The Difference between Fear and Tension in Game Design

Role-playing survival game is willing to take risks

Better late than never I always say, I couldn’t come up with a horror theme post in time for Halloween, but you can always find inspiration if you look hard enough. One comment I hear whenever we bemoan the lack of great horror titles these days, is people saying that difficult games can be scary. A lot of people have said that they were scared while playing Demon’s Souls due to the challenge and penalty of death. However, during my entire time spent playing the game, I never felt even an iota of being scared and I think people are confusing the feeling of tension with fear.

Tension in games usually comes from the feeling that you are being tested beyond your skill level and forced to brave through it. If you have ever played a challenging game where you can just feel yourself sweating on the controller and your heart racing, that is tension. One of the reasons why we get a feeling of accomplishment playing difficult games is that we are rising up and overcome a challenge. Now, sweaty hands and increase blood pressure are also prevalent in horror titles, but the reasons for these feelings are different.

Good horror is about uncertainty and forcing the player to ask questions like “when am I going to be attacked?”, “can I survive the next fight?”, “what’s behind that door?” and so on. If you noticed, that 2nd question is also in challenging games and is one of the prime causes of tense gameplay. However, challenging games are about a constant assault, leaving the player with no time to reflect or feel fear.

Horror titles work best at building up to horror and surprising the player and the main difference between the two comes down to the results. After surviving a tense battle in a challenging game, the player feels happy and has that feeling of accomplishment from earlier. In a horror title however, the player should still be feeling nervous and questioning their resolve at continuing, any sense of accomplishment should be small and overwhelmed by the knowledge that there is more to come.

Recently while playing The Binding of Isaac, I had what could be described as a tense moment. I had one of the strongest upgrades in the game from the new patch early in the game, but at the cost of only having one heart of health total. Meaning that once I hit the 75% mark I could only take one hit from any enemy and then it would be game over. I didn’t think that I would beat the game but continued anyway and through close calls I made it to the point where I was lucky enough to find two health upgrades. Still with enemies doing one full heart of damage I was getting hurt and when I reached the final, final, final, final boss I only had one heart left and a boss with a full health meter to kill. Somehow I managed to win and afterwards I felt my heart beating again.

While I was tense, I was not scared at all during my time with Isaac, as I knew what had to be done, but wasn’t sure if I was capable of doing it. Tension is the byproduct of being scared, but tension alone does not make a situation scary. Ultimately, the success of a great challenging game should make the player puff out their chest with accomplishment and feel awesome, while a great horror game should make them huddle in the corner in a fetal position.

Happy Belated Halloween,

Josh Bycer