(Some humor first. Skip to part 2 for my advice on designing a game for a event with a theme.)
Part 1, The five stages of grief in event theme announcements
Denial: Sandwich!? Sandwich is the theme? It's easy to pick a GOOD theme! You just pick something that makes a game good, and you say "make a game with this" - but SANDWICH!?
Anger I'm done. I cleared my schedule for this, but you simply can't make a good game with Sandwich. I'm never doing one of these again.
Bargaining: Maybe I'll just make whatever game I want, and then put a sandwich in it somewhere. If one of the NPCs can sell a sandwich item, that counts, right?
Depression: Screw it, I'll just make a sandwich game. It'll suck, but that's what these events are, a bunch of sucky games.
Acceptance: Hey, this sandwich game is kinda fun. Maybe if I just finish up this mechanic here I can OH SHIT THE DEADLINE.
Part 2: How to work with a theme
With the exception of the very first GiaD, I've never seen an event theme that I liked. Just a couple weeks ago, I dropped out of a game making event because I was uninspired by the theme. It happens. I also only had 5 hours to spare for what was supposed to be a 3 day event. That experience got me thinking, and spurred me on to do another GiaD. If I had more time for that event, here are some things I could have done to find a usable idea in the event's theme.
1) Take the stupid theme and make a stupid game. I once showed up to an event where I was supposed to help some artists present their game, only to find that no work had been done, and we had to make the game in 8 hours, overnight, for the event in the morning. Several hours into making the most mediocre game I could assemble in the given time, I accidentally made a bug that caused you to bounce on enemies instead of being hurt by them. It was fun. The entire game became about bouncing on things. We delivered, and a lot of drunk people had a lot of fun bouncing on stuff.
2) Invert the theme. One year's GiaD theme was "Not Ninjas", which literally came from inverting the first year's pirate based theme. To be honest, I didn't like it at the time, but the theme itself drove some really good design ideas, like Foomer (I think?) who made a pirate themed stealth game. So take the theme, look at its opposite, and you'll discover a whole parallel design space.
3) Make the obvious game. Sometimes you look at a theme and say "that theme is too restrictive, you could only make (X) game". You might even think that the developer wants only those games. But each of us have played different games, and what's obvious to you is probably a reflection of the games you've played and enjoyed. Make the obvious game, and you'll be able to draw on your experiences playing games you loved.
4) Count the Elements. One year we had fire and ice as a theme. If you were completely uninspired, as I was, you could simply count the number of things in the theme (2) and then make that many game elements. This could be regions, factions, teams, characters, or whatever. If the theme is "Archeology", (like a recent theme on another site), then create a number to work with: 3 eras of history, classical + stone age + jurassic. Then map this to game concepts: Three characters to fight as, a roman soldier, a cave man, and a velociraptor.
5) Theme as skin. This is what everyone tries to avoid, but sometimes it's the only thing you can think to do. Simply put, you make whatever game you want to, and then use the theme as graphics. If the theme is "For Science!" then you make a standard RPG, but the fighter is call an "Engineer" and fights with a ruler, and the wizard is called a "Chemist" and throws bottles of exploding chemicals instead of shooting spells. If done well, this can morph into...
6) Theme as Aesthetic. As you build out your game you'll have to make choices about what sorts of features to include, what attacks will be available to characters, what sounds they'll make, how the world will react to their presence. If you make choices with the theme in mind, your game will start to take on the aesthetic of the theme. Like a mad scientist's lab where anything can happen and things are constantly exploding as your players duke it out - for Science!
7) Theme as focal point. Let's say you're given a theme you don't like and don't want to base a game around. All you have to do is find one object you can use; it can be a physical object, image, or symbol, just so long as it tangentially relates to the subject. Then you imbue that symbol with a meaning of your own, and use it as the focal point of your story. It doesn't need to appear more than once, maybe at the start or end of the game, but it has to have some greater meaning. This is the triforce in Zelda, or the one ring from The Lord of the Rings. The technique is more powerful than a simple MacGuffin, as this is also the girl in red from Schindler's List.
8) Ignore the theme. Sometimes the theme is so bad, and there's nothing you can think of. Nothing at all. If you're only here to win 1st place, then rise to the challenge and win first place. Do it. But if you're here for the personal challenge of making a game in a day, then just make a game and submit it. You know you're not cheating, so who cares about the theme? You won't be able to win any prizes, but (Speaking for the GiaD at least) you'll still be able to slip it by the judges - especially if you have one NPC in the corner selling sandwiches.
Got some strategies of your own? Go ahead and share, and help out a fellow developer. : )
Sep 14 2018, 7:44 pm (Edited on Sep 14 2018, 7:53 pm)