A theme is a high level, bird’s eye view perspective of the experience and environment you wish to create. It is the framework in which your player will immerse themselves and the setting in which they will be able to connect and empathize with your experience. Choosing the right theme is of great importance to set the right tone and context for the world your players will be entering. But don’t be trapped by the idea that the theme needs to come before the narrative. Each person has their own working methodology and for some, the theme will arise out of the narrative. Often though for those stuck when trying to come up with an idea, a broad concept such as theme is easier to achieve. Choosing a theme such as the Age of Piracy in the Caribbean, or Steampunk in 19th Century France or savage Low Fantasy in the streets of Babylon. Each of those probably created an image of what you expect them to be correct? From there you can start seeing settings, characters, encounters, quests and so forth that your players can interact with and experience. And that is a good start place then for your narrative to be built from.
The narrative, to put it as mundanely as possible, is the actual telling of the story. It is the experiential scaffold within the thematic framework that you’ve chosen. It is the actual nuts and bolts of the experience that you want your players to go through. And the most important thing you need to remember about a narrative is that it needs to be an active experience. As with life, the narrative you create needs to have action in it, not 1980’s Hollywood Action Movie action, but momentum, a sense of agency for the player to keep moving forward. It needs to be the verb in your gamified environment.
And to help you build these verbs and place them effectively within your narrative and gamified experience as various tools:
Quests are brilliant tools, mostly because they are ubiquitously recognizable in modern interactive storytelling. Thanks to games like World of Warcraft, Everquest, Guild Wars, Skyrim, etc. A quest transfers very quickly the desired action in a narrative context, and basically what a quest is that it’s a fixed goal that your players need to achieve. And within it are various challenges that player needs to overcome. Challenges are technically another game tool, but they are usually only used within the narrative context of a quest. For example, the player needs to achieve reward Z, to do this they need to complete the challenges of activity Y1 and Y2, X amount of times, respectively. Only once they’ve completed those two challenges for the correct amount of times do they get the reward, which can be an item, an achievement or a boost.
Progression is, on one hand, a concept, but on the other, it is also a term to describe a system that can be used as a game tool. A progression system visually shows your player how far they are within the game or gamified environment and also how far they are within the story. Progression systems usually use such visual and intellectual cue’s as levels and achievements to depict a player’s development and determine the effectiveness of their learning and skill acquisition thus far. Just think of games that weave subtle narrative and progression together to move a player forward, such as the Dark Souls series, or The Witcher series. Very different games, but each exceptionally good in their use of progression and narrative.