The Curious Case of Crafting Suspense in Games
As an aspiring game writer with perhaps more artistic vision than actual talent, I’ve always been fascinated by gripping, character-driven narratives that keep you perched on the edge of your seat. I’m naturally drawn to psychological thrillers – there’s something about the brooding tension, moral ambiguity, and layered complexity that speaks to my inner dramatist.
So when I decided to try my hand at crafting my own suspenseful thriller narrative for a choose-your-own-adventure style game, I’ll admit – I was feeling pretty confident about conquering this genre. I fancied myself the next Gillian Flynn or Stephen King. This would be easy.
Reader, it was not.
In hindsight, I made the classic rookie mistake of assuming suspenseful meant the same thing as scary. And while startling the player with jump-scares or gross-out moments may get the adrenaline pumping briefly, crafting truly gripping tension that ratchets up naturally and keeps readers hooked is an art unto itself. One I clearly had not yet mastered in those early, wildly optimistic days.
After banging my head against the keyboard for a few frustrating weeks, I started studying some of my favorite psychological thriller narratives more closely to deconstruct what made them work. A few key insights jumped out:
- Mystery and intrigue are everything. The key is not explaining too much too soon or revealing your hand early as the writer. Let events and information unfold slowly, heightening the “what the hell is going on” factor.
- Go small. Some of the most unsettling tales derive suspense from relatively mundane situations that gradually take on unease and menace. You don’t need serial killers and monstrous creatures to craft edge-of-your seat tension (though I do still hope to fit those in someday!)
- Make it personal. Getting readers to care deeply about characters and their individual welfare and perspectives hugely amplifies the feels.
Armed with these narrative commandments, I dove back in – and slowly but surely began to find my psychological thriller sea legs. The key was realizing suspense didn’t necessarily mean shocking events – it was about crafting uncertainty, anticipation, and a gnawing sense of dread and danger threaded through the ordinary. A splash of creepy music and dim lighting goes a long way too!
Have I utterly mastered crafting gripping game narratives that get into your head? I can’t claim that (yet!) – but I’m learning. And I’ve realized you don’t have to consider yourself the next writing prodigy to experiment with suspenseful game stories. It’s about trying things out, failing spectacularly at times, studying what works, and not being afraid to start small.
As I continue WORKING to level up my thriller writing skills in my own time, I’m no longer daunted – just increasingly hooked on the curious case of suspense. Even without vampires and axe murderers…yet. But give me time reader. The night is still young in my game writing journey – and soon, very soon, I hope to keep you up at night too. Sweet dreams!