I've prototyped an idea and so far it's quite fun to play. However, it's still abstract and uses placeholder art. I've been thinking about a theme/story to add to the game, but I don't want to make it too obvious it was added almost as an afterthought.

There's a concept of "pasted on theme" within the board game community which basically refers to a game which is easy to reskin without redesigning some of the mechanics. I was wondering how big of an issue this is with video games (indie games in particular of course) and anything else I could do about a story for my game.


4 Answers 4


If we are talking about theme, it isn't much of an issue per se. Let us say, it is a risk. Will come back to that.

It is a good idea to prototype. And prototype until it is fun. Without final art. In fact, it is a good idea to do that per mechanic. So you know they are intrinsically engaging, not depending on art (e.g. it works even without music and cool graphics) and not depending on extrinsic rewards (e.g. achievements). By the way, those prototypes might include particle effects, camera shakes and other stuff.

I'll be assuming that the game has a player character, avatar of sorts. However, similar arguments would work for strategy or tactic games.

Which also remind me... Even though you would have a theme. That does not mean you need a story. At most you need an excuse. In fact, the characters are more important for players enjoyment than the lore or the worldbuilding. Just make a good player character or characters. Give them some motivation. And perhaps some opinions on the world. And give them a problem. So they have an excuse to go do whatever.

The risk I mentioned before can be expressed with a term "Ludonarrative Dissonance". This is a term put forth by critics, and often consider a bad thing. To be fair, the games accused of it, still sold well, so it is not a deal breaker. Futhermore, it can be an strength of a game, for example as a tool for satire.

The term "Ludonarrative Dissonance" is about the mechanics and the narrative working against each other. Although it isn't exactly lack of Ludonarrative Harmony, which would be having them in agreement. There is an excluded middle, where mechanics and the narrative don't work together, but don't work against each other either.

The mechanics (have incentives that) encourage a certain behavior. You can think of your rewards and progression systems as a black box that the players are testing and learning about, as they explore the mechanics. This is a way in which the game communicates what to do to the player.

Meanwhile, the game may tell or show or suggest, what behavior is correct (and I don't mean tutorial text, but narrative, character motivation, and plot). That is, the narrative and theme would inform what is "in character" for the player character to do. And thus this is another way the game communicates what to do to the player.

These are two messages that the game delivers to the player. Which may agree, complement or contradict each other.

Also consider that the player point of view is not a perfect match for the point of view of the characters in the story, and may care about different things than the character would care about in universe. One reason this might happen is because the player cares about the mechanics and rewards, which are often not diegetic and might be misaligned with the narrative.

See also:

One takeaway is that the game should give incentives that make the player behave as if the player cares about the thing the character cares. And should prevent or discourage the player from doing things that break the theme or the narrative.

A designer could have the character background (or at least their archetype) inform what should be easy and what should be hard for the character. Similarly, could have the intended character arc inform on what what should become easier or harder. And match the difficulty and progression of the game to those ideas. Furthermore, the designer could consider what the character wouldn't do, and either prevent them or discourage them mechanically.

However, that advice is easier if you start with narrative and theme. Since you are starting from the mechanics. And assuming you are not changing them. I suggest you think carefully about what behavior do the mechanics encourage, and then think what theme and narrative is a good fit. That is, try to reverse engineer what would be the theme and narrative that leads to the mechanics you have. A tool at your disposal is you -and play testers- can play the game. Bring what makes you think about while playing, an how it makes you feel, and give it context in the form a narrative.

I'll remind you that realism is not important. Games don't have to pass a reality check. What you want is believability. Verisimilitude.

Also remember that whatever mechanics you choose would put your game in a mechanic genre. While you could match any mechanic genre with any theme. Some are easier to make work. That also means there would likely be plenty of similar games.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This was quite helpful. However, I believe that, by starting with a theme or story, this is missing out on some brilliant mechanics that simply don't fit the story from time to time. Although story is important in most (not all) games, the fact still stands that mechanics should always be the first and foremost component of a game. A game without good gameplay can at most be an interactive novel. That's not what I'm looking for, at least. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2021 at 4:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @EnderShadow8 Both starting from mechanics and from the narrative have their merits. I'll also remind you that you don't have to finish one to work on the other. You can start with and outline of the narrative, and use that to inform the mechanics, before going back to writing, for example. - There is nothing wrong with interactive novels. However, I'd agree that to take full advantage of the medium of video games, mechanics are more important. \$\endgroup\$
    – Theraot
    Commented Apr 10, 2021 at 4:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ My honest opinion is that stories are definitely an important part of our culture. But creating a game means creating a game, and I think if I wanted a good story I would have gone looking for a book instead. Use the right tool for the job, and to me it feels like the medium of video games resonates more strongly with fun game mechanics than good story. I find that too many games nowadays focus on narrative, and I like games which ease on story and put more thought into perfecting the mechanics worry-free. I'm also one of the few people I know content with playing completely abstract games. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2021 at 4:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ This just means that I don't really know what people are looking for in a game's story, which isn't ideal for creating games that appeal to people other than me. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2021 at 4:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @EnderShadow8 I enjoy both games with and without story. Between those with story I often side with those with only a little story, because story heavy games tend to be very linear. However, I also know people who cannot engage with a game that lack narrative. You can think of it as a movie, but with challenges. Or as as challenges that reward with story. Of course, you don't need story to make a game. Just take Tetris. Story? If there is, and I don't know it, I don't really care. It does not need it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Theraot
    Commented Apr 10, 2021 at 4:29

This is a very subjective and context-specific question. Reskins have been common since video games first became a medium. Slapping a (sometimes only marginally) different story or theme over the same gameplay is quite common, and even the biggest of AAA studios are very guilty of this sin. Does it affect sales? Apparently, not much!

"Tacked on story" seems to be a common criticism in many forms of media. Many films have been criticized for having a thin story that seems to be little more than window dressing between action scenes or dramatic visuals. Many games (both tabletop and video) have been criticized for similar reasons.

It doesn't matter when you add the story. What makes it feel tacked on is how well written it is and how well it fits the game.

That said, your motivation behind adding a story may have a big impact on how well the story fits the game. If you have strong storytelling skills, have a specific vision in mind, and feel inspired to craft a story around your game, that's a good starting point.

Conversely, if you're thinking "this is just gameplay and I need to add a story for the sake of adding a story", you're starting off on the wrong foot. That attitude is exactly how we end up with so many games with throwaway narratives. Also, developing games and writing stories for games are very different skill sets, so if you're mostly a developer and don't have a background in creative writing/storytelling, you're much less likely to come up with a good story.

Story is not necessary for a game to be a great game. The original Doom and Doom II are great examples of elaborate (for their time) games with next to nothing in the way of story. Many puzzle games, arcade games, racing games, sports games, and simulation games have no story. Platformers are often light on story, though AAA platformers may have a fair number of cutscenes.

That said, a basic story is sometimes beneficial in providing motivation for the player. If the player feels like the game isn't going anywhere or questions why they are doing something, a bit of story can improve the experience by giving them a reason for doing what they're doing - for example, we're slogging through these enemies because we need to slay the villain and rescue the princess.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I think my problem is that I myself don't really notice the story much when playing a game. I focus on how fun the game is intrinsically and how much potential the mechanics offer. This makes it very difficult for me, as a developer, to judge what sort of story players are looking for, hence my question. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2021 at 3:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @EnderShadow8 If you don't pay attention to the story in video games, you probably shouldn't try to add story to your own game. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kevin
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 0:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's very fair. It's also the reason I'm trying to learn rather than try my own random stuff. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 4:13

No, after years of on-and-off reading of Gamesutra, PaperRockShotgun and the like I have never seen a computer game criticized because of the mechanics not matching the theme. In fact, we seem to really love a new pasted-on theme to an old idea.

Current darling Hades is a standard new-style rogue-like (you die and start over, but get small bonuses each time). The new idea was that you're trying to escape from your demonic father who ridicules you each time you fail. It's just some pasted on conversations and reskins (instead of upgrading your armoury, you make better friends with the armour guy). No one cares.

The makers of fantasy-themed Clash of Clans went on to make WWII-themed Boom Beach -- a similar game but with completely redone mechanics. It got lots of praise, but never that the new mechanics were such a good match for the new theme. In fact it's been reskinned by others as far future and fantasy and no one complained.

Summoner's War has been reskinned as a Star Wars game, one with with SuperHeroes and many more. Reviews criticize and praise all sorts of things, but I've never read how the rules for summoning felt more or less Star-Wars-y.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, reskins are common and not much of a problem. Usually mechanics and theme don't contradict each other. When they do, is when you find the term "Ludonarrative Dissonance", and you should be able to find articles on Gamasutra about that if you search for it. By the way, I'd won't call Hades a reskin, it is just a new entry on the ̶R̶o̶g̶u̶e̶l̶i̶k̶e̶ Procedural Death Labyrinths genre. And one that manages to give a good thematic background to its mechanic. Given that death is a core mechanic, that has harmony with the realm of the death setting. \$\endgroup\$
    – Theraot
    Commented Apr 12, 2021 at 8:57
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ RE: dissonance: well, the link is about a game with cows which could easily be about anything else. There's no mismatch, but cows feels "pasted on". RE: reskin: exactly! Hades kept the same mechanics and gave it a good thematic background. People could easily complain it plays just like the last 30 progressive roguelikes, but they don't. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 12, 2021 at 15:54

There are some cases of games which lend themselves more to pasted-on themes than others.

For example, one genre where that works exceptionally well are slot machines. So well in fact, that two guys went so far as to automatize it: 1,500 Slot Machines Walk into a Bar: Adventures in Quantity Over Quality (seriously, watch that talk. It's hilarious!).

This theme-swapping works well in general for games with very abstract mechanics. Like Candy Crush / Bejewled. The basic match-3 formula only requires a couple symbols which look visually distinct. As long as you have that, you can put any theme on it you want and still end up with a fun and addicting game.

But it does not work so well with more representative mechanics. For example, you couldn't easily reskin a shooter with a zombie survival theme to a World War II theme without changing the gameplay, because zombies and soldiers are expected to behave very differently.


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