The feeling of caring about the outcome of actions or events in a game without having full control over them.
Games may make players feel stress or apprehension, but this is typically less or a problem or even a wanted characteristic in them since players typically have willingly volunteered to take part of the gaming activity offered by the game. This Tension occurs when players have emotional investments in uncertain outcomes where some of the outcomes are perceived as being negative and others as being positive.
Risking to lose what one has invested in a game can easily create Tension. This may simply be time invested in completing a game such as Boulder Dash or reaching a high-score in Asteroids or Pac-Man. However it can also be based on risking to lose real world objects or money, which can happen in Marble Games, some variants of Magic: the Gathering, and most variants of Poker including Texas Hold'em. The presence of enemies that try to harm you is used in games such as the Doom series and the Left 4 Dead series can easily create Tension in games, and is often augmented through these games having dark and claustrophobic environments.
Having to complete tasks under time is another way games often create Tension. Sega Rally, Out Run, Ricochet Robots, Space Alert all do this, and Forbidden Island and Pandemic shows examples of how this does actually not need to be linked to measuring actual progress of time.
Tension can also exist in games due to the need of trusting other players when one knows that this may not be a safe thing to do. Examples of games with this type of Tension include Diplomacy, Illuminati, Intrigue, Junta, and So Long Sucker.
Using the pattern
Making players feel Tension depends on making them care about some part of the game and then introducing Uncertainty of Outcome. Overarching goals that players can care about is of course winning the game, and both Winning by Ending Gameplay and Winner determined after Gameplay Ends provides ways of doing this with more specific gameplay characteristics. Randomness or Imperfect Information are typical ways of achieving Tension through an Uncertainty of Outcome, but this can be strengthened through Risk/Reward choices, the possibility to feel Luck and Leaps of Faith. End State Scoring typically also does this through either the game state being complex enough that an accurate calculation is difficult or impossible to do, or through being the phase in which the Imperfect Information is revealed. Performance Uncertainty can cause Tension both in that the outcome can be uncertain and that one has to perform, possibly in front of others. Spectators can amplify this, and even make gameplay actions which require no performative aspects to cause Tension because others may see one lose or win.
Player Elimination and Early Elimination are generic patterns to increase Tension to players by threatening to remove them from the ongoing game instance. Player Killing is typically a part of these patterns but can be used independently of these to raise Tension in games. Extra-Game Consequences, and especially Extra-Game Rewards, can be used to increase any Tension present from gameplay in a game, but may also provide Tension by itself. Sanctioned Cheating in Multiplayer Games is related to this type of Tension in that knowing that it exists make players have to consider what can be seen in one sense as Extra-Game Actions from other players. Anticipation is a way to modulate Tension, the more Anticipation players feel, the more Tension they will also likely feel as long as they started with some Tension. One way of creating this Anticipation is to give players a Determinable Chance to Succeed.
One of the primary ways to make it doubtful that things will turn in the best possible way for players is to introduce opposition. The two primary categories for this is PvP and PvE. The former is typically done through Enemies controlled by Dedicated Game Facilitators or Game Masters and Traps while the latter is done through players and other Agents. To be in opposition, Excluding Goals need to be set up, e.g. Competition, Conflict, or Overcome goals (for opposition based on PvE, Consumers with no positive effects that automatically consume players' Resources provide similar Tension to players as Enemies and opposing players). The most common types of specific Excluding Goals are probably Combat and Races but Stealth provides another example that does not require Combat. While losing a game or a local competition can be the sole effect of being outdone by one's opposition, the threat of suffering Penalties, e.g. Damage or Death Consequences, during gameplay can further increase Tension. A variety of this, that cannot be used too often, is to expose players to Fake Game Overs. Tension based on opposition can be modulated so that it is maintained for longer periods of gameplay time through Balancing Effects. This can be further modulated by using Near Miss Indicators, forcing players to make decisions related to Paper-Rock-Scissors structures of attacking, by making the Enemies more powerful over time through Ever Increasing Difficulty (Boss Monsters being a typical example), or by making Tied Results impossible through Tiebreakers.
Tension can be increased by making gameplay actions more difficult for players. Challenging Gameplay is an obvious solution while Balancing Effects can be used to try and make all players have Tension by making it hard for leading players to maintain their position. One of the ways games can be more difficult is to stress players to perform actions more quickly. Time Limits, e.g. how long Power-Ups last or how long one has to do Action Programming or Tactical Planning, does this by forcing players to have to try to complete their actions in less time than they may want to use. The Tension this produces can in turn by modified by Sustenance Rewards that both relieves it to a degree and prolongs it. While Real-Time Games do not in themselves create Tension, the need of doing either Action Programming or Tactical Planning or feeling the need for Stimulated Planning in such games can be enough to create Tension in a game. Quick Time Events, Speedruns, and Temporary Abilities are other examples of patterns that can force players to have to act faster than they prefer. Shrinking Game Worlds can combine the need to perform actions quickly with also limiting the gameplay areas in which these can be done (Forbidden Island shows how this can provide Tension in a Turn-Based co-operative game). A final example of how gameplay actions can be made more difficult is to deny players any periods when they relax by using Always Vulnerable.
Most games provide players with some game elements which are designated as theirs or whom they represent in the game. Such Characters or Abstract Player Constructs provide a natural starting point for players to be concerned about as do Companions. Game Items and Territories which players have Ownership over but which can be Stolen can also do this. While all these may give players initial parts of the game to care about, this caring can be increase during gameplay if the players' Value of Effort are tied to them, e.g. through Character or Abstract Player Construct Development.
Another way of increasing Tension is removing agency for players when they have started actions. Turn Taking is an old solution to this found in classical board games such as Chess and Go since once one has completed ones turn one cannot affect the game until the other player has done his or her turn, and one will have to accept mistakes one has made. Helplessness, either involuntary or through committing to Extended Actions, is another way to make players temporary unable to do anything about their game situation. Extended Actions and Delayed Effects does not necessary remove overall agency but can make players have to wait for wanted effects in a game without being able to quicken their arrival when can also cause Tension. Interruptible Actions and Delayed Reciprocity also does this but adds the factor that some other players or Agent can decide the outcome; in general any possibility of Betrayal or Traitors creates Tension in a game. Examples of games where this is especially obvious is Diplomacy, So Long Sucker, and Intrigue. Removing players from games can be seen as the ultimate form of removing player agency, so having Player Elimination is a way to add Tension to games. This can be even greater if Early Elimination is possible, but this can also backfire since players may not be committed enough to the gameplay when the elimination occurs unless some type of commitment is enforced at the beginning of the game, e.g. through Betting.
Limiting how long players have to try and succeed with actions is an effective way to create Tension. This can be done as explicit Time Limits or be achieved implicitly through The Show Must Go On. Time Pressure increases Tension but does not have to provide explicit Time Limits to do so, as for example having to be the first to complete a task shows. Attention Demanding Gameplay creates Tension by requiring players to focus on the gameplay at all time to avoid Penalties. Both these types of Tension can then be further increased by requiring Attention Swapping or having Disruption of Focused Attention. Another way to modulate the Tension is by restricting players' powers or freedom, for example, by Shrinking Game Worlds, Limited Set of Actions, or Movement Limitations. The two latter work more efficiently if players have either had greater freedom earlier or if they have lesser freedom or power compared to others.
Forcing players to make commitments and then not letting them affect the outcome, or at least limit how they can affect the outcome, can create Tension. Betting and Stealth can do this and are similar in this since they are activities that require Turn Taking, Downtime, or No-Ops, and both are usually combined with other patterns that can create Tension in this fashion, for example Trade-Offs. Action Programming, Experimenting and Token Placement are three other activities that can provide Tension in themselves and can be used together with the just mentioned patterns to provide even more Tension. Both Spawn Points and Camping can cause Tension in relation to locations of a game, but while in the former case this is due to the risk of Enemies being prepared to attack as soon as one spawns in the latter case this has more to do with Anticipation and having to trust that one has chosen a good place to camp. Geometric Progression combined with Investments and Positive Feedback Loops can also create this form of Tension as the invested Resources are bound, and failed investments cause not only the already invested resources to be lost but lessen the value of Resources that have not yet been invested. This form of Tension can be further modulated through the presence of Progress Indicators and Game State Indicators but can be ruined by Perfect Information about the evaluation function and all the game state values that affect the function. Tension can however be lost instead of created if the players lose a Perceived Chance to Succeed because of necessary Leaps of Faith, extended Downtime, or Turn Taking. Even if they hinder players from performing actions, Game Pauses in general have a negative effect on Tension since nothing negative can happen to players' effort while a game is being paused. Feigned Die Rolls is a specific technique Game Masters can use to increase Tension of players of Tabletop Roleplaying Games, both by introducing Uncertainty of Information and by allows them to develop Narration Structures according to what creates Tension best rather than submitting to random developments.
Tension can be caused by putting players in the position of missing Rewards or in the position of receiving Penalties, which either affect themselves or something with which they have Identification. While how much Tension specific Penalties can give depend on individual players and the specific game context, a relative order among categories can be made where Energy Penalties give less Tension than Life Penalties which in turn give less Tension than Game Termination Penalties. Setback Penalties as a category provides less Tension than all these types of Penalty categories. Especially Competitions and questions of Ownership can evoke Tension, in the latter case either because players have Gain Ownership goals or because opponents want to take away Ownership of something from players. Having Scores which players use to compete against each other easily captures these aspects of Tension (and is a type of Race). Adding Tension can be achieved when using Scores by having Secret Scoring Mechanisms; more generally Secret Goals can add Tension because not only do players need to compete against each other, they need to also try to figure out what goals the other players actually have.
Many of the patterns in the previous two sections are related to Investments, something that can cause Tension in itself as long as it can be lost in some way. Progress Indicators and Game State Indicators can cause Tension in relation to Investments as well, here by pointing out how much a player stands to lose or how little remains before the Investments pays off. Games that make use of Hovering Closures can also cause Tension in this way where the gameplay effort made by players can be seen as Investments.
Many aspects of Cooperation and Social Interaction where players have to rely on other players' actions give rise to Tension. Any interaction where Uncertainty of Information or possibility for disinformation exists due to player communication can generate Tension (e.g. due to the use of Alternate Reality Gameplay), but it is especially likely to occur with Delayed Reciprocity or when Betrayal and Bluffing is possible. Examples when Tension can be created in this fashion include Player-Decided Distributions of Rewards or Penalties and the presence of Shared Resources. Tension related to Social Interaction exists in many cases for both the ones that can lose from the actions and the ones that can gain, as is typical in Social Dilemmas. In general, any gameplay which depend on Social Skills can provide Tension further simply because of this requirement. In addition, any type of gameplay which requires communication can become tenser if it needs to be done with Limited Communication Abilities or where Ambiguous Responses can occur. The risk of being the target of Guilting can create Tension in itself.
Many activities and goals in games combine several of the aspects discussed above. For example, Combat or Aim & Shoot activities give players opponents and threaten to take cause Damage or take Lives. Continuous Goals and Extended Actions with Delayed Effects can combine the risk of losing ongoing Rewards with the threats of Penalties, e.g. through King of the Hill or Evade goals.
Tension can be difficult to evoke in players when some other specific patterns are present. Games with Casual Gameplay, Framed Freedom, or Pottering are specifically designed to avoid Tension, so these are naturally difficult to combine with the pattern. Private Game Spaces and Safe Havens do this also, but at localized areas of the games (which may be irrelevant if these are the only places a player can act). Invulnerabilities function similarly but relate to Abilities, Damage, or Environmental Effects. While Turn Taking can create Tension, it can also lower or remove Tension in players since they can plan without interruption when it is their turn, and often even when it is not. Reversibility and the possibility to recreate previous game states through Save-Load Cycles lessens Tension, as players can replay moments that contained Tension and the feeling is less likely to be as strong on subsequent exposures. Related to this, repeated exposure to the same type of challenges can remove Tension. This can partly be mitigated by Ever Increasing Difficulty and Higher-Level Closures as Gameplay Progresses, as for example naturally occurs in Tournaments or can be explicitly designed through Boss Monsters or Narration Structures.
Narration Structures can create Tension in games in the same ways as in other narrative mediums, and examples of more specific narration-related patterns include Clues, Red Herrings, and Traces. Detective Structures can be especially suited for creating Tension since they limit players' knowledge about the diegesis which can cause Tension in itself. Alternate Reality Gameplay causes Tension in a related way but here part of the Tension is that players do not know what is part of the game and what is not. While Predetermined Story Structures can be most prepared to create Tension, they do suffer from not maintaining this if players play games containing these several times.
Many times, waiting for an activity to start can cause more Tension than the activity itself. Combat is a typical case of this, and knowing that Surprise Attacks may happen, or are likely to happen soon, may cause much more Tension than the actual Combat when it has started.
However, when Narration Structures do not contain Tension, or when the unfolding of them causes players to have Downtime, players are likely to lose any feeling of Tension. Game Masters can however notice these occurrences and adjust accordingly to mitigate this problem.
Tension is one of the more direct ways games can be designed to have Emotional Engrossment. While this can be a negative to some players, it can instead provide FUBAR Enjoyment to others and succeeding with some activity while under Tension is likely to increase the perceived Value of Effort of the activity. Even failing while playing under Tension can be positive since players can after the fact have Spectacular Failure Enjoyment. These experiences can however easily spill over from games into the real world as Extra-Game Consequences, and the risk for this happening increase if the consequences are in the form of Extra-Game Rewards or they are used in combination with Game-Based Social Statuses or Heterogeneous Game Element Ownership.
Repeated exposure to the same form of events or actions decreases the Tension they cause, so Replayability and Tension is difficult to combine, especially if the Tension is caused by Predetermined Story Structures, Surprises, or other effects that rely on players not knowing what will occur.
Can Be Instantiated By
Agents, Aim & Shoot, Always Vulnerable, Alternate Reality Gameplay, Ambiguous Responses, Anticipation, Attention Demanding Gameplay, Attention Swapping, Balancing Effects, Betting, Betrayal, Bluffing, Boss Monsters, Camping, Challenging Gameplay, Characters, Clues, Combat, Companions, Competitions, Conflicts, Consumers, Continuous Goals, Cooperation, Damage, Death Consequences, Dedicated Game Facilitators, Delayed Effects, Delayed Reciprocity, Detective Structures, Determinable Chance to Succeed, Disruption of Focused Attention, Downtime, Early Elimination, Enemies, End State Scoring, Energy Penalties, Excluding Goals, Experimenting, Extended Actions, Extra-Game Consequences, Extra-Game Rewards, Evade, Ever Increasing Difficulty, Fake Game Overs, Feigned Die Rolls, FUBAR enjoyment, Gain Ownership, Game Masters, Game State Indicators, Game Termination Penalties, Guilting, Helplessness, Higher-Level Closures as Gameplay Progresses, Hovering Closures, Identification, Interruptible Actions, Investments, Irreversible Events, King of the Hill, Leaps of Faith, Life Penalties, Limited Communication Abilities, Limited Set of Actions, Lives, Luck, Movement Limitations, Narration Structures, Near Miss Indicators, No-Ops, Overcome, Ownership, Paper-Rock-Scissors, Penalties, Performance Uncertainty, Player Killing, Player Elimination, Player-Decided Distributions, Predetermined Story Structures, Progress Indicators, PvE, PvP, Quick Time Events, Races, Randomness, Red Herrings, Rewards, Risk/Reward, Scores, Secret Goals, Secret Scoring Mechanisms, Setback Penalties, Shared Resources, Shrinking Game Worlds, Social Dilemmas, Social Interaction, Social Skills, Spawn Points, Spectators, Speedruns, Status Indicators, Stealth, Surprise Attacks, Temporary Abilities, Territories, The Show Must Go On, Tiebreakers, Time Limits, Time Pressure, Token Placement, Tournaments, Traces, Trade-Offs, Traitors, Traps, Turn Taking, Uncertainty of Information, Uncertainty of Outcome, Value of Effort Winning by Ending Gameplay, Winner determined after Gameplay Ends
Can Be Modulated By
Possible Closure Effects
Potentially Conflicting With
Casual Gameplay, Downtime, Framed Freedom, Game Pauses, Invulnerabilities, Narration Structures, No-Ops, Leaps of Faith, Perfect Information, Pottering, Predictable Winner, Private Game Spaces, Replayability, Reversibility, Safe Havens, Save-Load Cycles, Turn Taking
A rewrite of the pattern Tension that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design.
- Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.