Reblog: Are You Designing Mystery Or Suspense?

Filip Wiltgren says viable games have elements of mystery and suspense. “To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock: mystery is when you don’t know if there’s a bomb under the table, suspense is when you lift the tablecloth and see it but can’t leave the table.” Mystery is about what the rules can do. Suspense is about if you can achieve a goal given the rules.

Marcus Says: Zelda’s curated semi-linear world is under fire from “fans” of the series who say that Zelda is no longer a mystery now that the game’s general structure is “known”. Yes, the general outline of the hero’s journey is mostly the same throughout the games, but whether or not the bomb is under the table is still a question that needs to be answered at the start of every game.


Mike says: Filip is right in pointing out that great gameplay generates suspense. That thrill of executing a plan is the pay-off for the uncertainty and feeling of being on edge as you play out a match in a competitive game.

Game designs need to do a good job of managing how uncertainty is generated and manipulated in and by the player. Not knowing the result of play is often what makes games worth playing. Filip distinguishes further between rules-related uncertainty caused by a lack of basic knowledge about what’s possible in a game, and execution-related uncertainty. I’m left somewhat unsatisfied by Filip establishing this dichotomy between becoming competent with a game’s rules and pulling off strategies–the two are certainly interdependent, but the dichotomy compares processes operating at different scales and this damages the comparison.


Richard says: Filip’s article is too jumbled to glean anything useful. His categories, definitions, and descriptions are all loosely defined “feelings” that he then loops back on. This is the kind of vague talk about games that occurs when concrete, identifiable game design categories aren’t used. When Filip says…

  • “strategy / tactics” he refers to Difficulty Design – Skill – knowledge

  • “viable in the long run” he refers to Design Space – Level Design

  • “mystery heavy games … end up … solvable”  “the player’s limited ability to calculate and predict all possible variations” he refers to Systems / Rules – Level Design – Solvable Challenges

  • “the player’s limited ability to perceive and predict what heuristics the other players are using” refers to Feedback – metagame


“Knowing when to apply mystery and when to apply suspense makes a game viable in the long run.”  All this statement says is having a balance in a game gives it more lastability. It doesn’t talk about what kind of balance or which game elements are in the balancing equation. Mystery doesn’t make a game solvable because “mystery” isn’t a game design element.

“The interesting part in a mystery heavy game is the puzzle, not the execution.” Translation: The interesting part about figuring out something is figuring it out.

“Mystery is based on a lack of knowledge, suspense is based in unpredictability” “ You still need some mystery – if everyone figures out the optimal heuristic you’ll end up with tic-tack-toe.”  Wasn’t “suspense” supposed to be the element of unpredictability? And we still don’t know what game design elements actually create suspense or mystery.