Thematic Cohesion

I’ve been thinking a lot about thematic cohesion in game development lately, I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that achieving it is one of the greatest and most important challenges in the art form. I’ve had a few exchanges on twitter lately with Cara Ellison and Thomas Grip that both helped to focus my thinking on the subject to the point where I feel I could write something authoritative about it, so here’s my attempt.

What is it?

What exactly I mean by thematic cohesion, is that all the various constituent parts of the game are communicating to the player, or allowing the players to communicate to themselves or each other the same message. A textbook example would be a narrative game where the the narrative has a strong anti war message in a game where the primary gameplay verb is firing a gun.

Unifying these desperate thematic contexts is, in my opinion, what elevates the medium but is incredibly difficult, especially when working in a large team. The above example is the most commonly discussed form of thematic incoherence, what’s been labelled ludo-narrative dissonance but when writing about it or building a game, it’s important to take a more holistic view. Everything in the game communicates or facilitates communication of a message, not just the story and gameplay.

Other Media

We talk a lot, maybe too much, about what the movie industry has to offer the games industry. I would definitely argue that we’ve learned a lot of the wrong things from film making, largely a result of the scourge of failed film makers finding opportunities in the field that were beyond their abilities in the more competitive film industry.

I think though, that the games industry has transformed the film industry much more than the other way around. The technology that powers that beast would not exist without ours. I’m no expert but I would estimate also that we’ve harmed rather than helped movies. The technological progress largely unlocked by the games industry has facilitated de-emphasising character study and development in favour of plotting and cheap visual effects.

Having said all that there is one area where the absolute best of the movie industry has become adept at that even the best of us in games still struggle to achieve and that is preserving thematic consistency in large teams. Other than movies there is no other art form that demands so much harmony between the thinking of such large groups of people. I know very little about how movies are made but I believe there are 2 core components of how they made it work. Firstly, emphasising the core themes early and continuously throughout development to everyone involved in the production. Also, the post production editorial process.

Kojima Productions

Kojima Productions is a studio that is particularly successful at marrying themes or achieving ludo-narrative resonance. Again I don’t know how they go about doing this but I believe they do it primarily through the former approach described above. That Kojima is successful at communicating to the entire team throughout development his thematic vision for the project and keeps those themes at the forefront of every conversation throughout development. I think this is done primarily by leaning heavily on the kind of writing that ends up in the final game, sledge hammer subtle, naming characters after their achetypes or writing a 4 paragraph spiel about similarities between language and biological replication. This kind of writing makes it much easier to spot ludo-narrative dissonance.

The question is can we achieve this level of cohesion with more sophisticated writing? What percentage of people watch a film and bother to fully grasp the themes? I know for me, I won’t unless I truly love the film, is it possible for such large teams thoughts to resonate deeply enough? I speculate that it is by spending time during development to bring the entire team into the same space and having the team understand that it’s important that their contributions do have an effect and should be consistent.


I often say the games industry has an editing problem. We don’t do post production, the game gets built right up until the ship date and beyond. There’s no time to take stock of what you’ve made. If it reflects your intent and if there’s anything you’d like to remove, primarily because unlike the film industry, subtractive and transmutative changes are even more expensive than additive ones.

The reason for that is thermodynamics. In games we build systems, lots and lots of state for entropy to accumulate. Films do have a lot of entropy in the production but the end result is static, a single piece of state. You don’t have to unstir the paint to change it. Because of that we very probably won’t solve the editing problem.

Instead we have learned to be diligent in editing on the fly. We try and be aware of how the game is shaping up all the way through development. This is virtually impossible for a 100 hour game. No one before it ships plays that end to end and checks it for pacing considerations or thematic consistency. Definitely not the director or producers, who are absolutely swamped in work as the game is getting ready to ship.

One thing we could potentially learn from the film industry though is allowing for time between completion and release, this is difficult because timescales are very difficult to predict in software development, which is why engineers never use time as a measure of anything. Also a game sitting on the shelf for months is almost unthinkable because the technology and the field as a whole is constantly improving and there’s a fear of being left behind. We have enough cautionary tales about perpetual development to rightly fear obsolescence.

It’s possible we may be approaching a period of slowing of innovation that could allow us to take the time needed to make relatively cheap subtractive or compositional changes in a form of post production. This could potentially be facilitated by building games in a way that is more amenable to being transmuted, for that though we would need hardware to outstrip technological ambition, which I don’t really believe will ever happen.


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