Theme is the meaning behind why events have turned out the way they did. In a written work of fiction we, the author, can control whether a character succeeds or fails any given trial. How we infuse meaning into that success or failure is based on what the character does or fails to do during that trial. Say our intended theme is “man is self made.” Themes are trite little nuggets like that, but it is what the author does with that theme that turns it into a competent work of fiction. Let’s say our story is about a man trying to build a boat by himself and as an author we have identified two different outcomes. After accepting his shortcomings he succeeds in building a boat on his own, but it is a little crude due to those shortcomings. In this we have affirmed “man is self made,” as long as we accept our shortcomings. Let’s say, however, that the character’s vision for the boat is a little too grandiose for one man to build with his own hands, and rather than scale back that vision he accepts that to make his vision come to life he must employ the help of others. Now our theme has become “no man is an island.”
So, looking at the above conflict as an example, the main character is at a crossroads and must accept some modification of their original goal, and accepting that modification is what delivers us our theme. To turn this into a game mechanic, we have to look at what needs to stay, and what must be stripped away. Meaning must stay, or it will cease to be a story. Player choice must stay or it will cease to be a game. What is not necessary is the linear progression of events.
Perhaps we can affix a “story point” to some game location, or game event (like finding the master sword). And in doing so we, at that point, dangle some proverbial carrot in front of the character (reveal the stakes). That alone, however, may not be enough to imbue said event or goal with meaning. Meaning comes from which action derived from two conflicting ideas a character chooses in order to achieve a goal. The player must know, thematically or at least contextually, the consquence of their actions in order to imbue such a choice with meaning. Blind choices can never have thematic meaning because they are devoid of “why”.
In fiction, when the main character makes the decision that affirms one theme over another, that exact moment is the very tip of our climax. Our boat building example is such a moment. This moment is final. Very soon after the main character makes this decision we will be typing the words “the end.” In an open world with go anywhere gameplay we cannot affix that level of finality to any given player choice, with some exceptions (such as the end boss). So the question of how to tell a story in an open world game becomes, “how do (or can) we attach meaning to intermediate choices without dependence on chronology?”
In writing fiction, especially when you know your theme, it’s easiest to start plotting from your climax. Let’s stick with our boat building example. Let’s assume that getting the boat to float in the water is the end goal. We know why making the boat on their own, or making it magnicent mattered to our character, but we need more to make it matter to our player. Granted, this is overly simplified in order to serve as an example.
Perhaps this is a victory point game, and the best boat wins. To add to our conflict, we make the players start out very asymetric. It is hard to win without getting help from other players, but getting such help costs them a victory point. Victory points are gained directly proportional to the complexity of your boat. You can try to do it on your own while sabotaging the boats of other players, or you can enlist their help. If you don’t build a boat that floats, you can’t escape the island and you lose. So, what we have done here is infuse player choice with theme: do you risk not getting enough victory points by asking players for help, or do you go it alone it and risk another player outshining you or not setting sail at all.
So far, however, we’ve only looked at the end game condition, so we haven’t answered the question of how to do the intermediate goals. Perhaps the game is played in rounds: survival, gather materials, build and sail. But also, perhaps using a round based structure is really just a cop-out that allows us as a story story teller and game designer to basically tell 4 different stories with 4 different climaxes.
What if we just drop the players on an island made out of hexes. They must keep themselves fed or they die as an ongoing mechanic. And the food spoils, so that encourages a small economy based on trade. You can do what you want, when you want, where you want, but winning still means the most points for building the best boat with the least amount of help. Perhaps we have random encounters. Can an island have a bear population? Maybe we use aligators. Gain victory points for saving another player from an aligator attack, but doing so means the players who weren’t involved gathered more resources.
What’s missing now isn’t theme, but backstory and character motivation. Again, admittedly easier to do with just prose. Giving players their character’s backstory will always seem artificial, even if done really well, but that might be a necessary evil. If we have a character based, narrative driven game, we are going to want to use our characters to sell our game, even if ultimately the characters are only avatars or masks for the players who may bring a conflicting personality to them. Not everyone who wants a story driven game wants to role play. We can, from a mechanics point of view, however, motivate the player. Perhaps one of our characters is a washed up carpenter and he gains points for helping people shape their lumber. We’ve taken a character trait and motivation, our washed up carpenter is looking for respect, and turned it into a mechanic.
We can keep going, but let’s get a bird’s eye view of the forest before we get lost in the trees. We are trying to tell a story through a game. In so doing, each story point, motivation, goal, etc, is turned into a mechanic. We didn’t need paragraphs of text, or choose your own adventure mechanics because we infused the very game mechanisms with the stuff of story in order to drive our narrative. This immediately informed subsequent design, but what if, as in my case with Ruins of Elysia, the mechanics are already in place?
If you are trying to add narrative to a game that already has its mechanics in place, then the narrative would require mechanics that either are in addition to or replace mechanics that are already there. As was revealed as we muddled through our example, narrative in games is derived from player choice, the apparent consequence of that choice and how it motivated player action within a given mechanic. I already have such a mechanic — the quest cards.