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In the early days, themes were often propagated through the game's manual moreso than through the game itself. A game like Pong has told you in its name that it is a simulation of ping-pong. If you were to merely see the game or play it, it may never occur to you that you are playing video ping pong. You are merely controlling a rectangle moving vertically along one edge of the screen to keep the square from moving beyond your edge of the screen on each bounce. You can understand and appreciate the game for its mechanics alone without need for a shiny wrapper around it to set the stage. The playing of the game is the fun of it not the comparisons you might make to a real-world activity.
So, how big a deal is theme in video games? It can be a pretty big deal in either a positive or negative direction for any of a number of reasons. The best way to explain this is by examples.
Competitive PC first-person shooters
PCs are capable of producing awe-inspiring graphical representations of real-world scenarios past and present. All of this, of course, is dependent on hardware, the game engine, and several other factors. I first need an awesome graphics card to run games to their fullest. I also need the rest of my hardware to be able to keep up with my graphics card. Once these are in place, I go into the game's graphic settings menu and crank everything up to max. Unfortunately, there is a tradeoff. No matter the hardware I throw at it, every game is going to slow down at least a little bit more as I turn each of my settings up. It may be immaterial when I'm running Quake 3 at 200 frames-per-second (FPS), but it is still reality. This becomes more important when I am running either a more demanding game or rendering on less sophisticated hardware — or any combination of the two. In many cases, especially for casual gamers (I use this term in a very loose sense here. Casual as opposed to professionals who are paid to win at games.), the benefits of this will outweigh the negatives. That world is going to look fucking awesome. It may approach photo-realism. Professional gamers, however, are dialing their graphics back a notch. Maybe two notches. Okay, they are actually running on the lowest possible settings for one reason: performance.
These are people who enjoy awesome graphics as much as you or me but they are reducing the fidelity of their games. Their money is made by using their incredible skillset within the rules of the game. Those rules are what games press has referred to for years generically as "gameplay." If the gameplay is not excellent, these guys don't care at all about graphics. One key difference in theming of boardgames versus video games is that theming a board game does not affect the way rules are applied or the way play carries out. Those two things are independent. However, if you are playing your computer game at a resolution and detail level your computer can just barely handle and you come upon a room full of players, your framerate is going down. This means, things slow down for you while the game continues to apply its rules in the background at normal speed. This will ultimately prove detrimental to your ability to win at the game. When winning is all you care about, you start thinking seriously about how to minimize the likelihood that this will happen. If I'm running the game at 300 FPS during the happy times (when nothing much is going on), it's a pretty safe bet that I will still have the speed I need when the shit hits the fan.
I should first say I have never played the game RapeLay. It is a Japanese game that simulates rape. It came under fire recently because it was being sold in the US by Amazon.com. This genre had existed for years and had been confined mostly to the Japanese market without incident until this firestorm of publicity brought the party to an end. This is a PC game, and, in spite of the fact that I have not played it, I think I can safely assume the gameplay itself consists of clicking the mouse and/or pressing keys on the keyboard. I can also assure you this is not what people were pissed about. (They aren't pissed about Microsoft Excel, right?) The developer could have wrapped these exact same mechanics in 1,000 other themes without incident. The theme of non-consensual sex was a step too far for many people and resulted in a public outcry in both the US and Japan.
The phenomenon has been repeated even more recently in last week's release of Shadow Complex. The game is set in the universe of a book by outspoken homophobe Orsen Scott Card called Empire. The game has no mechanics that depend on this connection to the source material. In fact, the story of the game is not lifted directly from the book. The game could easily have been released in its current form claiming no ties to the author whatsoever. Instead, the developer has promoted its connection to the book and its author very publicly giving many gamers pause about exactly what ideologies they are supporting by purchasing the game.
Developers were busy finding themes for their games before even technology was ready to accommodate them! It was much easier for them to sell Football on the Atari 2600 than it would have been to sell Reach Either the Top or Bottom of the Screen More Times Than the Computer Controlled Opponent Within the Time Limit. This is one reason games based on movies or TV shows so often suck. People are buying it because it has Spongebob or because they just saw Transformers and giant robots are awesome. It has a theme that will carry it. The mechanics are secondary to that fact.
I have lots of friends who won't touch a game that doesn't have high-powered rifles or realistic football post-play butt-slaps because anything less would compromise their image and/or sexuality. These are the same gamers that swear by Guitar Hero and Rock Band but will not touch FreQuency, Amplitude, or even the PSP's Rock Band: Unplugged despite the fact they are essentially the same games sans plastic instruments. Other gamers routinely enjoy quirky, cute, weird, or sissy games because they are fun. Give me Flower, Gitaroo Man, and Rez over Need 4 Call of Ukulele Hero 5: Totally Party any day. (Full disclosure: In addition to owning Flower, Gitaroo Man, and Rez, I have also preordered my copy of Need 4 Call of Ukulele Hero 5: Totally Party. Before you ask: Yes, I got the Ultimate edition with the gilded night vision 20" spinner ukulele.)
Themes will always be present in this entertainment medium of ours — in some cases, they will benefit from it while, in others, they will suffer. How important is theme to you? I would love to say that theme is totally unimportant to me and that I will play anything no matter the setting, art style, etcetera but that isn't entirely true. If I have heard praise for a game, I generally will play it with little regard to its theme (or relative lack thereof). However, theme can go a long way to making me appreciate games that have shortcomings in other areas. Theme can even take a game I like for it's mechanics and push it over the edge from the "like" camp into the "love" camp. Regardless of the differing degrees of importance we as individuals place on theming, the psychological effects of taking an abstract idea such as gameplay mechanics and wrapping them in something familiar are hard to deny.