John August answered a question about screenwriting from theme last week on his blog. He dismisses a few classic ways to define theme out of hand, and from the writer’s perspective, good riddance to them. Writing a story to prove some greater truth about the human condition is a fantastic way to produce a stilted and ultimately dishonest story.
Instead, John focuses his discussion toward something he winds up calling a story’s “DNA.” He describes a story’s DNA as a fractal quality, such that in the well-crafted story, you could excise any individual portion and, knowing only that portion, it would be inevitable that any full story you’d re-grow from that fragment would resemble the original. In a good story, he’s saying, each part reflect the whole. “I don’t know that ‘theme’ is really the best word for this DNA quality I’m describing,” he writes. “But I think it’s what we mean when we say it.” He goes on to talk more about the animating quality of a given story’s DNA as its essential idea, which he expresses in examples as a short phrase or sentence.
For example, he suggests that the essential idea of his short film “The Remnants” is, “The end of the world isn’t so bad.”
The thing that’s awesome about this idea of the fractal nature of story DNA is that the concept so obviously applies to game design as well, and fruitfully.
I’ve written about the idea of the core minute of gameplay here at Gameplaywright. Thing 70 in Things We Think About Games deals with the core minute idea, too. Let me propose that, in a well-designed game, each mechanical system of the game ought to reflect the nature of its core gameplay such that if, in some post-apocalyptic future, some group of moderately observant gamers found just one spread of the manual blowing in the wind, or just a few cards from a whole deck, that if they tried to reconstruct the whole game based on those fragments, they’d wind up with a game that expressed the same basic essence as the original.
For example, it becomes clear from reading more or less any page of a Dungeons & Dragons core book that this is a game about the tactical struggles between heroes and monsters. Likewise, it’s hopefully reflected throughout the game that Horus Heresy is about choosing how to use your resources to avoid giving too much advantage to your enemy. And there are plenty of things that could have been put in Pieces of Eight but weren’t because they wouldn’t have reflected its DNA idea that you can play it anywhere, without any other equipment.
So, while our post-apocalyptic gamers might not re-construct quite the same initiative system when building from a couple spreads on D&D character creation, they’d certainly create some initiative system, because it would be clear that some order of action is needed in a game that obviously resolves around tactical struggles. Given a half-dozen Lunch Money cards, no one in their right mind would re-create the mechanics of Munchkin.
One of the things that’s attractive about considering a game’s DNA is that it’s useful at the beginning of a design process, and again in the thick of the revision process. Making a positive decision up front about the essential nature of a game’s play can provide sobering clarity. And knowing that essential nature when deciding which parts of an unwieldy design to pare away make sure that the right parts are jettisoned, or revised (and revised in the right way). The latter is even true — heck, especially true — if a game’s essential idea drifts during the design process.
Know your game’s essential idea, and express that DNA fractally at each level of its design.