What is cohesion in a video game? Is this a meaningless, contrived term? Or does it capture some deeper design points of video games that 'graphics' and 'level design' do not?

So by now I've tried twice at making a video game “review”, and one of the main discussion points I’ve been highlighting is Cohesion. But I realized while I was writing about Hollow Knight that this idea is not really well defined. What exactly is cohesion in a video game? Do I even know? Or is this some abstract, contrived and meaningless category that doesn’t really capture what I’m trying to say? Is this any different than other industry ‘buzzwords’ like Immersion?

Well, let’s see if we can make Cohesion a little better defined.

The first logical place to start is with a definition. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Cohesion as ‘The act or state of sticking together tightly; unity’. In my head, this captures what I’m trying to communicate when I talk about a games cohesion. I’m interested in games that are able to bring it’s world and all its parts together into a unified unit. Like with Hollow Knight's soundtrack and level design playing together directly into its gameplay.

Let me give you a better contrasting example with what I consider a good game with bad cohesion. Previously, I had praised Beyond Good and Evil for its cohesive world-building. That the details connecting all the different aspects of the game together makes for a full, polished experience.

For contrast, a game series that I think has chronically suffered from poor cohesion is Assassin’s Creed. I know people always complained about the slow, awkward and mostly boring “Desmond” sections of the earlier games. The ones set in the “present” before you deep dive into his ancestor memories and go to the interesting past bits. But what Assassin’s Creed games have become since dropping that side of the story is so much worse. If you haven’t played the games, Assassin’s creed runs a constant story thread of people in the present with advanced technology exploring the past through memories. The bulk of any Assassin’s Creed game and its main location you play is just a simulation.

Assassin's Creed Unity; ironically, lack's unity Ironically, lack's unity

And it’s not that this kind of storytelling CAN’T be cohesive. It’s just that recent games have all but dropped any focus on the present conflicts to just keep you as much in the past as possible, but while still carrying that baggage of the present conflicts. You’re left with a kind of dichotomy; an intriguing future story you don’t get to experience, and a great historical game made worse by carrying that around. So, for examples of good games suffering poor cohesion, just play something like Assassin’s Creed Unity. Or Syndicate. Or lord help me, Rogue.

So that’s what I’m trying to get at with Cohesion. But is anybody else talking about games like this?

If you Google “Video Games Cohesion”, the first link you find is a gaming chair.

The second thing you find is a PHD dissertation on cooperative video games and team cohesion. And by that I mean the effect of games on team building... Not really what we want. In fact many of these links are just talking about team cohesion.

Until I came across this 2013 Gamnesia article about Narrative Design in Video Games by Mariah Beem. She says that Narrative Design is, in it's most simplest form, creating game cohesion (Beem, 2013). Ok now we’re getting somewhere! Maybe I’ve just using the wrong term. So then how is Narrative Design described?

Mariah provides a quote from the book Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing, where Jay Posey explains what a Narrative Designer does like so:

“...if narrative is 'the story the game tells' Narrative Design is the creation of that story and the design of the mechanics through which the story is told. That is, Narrative Design encompasses not only the story itself but also how the story is communicated to players and how other game features support and immerse the player within the game world."

I think this is precisely what I’m trying to get at with Cohesion. I’m talking about all things, from small subtle details like audio transitions to overarching game mechanics like map-building that contribute not only to how fun the game is, but to the game and its story as a whole. World building stuff. Like storytelling through environmental details. Mariah even points out that this cohesion should extend further into game menu, into fonts and user interface designs.

One example that immediately comes to mind is the menu screen in the N64’s Goldeneye. Whenever you open your menu, James Bond looks down at his wristwatch; the menu IS the watch where you can get information about your mission, weapons, and more.

N64 Goldeneye MenuSure, just play with your watch in the middle of a gun-fight, what could go wrong?

One side question that’s starting to bother me is how Cohesion or Narrative Design is different from Immersion; couldn’t all these features of Narrative Design also be used to describe Immersion? How can we differentiate them? I’m not sure yet. (see below for an excellent video about Immersion by Barry Kramer.)

After Mariah's blog post, I next came across this research article by Hargood, Millard and Weal from 2011, titled “Measuring Narrative Cohesion: A Five Variables Approach”. Alright, this is getting exciting! Can we actually quantify this rather than just discussing cohesion qualitatively?

This paper seems to be exploring narrative generation. As in, using a machine to help generate a text story. So it’s not directly related to video games, but let's see if we can extract anything interesting. They say that Narrative cohesion refers to the way in which the component elements of a narrative are bound together in a discourse through the coherent use of language, consistent underlying concepts (like themes), and a consistent relationship between the author and audience.

They identify five key variables for measuring cohesion: Logical sense, or the language used; Themes, the concepts communicated implicitly; Genre, the presence of recurring features that culturally contextualize the narrative; Narrator, or the presence of an identifiable storyteller communicating the narrative; and Style, the way narrative elements are presented within the discourse. (Hargood, Millard, & Weal, 2011)

So, ok, this isn’t directly relatable to video game narrative design that we were discussing before, but I think there are some interesting points here that aren’t restricted to just text stories. Basically, things need to make logical sense and be told coherently, you have to have underlying themes that can be identified and are carried throughout, the way in which the story is told should be consistent and not break conventions it sets up, and there should be a clear identifiable style.

There is a video released by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences about Narrative Design from the perspective of game developers that’s pretty interesting. It’s an interesting problem because a lot of design choices you may make when putting together a game could be completely lost on the player because, ultimately, they are the ones in control. They mention a lot of varied things about game design, but all of what they mention, whether it’s small character details or handling player choices, are all things that go into creating a strong narrative cohesion.

For more discussion, check out this GDC talk from 2015 by design Jurie Horneman about how narrative design is really intrinsically linked to the systems designed into games.

Alright, so where does this leave us? It seems like what I’m calling “Cohesion” is a relevant and meaningful way to talk about games, and actually touches on more of how the game is designed. Other terms for this concept are Narrative Design or Narrative Cohesion. So I am going to continue using this as a point of discussion in my “reviews”.

The development of this concept isn’t finished though; I think there is still room to better develop all these terms and to talk about them. If you have any comments or any details to add about this idea, please let me know!