Level Design Primer Part 17: Tension and Release

The idea of tension and release is a common one among many art forms. In music, ascending scales and dominant chords can build tension, while descending scales and returning to the tonic chord can give a sense of release.  Dissonance resolves to consonance. A story will build tension through conflict before finally resolving the conflict, creating release. It’s something which is core to our experience of art and entertainment. We want the catharsis that comes with building and releasing tension.

So how do we apply that to level design?

First we need to figure out what creates tension when someone is playing a game. There’s immediate danger, there’s the potential for oncoming danger, there’s risk of losing progress you’ve already made, a goal just out of your reach, a puzzle you don’t know the solution to.

And what is the resolution to this tension? Safety in your current position, your progress no longer being at risk, reaching your goal, solving the puzzle.

It’s fairly obvious that there are plenty of aspects of games which can be used to create tension and release that tension. The question then becomes how best to make use of this.

One of the games which I think does this the best is Dark Souls. Consider the ways that the game builds tension:

  • Enemies are everywhere, and they can kill you (immediate danger)

  • You can see enemies up ahead and know you’re going to have to face them to progress (future danger)

  • You collect resources as you go in the form of Souls and Humanity. If you die, you lose both. (potential loss of progress)

  • You can recover your souls and humanity if you make it back to your corpse, but if you die, that corpse disappears (stakes are increased).

  • Massive distances between bonfires (which serve as checkpoints), meaning by the time you get to the bonfire (which acts as release) you’ve accrued a lot of forward progress which you don’t want to lose.

For anyone whose played Dark Souls, you know the relief that you feel when you spot a bonfire. The further away you get from safety, the more resources you accrue, the more progress you make, the more worried you become about getting killed and having to do it all over. Seeing that bonfire has emotional weight attached to it, and actually reaching it releases all (or at least most of) that tension that build up getting there. The game manages this by making it so that reaching the next bonfire (or alternatively, opening up a shortcut to the previous bonfire) is the only way to preserve forward progress; the enemies respawn whenever you use a bonfire, so getting half way to the next bonfire, and then turning back means you’ll have to fight though those same enemies again (although you’ll preserve your souls, making this a viable option if your current goal is to gain levels rather than progress further).

Another way to build tension is to make it so that the character can’t remove the danger from their surroundings, only avoid it. Stealth games are often built around this concept, particularly in games where it’s either impossible or not advised to kill enemies. At the start of each area, there is usually a safe space where you could theoretically avoid detection indefinitely by standing still. However, in the thick of enemies, the only thing to do is keep moving to avoid detection. Even going back to the start of the level in order to regroup would require sneaking through a dangerous area. You aren’t making the level less dangerous as you move through it like you would be if you could kill enemies. When you first leave safety to enter enemy territory, you only have to concern yourself with threats in front of you, but when you’re in the middle, you have to deal with enemies behind you as well, up until the point where you’re Scott-free at the other end.

In this example, there are two completely safe locations before the goal. There’s the starting location, and a place in the middle of the level (both are marked by arrows). All the other space where the player can stand is threatened by enemies (in this example, the player can’t shoot to remove the enemies, so areas that are under threat will always be under threat). Tension rises as the player goes through threatened area where they must keep moving or else get hit by an enemy. Then there is a respite before the final challenge where the player can catch their breath and plan out their next move. Tension is lowered because they are not in immediate danger, but it doesn’t completely dissipate because they can see danger up ahead which they’ll have to go through to reach the goal, and getting hit means starting over from the beginning.

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You can also create tension in navigation. Putting the player in an unfamiliar area can raise tension, and returning them to familiar territory can release the tension. In addition, if you have a passage which the player can only pass through one-way, it creates tension until the player can find a way back, resolving the tension. Say you fall down a hole in a game on your way to an objective. You can’t climb back up, so now you have to figure out how to get back up to where you started. Can you get back up to where you started? You won’t know for sure until you do.

In this example, there’s a pit, on the other side of which is the goal. However, the goal is slightly out of the player’s jump length, so they must fall down the pit and find a way to get back up to the other side.

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Inverting that, you can also put the player in a precarious position which they won’t be able to get back to if they lose it. I talked a bit about this in the designing around failure article. You could, for example, have a narrow path high up in the air, with a more dangerous area down below, and one wrong step will send your character tumbling down there unable to get back up except by going back to the beginning.

And, of course, you can use visuals and sound to create a sense of tension. Just like you can show the player a goal before they can reach it in order to guide them, you can show them an obstacle up ahead so that they know what sort of danger they’re going to have to walk into. You can use sound effects to alert them to the presence of enemies in the area, but not their exact locations, thus keeping them alert.

So to recap, some ways to build tension in your levels include (but are not limited to)

  • Putting the character in immediate danger
  • Make the player aware of upcoming danger that they’ll have to face
  • Remove the safety net, making it so the player has to go through danger to get back to safety, even if they turn back
  • Put the player in an unfamiliar environment
  • Make it so the player can’t go back to a familiar environment without going forward and through the unfamiliar environment
  • Make the player aware of immanent danger, but not from where it will come from (for example, through sound effects)
  • Give the player some resource that they are in danger of losing
  • EDIT: reddit user SUNCASTLE reminded me that timers can also be an effective way of raising tension.  Just like obstacles threaten a location and force the player to act in order to get to safety, a timer makes every location unsafe, in that if you can’t just sit and wait, you have to succeed in the challenge quickly.

And some ways to satisfyingly release tension

  • The player defeats or gets past the danger
  • The player returns to a familiar location
  • The player gets to a place where they can use or store the resource, making it no longer at risk
  • The player reaches some sort of checkpoints allowing them to save their progress
You might notice that one of the recurring themes here is that the things I’ve talked about as raising tension in games involves a call to action from the player.  They are in a position where something is required from them, and not doing anything could lead to a fail sate.  The resolutions then involve player action.
Thanks for reading.  If you enjoy this series, please consider checking out my games here:  http://renegadesector.com/games/ or buying something from my itch.io page. You can also follow me on twitter or tumblr.
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