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How to Deal With a 'Bad' Game Jam Theme

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You’re sitting at your computer, staring at the second hand on the clock. It’s almost time. You’ve cleared your schedule. The next 48 hours will be devoted to rapid game development, and you’ve never been more prepared for anything else in your entire life. The second hand ticks, the game jam begins, the theme is announced, and it’s terrible.

Shortly after the announcement of the theme: "Waffles As Weapons"

Having participated in my fair share of game jams, I can promise you that it’s not nearly as terrible as you think it is. In fact, there is actually no such thing as a ‘bad’ game jam theme. But before I convince you of that, allow me to share a few tips that will help get those creative juices flowing as quickly as possible.

Break it Down

 If the theme consists of more than one word, break it apart and tackle each word individually. You may find that you only have a problem with one of the words in the theme. Start with the words you’re the most comfortable with, then go from there.

Use a Dictionary

 Words often have multiple meanings, so make sure you fully understand the available interpretations of a theme before dismissing it entirely.

Don’t Take it so Literally

 Suppose the theme is “Eat the Potato”. Yes, you could make a game about a potato that needs to be eaten, but how about an adventure game about a heroic potato named “Eat”? Don’t be afraid to twist the meaning of a theme.

Setting vs Gameplay

 The strongest way to implement a theme is to work it into the gameplay. If you’re having difficulties coming up with a gameplay idea, inject the theme into the setting or story of your game instead. You may not end up with the most interesting theme interpretation, but anything is better than giving up.

Take a Walk / Exercise

 A study by Charles Hillman of the University of Illinois has shown an increase in brain function after only 20 minutes of walking/exercise. You can think while walking, and maybe you will even see something on your journey that sparks inspiration. And if not, then the increased brain activity can only help you once you get back to your computer.

Use the Internet

 It seems so obvious, but the internet is often taken for granted in situations like this. It’s the single largest source of information on the planet, and the answer to your problem is out there waiting to be discovered. Type the theme into Google and search through the text, image, and video results. You WILL find something to inspire you!

There ARE No ‘Bad’ Game Jam Themes

The most important thing to remember is that while you’re struggling to accept the theme, someone else is already hard at work on an amazing idea. The problem is NEVER the theme. The real issue is how you choose to approach it. Some of the most critically and commercially successful games of all time can be broken down into ‘bad’ themes if you try hard enough.

Super Mario Brothers – “Plumbers not plumbing”
Ico – “Hand holding”
Skyrim – “Shouting”
Journey – “Be quiet”

A game about being quiet, knitting a magical scarf, and sand surfing. Awesome.

So before you get angry at a theme announcement or throw your hands up in the air in defeat, remember that you could be less than 48 hours away from the greatest game you’ve ever made. You just haven’t thought of it yet.

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