A quick word on thematic consistency (more of it, please)

by Scott Nichols

This will just be a short post, but I wanted to say a word or few about my one of my favorite topics: thematic consistency in games.

Since it’s a term I like to throw around a lot, I figure I should probably hash out what I mean when I say it. To me, thematic consistency is when all elements of a game are in agreement. So the gameplay, game structure, story, visuals, sound, UI, you name it, it’s all operating on the same theme or themes. Or at least several of those systems are theme-ing together and there isn’t another element that conflicts with it.

Yes, theme is a verb there. Roll with it.

When I think of thematic consistency, Bastion is the first game to come to mind. There’s just such a strong theme of regret, and almost nostalgia, running through that game. It’s all about trying to go back in time to stop “the calamity” from wrecking the world. What really hit me was when I noticed you couldn’t go back to levels you’ve already completed. That’s such a small thing, and from a pure gameplay perspective it’s not a very good idea. There are weapons you get very late in the game, and only have 1 or 2 levels to try them instead of being able to go back and replay older levels with new abilities. But that one seemingly counter-intuitive design decision speaks volumes to the game’s ultimate conclusion: you can’t go back. Well, you can, that’s one of the endings, but it just leads to the same results. The only way forward is to keep on pushing forward, remembering the past but not getting bogged down by it. At least, that’s how I interpreted Bastion’s second ending, and it fits rather well as a theme running through many of Bastion’s systems.

Another example comes from The Unfinished Swan, which tells a literal story about a a king who keeps creating things then losing interest and moving on to the next creation before finishing. On a slightly less literal level, I took it that the king was Monroe’s father who, in the fashion of the king story, left Monroe and his mother before he was fully grown, or “finished.” It’s right in the title, but leaving things unfinished is a central theme. Likewise, the game throws several new gameplay styles at you, first with using paint to see, then with growing vines, then manipulating light, and finally creating boxes. Each element is introduced rather abruptly, and it feels like there are still puzzle possibilities left unexplored in each one before the game moves on. The prototype game, which can be unlocked by finding all of the balloons, already shows more possibilities for the paint than the final game, with uncovering text on walls and switching from black paint on a white background to white paint on black. I can see an entire game growing through just the paint mechanic, as with the others throughout The Unfinished Swan, but instead we are given snapshots of them, all crammed into the same game about a father who walks out on responsibilities before he’s done.

These are the sorts of things I love to see in games, but it happens so rarely. Perhaps a part of that has to do with the violence issue, where the primary interaction in most games is killing. It’s hard to create a cohesive theme that can accomodate shooting or stabbing hundreds of people. Bastion’s theme of regret and longing for the past is an example that can work with all of the combat, but it is the exception rather than the rule.

This isn’t to say “stop making games about violence” or anything like that, not by any stretch of the imagination. But I’d love to see that violence worked into a cohesive theme more often. And if a developer can’t make violence work with their theme, then perhaps a careful look at which they are more keen to pursue is in order, and adjusting one to better fit the other.