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  • Employing Creative Suspense In Game Design

    - Yilai Zhao
  • "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.


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