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How to create Drama in Games: Suspense and Substance - The New Dramaturgy Pt. 3

Part 3 of 4: How are game made emotionally engaging from moment to moment? This article breaks down the question and finds answers in the concepts of Suspense and Dramatic Substance.


Part 3 of 4
Parts [1]-[2]---[4]
In this week’s article we continue our in depth examination of the internal concepts our system of Dramaturgy, by asking one vital question:

How do you build the emotional charges that fuel Catharsis?

Or in other words

How are games made emotionally engaging moment to moment? 

The answer to this question, though complex, is extremely straightforward when it is  broken down correctly.

First we must nail down what  “emotionally engaging” means. It’s what we tend to call experiences that involve any of our emotions be they fear, anger, joy, or sadness etc. But engagement involves more than simply evoking our emotions, it puts them at risk. When the outcome of an event is uncertain people will invest more emotion into it, be it when watching a close game of football, opening a pack of trading cards, or waiting to see if that certain someone will say yes to a date. When an experience combines caring and uncertainty our emotions flair and we become engaged in finding what happens next.

The formal term for this cocktail of emotion and circumstance is Suspense.

And the elements that generate suspense in games are called Dramatic Substance.

Dramatic substance can be broken down into five components:

  • Sense of Agency
  • Communication of Character
  • Creation of Complications
  • Play Integration
  • and Presentation

But before we get ahead of ourselves let’s first examine Suspense in more depth.


Mysterious box

Suspense is the emotional charge that fuels Catharsis.
Formally defined, Suspense is the set of emotions a player experiences when they are Invested in the Uncertain Outcome of Events. Suspense is our context is not tied to any specific emotion but instead describes the emotions a work evokes with a combination of Caring and Uncertainty.

Suspense is the emotional answer to the players question of “why should they care?”.


Consistent Suspense, in some form or another, is vital for creating an emotionally rewarding experience. It is what we use to evaluate the effectiveness of a Game’s Dramatic Substance. When we discuss Suspense in a Game we are measuring of how much the player cares, the emotions they experience, and the qualities of the uncertainty around it. Uncertainty is not the same as unpredictability, it describes a player's sense of possible outcomes. Even in somewhat predictable situations, the possibilities of different outcomes, like failure, places dramatic pressure on an event.

Suspense is a complex concept simply because there are so many ways to effectively create it. One does not need to understand the the theory behind Suspense in order to experience it or measure its effect. It is the visceral emotional engagement that hooks a player into a game and starts pulling them towards the climax. In order to further understand Suspense we need to discuss the Structures in a work that create it, its Dramatic Substance.

Dramatic Substance 

whats in the box?!

Dramatic Substance is the methods by which a game is told and as a result, how it creates suspense. It is the bulk of a games structure. A game with strong Dramatic Substance intrinsically generates Suspense. Due to its vital and complex nature I have broken this element  into Five Key Principles.

  • Sense of Agency: informs the player of the freedoms and responsibilities they have.
  • Communication of Character: gives the player the reasons to be invested.
  • Creation of Complication: generates interesting events to create uncertainty.
  • Play Integration: incorporates the plot into the gameplay decisions.
  • Presentation: represents the content outside of gameplay.

Before we delve into specifics we need to discuss how the principles interrelate to create Suspense. These concepts are deeply interlinked and overlapping, as a result their success at generating Suspense is determined by their Sum Dramatic Weight, this means that a Game is able to fall short in some of these specific areas as long as its total Dramatic Substance is enough to create suspense for the players. This demonstrates how wildly different games can all be equally emotionally engaging.

All five components contribute to creating both the
Caring and Uncertainty that evoke the feelings of suspense.

Dramatic Substance Diagram
(Pop the balloon, create suspense)

Sense of Agency: is the player’s sense of control, responsibility, and freedom within the game. This principle is entirely unique to Games. Because other media are intrinsically passive, the audience lives vicariously through the actions and choices of the main characters. But because of their active nature, Games need to provide players with a perception of agency for themselves rather than relying on passive identification with characters.

The perception of choice and responsibility is able to create an innate sense of investment and uncertainty. These are the key things that are required to generate Suspense. The key to this concept is in the term itself, since, the player’s feelings of suspense is completely independent of their actual agency, instead it is dependent on how much agency they feel that they have.

Linear games are able to maintain this important perception by creating the illusion of agency. Inversely Non-Linear games can destroy this perception the player is not provided with an accurate sense of the agency they do have. In either case a game’s  Sense of Agency needs to feel contiguous, meaning that any radical shift in the player’s perceived agency should be justified in the games context or it will risk breaking the player’s “suspension of disbelief” of their control over the game world. Cutscenes are a common causes for such a break.

Communication of Character: is the processes that the player is informed about the qualities of a Game’s Elements. Character in this context extends far beyond the “people” in the story. Strictly defined, Character is  the aspects of Game Elements that are separate from the player. People, places, objects, organizations, worlds, etc. if an element is a “thing” in the game it will have character. In order for the player to experience Suspense they must care about the elements involved in the stories events and by extension, those events uncertain outcomes. The player must empathize, sympathize, or be generally invested in a game’s world and its inhabitants for a story to have impact and that is impossible without proper communication.

In order to for a player to empathize with something or someone it must be at least partially separate from the player. This is why I have worded the definition of character to include: “aspects of Game Elements that are separate from the player”. In other words to have a strong sense of character for an agent it must be at least partially separate from the player, even if the player controls it, in order for it  to be empathized with.

Empathy, identification, sympathy, and even negative responses like hatred or rivalry are fundamentally about separation. They are about bridging or maintaining the gaps created by differences. In order to create those differences a game’s characters must be distinct from the player, and in order for those differences to have emotional impact they need to be communicated in a way for the player to understand.  

We are focusing so much on the communication of character instead of the “characters” themselves in criticism precisely because the communication is what truly dictates emotional effectiveness. A character is only what the player perceives them to be, the vividness of their backstory or thoughts is worthless if the player is not able to experience them in some way. This paradigm also reflects how nearly any character can be empathized with given the right context and telling, just look at the “heroes” of works like Breaking Bad or The Godfather for a perfect example of how anti-heroes can be made compelling if they are allowed to be understood. Games constantly go beyond simple explicit and direct exposition, In Games visuals, gameplay, music, and level design are all capable of communicating the qualities of character in wild and compounding ways. Focusing on the end result of what makes it to the player, allows us to objectively evaluate the countless ways that character can effectively be communicated in Games.

Creation of Complication: is the process of constructing adversity, obstacles, or reversals of circumstance for the Agents in a Game. Complication is what brings about the “uncertain events” that are vital to Suspense. In a Game Complications can mean anything from the enemies in a level, the puzzles that need to be solved, to a character suddenly revealing his betrayal. The specifics of the Complications are not important as long as they create the necessary friction of Uncertainty needed to evoke Suspense.

This Principle is both subtle and complex simply because it is so broad. Complications can come from a player’s own decisionmaking, the actions of other players, and the game itself. And Complications themselves can have internal aesthetic qualities that can be made to resonate with a Game’s specific Idiom. For example:

  • Halo creates complications that resonate with its core aesthetics of action and thrill by shoving the player into dangerous and challenging combat situations.

  • Myst gives its players obtuse and mechanical puzzles that resonate with its internal sense of mystery and complexity.

  • Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney uses absurd character driven plot twists to create complications that reflect the comedic, narrative focused style.

Complications act as the catalyst that enables Suspense. The Uncertainty created by Complications will only effectively lead to Suspense if the player can become invested through the other elements of Dramatic Substance. And what types of Complications will be most effective are entirely dictated by the contexts created by each game’s mechanics and story.

Play Integration: is the process of encoding the emotions and dramatic contexts of the story into Play. Formally defined, Play is the willful interaction with systems and mechanics in an emotionally stimulating way. Once again the wording of these definitions are very important. This formal definition of play removes the requirement for explicit goals while focusing on the emotional component that separates play from other types of pragmatic interactions with mechanics.  

Video Games at their core are a Mechanical Medium in the same way Films are a Visual Medium, each system is the primary way that each medium communicates with its audience. This is an impossible to ignore property of Games, separating story from gameplay risks breaking the player’s Sense of Agency and/or creating emotional disconnects and contradictions. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as Ludonarrative Dissonance, it describes the negative feelings that occur when the explicit narrative of a game conflicts with the implicit narrative of a game’s play. Some prominent examples are:

  • In the Uncharted Series the main character Nathan Drake is portrayed as a good moral character who even explicitly states he is against killing and the use of guns. But the game is heavily reliant on gun violence to the point that the player will use Nathan to senselessly kill HUNDREDS of people over the course of a single game.

  • In Deus Ex Human Revolution, for 90% of the game, the player is allowed to use non-combative tactics to progress. But at the arbitrary demands of the plot the player will be periodically forced to confront a boss character in a direct one on one gunfight, that because of their playstyle decisions certain players will be left totally unprepared for. This is compounded by the fact that the play reinforces the idea that the protagonist Adam Jensen is a cunning, cautious, and calculated man, but the cutscenes will constantly having him making impulsive and poorly planned decisions simply because the plot would not move forward had he acted like the player would infer for him to act.

  • In Kingdoms of Amalur the explicit narrative describes how the player character is “Fateless” and as a result capable of making decisions that radically undermine the determinism of the world around him. Yet the actual structure of most of the game’s plots are excruciatingly linear, with no real sense of choice other than the order to complete the quest lines in.

In each of these examples the player’s experience is partially or completely derailed. Ludonarrative Dissonance has to potential to simultaneously break suspension of disbelief, violate sense of agency, and leave the player dissatisfied emotionally.

When Play and Plot become integrated they strongly reinforce the other elements of dramatic substance. The structured nature of mechanics naturally gives the player a meaningful Sense of Agency and the principal things that will inevitably be communicated are Character and Complications. This makes Play Integration possibly the most important principle in generating Suspense.

Presentation: refers to how effectively all of the non-play elements are represented in a game. This includes in-game art, Cutscenes, Music, In-game prose, User Interface and any other conceivable medium that can be subsumed into a game. Presentation should be evaluated on how it serves the emotional experience of a game as a whole instead of independent quality of each element.

Production Quality is not the same as Presentation. it is about how well the non-play elements serve the game as a whole and not how expensive or flashy they look. As a result a cheap independent game with a unified feel that serves the gameplay has better Presentation than a poorly constructed AAA game even though its Production Quality is higher. For example it can be argued that Flower or Journey, with their elegant minimalistic style, have  better Presentation than Final Fantasy 13 and its expensive but poorly directed cutscenes. Simply because Flower and Journey’s non-play elements better served their games as a whole. 

When executed well Presentation weakly reinforces other dramatic elements.

No game can be saved by the quality of its art and music alone, but by the same token a truly good game cannot completely ruined by its Presentation. The popularity of games like Day Z, Minecraft, Runescape, O Game, and Nethack demonstrate that good gameplay can overcome lackluster Presentation. Even though it is not as important as Play Integration, good Presentation is still a vital part of effectively creating Suspense. It is the first thing a player experiences about a game, it eases them into the world of the game and connects their other senses to the feelings of play.

Each of these elements need to be fully evaluated in order to bet the full picture of a Game’s Dramatic Substance. This gives a thorough and flexible lense to help us deconstruct and discuss the countless ways that Game’s are able to create emotional engagement.

Now that we have detailed Suspense and Dramatic Substance we are nearing a complete picture of Gamic Dramaturgy. Many of the aspects of Dramatic Substance are influenced by each game’s intrinsic style and the unique perspectives and goals that motivated its designers to create it in that way. This concept of Idiomatics is the last remaining piece of of our formal system.

In next weeks article we will examine the questions of what style is in game design and why it is important to understand the goals that motivate a games final design and structure.

Part 3 of 4 
Parts [1]-[2]---[4] 
Evan Hill can be contacted at:
[email protected]

Special Thanks to:
Alan Emrich (Victory Point Games)
Jeffery Yohalem (Ubisoft)
Brian Kindregan (Blizzard)
Gavin Jurgens-Fyhrie (Blizzard/Snail Games)
Justin Dye (Blizzard)
Michael Shaneman (
And to all of the other people who helped me edit and refine my ideas for this series over the past few months.

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