Sitrep: The pleasure and pressure of tension in games


By on October 30, 2013 at 4:36 pm

Right now I am eating a bag of Blair’s Death Rain Habanero Pepper Cauldron Cooked Potato Chips. I am sweating, man.

The bag itself has “FEEL ALIVE!” down the side and a picture of a little thermometer all the way in the red with “OMG!” written under it. That is how Blair has decided these chips measure on the temp scale: Oh My God. Blair is an honest and fair man. I started seeing through time a while ago. I also started thinking: When was the last time a game made me sweat this much?

People sweat for all kinds of reasons, like if they’re combing their hair pretty fast or sitting next to me on the bus. So I feel this context of sweating must needs be quantified: Tension, baby. The pleasure and pressure of tension. That’s what we’re talking here.

In gaming terms, I s’pose most will instantly equate tension with being about to fail something really difficult for the umpteenth time before being shunted miles back to the last save thing. It’s a complex series of rapid-fire, opposing emotions uniquely evoked by video games, far as I see it. Nowhere else can you be pitted against something only just surmountable that taunts you in escalating degrees via inconspicuous threat of repetition.

There’ve been a litany of platformers satirising the hell out of exactly in recent times. My fave is I Wanna Be The Guy: Gaiden.

Funny as they are, they miss the #realtalk of it. Thing about tension is that for it to be all it can be (ie. you being a sweaty mess), is that it must be built. It builds because there is something at stake (ie. you being a huge loser). Infinite lives do not glorious vidya nerves create. Wolverine health bars, nope, even more generous aim assist, nope nope. I can’t actually remember the last time this gen I sweated it up in this peculiarly gamey way.

It’s not just about games getting softer so as not to scare away all the commercial money, either. It’s about games being serially uninventive in coming up with heavy scenes that give you the sense you’re stepping out onto a tightrope strung between two skyscrapers.




It’s something Hideo Kojima occasionally opines into the ether too, albeit not in random haiku form. At one stage he actually wanted to make a game where, if you died once, that was it. Back to the menu screen with you, LOSER. Now he’s thought about it some more, he’s probably also decided that after you die once, your copy of the game itself explodes inside your rig and ruins everything you hold dear.

Now, that’s tense. But also annoying. The high risk should not be, “You messed up, so back to an ages-away save or even the very start” but maybe something much more integrated and personal. Maybe if you died horrendously in a gunfight the game all of a sudden stops being an FPS and becomes a life sim where you experience the recovery of an alcoholic war widow? Hey where’s everyone going.

7 comments (Leave your own)

I think I got as far as the first paragraph and went “my new life mission is to get me some packets of those chips!” …I’ll read the rest later after I clean up the drool and finish googling like mad for them.

Toby McCasker


Hire me to seamlessly and accidentally advertise your service or product


Hmm some of the more ridiculous achievements that require 100% perfection or luck in some games still bring about this emotion for me.
Payday 1 – 145+ difficulty, A map like Green Bridge or Slaughterhouse did this for me over and over until I finally got my Gold Masks Legitimately :D Good tense times!

I remember back in the day in Final Fantasy 10 dodging those 200 lightning bolts in a row with precise timing for some ultimate weapon (no saving/checkpoints allowed), was pretty stressed out toward the end.

While not a ‘life-or-death big deal’ situation; I’ve recently found myself tensing up as I break a 100+ combo in Batman Origins, stressing out for the next blow to counter or whatnot.

Ultimately though I guess something like Heavy Rain (or to a lesser extent the recent Beyond Two souls) plays into this with no actual ‘failure states’ throughout the game – yet all your failures are documented and have consequences, with the former game having several main characters able to permanently die on you if you’re not careful. Again with no ‘game over’ screen, the game just recognizes you failed and forces you to live with your actions which makes the action sequences subliminally more stressful than they otherwise would be in any other standard game. An opportunity I was dissapointed at that Telltale’s Walking Dead Games haven’t emulated to be honest.


We can thank the rise of casual gaming and the diffusion of the gamer demographic into the idiotic fumbling masses for this.

Kids these days wouldn’t be able to finish half of the games we conquered on the Megadrive. Check this soundtrack for inducing tension (and tachycardia):


Toby McCasker:

Hire me to seamlessly and accidentally advertise your service or product

I’m with vcat, when are you reviewing the packet of chips?


Stealth games like Thief (where you don’t have superman vision and need to rely on your senses and luck to succeed) were tense experiences.

System Shock 1&2…

Any ARPG with hardcore mode and desync issues (Yes PoE, I’m looking at you). Or XCOM classic ironman where every shot at your guys is a heart in mouth moment early on.

Most other tense scenarios are related to games where there are limited resources and you have to carefully husband your dwindling stash of “whatever”. Metro LL ranger hardcore mode was good for this (although resources weren’t as big an issue as the silent no kill playthrough conversely is much easier than trying to fight your way through). Getting stuck above ground without enough bullets to kill a demon that’s in your way and on your last 30 seconds of air filter = tense… =)

Nasty Wet Smear

You know what, I like my video games to be fairly relaxing most of the time…

… *Harsh whisper* But I want those God damned chips!

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