Theme Is A Harsh And Demanding Bitch

To my mind, theme is one of the most important features in a MUD. Without a consistent theme, there is no real sense of immersion. I know some MUDs jump from theme to theme between areas, letting people pinball from sci-fi to fantasy to western to the modern world simply by traveling to another zone. However, my own personal view is that kind of game can’t hope to build a genuinely immersive environment, and has no real hope of building up a consistent narrative that players can engage with.

Theme is important, and as such it needs to be treated with respect.

On Epitaph, I take the theme very seriously – on one hand, it’s just zombies isn’t it? On the other, you’re a participant in a world that has been pushed to the brink of human extinction. Zombies are the primary ‘meat’ of the theme, but the impact that the meat has on the rest of the world is what defines the immersive environment. A world needs internal consistency in order to convince – that doesn’t mean it has to be ‘realistic’, per se, it just has to be consistent with its own theme and mechanics.

Coming from Discworld to Epitaph is a quantum leap in terms of theme. Discworld, as defined in Pratchett’s novels, is a rich world of comic fantasy where parody and satire permit the mirroring of many real world institutions and concepts. To paraphrase the man himself, much is possible in a world such as that. However, even there it’s possible to break the theme. Tolkeinesque orcs for example have no place on Discworld. While some of the later books are quite dark, it’s still not a world where you can realistically attempt to incorporate genuine fantasy. Uberwald, a country which is a parody of 18th century horror novels, is not an actually frightening place. It’s a parody of frightening places. The theme of Discworld is tremendously freeing, but also very restrictive in many ways.

So it is too with Epitaph – the theme has changed (survival horror), but the basic tension between developer desires and thematic consistency remains. The theme funnels development in a particular direction, and things that are not thematic are not possible to incorporate. If humour is incorporated, as it sometimes is, then it has to be black humour. There’s no slapstick in the grim darkness of the zombie apocalypse, even if there are comic moments. The theme quite simply forbids levity.

Theme also is a driver for development – things that you may not consider to be ‘appropriate’ for a game may have to be incorporated just because they are in fitting with the internal consistency of the world. You may be able to get away with just ignoring them, but more is gained by playing to them. However, here is where a worry of mine lies – how far does theme justify the development of potentially distasteful features?

I will give you two examples of what I mean by this – one minor, and one more substantial.

The first of these is sex. Sex is a fact of life, and won’t cease being a fact of life just because humanity is falling apart. Hell, it may even become a more pressing need for people. The modern commercialisation of sex led to the incorporation, into the high street, of sex shops selling the kind of devices that would have shocked even a progressive a mere twenty years ago (at a time, for example, when the showing of a tampon on television was cause for flustered outrage). Much of what defines wealth for a player in Epitaph is based on what they can scavenge. The obvious question then is – should there be salvageable sex shops?

My answer to this was ‘yes’, because I feel it enhances the theme for it to occasionally be a little close to the knuckle – and being able to stave in the head of a zombie with a double headed dildo is, if a little risque, quite in keeping with a world gone to hell. It’s also a great opportunity for the black comedy mentioned above. Quite simply, the theme justifies the existence of the shop, and there are no real negative implications of incorporating it other than perhaps a few raised eyebrows. More on that later.

The second example is drugs. Thematically, of course they should exist. In a bleak, dark world like that of Epitaph, you should be able to brew up heroin and use it to gain favour with junkies. You should even be able to take drugs yourself. But here we’re on trickier grounds – the sexual revolution is empowering, and you can make reference to that without cheapening the game. Drugs on the other hand may be a different story. They’re justified thematically, but can they be justified in another way?

Some games, such as Fallout, make drugs a game mechanism in themselves – you get a little boost to your character in exchange for your addiction. That’s fine in a futuristic world, but Epitaph is set in the near future of our own world, and drugs don’t work that way. You could make them function as power ups, but that is neither in theme or a good social message to send.

On the other hand, is there anything to be gained by adding in a system where players can genuinely screw up their characters by what may be playful experimentation? If the consequences aren’t severe, then they are not thematic. If they are severe, then it’s unlikely to be fun to have your junkie character unplayable until he gets his hands on someheroin.

It’s difficult – the theme demands the inclusion, but the inclusion is likely to be a net negative. It’s an issue on which that I’m not yet near to having reached a conclusion.

Theme, if I may coin a phrase, is a harsh and demanding bitch.

Back to the sex shop though. The last problem that must be considered is that of the slippery slope. The sex shop in particular could, perhaps justifiably, be dismissed as mere adolescent indulgence. The fact I am long past being an adolescent doesn’t even matter for that – it’s actually a fair comment. Is it gratuitous? I don’t think so, but I accept that reasonable people may disagree. The danger is, once you’ve incorporated a thing like that, where does it end? My favourite ‘goto’ example of that is the game HellMOO, which I have long been fascinated with. It’s a game which contains a rape subsystem of a sort, and all sorts of other repellent things. They’re all actually justified by the theme, but I do wonder – did HellMOO begin down a slippery slope that started with scavengable vibrators and end up with raping immolated orphans?

I guess what I am trying to say in this long rambling bit of commentary is that I hope what comes across in Epitaph is a genuine attempt to be true to the theme without being unnecessarily gratuitous.

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