Welcome to another week of Waypoint Weeklies! Our topic for this week iiiiis…
In video games, as with film and literature, moments of high tension serve to drive the person experiencing the medium forward and deeper into the experience itself. With video games, there are moments that stand out in the immersive experience because the tension provokes a physical reaction in real life. Usually this can be found in horror games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Alien: Isolation, but there are also moments of tension in stealth games like Dishonored or even in the more time-based puzzles that can be found in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Consider all the games you’ve played where the stakes have been high and the grip on your controller has gotten a little sweaty. Which moments stand out the most in your memory? What titles? What genres?
I am heavily against giving David Cage games credit for anything but the “driving up the interstate the wrong way” sequence from Heavy Rain made me drop my controller at least once
I’m currently playing through the Resident Evil 2002 remake and this game is just all sorts of good tension. Which is strange for me as I do not like horror games outside of multiplayer ones like Dead By Daylight and Depth normally.
I think it has to do with the game knowing that tension really is the best form of horror and not just jump scare after jump scare like some games are. Just the random health of zombies so you never know how many bullets it’s going to really take and if you are going to need to back peddle into a new camera angle is great! Couple that with the amazing audio design and it’s just a really good tense horror game. Walking into a new room/area and having no audio but you can hear a weird noise you have not heard before is so good. It reminds me of those times as a kid when you are home alone and you stayed up much later then you know you should have and you’ve been reading creepy pasta or SCP entries and then you hear a weird noise from the house settling or something.
A recent game that comes to mind is Soma, which is probably my favorite horror game. There’s a sequence mid game where you have to walk along the surface in the deep sea. The darkness is oppressive, and you only have these beacons to keep you on your path, and while I’m not claustrophobic, I felt like the darkness was actually trying to suffocate me. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to a panic attack while playing a game.
I haven’t played PUBG since it hit 1.0 and I can’t point to a specific time it was very tense. That said those first few weeks I had with PUBG the matches more often than not would resolve (by resolve I mean I died) in a flurry of tension amplified by having to use stereo headphones to determine the direction of footsteps and doors opening. Finding a room to ambush them in and usually still getting got anyway.
Also coming across another person in the DayZ mod not knowing if they were a highwayman or didn’t want any trouble.
The first few matches of PUBG were definitely some of the most tense sweaty hands gaming experiences I have had! I feel like I have had tense Apex matches but nothing has ever really quite caught the “is there someone in this apartment complex with me” moments of PUBG.
I also have a couple non-traditional answers, especially because these aren’t moments built into the games themselves per se.
In basically any rhythm game, if I’m ever going through a particularly challenging song and I notice that I currently have a full combo (haven’t missed any notes so far) a good ways through the song, I’ll get unreasonably nervous and tense up until I get to the of the song (or more likely, until I end up dropping the full combo )
A very similar thing happens in fighting games when I’m playing against a tough opponent and it’s the final round and we’re both low on health. Things get extremely tense for a few brief moments as we both try and fail to land a finishing blow on the other, and have to take a moment to reevaluate our next actions. Then, more often than not, all my composure goes out the window, I choke, and do something reckless or continue to hold block a little too long and then get trounced. Very tense, but I love it.
- Those Apex matches where you’re in one of the final very small rings, there’s only one or two other squads left, but no one knows where anyone else is
- Monster Hunter when you’re down to your final life and that “5 minutes remaining” warning flashes onscreen
- pretty much any boss in any Souls game lol
Red Dead Redemption spoilers below:
While many parts of RDR have not held up I still think the final chapter is excellent. When you get to finally go home the missions become things like “go to the store” and “go hunting with your son”. They’re pleasantly low stakes, non-violent, and allow you to experience what it is you spent the last few dozen hours fighting for. But I was always tense when playing them. Because those dozen hours had been spent doing ostensibly simple tasks that quickly spiral out of control I kept expecting these tasks to go the same way. It was a genuinely affecting experience.
I’ve been playing Bloodborne recently and that game is like Tense Moments: The Game. To call out one specifically, I had a hell of a time with the Shadows of Yharnam bossfight. After several very unsuccessful attempts, I had finally gotten two of the three Shadows down and my heart was racing as I was trying to get the third one. Then he started doing some wild shit like summoning big snakes out of the ground and it was terrifying. But I eventually pulled through and finished it!
I have a second answer that is a bit of an odd one, but when I played Assassin’s Creed Odyssey I had a moment where a ship I sank had a treasure chest on it that I marked with my bird friend so I was watching it slowly sink into the water. I thought “well I should just dive in a grab it real quick”. It turns out, Kassandra dives at about the same speed that the chest sinks so I never really got any closer to it and, hey, it turns out that diving into the depth of the ocean is really scary! I had an item equipped that let me breathe underwater so that wasn’t an issue but looking down and seeing nothing but dark blue nothingness and being down far enough that I couldn’t see any sunlight when I looked up… it was scary! I felt like something was going to grab me and drag me down further or something even though I had played the game for dozens of hours and knew that wasn’t a thing. I didn’t do much more diving or treasure-chasing after that.
Most Bloodborne bosses got my heart racing, but none to the level of Micolash. I was down to the final room, one hit from death, and no more blood vials (grinding for these sucks, worse mechanic in the game IMO). I clinched it, but the worst part was getting back to a lantern to not lose my blood echoes. Tense!!!
Once the final winter storm starts in Frostpunk. You can still frantically try to do things during that time but you’re pretty much locked into seeing how many can survive in the city you’ve built. Not a feeling you’d expect in a city builder.
Oh yeah, the build up for that moment in Frostpunk is fantastic and once it hits you’re just sitting on nails hoping your prep holds up.
For me the closest things that come to mind recently are:
Being the last survivor alive and trying to escape in Dead By Daylight. I don’t normally find that game all that scary, but trying to avoid the killer, especially after the hatch is closed, is a nail-biting experience. Incredibly rewarding to get out, though.
The final minutes of my first ultimate raid clear in FFXIV. The stakes here weren’t particularly high, as I didn’t have much to lose outside of a relatively small bit of progress, but just the feeling of being close to the end of a months-long progression grind where a small mistake could send you to the beginning of a nearly 20-minute boss fight (and also disappointing the other 7 people on my team) was real nerve wracking.
Playing games competitively growing up probably dulled a lot of my nerves when it comes to feeling tense playing a video game; when there’s no money or PC parts at the end everything feels like it has a bit less pressure. The closest thing since has probably been Trials in Destiny because at least there’s some in-game loot on the line. I’ve also always believed that Battle Royales replicating that feeling to some degree for everybody is the big reason they took off.
Raid bosses in WoW were always fun, too. There were always those first kill moments where the boss you’d been attempting all night would be at 1% health and raid members would start dropping and a priest would run up and hit it with their staff or something; sometimes it worked and sometimes you wiped and had to try again.
For single player stuff I always think the answer is horror games that don’t give you a weapon. The whole lead up to the big jump scare in P.T. is the best example to me. They do a lot of work to earn it and most people are at the end of their rope when it finally happens. Something like the intro to the first Dead Space comes to mind as well, though then you get a gun and the tension fades a bit. A well done invincible baddy like Mr. X can work to the same effect, though it is possible to go overboard there.
The first time I fought a human controlled invader in Demons Souls, my anxiety levels spiked through the roof. Fighting humans in this kind of environment was brand new to me. I remember the first time quite well, was on the long rampart that is constantly divebombed by a dragon. We met on one of the rooftops not being firebombed and had a duel which was 50% fighting my bodies stupid anxiety responses.
There is simply nothing in video games more tense than the shit you go through in DiRT Rally. There’s just something about rally racing that gets my blood pumping. The uneven terrain that could betray me at any second, the mere inches away from certain doom I am at all times, and the violent bounces and shakes of your car barely holding together, it all channels your body’s fear and anxiety on to a singular focus of getting through unscathed. You may only be going 40 kph, but at night, on gravel, through a thick forest, you may as well be breaking the sound barrier.
Nothing like two people at really high %s in Smash Bros trying to land the final hit
The first one that came to mind is getting through Death Metal (one of the bosses) in Crypt of the Necrodancer playing as Aria. Death Metal is, for me, the hardest song in the game because it is has the highest BPM - and Aria cannot miss a single beat, or she dies. I could reliably get past every other boss in her run, so I always was sweating when he showed up as my most consistent run killer.
I don’t love the game but TLoU2’s first half has this incredible, stomach-churning dread and tension to it that works really well. You’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop, especially during that first introduction to the Seraphites. Teeth-grinding shit.
For all of that game’s narrative problems, I think the tone is 100% on point for the vibe they’re trying to evoke. Especially when played on hard, that first half had me wound up and jumping at every sound and movement. It helps that the game actively goes out of its way to account for the tactics that were easily abused in the first game, and to disrupt the steady rise and fall of action that Naughty Dog games generally hew to.
It made me feel tense and jumpy and bad, and now I have some distance from it I can respect that as an achievement in horror game design.
I’ve been thinking about this thread all day trying to pick the right answer. There are lots of games that threaten a big time loss if you fail — PUBG fits that category, Dark Souls can too, a lot of roguelikes (especially something like Enter the Gungeon).
But the thing holding me back from all of those is that… at a certain level of practice and skill, some of that tension dissipates. And I wanted to think of a game that can create tension no matter how good you are at it. That is to say, games that ask you to take a calculated risk with the full possibility of failure, with (potentially extreme) loss waiting behind that failure. Not something entirely RNG, because that’s no fun, but one where skill doesn’t reduce those moments.
And so I thought about the one XCOM Ironman run I ever tried, and to those moments where the game tells you that you have a 93% chance of hitting a target that otherwise would clearly kill an important character you’ve invested so much time and energy into — and I think that’s my answer. I honestly don’t think any scripted moment in a game has come near a lot of the moments I’ve had in my various XCOM runs, even the ones I could save scum my way out of.