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An Essay on Suspense

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For those of you who don't like huge posts, skip to the bottom section "THE POINT:", you'll still get something out of it. There's an interesting thread here on fear and how to scare the player in games. After a couple of pages things got a little messy with talk of extreme sports, but there's a crucial point out of focus that I think needs to be seperated. One part is the fairly obvious point that there's a huge difference on every level between horror and suspense. Take horror. Imagine you're doing battle with the most vicious deamon imaginable, it has a grotesque head with a vicious sneer, huge crooked pointy curved teeth complete with festering gums, drips blood and goo from it's bloodshot eyes as it screams for it's life while thrashing at you with claws on several muscular limbs, it scuttles freely across walls and floors making a horrible scratching din while diving undercover before outflanking you, oh and don't forget the little devil minions it releases which swarm you if you don't divert your fire. Then again if you don't keep the big one pinned down it reaches the vortex and sucks the world into hell. What are the most significant differences between this climatic battle in-game and one on the cinema screen? The cinema is bigger and louder and you are sitting in the dark. How about pulling your chair closer to the fifteen-inch screen, turning the lights down and the speakers up, is it still the same? How about the fact that you and your actions affect what happens? Or can you restart if you screw up, or better yet QuickSave? How about presentation? If it were a cinema sequence, there would be strategic closeups of gnashing jaws, probably flashing lights (easy to add to a game but it isn't done much or well). In a cinema, the audience would get to see the HERO's face in terror and his scratched and bloodied clothes, making the danger perhaps more real. Usually in film, the hero is battling for other things eg the beautiful woman, personal redemption, saving a freind. As an example, in The Mask of Zorro (I think) there are two major fight scenes, by far the most intense one is where he's battling to save people. Face it, to have real terror the stakes need to be high and screenwriters are simply more knowlegable and better at it than the typical game designer. There's a massive toolset of shots and compositions a good director uses to provoke emotional responses but the camera in game is at the mercy of mouse movements. Games will NEVER be able to induce terror of the best possible quality. The medium is not capable of it. Not even VR. The horror creator needs to be an arrogant elitist who knows what's best for the player, single-player games are fundamentally individual experiences. I was reading in an article or similar, an account that went something like this ' I was playing an old text adventure game... ...I was exploring some caves... ... suddenly some text appeared: "YOU HEAR FOOTSTEPS IN THE DARKNESS BEHIND YOU. " ' The author said it was the scariest moment in any game of his life. I think this worked because the circumstances and delivery were strictly at the whim of the designer. There's something intristicly unnerving about the IDEA OF exploring dark caves, EXPECTING to find something there. Like a novel with no pictures, the mind had been straining to give a reality to the content (a skill not needed when the other "reality" is thrown in your face) so when the footsteps were "heared" the player )who was addressed directly by the game!) had no choice but for a split second to believe he was actually in the caves being followed. Of course he may not have been followed but it's an easy assumption to make, especially when panicked. Remember this was a turn-based text adventure, any graphics would probably have been 320*200, not even atmospheric sound. At this point people might say that the techniques of old are not relevant when we can hurl thousands of chilling textures at the player and give them an embodiment of the fear which is scarier because it's more real and immediate. How on earth could you deliver the line "YOU HEAR FOOTSTEPS IN THE DARKNESS BEHIND YOU. " In a modern game? Maybe some unseen presence is putting words on screens to let you know you're being followed, but that's beside the point. We can easily get so tied up in implementation that the underlying process is ignored or overshot so as to lose credibility, and a credible, possible, even PLAUSIBLE scary situation is much easier to make scary. The trouble is, even though the avatar is supposed to BE the player, it is virtually impossible to make the player believe the avatar is more than the sum of it's parts. We can harp on about immersion till the earth melts but there is an unsolvable disconnection between mind, hands, keyboard, program, screen and back to mind. And now about suspense (sorry guys, theres more to come!). In the "Fear" thread there was a little confusion over anticipation and apprehension. Without sounding too much like a dictionary, anticipation is the wait while expecting something to happen, apprehension is the hope that nothing bad will happen coupled with the knowledge that it might. I don't know how this compares with most people, but for me the best part of a rollercoaster is the anticipation. I like rollercoasters, they are thrilling, but not scary. I'll tell you what I find comes close: the ride up the first slope to the top of the first drop, not knowing exactly what it's going to be like (but one could make a fairly accurate guess). It's only partly anticipation, I know i'm about to have fun, but there is a scary element and it's independant of the anticipation. On a rollercoaster, you are trapped. Stuck. At the mercy of engineers. You have ceased to control your own fate for the next few minutes. Nothing you can say or do will change that. This is apprehension, the slight nagging feeling that something will go wrong. We've all heard stories of derailings, 70mph grit in the eyes or getting stuck at the top of a loop all afternoon. Of course we KNOW it won't happen, we have faith in the machinery. What if something MIGHT happen. Suppose the safety standards weren't so high, or the last person in your seat accidentally loosened the harness. Under those conditions, theme parks seem downright reckless. We don't get the same helium-filled-stomach feeling climbing into the pilot seat of a two ton steel-on-wheels box to shoot down a path of pseudo-rock sharing space with other potentially dangerous humans controlling similar deathtraps. People die in car accidents by the minute, but we largely don't worry over it, or over shooting through the sky in a pressurised metal tube which is allowed to take off if only seventy of it's hundreds of parts pass the safety test. Suspense as we know it is apprehension. When we crawl through dark tunnels in Aliens vs Predator we worry about what MIGHT be in the shadows or sleeping in a pipe. I confess, I hardly played any of that game but I reckon if there was one level with no enemies, it would still be scary: partly because by the end we would be thinking "if nothing's got me get I must be in for it soon" and in the next level we might be paranoid about wether they're grouping in some mass formation, fleeing a doomed area or being overpowered by a worse enemy. In the next level, what if there were no enemies for the first few minutes, then you enter a well lit area and the floor gives way under you (unoriginal I know but it's tried and tested). Back to rollercoasters for a moment. What would the apprehension be like without anticipation? The sitiation is now dramatically different, there is risk with no expected reward. Suppose if the cars climb then roll gently back to the platform. Is it still scary? No. Does it still have the first climb when the fear is felt? Yes! So something elemental is missing. I propose a new Theory of Fear: ANTICIPATION IS A COMPONENT OF APPREHENSION. For some reason on a rollercoaster I doubt if anyone would worry about the risk if there was no reward. the type of anticipation if crucial i'm sure: it has to be compaitable with the apprehension ie the thrill of a rollercoaster ride is greatly similar a feeling, and directly related to the possible dangers that give us a reason for fear. Rollercoasters work becuase risk and reward are NOT JUST INTERLOCKED, they are one and the same thing. Like the heroes and baddies in comic books, they are usually at opposite ends of the same curve, Looking Glass versions of each other. In the text adventure example, again, if the game was a reality, part of the thrill of exploring is EXPECTING to find something and HOPING it will be nice. In the realm of fiction the writer is allowed to introduce complementary elements eg pirates, that fit naturally in the story and are plausible in the world. AvP would not be as scary for someone who hasn't seen the films, or by lack of exposure is ignorant of the fictional world and how it behaves. I can't fairly talk about suspense in games without discussing films, but suspense is inherently harder to understand and describe than terror (we all know what scares us, but not why we worry). As to what i'm about to write I can't claim to know what i'm talking about. I am not an expert or student of dramatic theory so I can only be a Sherlock to the films I have seen. If you know better, please for my sake correct me. I do understand films in general so a lot of the material will come indirectly, please bear with me. You may want to skip down to the last few lines. I have had little luck with suspense in films, no matter what the risks are, in films I KNOW it will work out OK (usually) so watching them is reduced to a matter of seing the details of how the story ends. I think this is less the writer's fault than our own. As a collective audience we (with exceptions) like everything to work out nicely in the end. The beast is slain, the city is saved, the tortured lovers live happily ever after and the villains gets their just desserts. A lot of people want quite rightly to be moved emotionally within the confines of the film but demand to sleep comfortably in their beds when they go home. Masterpieces like American Beauty offer not just a neatly tied up story package but have the balls to make us hesitate to sit up when the credits finally roll. It's not a suspense film but if audiences weren't so demanding for happy endings films in general would be more emotionally resonant. Oops I'm going off on a tangent here. We need to change the rules before we get stuck without any suspense. Don't just blame Disney. The thing is, in any storytelling medium, a happy ending is much easier to write than a poignant one (see The Truman Show). All a happy ending demands is that the good guys win. The unorthadox approach requires the story be open ended, FULLY AND EXCLUSIVELY ON A SUPERFICIAL LEVEL. In the midst of all this the characters have completed thier transformations (a little harder) and the thematic elements have come together in a nonobvious harmony (the hardest). Spoiler ahead: after surviving his midlife crisis, Leister Burnham gets murdered through no fault of his own. People are usually murdered (in films) becuase they tried to screw someone. Funnily enough, American Beauty is NOT a suspenseful film on the surface, but while watching films for the first time, you do need to be asking yourself "how is it going to end?". For the best suspense payoff, see Arlington Road. THE POINT: We can have true suspense ONLY WHEN WE DON'T ALREADY KNOW WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN. I'm sure competent writers out there will continue to take advantage of this in small numbers, but the trouble with stories in games is THE PLAYER HAS TO WIN. You spend days battling your imaginary enemies and at the end you lose. Can you imagine the indignation? All talk on suspense in games is IRRELEVANT in the long term unless the way the plot maps out is in flux. The connection between immersion, consequence and primal fear is the point. The last hurdle is to truly suck the player into the character. This is a job for a writer prepeared to write the same character dozens of times for different situations. ******** A Problem Worthy of Attack Proves It's Worth by Fighting Back [edited by - walkingcarcass on October 25, 2002 12:27:12 PM]

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Knowing the ending doesn''t mean the suspense isn''t there, even in the long term. Take "The Usual Suspects", for example. I''ve seen that movie at least 10 times now. I know exactly what''s happening and what will happen at the end. But the movie is crafted well enough so that I still feel the suspense even with this knowledge. Take the Star Wars movies. You know Anakin will become Darth Vader and yet there is a long-term suspense there.

Usually, even though I believe a movie will have a happy ending, this belief is suspended through the movie. Logically, I know the plot will resolve. But, if done right, emotionally you don''t believe it and there''s the suspense.

I like the idea for your coop game but I think the only thing that will make it work is a superbly crafted game with _everything_ done right. I know that if I run into any snags at all, be it a tough level, poor balance in design, bad graphics, anything that will prevent me from enjoying my experience, I will simply just quit. Because the high stakes in the game exist only if I''m compelled enough to invest myself in them.

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I also think that suspense works often because you know what;s going to happen. In a Jurassic Park, you know the t-rex is out there, cause the goat is gone. Which makes it all the more exciting when you actually see him. I have a feeling that you have just watched so many movies and seen the same old tricks over and over again, that it doesn''t affect you anymore. Which is generally the case for most avid movie watchers. Once you''ve seen enough, it becomes really hard for that style of suspense to work. In games we can''t rely on the same tricks. We can''t default back to letting the camera create the fear, because in most cases the player controls the camera. We can''t create perfect timing, because the player controls the timing. I think that disallowing saving mid-game/mid-level does go a long way, Aliens vs Predator became boring once they released the patch allowing mid-level saving.

I really don''t know, in some ways this is the easiest emotion to create in a player (most other emotions only come through from a good well-written story, which could be in a game, but it''s not created through gameplay), however, it''s also fairly difficult to do, because the player has so much control. In a movie, you CANT control what happens. In a roller coaster you are TRAPPED, there is NOTHING you can do until the ride is over. In a game, at every stage of the simulation, the player has the control.

How can we make the player feel out of control without taking their control away from them or frustrating them? Do we want to do this, or should we stay focused on just creating good compelling gameplay?

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True, it''s more knowing what might happen (but not being sure) than knowing for sure what happens. That''s why we can do it better in games, because things don''t have to be the same every time. No, we can''t craft the perfect camera angles for every suspensful scene, or show the player the evil monster in enough detail to make it truly horrifying, but we CAN stack the dominoes so that sometimes they will fall in the right way to scare the player. That''s all we have to do, is stack the dominoes right. If we DO try to create suspense by timing things just perfectly, we are really losing what makes this medium good. Stack the dominoes, and leave them for the player to topple.

I think with movies, I''ve seen enough movies that most typical ones I don''t feel any suspense in. But I''ve also seen a lot of independant films where things happen that you dont expect, like the "hero" dying halfway through the move, or the love interest getting killed off, etc, so I do feel some suspense sometimes.

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Wow, pretty good essay there.

Well, I suppose suspence is a thing independent of the medium through which it is being delivered. I''d like to make a mention, before I post this, that this is my first post on the boards (yay!) and that I have a tendency to get side-tracked. So don''t be surprised if I end up veering from the subject somewhat; I''ll try not to though.

What makes us play games? What makes them "fun"? Sometimes, it''s the random senseless bashing/blowing up/dismantling/destryoing. But this sort of thing can only be fun for oh so long before it gets old and boring. Without challenge, a game is nowhere nearly as fun as it should be.

I think challenge is a form of suspence: you fire bullet after bullet in the demonic monstrous beast attacking you, dodging attacks in hopes that your gun will have enough bullets to take it out, for instance. What makes this suspence, to some extent, is how the pounding of your heart mingles with the element of mystery: am I fighting this thing right? Will I run out of bullets and die? Maybe I''m supposed to lose this fight and someone''ll save me or something. Or maybe there''s an other way to defeat this thing? Until the fight is over, questions''ll race through your head. I recall how I''d nearly panic when playing an RPG and realizing that I hadn''t saved yet and inadvertantly run into a boss that was supposed to beat my party. I''d panic, but part of me felt as though maybe this was a fight I wasn''t supposed to win. In this case, a player is confronted with both challenge (although this isn''t much more than illusionary challenge) and suspence.

Suspence isn''t limited to just "omfg wtf how do u beat tehis thing noeezzzz111!!11!!!!" though. A game with an engrossing storyline might have the player guessing just who character X really is. Suspence isn''t as strong as in the previous case here, but the player''s mind is much more preoccupied and the situation lasts longer.

I don''t think you need awsome texel-shaded purelight-illuminated phong-buffered nurb-rendered-polygonal 3D graphics to make a game really reach out and make a player gasp in surprise, shock, horror, or a combination of all three. Even the good ''ol sprites from the NES/SNES age could generate suspence. Even text-only games could do it. But it certainly helps to have realism and detail in some cases, I suppose...

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Cut-scene and plot suspense are two very important kettles of fish.

In a cut-scene we can copy kubrick, spielberg, hitchcock etc but at most a typical sut-scene lasts a couple of minutes so any suspence will be short lived.

Unless, of course, suspenseful events persist across scenes. This is where plot suspence becomes important.

If the story fills the player with anxiety about what might go wrong we can do this. Thing is, in almost every game from now to eternity, there is an unresolvable inevitability in plots.

In the long run, we need an autonomous, responsive, self-plotting persistant universe. Until then we might have to rely almost exclusively on shocks.

********


A Problem Worthy of Attack
Proves It''s Worth by Fighting Back

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quote:
Original post by walkingcarcass
THE POINT:

We can have true suspense ONLY WHEN WE DON''T ALREADY KNOW WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN.

I''m sure competent writers out there will continue to take advantage of this in small numbers, but the trouble with stories in games is THE PLAYER HAS TO WIN.

I think you''re thinking inside the box here, and not realising that games already offer what you talk about.

Instead of assuming ''the end'' of the game is when the player wins, ''the end'' is simply when the player can make no more progress without reverting to a previous state. In other words, if you die, that is ''the end''. It is an alternative story ending, created through emergent behaviour. I don''t see a problem with that. The game doesn''t demand that the player wins. However, it demands that the player can win, which is different.

Arlington Road was a great film, but if I had played a computer game that turned out that way, I would be angry! (Even discounting the couple of far-fetched bits.)

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