I think it might help to define tone, so we can break it down and talk about it among ourselves. I found two definitions that really work for my purposes today:
1) accent or inflection expressive of a mood or emotion
2) the set of qualities that makes a person, a group of people, or a thing different from others
For games, the ability to inflect mood and emotion can be a huge seller. Games that touch on some emotional context make much different impact on a buyer than games that haven't struck that chord. Mood and emotion are intensely personal, with distinctly individual responses for each consumer.
The ways that games bring across their tone are varied. From company to company and even game to game, the tools that are used to make their product different from others are often the same.
What are those tools? Art, Writing and Mechanics are the most common ways used by game companies to convey emotion and mood.
This, all by itself, isn't going to do a thing for mood. It's a lot more complicated than just slapping "dark" on the cover and expecting it to work, though. It's careful use of these elements - by themselves and in combination that actually brings out the desired effect.
Art has a very dramatic impact on the way a game is perceived and explained- both positive and negative. Art and how it is used within a product can change entire worlds from "Magical Christmas Land" to "GrimDark" pretty much in an instant.
There's a huge difference here, and we all understand it. Art does things to portray emotions in ways that are exceptionally effective, and a good game design team knows it and will use it to their advantage. Does anyone remember this?
TheDude's comments: I think a great example of aesthetics in game design could have been directed toward White Wolf. When they started, their games were the prettiest around, and crated an atmosphere unlike any other.
The art alone had this effect, and it changed the way other games were designed for years to come. I have yet to see another game that has changed the landscape of design in such a striking manner, and it has been over 20 years since it first came out.
Writing also determines tone- but in my opinion it is much more subtle. It takes a very strong and well trained writer to transform "it's a far off future with aliens and plasma cannons" into "In this grim, dark future there is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter". While subtlety and ability are paramount, the need for discretion and editing become easily evident.
A great example of writing's ability (or lack thereof) to effect mood and tone is F.A.T.A.L. This game stands predominately alone as a testament to how critical good judgement is in game design, and evidence that throwing a lot of swear words in a book doesn't necessarily make it good.
[It really, really doesn't.]
But good writing has an indelible and positive effect, as BigJim explains:
I have 20+ years invested into the 40k Lore and I believe it to be the best Lore for any sci-fi wargame out there; nothing compares in my opinion. Now I did jump on the Warzone and Starship Troopers bandwagons when they were out for various reasons, and enjoyed each system a lot.
The 40k setting is so has so much depth and an expansive galaxy you can create your own factions, worlds, campaigns, stories and characters without impacting the actual cannon of the Lore.
Lastly, Mechanics have a strong hand in marking a game as different from the others- in surprising and elegant ways. "Just rolling dice" doesn't always cut it when it comes to creating believable horror, projecting swashbuckling adventure or invoking wizards from other planes.
David Morgan-Mar's comment here gives us an insight to using cards as a mechanical component: Giving players difficult decisions in a card game can be helped by the fact that you usually have severely limited information. Cards in the undrawn deck and opponent's hands are hidden, so the probability calculations are almost guaranteed to be to hard to do explicitly. The main part of the game design needs to be ensuring that the players have actual decisions to make, and that they meaningfully affect the outcome.
Affecting the outcome often has the effect of invoking a tone, and good game design uses this to its advantage.
Porky has this to say about affecting the outcome through randomizers: Put simply, associations are made with particular actions, tactile objects and symbols, and not only in gaming of course. Some of these associations may be personal and private, but others are more universal and public. A designer may be saying something about his or her own expectations when a particular randomiser is chosen, but the choice could also be sending a signal about how the game should be played, or reinforcing the image of the game, or raising the bottom line. Maybe a studio uses one method to encourage a larger player base, or to seem innovative, or more adult, or to force players to spend more.
Choice of randomiser, and whether there even is one, is a core choice in game design, for the potential that flows from it.
During my interview with TheDude, He had something similar, but more extrapolated to say about tone:
Loquacious: Do you think the type of randomizer you use makes a difference in feel/tone of a game?
TheDude: It can...There's no doubt that Malifaux would not the be the game that it is without using the card deck...It could be done, but it would lose flavor...
Another example is Savage Worlds: Deadlands compared to Deadlands classic...
the SW version runs smoother, but the original just drips with flavor due to the use of the poker chips for fate enhancers and poker cards for casting spells/hexes...
Other games, it ruins...The special dice used for the current iteration of Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay are a nice idea, but it really detracts from the experience of old Bretonnia...
Until next time,