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Shark in the Water

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A few years back, a friend of mine asked me to take a look at the AFI thesis film he was producing. The film, which I won’t name here, was visually striking and everything it had set out to be: a stark turn-of-the-century thriller/horror set against a Western pioneer backdrop. It centered around a girl who suspects her father was behind her mother’s unexpected death, and who must walk the line between protecting her siblings and not alerting her father that she suspected foul play. It had all the right elements for a tense and terse bit of storytelling.

Except there was no tension. And that was a cause of concern, and the reason my friend wanted my help. Why wasn’t the story working? Information was parsed out and released incrementally, so the viewer was never ahead of or behind the action. The production design had a Sweeny Toddish edge to it, very Tim Burtony, which fit the mood, and the actors shined in their roles. Everything the film needed to build tension was there in spades. So what was the problem?

We watched it a few times before it hit me. “There’s no shark in the water!” I blurted. He stared at me blankly. I imitated a shark. He still didn’t get it.

Jaws is widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. It created the summer blockbuster. But more importantly, it showcased how powerful a storytelling tool that tension is. Any time the story went anywhere near the water, the audience got anxious and uncomfortable. Even before that two note cello riff kicked in, pulses surged and neck hair stood at attention. And it was all because—even when we didn’t see him—we knew there was a shark in the water. We knew he was there somewhere, lurking just below the surface, waiting for us to relax for just one second.

That atmosphere of tension was one the filmmakers deliberately created. From scene one, the film taught the audience to fear the water. Consider how different the audience reaction would have been if the film had opened differently. The first scene of Jaws has little to do with the rest of the movie. The protagonist isn’t in it (unless you consider Jaws the protagonist, which is fair), and neither are any other recurring characters. It’s more a teaser than an opening scene. The film starts with a drunken hippie girl going for a midnight skinny dip and getting chomped off a buoy. It’s not the scariest sequence of the film, but it teaches the audience an important lesson—there’s a f#cking shark in the water.

Now let’s pretend the movie didn’t have that scene, and began instead with the introduction of the protagonist. A viewer might think the film is about small town politics on an island that thrives on the tourist trade. Not exactly thrilling material. Yes, there are still plenty of clues regarding shark activity, and yes, the narrative would still get to a shark attack pretty early in the film, but the audience’s reaction to that attack wouldn’t have been nearly as visceral. It would be more one of “finally, we’re getting somewhere,” rather than “oh God don’t go near the water!” Because all that boring sounding exposition I just described is tense as hell when you know that every step is leading the protagonist inexorably towards the water, wherein dwells swimmy gnashy death.

And that was the problem with my friend’s movie. We as the audience hadn’t been trained to fear the bad guy. We were told he was the bad guy; or rather, that he might be the bad guy. But nothing we had seen suggested that. So we were waiting. We were waiting to see if we should have been afraid of him. And that meant that all those scenes that were supposed to be tense and nerve-racking were just long.

Contrast that to Jaws. Even in scenes where the shark doesn’t show up, we’re terrified of the water. And when he does show up, it’s not necessarily in the place that you expected—remember the rowboat scene? But again, that constant level of palpable anxiety was possible because we knew what the danger was, and where it lived. We knew there was a shark in the water, and thus the water itself was frightening.

This directly relates to game design. To engage your players on a primal emotional level, you’ve got to get through the layer of action-and-reaction and down where anticipation lives. It’s all well and good to spring nastiness on your players; gamers expect random challenges. But it’s another thing to have them thinking about what might be waiting for them later on, constantly wondering when the other shoe’s going to drop—they don’t know when or where it’s going to happen, but something you trained them to fear  earlier in the game is going to spring out of the proverbial water and try to drag them down. And when you’ve got them thinking that way—I know it’s out there and it could come after me at any moment, and I don’t know how to handle it—you’ve created one hell of a memorable experience.

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