The videogame field is very competitive, with every company — no matter how big or small — trying to sell a product. As a result, it’s a breeding ground for elevator pitches. These often revolve around such bullet points as “We have this unique take on cover gameplay!” or “It’s a hidden-object game with a real inventory!”
As John Davison pointed out, though, videogames are not really a niche product. They compete for attention with TV, movies, YouTube, Facebook, etc., so I’m a little surprised that more elevator pitches don’t concentrate on universal themes. So what exactly are themes? Well, here’s a pretty thorough summary from Wikipedia:
“A theme is an idea, message, or lesson conveyed by a written text. This message is usually about life, society, or human nature. Themes often explore timeless and universal ideas. Most themes are implied rather than explicitly stated. The theme is different from the superficial outlay of the text; it is normally the meaning of the text on a more abstract level.”
Yes, themes are more a staple of the literary world, but they’re very powerful when it comes to evoking emotions. Consequently, when you’re trying to get a general audience to emphasize with your product, the premise of a theme is much more identifiable than a gameplay element.
Not that games are completely devoid of themes. Quite the contrary, actually. However, most game themes are usually repeated over and over again. They’re the epic struggles of good vs. evil, or the hero quest, but there are many more possibilities. An interesting thing about themes, too, is that they can quite naturally affect and steer gameplay elements (often in new and unique ways).
Here are a few quick examples.
1). Triumph through perseverance.
A sports game centering around an athlete’s fall from grace due to a (seemingly) career-ending injury. This could fit virtually any sports genre and take the athlete through a quest for a second shot at the big leagues. Starting with rehabilitation, various minigames (or handicapped scenarios of the full game) could act as something of a tutorial, guiding the player through all the necessary steps on the path to a successful comeback.
2). Honour and familial bonds.
A strategy game following the life of a disgraced warlord in feudal Japan. In order to protect his family and subordinates, the shogun went against the proper code of conduct, which was then used by his politicking general to overthrow him. The game itself could revolve around a quest for retribution while implementing various elements of Bushido into strategic combat.
3). Liberation from slavery.
There aren’t too many fantasy settings that go for a post-apocalyptic feel, and even fewer videogames (Soul Reaver being the only non-licensed one I can think of), but I’ve always been interested in scenarios where the good guys don’t win. Namely, what happens afterwards? Well, how ’bout a typical Tolkien-derived RPG that breaks a few cliches? Enslaved humans that often suffer from Stockholm syndrome, Orc sympathizers that are helping with an underground rebellion, a struggle for freedom in the face of an oncoming genocide, etc.
Of course many videogames have minimal narrative and virtually no storyline, but those too can be thematically summed up, i.e., what is the game about, exactly? This summary doesn’t even have to mention any actual gameplay mechanics, just evoke enticing possibilities. Take for instance Mario Party, Guitar Hero and Wii Fit — none of these games have much in the way of a “plot,” but their titles alone are quite iconic. And they also sold bucketloads of copies.