Alec Meer’s retrospective on The Thing mentioned an interesting phenomenon: the emotional cycle of the “Alamo standoff.”
What Alec was referring to is a specific gameplay concept that revolves around trapping the player in an arena and sending in countless waves of enemies. Describing this, he made a very perceptive comparison: the concept is similar to a running joke that’s funny at first, eventually grows old, but, through the sheer ridiculousness of repeating it over and over, becomes funny yet again. Except in our case, the player first enjoys the challenge of the combat, then slowly grows weary of it, and eventually gets a second boost of adrenaline as he realizes that the set piece is not about to end.
It’s a curious phenomenon as its prerequisite is — in a way — boring the player. However, as part of an immediate arc, this weariness magnifies an eventual sense of dread. The standoff is a grueling, uphill climb with no visible peak, and it can be a very effective tool for evoking certain emotions.
Now sending in enemies in waves isn’t exactly a new concept, but the Alamo standoff is a bit different. First of all, it begins with a drastic change of pace. It’s an abrupt halt to the player’s forward progress (at least in a physical sense) that puts him on the defensive. What follows is, naturally, a battle of attrition.
Up until that point, the player might have been hoarding equipment for an emergency situation. Well, the standoff is that emergency. It might take a while, but the player will eventually realize that his priority is no longer managing resources but simply surviving. At this point, the feeling of terror begins to build, and it culminates in the sensation that the game’s done screwing around. The kiddy gloves are off, and it will now proceed to throw everything (not true, there could be lots more) at the player to pummel him into submission.
It’s powerful stuff, but there’s a certain finesse to making it work.
First of all, the standoff is best introduced “organically” without the use of non-interactive cutscenes. This makes it harder to think of it as a set piece, which in turn creates a situation where the player is initially ignorant of its scale. The lack of clear indicators as to the duration of the onslaught also help to instill a feeling of panic and hopelessness. Aesthetic changes in the environment are fine (after all, the player should never assume that the event is an enemy-spawning bug), but distinct gameplay modifiers such as new enemies and entry routes tend to add a game-ish progress to the experience.
Now this setup is great for evoking feelings of uncertainty and panic, but, in an effort to reduce its repetitiveness, various games have been putting a different spin on the experience. Gears of War 2’s horde mode takes a step back from the survival horror approach and makes the event more goal-oriented. This results in shifting the focus from “Oh my god, will this ever end?!” to “If I can only hold out until [goal x is achieved], I’ll be fine.”
The “gamey” standoff is clearly introduced, and it’s split into distinct mini-challenges. Timers and rounds are prevalent, as are “breathers” between individual waves. The player is provided with continuous feedback via metrics on health, ammo, checkpoint targets, etc., which aid him in making decisions. Other element like new enemy and weapons types are also gradually introduced to provide variety.
Of course the defining factors of these two approaches can be mixed together. Left 4 Dead contains plenty of organic and highly randomized standoffs (which don’t even take place in typical arenas — the only thing that boxes the player in is the sheer volume of enemies), but each episode also ends with a timed event where the player must simply survive until the arrival of a rescue party.
In either case, it’s important to be aware of the effects of all these design decisions. Also, it’s always vital to give the player a chance to survive — even if ammo/health drops are frequent, little suspense is lost if the player must still worry about picking ‘em up. In addition, guarding segments are tricky as it’s easy for the player to get frustrated with inept AI companions (or, conversely, invincible ones that suck out all the tension) and end up worrying about the safety of others instead of his own. And finally, when the dust settles and the player is on his last legs, you might want to think about doing it all over again. Just more intensely.