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How to Infuse Your Game With Meaning

Games can be fun, exciting, memorable, addictive and many other entertainment-adjacent adjectives, but they can also be more. Like all art, they are vehicles to transmit a message, which is the real point of art.

This is what elevates any medium.

Our humanity gives us the unique power to inject meaning into anything we make and then share it with the world.

Not all games do this, but I invite you to try and do it in your next project. It will help you create something much more impactful.

So, how do you "add meaning" to your game?

Your game needs a Theme. A central idea that you are putting out there. A view of the world.

A Theme is conveyed through Motifs, which are built of Symbols.

What does this all mean?

I'll use my game 'It Comes In Waves' as an example.

The theme is the main message you are trying to share with anyone who engages with your art piece. This is the first thing you should have. Every little part of your game should support this main idea.
The theme is why your game exists in the first place.

In my case, it was "the pain of guilt never goes away".

I wanted to share this idea, this view of the world with anyone who engages with 'It Comes In Waves'. Not everyone will agree and not everyone has to. The point of art is to share and engage in conversation, not to impose.

To communicate this idea, I developed two motifs: thirst and social interaction.

Motifs are universal messages you use to communicate your theme. Motifs are made of symbols (more on that later). Motifs are where meaning resides. Think of them as sentences.

In my game I used thirst, which is something everyone has experienced, to portray the inevitability and endlessness of guilt. You know it's coming and it keeps growing.
You can stop it temporarily, but it will start building up again. It will do this forever.

As a secondary motif, I used social interaction to reinforce my theme. NPCs will barely talk to you. Some will give you a little bit of hope, but most will remind you of what you've done to feel guilty.

These two motifs are reinforced all the time via symbols.

Symbols are like words. They are little parts that stand in for bigger ideas. In 'Waves' I have the desert, the sun, the water containers, big backpacks, NPCs killing each other for water, a constantly-dropping water %, etc.
All of these symbols create the motif of thirst, which in turn gives the game its meaning, via the theme. Even the name of the game supports this idea (thirst and guilt both come in waves).

For the "social interaction" motif, I have long stretches of walking alone, NPCs who insult you, NPCs who run away from you, NPCs who attack you and NPCs who remind you of what you've done. The world is hostile.
You can isolate but sooner or later, your past will catch up. The guilt will catch up.

At the end of the game I pose one final question for the player: By completing this quest, this big gesture, is your guilt gone? Have you "fixed" what you did? Or is it just temporary, like the water?
Each player can decide for themselves.

What I do with this ending is reinforce my theme. I believe this open ending strongly supports this specific message. For other themes, a more explicit ending works better.

I hope this post gives you some inspiration and you fill your next piece of art with meaning.