Gaming on a Timer

Thoughts – Building Tension in (Horror) Games

In gaming, tension is a difficult emotion to instil to your audience; often, designers will resort to the much easier (albeit way less effective) technique of cheap scares, which have a tendency to lose gravitas after five or so uses.

Dead Space 2
 Box Art.

Case in point, Dead Space 2, the second instalment in the titular series. At its core, it’s a third-person shooter game, mixed with horror elements most reminiscent of the Aliens series – that is, a protagonist set against an alien adversary in deep-space settings such as an abandoned starship (Dead Space) or an overrun space colony (Dead Space 2).

At the conceptual level, the series sounds like an excellent opportunity to offer a rich and compelling experience (and for the most part, it does) by mixing the adrenaline-inducing action sequences with the tension building most common in the horror genre. The game’s designers certainly aimed in this direction, if the PR material is any indication.

In execution, however, it falls short.

By far the worst mistake this series does is its extreme reliance on trickery – that is, cheap scares in the form of enemy after enemy jumping out and charging at the player at every single turn of the game’s environments.
The following template is followed verbatim in about 80% of the game’s levels:

So long as you pay attention to
nearby vents and breakable walls…

*The player enters a (seemingly empty) room.
*Enemies enter the room from inconspicuous places (mainly ventilation shafts).
*The player kills every single enemy.
*The player spends about five minutes boot-stomping every enemy in his immediate vicinity (as the corpses drop additional valuables this way).
*The player executes any plot-advancing actions he is required to.
*The player exits the room, moves to new room. Repeat as needed.

…you, too, can kill off that pesky
tension the game hates so much.

Notice how predictable this template is? While there are a few set pieces in which the player is forced to flee in the face of truly overwhelming odds, the majority of the game is one huge monster mash – there is no tension, no intrigue, merely the mathematical certainty that each new room will bring a new wave of enemies to kill and loot.

While this might work well in an action title, a horror game (which to reiterate, is what Dead Space 2 sells itself as) needs to have some contrast between moments of action and moments of calm. Consider this alternative: What if the player only encountered enemies in, say, half the game’s areas? What if, instead of relying on cheap startle tactics (such as enemies popping out of visually obscured areas), the game builds up tension by providing a few minutes of calm in between the actual encounters? What if, in the vein of “true” horror, the enemies are less common, thus preserving their “exotic” and “uncanny” status, instead of degrading them to mere loot containers?

Meet the horde: Visceral’s greatest
weapon against atmosphere.

Tension is best generated during periods of calm that either lull the player into a false sense of security or instil uncertainty; after all, any perceived threats become increasingly menacing when they’re unexpected. In the aforementioned Dead Space 2 example, entering two sequential rooms with no encounters could (potentially) magnify the impact of finally facing an enemy in the third room, precisely because the player would either not expect one or because they’d be uncertain of when the enemy appears.

This is just the beginning… literally.
Screenshot was taken in Chapter 3.

The problem here (from my viewpoint, at least) is that designers either confuse ‘startle’ with ‘scare’ or that they often find it difficult / undesirable to implement such atmosphere: Perhaps there is a push from publishers to appeal to a wider demographic (let’s face it, true horror is a relatively small market in the grand scheme of things), or the tools used to build the experience don’t lend themselves well to the target matter. Regardless, the potential is present here, as is apparent (in Dead Space 2’s case) from the penultimate sequence (which manages to instil a moderate feeling of being helpless, much to the studio’s credit).

Ultimately, it’s worth remembering the age-old axiom: “Quality over Quantity”. Limiting the enemies’ flow will often work better than letting loose a huge, constant stream, especially when paced properly; designers with horror aspirations should take note, as tension can build a truly horrifying experience that will be remembered long after the actual game concludes.

*Dead Space 2 Official Website
*Visceral Games Official Website

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