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©2019 by To the Death! Games & Pastimes. 

  • Dakota Winslow

Kill your Darlings: How to keep on-theme

Theme is a difficult aspect of game design. (Not that any aspect is really easy, but still.) Game design has tight constraints; it must be fun to play, easy to learn, remain fun for new and old players, and introduce enough new ideas to be worth buying and learning. When we add theme, we complicate these already stringent requirements by limiting ourselves to only those game components and mechanics that support the theme, constantly reinforcing the idea of the game, whether it be warfare or farming or passing love notes.

In developing Mort-A-Mania, we have come to the point of having too many ideas to include. This is really a good place to be, and certainly better than not having enough, because it allows us to cherry-pick only the best ideas and create a product that is a combination of the best we have to offer. However, it also encourages us to think hard about our theme, and weather each and every card really fits that theme.

The most difficult question we have come to so far has been this: Should you remove a good part of the game just because it doesn’t fit the theme well? We already set precedents for removing mechanics because they were difficult to understand or explain, or because they added a dimension to the game that we didn’t want to see. But to remove a perfectly good idea just because we can’t find a good way to tie it to the theme? It seems… wasteful.

After much discussion, we decided yes. To understand why, we had to embrace the idea of infinite creativity. We are creative people—in fact, we are all game designers. Coming up with ideas is what we do best because we literally do it without trying. The best ideas often just occur from thin air or are inspired from life. The actual work involved with creativity is paring down the ideas into a coherent, well-formed final product.

The lesson to learn here is one taught to me from a creative writing teacher I had in college, “Kill your Darlings.” In order to make the best possible final product, we must let go of the ideas we have fallen in love with and not be afraid of losing them. We must be confident in the process and in ourselves because we know we can always have another idea, and eventually we will have an idea that doesn’t require us to compromise on any of our constraints.

Knowing this, we should be absolutely ruthless in our application of theme. If our game has a theme (and almost every game does), it should be clearly supported by every component of the game. If there are areas that don’t support the theme, serious consideration should be done as to whether those areas can be brought into the fold; if they cannot, they must be ruthlessly excised. To leave them in is to admit that we couldn’t think of anything better, which is a consequent of poor self-confidence. We must be strong in the knowledge that there will always be more ideas if we make room for them.

By doing this, we tell ourselves and eventually our players that we are committed to creating the best possible games, and that is the whole point anyway.