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I'm currently experimenting with an adventure game setting where at some point the game is quite calm and the player has to solve puzzles and at some point there are enemies or environmental traps.

I don't want to have any surprising danger events coming out of nowhere that would scare the player, so I would like to build up the players' tension before a section of the game starts which will contain multiple "player-killing" obstacles (may they be enemies, or the ground falling apart..).

My sound artist made some really good music and sound effects to slowly build up the tension, but game elements during this phase are missing. It's like the player is running from a puzzle-zone to danger-zone through a boring plain section.

Beside sound, what are some generic ways to build up the players' tension? Can i aid with special Visuals, or do i have to improve the story or possibly invent some pre-danger-zone easy obstacles?

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I'd really like for us to find a way to ask these sorts of questions in a useful way on this site. This one sort of feels like it's asking for "let's make a list of possibilities" answers, which doesn't feel useful (or like someone could reasonably "accept" just one answer as being correct). But I think the question is important. And to me, it feels like finding a way to usefully formulate exactly this type of question is very important for making gamedev.SE a truly long-term useful resource on the internet. –  Trevor Powell Dec 23 '12 at 5:27
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@TrevorPowell Aren’t there also such questions on SO, where they tend to connect all correct answer in one community-wiki answer and that one is accepted? Yet, it does not seem to be used on GameDev that much. I do not think thread openers can mark posts as community wiki, so it would be the answering people's duty to mark their answer as community wiki. –  Aufziehvogel Dec 23 '12 at 10:46
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You don't want create "an ILLUSION of stress and danger," you want to create the real thing. What causes stress, what is dangerous, do those things and stop thinking that they are pretend illusions you have to conjure up with tricks. –  Patrick Hughes Jan 6 '13 at 16:43
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4 Answers 4

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I sometimes think the act of having to make a decision with a sense of "if I don't decide, things will not be as I wish" is good to create tension.

It doesn't have to be that making the decision IS important, but that the player thinks they need to.

For example, there's the idea of false danger. Crossing a rickety bridge (that really isn't going to fall) creates more tension that a bridge that really does fall some times.

Another thing is just giving the player heads up on something that's going to happen, but don't tell them when. Finding wanted posters for a notorious killer early on is a big hint you'll meetup with him - and there's tension in that. Finding the aftermath of an extraordinary event that hints at something the player will encounter later works the same way. Wiped out platoon for example.

Think of it this way - a good book can have tension and be scary, but clearly it has no sound fx, light changes or anything else - it's all in your head (and the storytelling).

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thanks, I'll experiment with some visuals which will make the scene look partially broke, like it will be in the danger-zone later on, but not near to the player, or at least not affecting him at the moment. I really like the rickety bridge example, it's pretty obvious and used in many movies and games but it never gets old (= –  cppanda Dec 23 '12 at 15:54
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This really all depends on what kind of game you're making. Not only the genre, but how you're presenting it: 2D top-down, 2D side-scroller, 2D isometric, 3D first-person, 3D third-person shoulder, 3D third-person isometric/freecam...

Basically, from an artistic standpoint, rather than an actual game-mechanic standpoint, there are several things that you can do. Things like palette-changes, lighting-changes, starker/longer shadows, visual-noise, tightening the camera (sense of claustrophobia), shaky-cam...

...switch the character's running speed, slightly, change idle/movement animations to depict that the characters, themselves are nervous.

Generate spiders or bugs, or whatever is creepy and fits within the theme. Make them tiny, non-interactive, but make tiny visual cues of some sort. Not a BOO factor, but a creepy factor.

I can't tell you how to do it in YOUR game, because there are too many variables we don't have, both in theme and in presentation, but you should watch some old horror movies or old psychological-thrillers, et cetera. Avoid newer movies, because, surprise, after the mid-'90s, most have been "slasher-horror" with pop-up scares. Pay close attention to what mechanics worked for film-making in the old days.

Sound was a big deal! Not just music, but sounds and sound-themes (nature or sewers or empty streets, etc). So were pacing and lighting and camera angles (I suggest looking at Evil Dead 1 -- the effects are dated, but some of the shots are still mind-blowing).

Unless you're doing a lot of cutscenes or controlling the character movement like in a Point'n'Click setting, all of these things aren't always available in a 1:1 translation to your game's format, but whether they come through as special effects, or as cutscenes, or artistic direction for level design, or pacing in terms of ramping up dangers or ramping up numbers or difficulties of enemies... each or all of these things can improve the sense of tension.

If you're going to put insta-kill traps out, then put some warnings out, maybe a pre-sprung trap with a corpse in it.

So yes, music, sound-effects, soundscapes (sometimes the most-effective "tense" scenes are the ones where the tense music goes away, and you're left with a creepy soundscape), but also character-animation, colour-palette changes (just look at the average Super Mario World level versus colours inside of a haunted house), camera-angles, decreases in visibility (fog of war, or zoomed-in camera), increases in shadow-intensity and shadow-length, artistic creepiness (spiders/bugs/intestine-covered walls/alien growth/etc), visual cues to increased danger (pre-sprung traps/previous adventurers/etc.)... the more of these you put together (especially when you mix pacing with visual with audio), the more tension people are going to feel.

The question, of course, is how to pull it off in your particular game. And really, it's just an art which needs to be practiced and tested and revisited, because there is no one correct mix.

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+1 The hints on camera movement really got me thinking –  cppanda Dec 23 '12 at 5:53
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I think that tension comes from a change in your perception. When you feel secure and confident, you dont feel tension. Everything goes well.. or at leat, even if everthing is running with difficulties, at least are well knowed difficulties.

When your perception of the world changes, you start to feel great incertitude. That is what generates a great tension.

For example. If you are playing Doom 1 or 2, everthing passes on narrow corridors and small rooms. But.. sometimes you find a very wide place. You then, feel very strange... this is different, you dont know what kind of dangers are awaiting in this new "world".

In contrast, you can think visceversa. If you play Journey, everything is very big and wide. You play the game feeling free, you fly, you float... but if you enter in a small place, you start to feeling compressed and tensioned.

I think that the major thing that makes people feel tension is "the change".

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big changes and incertitude form one scene to another is definitely something I haven't thought of yet, which would fit quite well into my story and level designs –  cppanda Dec 23 '12 at 15:59
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I just wanted to mention the game Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The game is basically scaring out the player and building tension. Not really creating stress, so these things might be not really what you are looking for. Of course music and sounds effects are important for the effect. But some things I noticed in the game are:

  • Creating dark environments, with some flickering light points like candles.
  • Wind streams that closes/opens a door or causes candles go out.
  • Using a smaller field of view.
  • Camera bobbing (simulation that the player steps).
  • In scary situations, some visuals effects like:
    • Adding a red/purple shine to the screen
    • Disturb the view by:
      • Adding smoke or fog
      • Using a higher field of view (gives the effect that distances are longer and the camera zooms out, also creates the illusion of moving very quickly.)
      • Transform each vertex of the geometry in the vertex shader to make the screen totally go crazy.
  • Make the player walk in a slightly wrong direction (like when you for example in a sinking ship, so the ground is not perfectly horizontal). This might cause the player feeling dizzy. You can use this effect even if the ground is perfectly horizontal.
  • Weak and fluctuating current (electricity).

The sound effects I like are:

  • Hearing your own heartbeat, breath and footsteps
  • Wind
  • Squeaking doors
  • Dripping or streaming water

Another nice effect to create tension is to stop music. It will give the effect of: "what happens, music stops?" For example, music stops and the only thing you hear is your breath and the noise of a leaking tap and a broken light that keeps flickering (like the starter of a TL light that keeps trying turning the light on).

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