Monday, November 19, 2012

Three Mechanics that Create Dramatic Tension

Nick explores the relationship between dramatic structure and the shape of gameplay and identifies three mechanics that designers use to create a sense of dramatic tension in their games.

Raise your hand if you remember your ninth grade English teacher talking about "rising action." Remember? The teacher drew a sloping triangle on the chalkboard and laid out a progression from "exposition" to the "climax" and then finally to a "resolution." I hope you didn't stay home sick to play video games. This stuff's important, guys. (At least, it's important to theater majors. Maybe other people have better things to do with their time. Like play video games)

The model comes from Gustav Freytag's analysis of Aristotle's Poetics and the structure of Greek Drama, but his terminology has entered our culture as the only acceptable framework for a work of fiction. According to "Freytag's Pyramid," a work of fiction begins with exposition and then moves into rising action. Tension increases until the piece reaches a climax (sometimes called a turning point) and then decreases as we move to a resolution or "dénouement."

It's easy to find great books, films, and plays that defy this structure, but it has come to define our expectations for fiction. Of course, games to tend have flexible outcomes and unfixed progressions, but clever designers have found tricks that emulate this experience in order to satisfy or hunger for familiar forms [1]. A game where the gameplay doesn't change over time is about as exciting as a movie where the same scene happens over and over again, and the best games are designed to give us a sense of steadily increasing tension. Here are three mechanics that you can see again and again to generate this dramatic tension. Each one has been remixed into various forms and appropriated for multiple games but always contributes to that nail-biting sense of increasing tension.

Dwindling Resources
When the game starts, there's plenty to go around, but soon you find your adrenaline pumping as you fight others for the few remaining resources in play. It shouldn't be surprising that limiting resources this way creates drama. Many classic works are based fights to survive when there isn't enough to go around. Think of The Grapes of Wrath, Lord of the Flies, and Oliver Twist. The setup works for games too and most competetive games come down to a fight for limited resources if you're willing to get abstract about it.

  • Ticket to Ride: Ticket to Ride asks players to connect distant locales by building train routes between various American cities. At first, there are almost always plenty of ways to link any given pair of cities, but since each routes can only be built by 1 or 2 players, you'll soon find yourself on the edge of the seat as the routes you want get gobbled up. This is especially tense when players have to choose between acquiring resources that they want now or grabbing an efficient connection now that they know they'll need later. (Hmm)
  • Lost Cities: Lost Cities asks players to play chains of numbered cards in order to acquire points, but starting on one of these "expeditions" has a substantial cost if you don't get far enough along. Since each "color" of expedition has one copy of each number, tension quickly cranks up as you sweat over which cards are still in the deck and which are in your opponent's hand. Clever players find themselves bluffing about their interest to encourage opponents to discard the cards they need.
  • Scrabble: Most players probably think of Scrabble as a game of word knowledge instead of a resource competition, but as the “crossword” of connected letters begins to form, access to valuable space on the board quickly becomes limited. As the game progresses it becomes harder and harder to play long words or access valuable premium squares. By the endgame it can be impossible to even find a place to put tiles down. (Blokus is an example of a game where all of gameplay comes down to competing for space in this way.)
Hazy Standing:
There’s nothing interesting about having to slog through ten turns to get to an ending everyone sees a mile away. (Anyone who’s been stuck in that painfully slow final stretch of Monopoly can attest to how boring it is to watch an obvious frontrunner slowly rake in their last few hundred dollars.) These mechanics try to circumvent this problem by making it hard to tell who’s winning. Even if one player is impossible to catch, it’s much easier to convince yourself you’re still in the running when you don’t know quite how many points they have. This kind of obfuscation is common in fiction too. Most books would be boring if we knew the ending, and authors often leave us wondering about what exactly the antagonist is up to, allowing us to worry that the hero can't possibly foil their schemes.

  • Small World: In Small World players gain points for defeating opponents and capturing territory. The game is derived from the earlier design Vinci and a major change was a switch from a victory track visible to all players to victory point chips that players keep concealed. Many reviewers point to this as a major improvement since it was easy in Vinci to “team-up” to screw over a player in the lead (or to throw in the towel if even a team effort wasn't enough to stop them.)
  • I’m the Boss: The surprisingly simplistic gameplay of I’m the Boss asks players to either cooperate and split sums of money on a series of “deals” or refuse, leaving the money in the pot and out of the hands of their competitors. Concealed cash totals are critical to the game’s success since it would be a no-brainer to refuse to cooperate with a player who had a substantial lead. Canny players will try to keep a low profile to ensure cooperation they need later in the game. Tension is increased by the unpredictable ending, preventing players from knowing exactly when time for dealing runs out.
  • The Settlers of Catan: The acknowledged modern classic of the board game renaisance, Settlers uses a hybrid model where most points come from visible holdings like settlements and cities, but there’s a chance that development cards concealed in players’ hands give them other points. This setup has the advantage of giving everyone a general sense of the standings, but keeping the possibility of a two or three point swing up in the air. Much like I'm the Boss, Settlers prominently features negotiation, and the perception that you're the frontrunner can be enough to kill any friendly cooperation.
Engine Scaffolding
Another way of creating a sense of “rising action” is to have player power increase as the game goes on. Game events seem to progress faster and faster as stockpiles and scores get bigger and bigger. This can be especially satisfying if players have a sense of “building” a structure that improves as the game churns towards its climactic conclusion. This can be equated with a setup where events in fiction come faster and get bigger as we rush to the climax and also has echoes of the satisfaction of a hero gaining a skill or resource he needs to vanquish a villain or save the day.

  • Dominion: In Dominion, everyone starts with the same deck and then races to create something that can acquire valuable victory points before their oppoenents do. The game seems to start slow, but as decks improve players soon find themselves with powerful action cards and resources each turn. These resources can be reinvested to make decks even stronger, or players can turn them towards acquiring victory points, the “goal” of the game. The feelings of satisfaction come from analyzing the setup to figure out what you need to build now to get something you want later.
  • Puerto Rico: Much like Dominion, Puerto Rico provides players with a choice between performing actions that increase their score (the “Captain” role) or a variety of actions that earn them crops or money they can invest to improve the speed of their production. Players create elaborate systems to generate points using a number of different routes and these systems increase in power as the game's unpredictable end approaches.
  • Dungeons and Dragons: While tabletop RPGs differ from traditional competitive games in many respects, D&D did invent the level system that we see replicated in hundreds of analog and digital games to this day. World of Warcraft and other MMOs have perfected this type of scaffolding where players use the powers they have to defeat challenges to earn experience points...which they use to get better powers. (Some have equated this model to the variable-ratio schedule present in slot machines and other addictive systems.)

1— Many have argued that games need to push at these expectations and break free from the constraints and expectations we bring from traditional media, but that's another blog post...


Rhiannon said...

The non-square photo gets squished on main page; probably you want to do something about that . Actual entry takes a second to get in gear, but definitely ramped up and gave me a lot to think about. I'd be interested in playing Lost Cities in the future.

Rhiannon said...

Also, formatting issues with the captcha such that if you mess it up, the publish button disappears.