Dramatic Tension and Gameplay Tension

Many designers are led astray by a false analogy between two superficially similar concepts, dramatic tension and gameplay tension. This section defines these terms, discusses their role in entertaining the player, and explains why you shouldn't confuse them.


When a reader reads (or a viewer watches) a story, she feels dramatic tension, the sense that something important is at stake coupled with a desire to know what happens next. (Screenwriters call this conflict, but game developers use conflict to refer to the opposition of hostile forces in a game and prefer dramatic tension, which is more accurate in any case.) Dramatic tension is the essence of storytelling, whatever the medium. Cliffhangers—exciting situations at the ends of book chap­ters or TV shows that remain unresolved until the next chapter or episode— increase the audience's sense of dramatic tension and ensure they stick around to see the situation resolve. At the climactic event of a story, the action turns, so that instead of the tension mounting, the tension begins to fall.


When a player plays a game, he feels gameplay tension, also a sense that something important is at stake and a desire to know what happens next. But gameplay ten­sion arises from a different source than dramatic tension does; it comes from the player's desire to overcome a challenge and his uncertainty about whether he will succeed or fail. In multiplayer games, the player's uncertainty about what his oppo­nents will do next also creates gameplay tension.


Game designers have tended to perceive an analogy between dramatic tension and gameplay tension, as if the two terms simply denoted the same feeling. However, the analogy is a false one. Dramatic tension depends on the reader's identification with a character (or several of them) and curiosity about what will happen to that character. Gameplay tension does not require any characters. A darts player feels gameplay tension in wondering whether he can hit the bull's-eye, but that situation provides dramatic tension only if the outcome matters to a character in the context of a story.

A key difference between dramatic tension and gameplay tension lies in the differ­ing abilities of these feelings to persist in the face of randomness and repetition. Randomness means unpredictable and arbitrary changes in the course of events. Repetition refers to identical (or extremely similar) events occurring at different times in the progress of the story or game.

Dramatic tension, and reader interest in the dramatic subject, fades in the presence of both randomness and repetition. If the events in a story seem random—accidental and unrelated to one another—the reader wonders why he is bothering to read it. Likewise, no story should include identical events that repeat themselves more than once or twice. If a police officer knocks on a potential witness's door and there's nobody home, he shouldn't have to do it more than once or twice before he gets an answer. Having this happen again and again in a story would make it boring. In some circumstances repetition can be played for laughs, if not overdone—in The Secret of Monkey Island, every time the hero escapes from a hut in which he is con­fined, the natives put a bigger lock on the door until the door looks like a bank vault. But even this is not completely repetitive, because each lock the natives add looks different.

Gameplay tension, on the other hand, easily tolerates both randomness and repeti­tion for much longer. Poker and Tetris include a lot of randomness and repetition, yet they retain their gameplay tension.

Consider the following dialog from the British television science fiction comedy Red Dwarf. Arnold Rimmer, sitting around one evening with his roommate, Dave Lister, recounts every detail of a game of Risk, die-roll by die-roll, that he played 10 years earlier. Lister asks him repeatedly to shut up, and Rimmer can't understand why.

RIMMER: But I thought that was because I hadn't got to the really interesting bit.

LISTER: What really interesting bit?

RIMMER: Ah well, that was about two hours later, after he'd thrown a three and a two and I'd thrown a four and a one. I picked up the dice...

LISTER: Hang on Rimmer, hang on... the really interesting bit is exactly the same as the dull bit.

RIMMER: You don't know what I did with the dice though, do you? For all you know, I could have jammed them up his nostrils, head-butted him on the nose and they could have blasted out of his ears. That would've been quite interesting.

LISTER: OK, Rimmer. What did you do with the dice?

RIMMER: I threw a five and a two.

LISTER: And that's the really interesting bit?

RIMMER: Well, it was interesting to me, it got me into Irkutsk.

—Red Dwarf series 4, episode 6, "Meltdown"

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