Tension in gaming is an interesting experience.
Tension feels uncomfortable. Relieving tension feels satisfying. Ergo, the introduction of tension-producing elements in your game can naturally propel players through the gameplay loops necessary to remove the tension while also rewarding them for their efforts. This pathway is different than one that relies on the player seeking rewards; the designer is instead threatening the player’s status quo.
While elegant, tension comes with risk. If a player is unable to relieve the tension, e.g. fails the test, that failure state can be a permanent stopping point. Players can become discouraged. Even when successful, players can also burn out from being under stress all the time, feeling as though the satisfaction states are either too infrequent or too brief. Even players who thrive and seek out tension scenarios may burn out in the other direction, mastering the game systems enough such that even the tension that still exists isn’t enough to ring their bells.
I have been thinking about this lately as I continue to be engrossed with Oxygen Not Included (ONI). While it may not immediately look like it, or even feel like it, ONI is decidedly a survival game.
In the beginning, the tension is apparent. You start with three Dupes and they have nothing but a little bit of space and some air (starter oxygen is included after all). If bathrooms are not created within the first day, all three Dupes will pee all over the floor by the morning of the 2nd day. After that, you have a bit of a reprieve… but it’s kind of a trap too. The calories provided by the starter food will only ever dwindle, and I hope you didn’t build their beds where all the CO2 lingers.
Although I have over 90 hours in the game now, I nevertheless still fell into the mid-game trap regarding (mostly) non-renewable resources. I started a game on the Oceania map, which had an absolute abundance of Algae and Coal. Algae in particular is a finite* resource on the default Terra map and its scarcity often forces you into Electrolyzers early on, which forces you into taming Steam vents, etc etc. Conversely, having 21 tons of the stuff on my map allowed me to keep the early-game Oxygen-creating machines running longer. I was even good on Coal too, as I had a Hatch ranch going which was producing Coal at a good clip.
If those details sound ominous, they should. While my Coal reserves were fine for everyday use, I had been building a Metal Refinery to make refined metal for future projects. Simultaneously, I was setting up a Hatch ranch to breed regular Hatches into Stone Hatches into Smooth Hatches, the last of which eat metal and poop refined metal exclusively. Normal Hatches and Stone Hatch eat basically anything and poop Coal, so I didn’t think twice about crafting two Incubators to speed the process along. As it turns out, adding nearly 2000 kJ stress on my power grid will burn through Coal pretty quick, as will replacing normal Hatches with ones that don’t poop Coal.
ONI has a particular tendency to punish complacency, going from Comfortable to Colony Collapse within a matter of a few Cycles. If you are not creating enough Oxygen for your Dupes, the game will give you a notification with the exact discrepancy. If your Oxygen-creating infrastructure is entirely dependent on Algae and you’re about to run out though, you get no warning. Well, you will eventually get the “not creating enough Oxygen” notification, but by then you will have to be scrambling to Electrolyzers regardless of whether your infrastructure currently supports it.
In some respects, ONI feels like the ideal tension-based game. The tension of keeping all the survival balls in the air exists, driving you ever onward. But you can also engineer stable systems such that you solve (some) problems permanently. Or “permanently” until the rounding errors in your design round up to whole errors. It can be frustrating though, coming from other tension-based games where the tension is more immediately apparent.