Certain mediums tend to better lend themselves to certain themes than others. The computer is no different. Some themes that are particularly well suited include:
Themes that are explored through comparing and contrasting
A key element of computer-mediated storytelling is multi-linearity. This can be implemented on the screen by explicitly placing side by side two or more related stories. The process may also be made implicitly apparent by how navigation is set out in order to follow various story streams.
Using the HTML facility called frames, Odysseus, She brings the two storylines of Odysseus and her daughter Telemakhe together in the segment called "Eumaios Well Stay". Placing the parallel, but varying, representations of their stories on the same page makes their differences and similarities obvious. In this way the audience is more likely to think about why such differences and similarities exist between these characters.
Themes that involve exploring differing perspectives
Again this derives from the ease of implementing multi-linearity, and yet it is a significant, expanding field of thematic exploration. Certainly, some books, movies, plays, etc. have an ensemble of characters that are individually explored. The ways in which these mediums have been approached and even, to some extent, their very nature tends to better support the sort of stories that focus primarily on the activities of a single character, other characters serving to forward the events around the primary character's life.
Within the computer medium themes on differing human perspectives are easily explored and perhaps may engender a broader sense of empathy within their audience. An example of this would be the online serial The Spot [Zak96] which followed the fictional lives of several young people sharing a household through their public Web diaries.
Themes that are concerned with our ability to choose and how different choices can affect our lives
Stories within other media have a certain sense of inevitability about them. After all they usually have only one beginning, one middle and one final conclusion. Nevertheless, it is interesting to follow a particular creator's vision of the world. In this way the audience senses whether that vision suits them or not.
If creators specifically wish to explore the theme of human choice they can experiment with choose your own adventure novels or plays. However, these media are constrained in how much they can offer in this sort of exploration; a book can only be so thick, a play can only offer choices to one audience member at a time. Many times the choices within these end up being broad but shallow, offering so many choices that any individual story line ends up being short, or alternatively the story only supports one "true" story path, others being cut short after a few diverging steps. A computer is much better suited to this sort of task. Having been an early reader of choose your own adventure novels, I can also assert that it is much nicer to click on a link than to shuffle through a bunch of pages to find the continuation of a story.
An effective example of computer based stories of choice are military recreation computer games. Here certain specific events and their circumstances, such as a particular battle in a war, can be replayed over and over again, but adjusting certain aspects of the circumstances each time to see how things would turn out. A computer can simulate a depth of complexity with these recreations that just is not possible using lead models, a booklet of statistical charts and dice. Norm Koger's The Operational Art of War, Volume 1, 1939-1955 [Kog98] is a direct computer based follow-on from traditional wargaming.
Themes about how time can affect us
Given how event placement can be automated by the computer, the audience can be made aware of "real time" by the need to perform an action or make a choice before the computer can do so for them. The easy instance is if the audience does not shoot a laser pistol immediately, then they may be shot by a character animated by the computer. The theme then may be, "as a gangster, you are either quick or dead."
Another possibility may be that in a multi-linear story, all of the events move forward whether the audience's character is located within a particular set of events or not. So perhaps we have a story where one of several characters is planning to assassinate the king of France. If the audience decides to follow the courtesan Chantal, suspecting her of nefarious intentions, then while observing her fleece a rich noble, may actually miss the king being assassinated by Gregoire, his childhood confidante. The story will then automatically branch to a situation where the audience is made aware of the king's death and their separation from that event. In this case the theme may revolve around some aspect of how the tide of events sweep on with or without us, or perhaps how a singlle turning in a person's life can change the course of history.
MUDs, by their very nature as a networked shared world, can often impart time based themes. Since people freely interact and move about in these event rich environments, the whole game world evolves whether or not an individual player is aware of or participates in the situations that bring about this evolution. The world of Derek Smart's Battlecruiser 3000AD 2.0 [Sma99] evolves in a similar manner to MUDs, though it is simulated on the behalf of a single player.
Themes about cooperation
Within the digital medium since it is possible for several people to engage a storied environment together via MUDs or other networked games, the theme of cooperation becomes a very real one. In order to find a treasure in one game, people may need to get beyond a rock in front of a cave. However, to do so they must push together against its weight. The theme may then be one of how much more we can achieve together than apart.
Themes about life as a collection of significant events, not just a single climax
This is a theme that creators will find themselves increasingly confronted with in this medium. The more freedom of movement the audience is given within a story, the more difficult it becomes to manage events such that they reach a moment of high emotional tension. Therefore, each event needs to be a fascinating whole in its own right, even if it is not the peak moment. Most people's lives are made up of a series of precious or saddening moments, maybe none of them are particularly high or low as audiences often experience them at the cinema, but they are important to that person and can be of interest to an audience who may enjoy the insights and parallels with their own lives. Like a broken pearl necklace a story can be a scattering of events with only a general direction which the audience restrings as they find each pearly moment.
I chose to base my project on the Odyssey because even though Odysseus has a strong drive to get home, the events at home are no more interesting than the process of getting there
Copyright 1999 Katherine Phelps