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Safety vs Tension

If you are not reading Jeff Tidball & Will Hindmarch’s fantastic blog, Gameplaywright, there is a small hole in your life that needs filling.

Will and Jeff routinely offer, as they say in the old country, thought-provoking shit. Today’s post by Jeff inspired by The Hurt Locker is no exception. He muses about the power of drama and tension to be had when we take the safety off of our characters’ lives.[1]

I’ve been working here and there on this Terminator resistance war-inspired story game (riffing off of a Grey Ranks hack) for a bit now, and now I feel like I understand what’s been missing. The characters weren’t enough enough immediate peril, so there was less tension. And I was pulling back from the “characters can easily, and quickly, die” punch because, well, I don’t know. Maybe because I felt like that would make for a shit story? (Though I don’t entirely buy that now, just trying to guess my past reasoning.)

In any case, “safety” and “tension” cannot co-exist. Sometimes it’s worth being reminded of this simple but often overlooked idea. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every moment has to be about characters living or dying. There are smaller stakes, and there are fates worse than death. But if our characters surely aren’t going to die, aren’t going to fail, aren’t going to pay a heavy price so that others may live, then any tension we describe is false. Heroism exists precisely when there is action in spite of no safety.

And it’s totally okay for my game to have sudden player-character death, since that sells the tension of a world inhabited by roaming killer robots. Of course, now I have to think about the design implications of this decision.[2]

– Ryan

[1] “Take the safety off of…” has, over the last few months, grown into a favorite phrase of mine.

[2] No, it’s not something that’s pre-empting Mythender or anything like that. I just like to tinker with ideas. I can’t not.

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4 Responses to Safety vs Tension

  1. JJ says:

    “And it’s totally okay for my game to have sudden player-character death, since that sells the tension of…” Keep on the Borderlands for 1st level characters. You really appreciate a character that survives thorough hardship. It also makes their death all the more poingant if it happens after any amount of play.

  2. Fred Hicks says:

    The perception of safety and tension cannot coexist. I think this is a subtle but important difference from your statement.

    I perceive guns as dangerous and unsafe. I see a soldier standing there holding a gun, even if the safety is clicked on on that gun, it does not feel safe. I experience tension even though the risk of that gun going off in my face is minimal.

    I feel like there’s some of this at work in DRYH. DRYH definitely has a point past which you ARE in a potential immediate danger of death. But I think the perception of the zone of risk takes up a greater area than the actual zone of risk, because the mechanics lay out pretty directly how quickly your fortunes could change.

    So I think you can slightly insulate against capricious sudden character death, while still putting sudden character death on the table, and still get your tension benefit.

  3. Carl Rigney says:

    Squadmates as ablative armor, if that isn’t too Carry-ish?

    I’d suggest that safety and tension aren’t either/or, they’re yin and yang.

    I’d also take a look at Bliss Stage, which has a nice mix of tense piloting scenes and interludes that can build or relieve tension.

    I thought the recent movie “Paranormal Activity” was very good at building tension, although thankfully it didn’t do the thing I was fearing it would do, but the shadow of that thing was itself a source of tension. Tension in the audience builds as they come to understand that the characters’ perception off safety is badly flawed. I think something similar could be done in a game.

    I am not a fan of sudden PC death; DitV really crystallized for me the power of players owning their own character’s death. But some players dig the bolt out of the blue; Mike Montesa could probably dig into that far better than I could.

    This paragraph would contain my usual examination of the question in terms of Agency and Experience, Mirror Neurons, and OODA loops, but this comment is already long enough, so

  4. Jesse Burneko says:

    Hey Ryan,

    Claudia Cangini from Narrativa a couple months ago asked me to write an article based on my Play Passionately stuff so that she could have it translated and published at convention over in Italy. In that article I talked about the difference between Drama and Tension. I defined Drama as mostly being about character decisions and actions: grand speeches, sudden betrayal, bold lies, jumping off a cliff, etc. And I defined Tension as: trepidation over a possible outcome. The actual fear that things might not go as expected.

    In my experience gamers value Drama and are usually quite adverse to Tension. I’ve noticed that the two biggest safeties that gamers rely on are Genre and Character Archetypes. They use those two things in various combination to guarantee certain outcomes and thus avoid Tension. Well, this is a set-piece action scene in my martial arts movie so of course I’m going to win. It would be “bad for the story” if I didn’t win. Similar justifications are used for failure as well. This is a noir story and it’s early on, so I should get beat up a lot.

    I recently saw the film Michael Clayton. And what I loved about it was that I had no idea what “kind of” movie I was watching. It looked like a legal thriller but had so many “genre” assumptions placed at awkward angles. I felt incredibly unsafe in how I wanted things in the film to turn out. I literally had no idea how the film was going to end, until it ended. I didn’t even feel comfortable until the credit sequence had actually faded to black. At any moment it could go in any direction good or bad and still stay true to itself. That uncertainty and uncomfortableness and, well, Tension is what I want out of an RPG.

    And I have found out that a great deal of people don’t. A great number of people want to know that we’re in an Action Film and I’m the Plucky Side-Kick and thus feel safe and secure in knowing (a) what their role/function is and (b) knowing that that their ability to enact that role with the expected outcome is secure.

    Jesse