Employing Creative Suspense In Game Design

By Yilai Zhao [01.28.20]

"There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it." - Alfred Hitchcock

The "Miyamoto check"

As a gamer, my biggest drive to start a new game and continue playing is the curiosity. Wondering about a new world, the fate of the protagonist or even just the look of the next level, I keep myself seated in front of the TV for hours. The secret ingredient that leads to curiosity and keep it at maximum is what I think is called "suspense".

The "suspense" here could be implemented in various forms and aspects, from the smallest SFX to the biggest story progression. What triggers me to start thinking about this is a GDC talk given by Mr. Eiji Aonuma about the Zelda series, in which Aonuma explained about the "Miyamoto check" during the Nintendo games production, which covers all kinds of small details in the game.

One example is the "bomb" mechanic in Zelda series: a hidden path or secret will reveal if the player detonates a bomb at a specific location - and a "puzzle solved" chime will be played to inform player their success. Originally, the chime is being played right after the bomb's explosion. But Mr. Miyamoto would not greenlight this implementation, as the secret or path was still being covered by the bomb smoke, player wouldn't know if it's a bingo before the smoke disappears. If the game informs player before they realize by themselves, it will destroy the "reality". So in the final product, the sound effect is only played when the secret is visible.

In my opinion, beside the "reality" part, this loop of the mechanic is a perfect play of "suspense". Sometimes the result could be told as there will be an extruded rock or a crack on the wall, so the player is kinda confident that they get the right place - but in some cases, there's no obvious visual hint, and the player is totally curious if there's some secret behind the wall. Their curiosity peaks at the moment right before the chime actually being played, so it's very important to not spoil it by showing off the result too early, even if it's just several frames of the FX animation !

Similar details could be found everywhere in Nintendo games, like in Animal crossing series the player has to do a mini-quiz before getting a new "haircut with surprise", and in Mario kart series the item roulette has to roll before showing the result, although the item is already predetermined.

However not every game pays the same amount of attention to these kind of details - even the good ones. "Landstalker: The treasures of king nole" is a game from the same era of "A link to the past", which was also one of my favorite games on the Sega Genesis. Its pseudo-3D open world was a great shock to me back then. But on the detail level, this game lacks some polish especially on the feedback part.

In a lot of situations in this game, the player "achieves something without realizing it". In the picture below, player needs to jump onto the switch to move a platform which is not only outside of the view, but also invisible before the switch is turned on, no hint other than a short sound effect. Player has no clue what they just triggered until they walk over to the top left corner of the map. There's no tease to the player about the objective, hence no anticipation from them too.


The prologue to horror

Comparing to jump scares, psychological stress brings more impact to the player. Resident evil 1 was a good example of it. Due to technical restrictions, this game used fixed camera in every pre-rendered 2D scene in order to achieve 3D gameplay while maintaining visual quality. Rather than a compromise, the game has actually made the most out of this design by optimizing the camera placement.

The most memorable moment of that game for me wasn't the dogs breaking through the windows, but the "shotgun room". When I entered it for the first time, it was a peaceful space with no enemies nor BGM, but the camera brings tremendous anxiety to me: it's shot from above, showing suspicious old bloodstain-like traces all over the walls. I felt being observed and pressured, but nothing seemed to be happening.

With a question mark in my head, I took the shotgun and left the inner room - and here comes the climax, the famous dropping ceiling trap ! This time, the camera changes to a direction where I could see the ceiling. Suddenly everything was explained, the bloodstains were from previous victims, and the camera was indeed observing me, as the trap itself !

In fact, the trap could be within the same room where the item was (like in later RE games), and the ceiling could still be hidden if the camera keeps a normal small pitch angle. But without the well-thought configurations, the player would have less bad conscience while stealing the shotgun, and the trap becomes a plain surprise instead of a "punishment", the player wouldn't need to experience that 1 minute full of anxiety and doubts !

My favorite part in The legend of Zelda: ocarina of time is the well in Kakariko village. Not only the creepy bottom of the well level itself, ever since I visited it the first time as child Link, I kept thinking about what's underneath till I managed to drain the water quite late during the walkthrough. The cherry on top here is the warning message beside the well indicating it's "Dark, narrow and scary", which is supposed to be a prohibition that usually works in an opposite way.


Similarly in adventure game "Dark seed 2", the protagonist claimed from the beginning that  "he's afraid of the closet since the childhood that monsters might come out from it", but the player can only access the closet almost at the end of the walkthrough. The question of whether there is something behind that door is hanging there all the time. It makes the protagonist's home - which should supposedly be the sanctuary in his world, the most suspicious place.

The "Rainbow cake" world

When is a toy the most desirable to a kid ? When it's at the shop's window display. "Visible but not completely accessible" is a powerful weapon when it comes to keeping the player's curiosity. In my opinion, the open world in the Legend of Zelda series is more interesting than other games, because of its special configuration. I'd like to compare it to a "Rainbow cake": you don't know what's inside until you cut it open.

Let's take the Lost woods area in Ocarina of time for example, it's a location where the player has access at the early stage of the game. When I visited it for the first time, I saw it packed with all kinds of information and gameplay elements: the distinctive background music that alters its volume all the time, a confusing crossroad maze, a strange yard with some cut tree trunks, a passage leading to "Goron city" but blocked by some boulders, a water pond with a canal at the bottom which is too deep to reach, some out-of-place single rocks that seems to be hiding something... Every part is like a layer of the cake, with a unique color and taste, that makes me want to try out one after another !

Although I knew I couldn't solve all of the mysteries at once, I came back from time to time to check what I could do more with the riddles. It has also become a hub area later as it enables shortcut to Goron city and Zora's river once I obtained more abilities, which promoted me to re-visit more often. Comparing to this, some other open world games (even Breath of the Wild from the franchise, for example) might have larger and more vivid worlds, I feel there's a lack of depth within them - it's large and looks delicious, but it's just an XXL sized "Flammkuchen". Once I've finished a certain objective at one area, I lost the urge to come back again.


Above are some long time thoughts during my gaming experience. Although there are many factors that would define a good game, "suspense" is an element that could be either subtle or re-defines gameplay structure, but it for sure could influence the player experience from the psychological aspect.

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