of the world itself.