🐊🦜🎲 Tension and Stress in Game Design 🎲🦜🐊


Tension vs Stress with Crocodile Dentist


Tension and Release is a common component of… I wanna say games but truly all media. The realness of this technique and the extremely raw feelings it elicits in us make it a pillar in basically all art. Without attribution to any specific emotion, tension is more like a catalyst, a controlling factor installed by some art’s artist. But yes, it is most obvious in works of horror.

I’ve talked about it before myself, particularly in my videos on Pikmin. But most of this was inspired by fellow YouTuber Chariot Rider’s video on Tension in games. In a more recent video of his, which if you haven’t already, check it out, it’s about the definition of Roguelikes, queue it up after this or else you’re a garbage man, but in this video he summaries his point as “tension is created when the players have enough information to formulate questions but not enough to fully answer them, resulting in a situation where the player is left in anticipation of a resolution to those questions”.

Backed up by psychological definition, tension basically is when you’re fighting a boss for the first time and you haven’t been exposed to their entire moveset yet and you don’t know whether or not they have a 1 hit KO up their sleeve. It’s when you walk down a corridor and suddenly the music stops and you can’t tell yet if this is to prepare you for something good or something bad. It’s, it’s the fucking regenerators in RE4, it’s every perilous climb in Death Stranding, it’s holding first place in Mario Kart, and yes, it’s especially the Submerged Castle from Pikmin 2.

Except unlike other art, game design is considerate of audience interaction. A player doesn’t read, watch or listen to a game, a player plays a game. And so in some cases instead of tension, when games either fail to obfuscate their rules or just offer subpar challenges, it creates instead what I’ve called Stress. See my past video, Pikmin 3 Stresses Me. It even rhymes.

In many contexts the words Tension and Stress can very well be interchanged, they kinda mean the same thing. Stress is certainly an element of Tension. However what makes the big T stand out is as Chariot said, uncertainty and anticipation. Stress is a pretty normal thing, we feel it to varying degrees when either video games or the real world challenge and apply pressure on us, for instance when multitasking. Stress is about overwhelming us, Tension additionally has to do with feelings of worry and anxiety, leaving us to fend for ourselves without all the information necessary. That’s why a lot of definitions of tension cite examples as relationships whereas stress is more commonly referred to when talking about work. Tension is suspense, mystery, there’s strategy and decision making involved whereas Stress is just raw challenge, it’s grinding you down and seeing if you’re strong enough to survive.

Stress is basically once you’ve learned the entire moveset of the boss and you’re no longer on the edge of your seat, you’re just testing your dexterity, your patience over and over again, trying not to miss a telegraph, press a wrong button, make a mistake. It’s managing a chainsaw guy in Mercs, it’s navigating every menu in Death Stranding, it’s pulling off a good time trial in Mario Kart, and yes, it’s the Formidable Oak from Pikmin 3.

In real life, tension is the uncertain times brought on by a global pandemic. Stress is figuring out the logistics to pull off a move.

In Pikmin 2 there’s a really good level called the Submerged Castle that’s basically a masterclass in using tension to control an experience. It’s signposted unlike any other level in the game, warning you of various elemental dangers from the beginning though only allowing you to bring water resistant pikmin in. Then once inside and given a certain amount of time, it suspensefully springs the dungeon boss on you early, something which never happens throughout the rest of the game. It pulls out of absolutely nowhere a seemingly invincible colossus, the Water Wraith, who’s only attack is an overpowered 1 hit kill steamroll. Suddenly this dungeon is changed from a chill treasure hunting mission like the rest to a cat and mouse hide and seek level when you, the mouse, are charged with the tension of trying to predict position of your stalker in the shadows all the while completing unrelated tasks and trying to preserve your limited supply of pikmin, and it's fantastic. This level and the unique challenge it provides hinges on the uncertainty and randomness of both its layouts floor per floor and the mysterious, otherworldly opponent it provides.

Pikmin 3 then tried to recycle this concept, a one-off in its predecessor that worked precisely because it was a one-off… for its final boss encounter. The final level of Pikmin 3 is about rescuing an unconscious captain by taking him through the maze-like interior of a tree while a new Wraith, this one with a golden shimmer, stalks you. Except there’s a key difference. Unlike the previous game who’s Wraith who was untraceable, who would disappear into the shadows, feigning a retreat only to pop back out intermittently just when you got comfortable… goldy locks over here is literally always marked by a big green dot on your map. Not only that, instead of roaming around randomly to simulate some sort of intelligence, the game explicitly tells you that the wraith will always follow the signal of the unconscious captain, meaning it effectively is just retracing your footsteps as you carry him. The best level from Pikmin 2 was taken, stripped of all its uncertainty, its mystery, its tension, and turned into a final boss room where you’re basically trying to outrun your own shadow.

There isn’t a single relevant question about the Wraith that you don’t have enough information to answer. Where’s the bastard? Ah lemme look at my map, yeah there he is. Which way’s he heading? Ah lemme look at my map, yeah that way. Where should I move to get out of his way? Yeah uh lemme think… yeah basically anywhere but where I’ve been already. At one point the level opens up a giant circular path trivializing it even more. Challenge of not letting the wraith catch up to you is reduced to just pacing around in a circle.

Pikmin 3 is basically all about Stress, and don’t get me wrong, that’s fine. Giving you 3 captains to control at a time, it’s a game at its core about multitasking. Every level is about doing 3 different things at the same time. So it suits it to have a final boss that amps up the stress even more. I mean when you think about it, this guy doesn’t really have any agency of his own, it’s just an extension of whichever of your captains is carrying Olimar, just a few steps behind at any given point, like some sort of tail. So the final challenge in a game about dividing your attention 3 ways is to divide it again a fourth for a little while.

In video games

I think about this distinctions a lot, the idea of tension vs stress, I think it's one of the most important topics I’ve ever touched on in any of my videos, which of course is only due to Chariot, so once again, please go check him out or else you’re a stinky asshole. But my issue is that the specific example I’ve given is pretty hard to follow unless you're just as familiar with the Pikmin series. So, I’ve devised a little demo to get the same concept across using some old school games I figure more people might have heard about.

Crocodile Dentist

This is crocodile dentist, a game I know I had as a kid but couldn’t find, so I tracked this one down. I’m not sure where this it was made, but I doubt it was here because modern, elegant and in-fashion are probably not the words I’d pick to describe this hunk of green, anxiety inducing plastic. The rules of the game are supposedly as follows:

  1. open wide

2. press down on a tooth

3. HO, NO! Chomp

4. hooray! A winner!

This is kinda misleading in my opinion because it seems to imply that being bitten makes you the winner. This is absolutely false.

So allow me to provide my own interpretation of the rules, the way the game actually works which I’ve deduced through inspection and what I can gather from the faint memory of a commercial on YTV back in the day. So, start, you open the croc’s mouth revealing an array of 13 bottom teeth. Each tooth is actually a button, and the act of opening the mouth somehow randomly loads one of them to trigger the mouth to close, thus making whoever picks it the loser. So to start you pick a tooth and in depressing it have a 1/13 chance of getting chomped, effectively the measure of tension. As the game goes on and other players take turns pressing down teeth, the tension increases as the chance of getting snagged raises. The tension in this game can be measured and plotted, it’s the total number of teeth minus the product of the number of players and the current turn. That’s to say, if two people are playing, then the tension increases by 2 for every turn played. It's basically the same thing as saying that it’s the total number of teeth minus the number of teeth pressed, but I like including the number of player and turns into its definition because it reveals a core truth about the game which is that from an individual player’s perspective to whom the tension only matters on their turn, the tension they feel on that turn is a function of how many other people they’re playing with, aka how many people have and will press a tooth before and after their current and next turn.

Tension equations

Unfortunately, there is an unintended flaw in the game that can be exploited to break it. As a game whose intended tension is drawn purely from randomness, no skill should be relevant in its play. However, an experienced player will know that the trigger tooth can be felt before pressing it, it resists just a little bit more than other teeth, and thus a pro is given avenue to avoid it. This is made worse when such a pro is being an asshole about it and reveals to the other players which one is the hot tooth, thus changing the game from one of chance to one predetermined by order and direction, aka catch a tiger by its toe. However, a house rule can be applied to resolve this issue: inheriting the touch-move rule from chess and forcefully joining the act of choosing a tooth to that of pressing it can disallow a cheater cheater from feeling around first.

And thus concludes my, I wanna say legitimate critical analysis of this surprise win out funny game crocodile dentist.

Pop-up Pirate

As another example of a tension based randomness game, here’s what I knew as Popup Pirate but according to this box is called, Crazy Pirates COME ON! Again, seems like they’re overselling this thing a bit… fucking super amazing, breath-taking.

Same idea as croc doc, you insert this scurvy dog into the top of the barrel which again somehow loads one of the 16 slits along the outside to trigger him to pop up. Then, however the fuck many players you want take turns stabbing little daggers into it until one of yous springs the trap and he pops up, probably taking your eye out along with him, or at the very least, your breath. Again, the tension can be measured and grows as a function of the number of slits vs the number of players and the current turn. This time though I don’t think there’s a way to feel around for the hot spot, so no place for a pumpkin eater.


Now, for a different kind of game with a different kind of challenge: Perfection.

Perfection, today, is my example of a stress-driven game. By the way, the noise the mechanism inside makes is very loud, so I’ll just be narrating over footage of it probably. So if you’ve never seen it before, Perfection is a game about placing 25 unique plastic plugs into each their own unique plastic hole under a 60 second timer. If the timer runs completely down before you’ve placed all the pieces and hit the switch off, the board springs up and sends all the pieces flying at your face to rub in just how much of a failure you are. It’s not very hard, just a few rounds and quickly you kinda memorize the placement of each piece. At that point it's more a challenge of dexterity as you try not to fumble too hard around with the pieces.

As opposed to the other games I’ve demonstrated, there’s no hidden weakness, no hotspot, in fact there’s no information hidden from the player at all. The timer is labeled and shows that it’s exactly 60 seconds. Each piece is unique, none is more or less important than any other, and each has exactly one spot it fits in. The game doesn’t obfuscate these from you in any way. Really most of the challenge comes from the fact that human brains aren’t so good at keeping track of so many things at once. It’s basically only difficult for the same reason remembering a phone number is, you know?

You can’t really plot or measure the tension of this game because there is none. You could maybe try to plot the difficulty curve, but I don’t think it's a valuable descriptor of the difficulty. Like, technically the difficulty of placing a piece is related to the total number of holes filled vs empty, but the thing is you have to fill every hole. So even though placing the final few pieces is much easier than the first few, it’s only so easy because those first ones were placed. You can’t like, skip that step. So I wanna say the higher difficulty at the beginning kinda balances itself out over the easier difficulty at the end, kinda giving the act of playing the game a linear difficulty. The only real change in difficulty occurs, I would say, when your brain starts to store for short-term the information necessary to place the blocks quickly, and at that point the difficulty decreases, aka, you get skilled at it. The difficulty technically does change as the timer goes down and you place pieces, but I think a more accurate snapshot of it is to say that the act of playing one round of Perfection has a certain constant difficulty.

So there’s no secret, there’s no hidden danger you’re trying to avoid. The question of the game is ‘can you get all the pieces placed in under 60 seconds or will you fail?’, and as the player you have all the information you need to answer that. In a videogame, this more akin to a time trial or a speedrun or something. The pop up of the board if you fail is completely independent to the challenge of the game, it's a gimmick, whether it was that or anything else that signaled failure wouldn’t matter. It’s artificial. Really all this is is a test of skill and a timer, it’s a race under pressure.

Final Remarks

And that’s not to say that a stress driven game is worse than one more about tension. These are different kinds of challenges that different people will enjoy more than others, that games might employ at different times dependent on whatever the fuck they’re trying to do.

I think what’s important to note though is that tension is a better way to control an emotional experience whereas stress is more suited towards triggering feelings of being overwhelmed and then maybe intense accomplishment once you’re done. Tension is about mood, stress is about pressure.

But, I think when it comes to what Pikmin 3 was trying to do with its final boss, there was an intense, shoot me, ludonarrative dissonance, and I think that’s what upset me. The final level about securing Olimar and traversing the maze while the wraith follows you, ending with a big boss fight at the base of the tree is meant to feel tense I believe. I mean, the whole game thus far has been about multitasking under stress, overloading you with responsibilities: hey dude, handle 3 captains, handle 5 types of pikmin, handle your juice reserve, handle all these multi-tiered puzzles. If you’ve made it as far as the Oak, then the game should know by now that you’re able to perform under stress. So the addition of new mechanics in the final stage felt like they were meant to confuse you, meant to surprise you and make you work under that same familiar pressure, stress, but with an added element of unknown, of tension. But then it handed you the cheat sheet and said aaaaaah fuck it, just multitask some more. Kills the mood entirely.

I think this was a wasted use of a scenario that, in the prequel, made for a much better encounter that was legitimately shocking and terrifying.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with liking perfection over crocodile dentist, if skill challenges in games are what you dig, then dig away. But when it's clear that the game is trying to set a certain mood and then picks one avenue of challenge over the other, I think that’s worthy of criticism.

The difference between tension and stress in game design is the difference between the Submerged Castle and the Formidable Oak in Pikmin, it’s the difference between Popup Pirate and Perfection. It’s the difference between a needle in a haystack, and 52 pickup. One draws blood, one draws sweat. The end.

--- Sources ---

Addressing Conflict: Tension and Release in Games

https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/tension Stress https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/stress

APA Dictionary of Psychology
https://dictionary.apa.org/tension https://dictionary.apa.org/emotional-stress

Stress in the workplace



Takes videogames a bit seriously. B.Eng Software Engineering. Video Dude. Reportedly incredibly cool. Είμαι μαλάκας.

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