Tension and release form a cornerstone in all branches of art. Whether we're making movies, buildings, stories, songs, or games, these concepts are two sides of the same important coin. Creators use them to engage us in both obvious and subliminal ways, absorbing us emotionally. Without tension and release, artists from Shakespeare to Hendrix would have been at a complete loss.
We've all been exposed to theories on tension and release. We learn about the use of conflict in dramatic structure at an early age. Musicians study tension and release in their first scales and chord progressions, although the theory is less observable than in storytelling. And even as children we appreciate tension and release in architecture before we can consciously describe them. Indeed, all great creative works depend on good use of tension and release, and video games are no exception.
While "tension and release" sounds like the subject of a Farrelly Brothers movie, these concepts are absolutely valuable to the design process. Unfortunately, I rarely hear developers talk about this aspect of their projects. It's unfortunate because tension manifests itself as a unique and powerful force in games.
Such a fundamental theory deserves more discussion in our industry, so I'd like to take a look at games from the perspective of tension and release. The concept unifies approaches to all art forms, so I'll try to distill this aspect of game development in particular.
As a disclaimer, let me say that the use of these tools in games and other media is not groundbreaking in any way -- on the contrary, conflict is always at the forefront of developers' minds. My goal is only to draw some lines between games and other art forms, citing some examples and ultimately showing that this young industry knows what it's doing.
Also, I want to focus on usage specific to games. While most titles include elements of storytelling, music, cinematics, and architecture, these subsets don't reflect the interactive aspect of games. Since this portion truly sets games apart from other media, I'll try to concentrate on the gameplay implications of tension and release. There are aspects of game design that don't rely entirely on tension (character creation and upgrades, for example), but I'll focus on the areas I think are relevant.
No matter what arena you choose, tension is the state of mental or emotional strain. Conflict, stress, pressure, and anxiety are all ways to describe this very animal emotion. It usually has a negative connotation -- people generally try to keep their tension at a minimum.
Paradoxically, tension is a must-have in any artistic experience. People absolutely need it in order to enjoy a movie, book, or game. We all know that icky feeling at the end of a movie's second act, when everything is going great but we know something bad has to happen. Deep down we need that horrible thing to happen; we need our character to overcome it. It's the same with the rest of art -- tension is crucial.
The need for narrative conflict is common to younger and older audiences, too. It doesn't matter what form these struggles take -- just look at the different tension in shows from Thomas the Tank Engine to Lost and even Murder, She Wrote. Granted, these are clichéd examples that don't fully represent their audiences, but I think they demonstrate three completely different ways for building and releasing tension.
Thomas and his friends deal with emotional conflicts; the characters of Lost fight against themselves and nature; Jessica Fletcher is constantly entangled in murder investigations. These series may have dissimilar premises, tones, and viewers, but each episode relies on masterful use of tension and release to build and overcome conflict.
Along the same lines, let's look at three different games. God of War III, Warcraft III, and Team Fortress 2 are each highly rated titles without too much in common. However, all three games masterfully build and release tension in distinct ways.
The God of War franchise is built on players defeating a series of enemy encounters, each delimited by a period of exploration. The result is a carefully planned roller coaster of tension and release -- players build tension through platforming and being attacked, finally releasing that tension by defeating a group of enemies.
Warcraft III builds tension slowly, with most matches culminating in a climactic struggle. As players create and upgrade more enemies, they raise the stakes toward this final battle of annihilation.
Team Fortress 2
Different still is Team Fortress 2, which maintains a continually high degree of tension throughout each match. As players kill or are killed in specific skirmishes, the downtime during respawn and resupply provide the release from this tension, resulting in a more flexible experience of tension.
Here we see the real blessing of tension and release in video games. Where the audience can only watch the conflict in other art forms, players have the chance to influence the game's tension and release it through its mechanics. Interactive media is more than just choices; obviously choices need to result in tangible consequences. Tension and its release are two of these consequences, and they triumph in games because people respond to them emotionally. A game's goals propel the player through tension; the game's mechanics are the source of its release.