Great level designers know how to graph and vary tension well. There are patterns and normally, a fairly specific rhythm. When the rhythm of a level is clunky or disproportionate — you feel it. You need a tension pattern that grabs you, but isn’t obvious.
Varying level tension is a subtle art.
A great teacher of mine once showed me how a drummer can drive a song, but not be particularly noticed. The loudest instrument is driving the most delicate pulse. Yet, if you pull the drum track out, the song collapses on itself. It has no pulse to anchor or guide it. Think about Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean without Ndugu Chancellor’s drumming. It wouldn’t connect nearly like it does.
You want a tension pattern that drives the level but isn’t noticed. This takes long nights and really good tools. In fact, to a large degree, when you’re talking about the experience of gameplay – you can usually draw a straight line to how well tension was used.
Some follow something like an extended A-B-A or B-A-B pattern, or any combo version of these. In a 3rd person action level, “A” might equal something like 4-5 enemies on one and “B” might equal something closer to 2 enemies on one. This is your basic enemy stack or pacing.
If you look at Call of Duty MW2, architecture itself is used to setup where an “A area” transitions to “B areas” or vice versa. An open courtyard area can indicate a transition, or a connector. It can be a point to catch your breath in the pattern. A dip in the pulse of the tension.
Of course you can have other shades of action between “intense” or “moderate” – these are just used to make the point that you can think of the tension in a level kind of like a song structure. If a level is flat on either side of center it won’t connect nearly as well.
Example: We’ve all seen levels that repeat a staggered 3 on 1 attack throughout the level. This is a B-B-B type experience. This is like mowing grass. Not very exciting. There is little expectation or surprise. Tension is flat.
There is no variance in the tension graph.
The level doesn’t go anywhere up or down in the tension intensity. It only goes sideways.
I’m not always successful to be sure, it’s hard to get it right, but I try and pay attention to the tension graph of a level and think about the rise and fall of the dynamics caused by tension.