It’s difficult to design space for players. When you go to create your perfect game, you might complete some of your best work, then have it playtested to find that, well, it just didn’t work for players. Often, this is because there wasn’t room for the player to move around, as might be the case if an “Open World” game is too restrictive, but it’s possible that the opposite—a lack of tension and restriction—is to blame.
So what does tension mean for a video game? Tension in the real world is stress, a sort of indication that you’re in a situation that you either do not like or are simply uncomfortable with. But in a video game, tension is one of the main pistons that drives a game forward. In games, tension can be described as anything which pushes the player towards a certain decision, away from an otherwise reasonable other decision. There are a couple of good, easy to understand examples of how tension is used in video games: Skyrim and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a game that has almost zero tension and does not care. It’s confident that the Elder Scrolls name will carry people through the game, and because the brand name is that powerful, people do actually stay engaged. Part of why players stick around, too, is the sheer amount of quests to take part in, but I’m gonna be honest with you . . . I played for at least 40 hours before I actually beat the game. And I have friends who’ve put hundreds in and never bothered to finish the main questline. Now, to some degree this is because Skyrim is such a ridiculously large game, but it’s also partially due to suboptimal design. There is never, ever a sense of urgency in Skyrim, except in those opening moments when Alduin tries to set you and the surrounding village on fire. And I’ll be honest, while the world is great, and having the choice to go anywhere, any time, and to do anything that your character is capable of doing is great… it’s kind of a strange world. I remember being told that a war was going to break out, and that I had to find a way to stop it, and I basically said, “Gee, that sounds great, but I just found out about Medieval Hogwarts, so I’m gonna go check that out. Back in like . . . a week?” and went to try and figure out how to be the best mage Skyrim had ever seen. The war held on.
And situations like those are frequently one of the strange side-effects of having open-world games that allow players to pick and choose when to complete certain quests or missions. Developers frequently trade any real sense of urgency or tension for the huge amount of choice that an open world offers. But there is definitely an issue when the most finely-crafted part of the game, the main story, is neglected simply because there are other options for players.
Meanwhile, you have The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which features a nominally open world and buckets of tension. The game allows players to move freely through the world, but gates content by requiring certain items to get through particular dungeons. But as the game progresses, more and more of the world is open for players to explore. Furthermore, the story keeps tension even when the player avoids it, primarily because there’s only one proper story, but also because of the tension that the game imposes through the structure of the game. You move from dungeon to dungeon, and each one pushes you toward the next, while also providing you with a tantalizing new way to interact with the world (i.e. the dungeon’s main item, like the hookshot or bomb). Tension is built into not just the story of Ocarina of Time, but into the actual gameplay itself, and it’s part of why the game is so compelling. There are hardly any moments in the game where you feel there isn’t a clear goal, and just as few places where the game isn’t pushing you towards that goal.
Why So Tense?
Tension is another great tool in the designer’s toolbox. Used effectively, it allows a developer to drive players without anything as ham-fisted as a timer, and, more importantly, it assists in keeping players more engaged. So the next time you’re fiddling with a game and can’t quite figure out why a segment doesn’t feel right, you might want to ask yourself: “Am I tense enough?”