The Boredom of Pure Action
Often writers and designers will confuse increasing tension with “pure action”. They will think that the more guns explode (the more swords are swung, the more people die etc...) the more tension we have. This is wrong. It is often the case that such scenes will only equal to progress in time, but as we've seen already, progress in time does not necessarily translate into a rise in plot. Actually in many cases it is an invitation to boredom and frustration. Consider the following example:
An ill-minded man with a butcher knife in his hand secretly enters the bathroom of a young woman which, unaware of all this, is taking a shower. With a sudden move the man opens the shower curtain and frantically stabs the young woman to death. Just as he is finished, he realizes that a neighbor, an old prostitute, has witnessed the scene. He immediately goes to the neighboring home and kills her. Just as he is finished, he realizes that another neighbor, a middle-aged nun, has witnessed the scene. He immediately goes to the neighboring home and kills her. Just as he is finished, he realizes that another neighbor, a young cheerleader, has witnessed the scene. He immediately goes to the neighboring home and kills her. Just as he is finished, he realizes that another neighbor, an old cleaning lady, has witnessed the scene. He immediately goes to the neighboring home and kills her.We have a lot of “pure action” in this sequence. However, instead of giving a feeling of progress, after the murder of the first eyewitness the action feels like it marks time. The reason for this is that the action after the murder of the first eyewitness does not cause a rise in plot and brings stagnation to the story. The action causes progress on the horizontal axis (Time) only, but does not seem to contribute much to progress on the vertical axis (Plot). Expressed through a graphic, the storyline looks like this:
A lot of games seem to suffer from this problem. The repeating action does not contribute to a rise in the plot . However, the problems that come when action does not help increasing tension get worse when the resulting stagnation is combined with a badly designed reward schedule. In that case, not just the story feels frustrating, but also the achievements that we unlock through repeated action fail to feel rewarding. This can have various reasons:
- the reward feels too insignificant or does not translate in any usefulness in regard to overcoming the game's challenge
- the system that prolongs to get the rewards feels arbitrary, inorganic to the conflict and/or biased towards the business model
- the reward is in a too far future and feels relatively insignificant because we can't see the immediate result of our actions.
Increasing tension is a very important quality of any good game. I tried to point out in this article how this quality requires player actions to be articulated under a causal chain that gradually brings more complexity to an initial problem. Motivational mechanics like reward schedules are an important part of games, however, their usefulness will be achieved to the degree the designer manages to shape them into a narratively compelling experience.
 The problem we describe here is not to be confused with another problem called 'weak story'. A weak story fails to produce tension because it fails to establish a conflict at all. Hence, the feeling that the story just marks time is there right from the beginning and lasts until the end of the story (if anybody ever plays it that far). Stagnation however can occur over certain sequences despite the otherwise very strong presence of conflict. The problem can be fixed by removing the scenes that cause stagnation. In the case of weak story however, the effort to fix the story must go into the creation of a stronger conflict, which is an intervention on a much more fundamental level.
Altug Isigan is a scholar at the Eastern Mediterranean University, Department of Radio-TV and Film, in sunny Famagusta, Cyprus, where he is writing a dissertation on narrative in games. You can read more of his work at his blog, the Ludosphere.