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FUS ROH DAH! The Unrelenting Force of Content Coherence
by Bart Stewart on 01/17/12 01:41:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

I've previously expressed the opinion that content coherence helps a game feel memorable (in a good way!). Today I'd like to describe this idea in a little more detail.

Content Coherence

By "content coherence," I mean the principle that every piece of content in the game -- every object, every mechanic, every interface component, every visual and every sound and every word -- is consciously selected and built to echo every other piece. The attributes of each element should be similar in some way to the attributes of all other elements.

(By extension, this also means that any element that does not contribute to the fundamental vision for the game must be cut with complete ruthlessness. As with novelists, the worst sin a game designer can commit -- other than to make boring art -- is to fall in love with some piece of a game that doesn't directly advance the vision for that game.)

This means being aware not only of the overt appearances of content elements but also of the deeper connotations of individual elements and the functional properties of linked elements. By understanding the attributes of content elements, designers can choose elements with similar attributes. And by choosing elements whose attributes are typically associated with one or two particular feelings or ideas, all the individual pieces of game content will echo and reinforce each other to form a particular and uniquely distinctive whole product.

Without this effort, players will experience the pieces of a game as individual components. The "good" parts will stand out, but so will the "bad" parts. Players are likely to remember the game -- and describe it to others -- as a loose collection of individual mechanics, rather than as a single recognizable experience. This can also happen when elements chosen for the way their attributes are perceived in one culture mean something different in another culture. In this case (as in games made for the Asian market when played by Western gamers and vice versa), all the internal attributes may cohere, but the overall effect is less than desired because some of the attributes of various game elements aren't interpreted as expected.

That said, paying attention to content coherence makes it easier for players to perceive a game as a unified whole. Even weaker elements will be better tolerated as long as they are perceived as contributing something to the overall feel of the game. This not only makes the game more satisfying to each player, it pays off in helping players sell the game to other gamers because it allows them to explain the fun of the game as a simple concept -- one short sentence to say what the whole game is "about."

Conceptual Clarity

Minecraft is a beautiful example of this conceptual clarity. What's Minecraft about? It's about mining (breaking blocks) and crafting (putting blocks together). The survival aspect adds excitement to the core Minecraft experience, but ultimately Minecraft is easily understood and described as exploring a world by reducing it to components and putting those components together in new ways. You mine, and you craft.

Every part of Minecraft supports (more pointedly, every part of Minecraft is consciously chosen to support) every other part, creating a very high level of content consistency. Not only can the terrain be mined, so can everything else -- trees, animals, monsters, even water and lava can all be "mined" for resources which can then be crafted into new objects. Every piece of game content is a careful extension of this simple basic concept, and Minecraft becomes easy to play and easy to recommend as a result. A similar approach was applied in Portal, in which the interplay between the indirect portal mechanic and the misdirection of GLaDOS was so strongly defined that players imagined resonances beyond those overtly designed into the game.

But there's perhaps an even better example of remarkable attention to thematic detail at the design level, and I can give it to you in three words: FUS ROH DAH!

Core Consistency

The Elder Scrolls series (at least the core games) has always been a good example of content consistency. Through each game, the world of the Elder Scrolls is carefully constructed from individual pieces of content that support each other and combine to form a recognizable secondary reality of art, sound, lore, and play mechanics. Designer Ken Rolston recognized that an important narrative aspect of many RPG worlds, with which he infused the Elder Scrolls games, is what might be called "the melancholy of lost civilizations." This concept, mentioned near the end of the Gamasutra article "Rolston: Physical And Virtual Artifacts Crucial To Narrative Designer's Job", appears to have become an important tool in designing the more ambitious later Elder Scrolls games. Most of the elements in modern Elder Scrolls games are related in some way, either directly or subtly, to long-forgotten histories of beings and cultures that once strode the world. This concept helps to guide the selection of content, from stories of the lost Dwemer and debased Falmer to their artifacts, from the weathering of broken towers to the ambient music of exploration.

Skyrim does a visibly good job of this, but it was true to a fair extent for Oblivion as well. Some gamers criticized Oblivion as a "generic fantasy world." This criticism is leveled almost exclusively by players of Morrowind, the previous game in the Elder Scrolls series. Morrowind featured unusually imaginative world elements that evoked the strange "dark elf" geography and culture. Oblivion, as an expression of the Romanesque geography and culture of Imperial Cyrodiil, was necessarily less wild, but it still effectively communicated the distinctive Elder Scrolls feel through its components. The lore found in books and the dialogue of NPCs (which strongly renders the races and their distinctive cultures and game-mechanic strengths); the way arms/armor, magic, and sneaking work; the artwork and audio through which all these elements are expressed, including tumbledown Ayeliid ruins -- Oblivion tied all these things together effectively. Even stitching the overworld into an apparently seamless whole (preserving this effect from the prior PC-based games) supported the feeling of world-consistency in Oblivion.

Skyrim, however, refines this internal coherence to a remarkable level. The visuals and sounds of the chilly land of the Nords (the next of the races from the Elder Scrolls universe to get their own game after the Imperials, the Dunmer and the Bretons/Redguard) are specifically crafted to be consistent with the Elder Scrolls lore of lost civilizations and to support and highlight the spell/sword/sneak triad of mechanics for exploring (and surviving) the remains of the past. The new feature of Skyrim -- dragon "shouts," which are up to three words in the language of dragons that produce some useful effect -- also fits into and extends the existing lore/world/mechanics components of Elder Scrolls games, as does the return of the dragons themselves.

Contrapuntal Callbacks

To understand just how far Bethesda has taken the concept of content consistency, first listen to the opening measures of the main theme for The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall. Next, listen to the main theme for Morrowind by composer Jeremy Soule. (You could also hear essentially the same theme reworked for Oblivion, starting in particular about 17 seconds in.) Now listen to the first measures of the theme for Skyrim, especially at about 58 seconds in. You'll notice that all of these overtures emphasize a sequence of three notes. The Morrowind/Oblivion and Skyrim themes in particular share a very similar rhythmic structure: 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3. On its face this is a nice callback to Morrowind/Oblivion by Skyrim, but there's more to it.

The lore of an Elder Scrolls game is important not only for the "lost civilizations" motif but because it supports and reinforces the gameplay, which as noted is the triad of magic, melee and stealth. (Trine is another game that uses this model, and of course there are others as well -- it's a good system.) But the 1-2-3 beats of the main musical themes in the two most recent Elder Scrolls games also echo this triad. With every dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah, the player is reminded that there are three forces at work in the world.

That may sound like too much of a stretch, but consider Skyrim's dragon fights. If you've got the music turned up when one of these ancient creatures attacks, you not only hear the three syllables of "Dovahkiin" (i.e., "dragonborn" -- also three syllables) being sung, which is the part of the main theme at about 00:58, the music precedes this with a repetition of three manly grunts: 1, 2, 3... 1, 2, 3. And the second chorus of "Dovahkiin" actually plays the 1-2-3, 1-2-3 Morrowind/Oblivion theme in the background.

That's where the dragon shouts come in. When your character shouts "FUS ROH DAH!" you the player are adding your own three-part expression to the gameworld. In the course of playing the game you collect each of the three words of the iconic FUS ROH DAH shout. Having three words in a shout echoes the three styles of action in the game. And unleashing the full three words of a shout is echoed by the three beats in the heroic music that plays when you fight a dragon for your life. I can't think of another game that has achieved this level of thematic consistency in its form and content.

Bethesda may have gone even deeper than this. In the world of the Elder Scrolls, there are three racial archetypes (elven, human, beastfolk); in Cyrodiil's pantheon of mortal divinities there are the "Nine Divines" (three groups of three); Tamriel has nine provinces; and Skyrim has nine "holds." It's possible that these are coincidences -- this kind of numerological pattern-finding can be taken too far. But it's also possible that these aren't accidents, or perhaps have been retconned from arbitrary creations into additional Elder Scrolls-specific support systems for the "three ways to play" model.

Even if not every one of these is a deliberate design choice, there's still plenty of evidence that Bethesda has consciously tried to organize each Elder Scrolls game with ever more attention to internal consistency. In general, by thoughtfully choosing and implementing features so that every element reinforces every other element, and by insuring that every element supports the intended play experience, gamers can quickly understand and easily describe to each other the specific deeply satisfying entertainment that such a game delivers.

Clarifying Conclusion

Of course not every game is going to need a fanatical degree of integration among its elements. A match-three game or kart racer can safely ignore a lot of the effort required to build an internally coherent world.

Even so, it helps to make sure that anything that does go into a game is chosen to work well with everything else, and that all selected elements help to express the game's core concept as powerfully as possible. Skyrim's designers may have used "unrelenting force" to achieve this effect, and Portal and Minecraft may have iterated to a remarkable degree on the yin and yang of their core mechanics, but every game can benefit from content coherence.


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Comments


Eric Schwarz
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Excellent article. Some of the ideas here remind me of one I wrote some time ago (over a year, likely) which was framed a bit more in terms of the "games as art" debate. In it, I discussed how I felt Unreal Tournament was just as much a coherent and "artistic" piece as any other, due to unification of its soundtrack, visual design, the weaponry, the nature and speed of the core shooting gameplay, etc. You've done a much more... well, coherent job of expressing those ideas than I did at the time, however.



I am going to be one of those people who says "I think you're putting a bit too much into this" when it comes to the Elder Scrolls references. I don't think the 1-2-3 beats necessarily tie in with the game's fixation on groups of three as far as lore goes, for instance. A happy coincidence, perhaps, and it probably does subconsciously reinforce ideas and themes for the player, but considering the origins of the 3/4 time signature that defines the Elder Scrolls series, I'm not sure it ever had anything to do with lore.



That said, the focus on threes as far as the lore and world design goes is something that I think does have merit, at least starting with Oblivion. Cyrodiil had nine cities, one of which, Kvatch, was destroyed as of the beginning of the game. This certainly ties in with the eight-and-one idea behind Tiber Septim that has been a part of the lore for some time. Morrowind's Vvardenfell is a bigger question, because there are fewer distinctions between the major towns and cities (i.e. is Pelagiad a city?), but it's also possible this simply wasn't something Bethesda had in mind at the time. There's always been a sort of unmistakable stroke of genius throughout the Elder Scrolls lore, and while I'm by no means a buff, I've always appreciated the thought and care that went into constructing it - it really does have a measurable impact on the game, even though I don't think the game itself lives up to it very often.



A few other examples of this core coherence that come to mind:



- The BIT.TRIP series as a whole, especially Runner.

- Most "core" Mario platformers

- Super Metroid

- Deus Ex

- Fallout (the original)

- LIMBO

- Osmos



It's interesting to note how, at least as I envision them, so many of these are indie titles focused heavily on music and/or atmosphere and ambiance, as well as in general simpler play mechanics. I think that the wider in scope your game becomes, the more difficult it is to ensure a level of coherence to it. This also likely ties in a lot with the production environments of the games themselves - a project created by a small team, with lots of feedback from all the developers working its way in, is almost always going to come across as more essential.

Bart Stewart
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I can't say you're wrong, Eric. I may be doing with Skyrim exactly what I accused some people of doing with Portal -- seeing patterns of intention that never existed.



I do think I'm on slightly firmer ground with Skyrim on the proposed linkage of the three-word dragon shouts and the three-beat "Dovahkiin" chant. These pieces are fit so closely together inside the game that if it's a coincidence, it's a pretty remarkable one. The parallel I draw between the three-beat themes of the last three or four scores and the "three ways to play" design strategy of Elder Scrolls games is admittedly more tenuous.



The notion of scope making it harder to keep all the pieces coherent is a good one because it emphasizes that, for a big game, design is not enough. It's necessary, but not sufficient -- you also have to have a good production staff to enforce design discipline. That immediately makes the task more difficult. In these cases, what you may really need is not just a good designer, but a *charismatic* designer.



On the other hand, a bigger game also means the designer has more opportunities to discover and create satisfying resonances among systems (since there are more systems). I suspect that's what the Deus Ex: Human Revolution team discovered when they pulled apart the original Deus Ex to see how it ticked.



Thanks for the comments!

Bernardo Del Castillo
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I wholeheartedly agree on the importance of content coherence in games, and your analysis is impressively deep, however I fully disagree about TES being an example of coherence in game design. Aesthetically, narratively and stylistically TES games definately do hold some very defining characteristics (although they often add elements that feel rather foreign, whimsical and out of place to the universe, under the pretext of being "high fantasy" games). In any case, as Eric described, the lore has always been a very strong aspect of the series, even when the actual narrative in the game is often clumsily delivered.



The thing is that in my personal opinion, speaking of game design, Skyrim, oblivion and Morrowind (and probably other TES games), as enjoyable as they might be, are the completely opposite to coherent. They are composed entirely of a plethora of different options that are not particularly polished, and don't specifically improve the game experience. None of it dazzles, even if none of it is bad.



As I told a friend of mine the other day, Skyrim has an amazing range, but it rarely ever hits the right tunes, and whenever it does it seems that it happened at random. I would agree with eric again, in this case, although I generally read a lot into design, music and gameplay decisions, I believe you might reading too much into the rhythmic structure, yes, they are 3/4, but to me it just seems to be a stylistic choice.



I suppose we would have to determine what is the Elder Scrolls experience to begin with, and you could argue that the desired experience of this games is -everything in general- or, -nothing specific-. I guess we can agree that its main appeal is the invitation to explore. But the game assumes that you want to explore, since it rarely actively forces or even invites you to do anything at all. It is up to you to pursue anything in the game, in fact I often feel more invited to fully ignore the awkward characters and just go off into the forests for the rest of my game days, than to follow any game quest, since they feel rather meaningless to the world on the long run.



Speaking of specific aspects of the game that I believe work against it's core, I would have to mention the general dialogue in the game. The problems were more painfully evident in Oblivion, since the terrible speechcrafting / charming minigame, seemed to promote the "blah blah ,whatever , just give me a quest" feeling. If we are supposed to learn and care about the characters and the lore in the world, we should have more options than a linear dialogue tree which feels more like a one-sided exposition. I'm not a big fan of mass effect, but at least that game made me feel in a certain way about the characters. In general character interactions in TES games, are so inorganic that they tend to hamper rather than improve my enjoyment of the game.

Likewise, the poor execution of combat and invariability of enemies, plays against the customisable posibilities. Fighting a dragon, seems mildly the same as fighting a bear, or any other melee enemy of the game. swinging an axe feels rarely different than a mace (yes, you get different skills, but they ultimately make little difference). The open endedness of the world falls flat and starts seeming extremely generic.



In the graphic aspect, the games are technically quite accomplished (I applaud at the fact that skyrim is actually smaller in gigs than oblivion, while looking vastly superior), the representation of nature is fantastic, and some vistas are amazing. However, as I often find in science fiction and high fantasy, the universe suffers from -adding too much of too many things-, I can't find a unified graphic style through the games (which is consistent with reality), which again undermines the unified appeal of the world. Arguably, Skyrim accomplishes much more unity, but Oblivion's golden armors, and oblivion portals appeared dramatically out of place.



Finally, the general presentation of Bethesda games seems extremely unpolished, (Apart from the ultimate incoherence, the various bugs that plague their releases) epic scenes are presented from uninterested angles, introductions are done without any emphasis, dialogue is handled as the direct staring into a blank puppet's eyes, and in general the games never make an effort to show something *special*.



Before people get angry at my criticism, I must say that I dont think this games are bad, but I play them hardly suspending my disbelief, the quirky, half broken world of Elder Scrolls is interesting, but it has never felt real, inviting or involving. Most of the time I find myself playing the games more out of boredom or my own obsession with grinding than the world, the characters or anything else.

In the sense of engaging me as a player, I believe that bethesda's best accomplished game is Fallout 3, but it was still a very unpolished and disjointed experience.



For me, some of the most coherent games I've played are:



Portal 1,

Shadow of the Colossus / ICO,

Zelda Windwalker,

Limbo,

Silent hill 2,

Dark/demon souls.



(other more popular ones like Gears of War, Modern Warfare 1, god of war 1, Dead Space, Uncharted, or even Dance Dance Revolution are also extremely coherent)



To me it seems that the clearer the purpose of the game, the easier it is to coherently tackle all aspects of the game, and thus why it seems lots of indie games have solid foundations, since they focus in the precise execution of few concepts. The more general and outspreading the appeal and the intended game experience, the harder it is to successfully piece together the different components without fallingout of shape.

Bart Stewart
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Thanks for the very thoughtful reply, Bernardo.



I don't think I'm just reflexively defending Skyrim (or my theories about it) if I say that, after carefully reading and considering your objections, I still feel that the Elder Scrolls games (and we might include Fallout 3 there as well) started out well and have improved continuously in the internal consistency department.



I think criticism of these games needs to start with acknowledging that they are, in fact, pretty big games. Bethesda tries to offer players a lot of different things to do. That doesn't excuse real problems, but I think it does put the smaller issues in an appropriate context. A game with fewer systems certainly can and should find it easier to establish content coherency... but that implies that for a game like Skyrim with so many more systems to achieve much internal coherence at all is worth applauding.



I actually agree with you to an extent where NPCs are concerned. Basically, they seem passive. Maybe that's necessary for a computer game where you, the player, control the protagonist of the world, but it's still striking how everyone just seems to exist only at your pleasure. And while I enjoy Robert Picardo's acting, it gets on my nerves to hear his voice coming out of every fifth NPC I talk to. Did Bethesda learn nothing from Oblivion when it comes to hiring a wide variety of voice actors?



That said, again, I think a fair criticism has to factor in the degree of difficulty being attempted. Look at all the things Bethesda is trying to do with NPCs that other games don't bother with, and look as well at the many things that NPCs get right. For example, in Skyrim, NPCs have different places to work and relax and sleep, and they know when it's the right time of day to go do each of these things. That may seem like a small thing, but I think it's arguable that it adds a lot to the sense of the gameworld being a living place. How many other games try to implement even this very limited facsimile of life?



This is one of the features of Skyrim that leads me to applaud its developers for at least trying to consider how the pieces of content of the game should fit together. The terrain is another: notice how the landscape -- especially the grass and tree types -- is different in different parts of the province, but the borders are almost imperceptibly smooth? That doesn't happen by accident; that is some person thinking creatively about how the different regions of the gameworld can contribute to the feel of the world as a plausible place. Other games do this; some other games may do it better... but that takes nothing away from Bethesda being willing to spend the time and money and creative effort to insure that Skyrim's landscape contributes (even if in a small way) to the Elder Scrolls universe.



And that, as you noted, is my overall point. I used Skyrim as an example, but I'm delighted to see the other examples of games whose creators have understood that paying attention to the nature of the elements of a game and how they fit together yields something that's more than just the sum of its parts. Let's hope more developers follow those examples.

Luis Guimaraes
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...and Bioshock, of course, which is consistent in it's world, atmosphere, background story, passive storytelling, mechanics and gameplay.

John Edward Tumang
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The beat you hear from Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim actually came from the beating heart of Lorkhan, a dead god whose heart is found at the Red Mountain.



As for coherence, looking at The Elder Scrolls as a franchise, I believe it isn't coherent. The most coherent is Morrowind, the game had undertones of racism--both from the Dunmer's perspective and the foreigners' perspective. Because of the racism theme (a better term may be racial difference) found in Morrowind, distinctions were properly manifested. Every race had a personality--Altmers were snobs, Bretons were frail, Redguards were adventurous, Dunmers were grumpy, Bosmers were mischievous, Khajiits and Argonians were persecuted, Imperials were proud, and Nords and Orcs were barbaric.



These were all lost as the series progressed. Back then it was easy to determine whose a Breton from a Nord or an Imperial. Right now, it's hard. Even though Morrowind didn't have great attention to individual details as Skyrim has today, it had attention to coherence--NPCs from this race have to be like this, NPCs from this race have to be like that, they should have this kind of relationship, etc. Another thing is that if you play long enough, you will see the difference between the Great Houses and Imperial Factions in Morrowind, and yet they all complement each other. This coherence is revealed when you explore the Construction Kit of Morrowind--in the game, the races have set multipliers for dispositions they have for each other(which I believe was taken out from Oblivion and Skyrim). The lore, the dialogue, everything evoked a sense of racial disputes and racism for each race--and it was backed up by the game system itself with hardcoded numbers. That's coherent for me.



To be honest, for me it's the other way around, Morrowind is the most coherent game in the series, and as a franchise, The Elder Scrolls is losing its 'coherence'. Coherence for me isn't about the specific patterns I could see in the individual elements of The Elder Scrolls, rather, it's more of the relationship the underlying themes have with each other that make the game feel coherent--that at every unique place I go to or unique story I find in-game, the game makes me FEEL a specific feeling that is coherent throughout the whole game.

Bart Stewart
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I wasn't aware of the "heartbeat" origin -- thanks. I'm still playing through Morrowind. Even if not as large as previous Elder Scrolls games, it's still pretty darn big!



To your point, it sounds like you're thinking mostly in terms of coherence of the lore of the gameworld. That's not unimportant to me -- false notes and holes reduce immersiveness -- but I was thinking at the next design level up, in which elements of the lore and the functional gameplay and the music and art and even the interface all play off of each other to create a unified and distinctive whole new product.



So where racial behaviors are concerned, I'm actually less bothered by the shift away from the hard stereotypes of Morrowind than you are. For me, it seems less plausible that racial or ethnic identity governs individual behavior, even in the magical Elder Scrolls universe. (I also feel this way about real people, but I should stress that I'm not making any kind of political comment here.) Letting individuals express individual behavior dilutes somewhat the racial/ethnic elements of post-Morrowind TES games. But I think it's at least arguable that in recompense for this loss, the plausibility of the world goes up -- as does the subtle hints to the player of which abilities to learn -- when any character can fill nearly any role. For that reason, the lack of racial/ethnic behavior in Skyrim feels to me more like deliberately improved meshing of lore and mechanics.



I don't *think* I'm just blindly defending my thesis here. :) I'd be interested in any further thoughts on this.

John Edward Tumang
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I haven't read this as of this moment, but just an interesting read. The article is about two years old. http://fallingawkwardly.wordpress.com/2010/08/29/the-metaphysics-
of-morrowind-part-1/

David Serrano
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I think Mass Effect 1 may be the best example in recent years simply because it was a new IP. Some of the other games mentioned, including Skyrim, expanded upon or polished worlds and universes created in previous titles. ME 1 presented a deep, fully developed and highly polished universe straight out of the gate, which was an amazing accomplishment.



ME 1 was also a great example of using a sound track to establish content coherence. ME 1's sound track perfectly mirrored and complimented the story and universe. The trippy synth music on the intro screen immediately sets the overall tone of ME 1 before you experience any gameplay and it also established a unique identity for the franchise. The intro was incredibly simple in presentation yet it was as iconic and memorable as the opening of Star Wars. Thought not nearly as dramatic. I've played countless games since with music that mimicked ME 1. As soon as I hear it, I blurt out "they're ripping off ME 1!" So I now associate the music from ME 1 with the franchise as much as I associate the characters, ships, costumes, etc...


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