The Tension Trick
There is a trick that systems designers can use to cause a wide variation of tension in a game by manipulating a few related numbers. The basic rules for tension are as follows:
Using numbers that are not easy to calculate creates dissonance for players.
Dissonance creates tension, fear, and other heightened negative emotions.
These emotions can heighten an experience, if used properly.
Using numbers that are easy to calculate creates calmness for players.
Use easy-to-calculate numbers to give the players a calm, easygoing experience and use numbers that are difficult to calculate to cause more heightened emotions.
For example, say that a player character (PC) has 20 HP, and an enemy character should kill the PC in 4 hits. You could assign these numbers for the least tension:
Enemy does 5 damage per hit, so the PC is at 5 HP after 3 hits and at 0 HP after 4 hits.
You could assign these numbers for the most tension:
Enemy does 6 damage per hit, so the PC is at 2 HP after 3 hits and at 0 HP after 4 hits.
In both of these cases, the PC is alive after 3 hits and killed on the fourth, so functionally they are the same. But they can feel very different to a player. Why?
Let’s look at it graphically and then break it down further. Imagine that the PC has taken 3 hits. Figure 11.3 shows two options for the health bar for the PC at this point.
Figure 11-3 Lower- and higher-tension health bars
In both cases, the PC will be killed with the next shot, but which one looks scarier? Players know that more red on a health bar is generally a bad thing. The fact that the lower of the two bars is more red signals to the player, subconsciously, more danger, even though numerically the danger is identical with the two health bars.
Let’s look at another example. Say that, in a farming game, the player plants a field that is 20 square meters in 1-square-meter units, so there are 20 total spaces in which to plant. The player has the following resources:
In this example, it is fairly easy for a player to calculate the division of crops to plant. All the numbers are easy to grasp and can easily fit in 20, which is also the total number of squares. Young or inexperienced players should be able to quickly figure out what to do in this scenario, with little stress.
To increase the tension in the same farming game, you can change the units to something more difficult to grasp and also change the amounts to numbers that are more difficult to calculate. This time, say that the player has 2.5 acres to plant and plants in units of 100 square yards. This alone makes the calculations much more difficult for anyone who is not already familiar with converting square yards into acres. In this case, the player would have 121 things to plant. The player has the following resources:
In this revised example, it is very difficult for the player to do the planting calculations in their head. This difficulty will cause a sense of stress and tension. In an action game, this can heighten the player’s experience, but in a farming game, it might create stress in what should be a relaxing activity.
There are no universal right or wrong answers about inducing tension in a game through use of numbers, but there are situational rights and wrongs based on the feeling you want the player to have at any given time.