Aristotle understood the power of suspense, of tension. The unknown is vital for both good drama and good games. Without some degree of uncertainty regarding events there is little tension, little drama. Though often the overall outcome is not where this uncertainty lies. In a single-player games we know that if we keep playing for long enough we will succeed; in drama either the protagonist is successful (Comedy) or not (Tragedy). The tension is in how these events come to pass. It comes from the unknown, the anticipated, tension is not about the the “what is” it is about the “what might be”.
In film everything exists within the confines of the frame, it is “truth 24 frames per second”. This is at once both liberating and restrictive. Extraneous information can be edited out, but vital information can also be obscured. Tension is inherent in this ability to reveal and obscure vital information over time, this fine line between freedom and restriction.
If film is a sequence of images over time, then games are a sequence of spaces over time. The boundaries of games are not defined by the viewpoint of the camera so much as by the physical or logical boundaries of the space in which all action occurs.
When it comes to evoking drama and tension in both a narrative and ludic sense, the ability to not reveal everything at once is vital. When we are able to achieve that we gain the support of the most impressive of human faculties, imagination. It fills in the blanks, the events beyond the frames of the film, or the world beyond and between the defined game spaces.
Nowhere is this application of tension more important than the humble doorway. A close door is pregnant with possibilities. Beyond may be something beneficial or something harmful, something disturbing or something wondrous. We can imagine what is beyond but we never know until we actually pass through the doorway. Standing there we feel a sense of anticipation. The space beyond the door is unknown, and therefore liable to provoke fear. However soon that space will be known all we have to do is cross the threshold. There is a battle waging within us between fear and excitement. There is tension.
At the heart of tension there is this dichotomy between fear and excitement. We naturally fear the unknown, but the potential of conquering that unknown, of gaining new knowledge and new experiences is exciting.
The levels, the physical environments, of a game are a manifestation of interactivity. We take an action and elicit a response within that environment, even if it is as simple as taking a step forward. Faced with a closed doorway that ability to interact with the world in a direct manner is of profound importance. With one simple action we can dispel the unknown and conquer our fear.
Closed doorways provided tension because they often require that you open them in order to proceed. There is no choice, if you do no open the doorway you cannot proceed. So is choice in opposition to tension?
Consider an open space, a hub like layout. Open spaces provoke apprehension as they provide choices. The greater the number of possible directions we can take the more we fear choosing a specific one, we may miss something. Our ability to make choices is exciting, reinforces our agency and thus our understanding of what is possible within the world. It is also frightening as it forces a decision upon us, it is rife with the potential to make the “wrong” selection, either in terms of missing some narrative element or of choosing a sub-optimal strategy.
Good level design requires an understanding of the balance between the known and the unknown, the actual and the possible. An ability to provide the player with just enough information to be both excited and fearful; to know what do do if not always how; to promote tension and uncertainty. The levels of a game are where the core gameplay occurs, where player choices take form, where player intent becomes character action. Good play, like good drama, requires uncertainty, tension. Good level design is as much about the space the player does not inhabit as the space they do. Tension exists in these void spaces, these undefined areas.