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Stakes, Reward, Tension, and Catharsis

When designing experiences the important thing to remember is that we as human beings are ultimately driven by our emotional responses to our environment. We consume art because it sets an emotional expectation and either subverts or delivers the intended result. We crave excitement, sadness, joy, surprise, love, arousal, and even fear and terror. As experience designers, we must understand how to properly account for emotional responses in order to create an exciting experience for our audience.

Recently, I watched a short video of James Cameron explain how he built up to his action sequences in Terminator 2 by first creating suspense. The action scene that followed was the catharsis of that suspense that he built up. This was the lightbulb moment for me: a great experience has tension and release built into its bones.

Whenever I find myself feeling impressed, surprised, or engaged I try to reflect on what made that happen and why. And so, I am interested in developing a design philosophy that can be used to create experiences that consistently and confidently predict . It's a simple goal but can be difficult to execute.

In this article I will break down and analyse a variety of experience using four metrics: Stakes, Rewards, Tension, and Catharsis. Let's first explore the four categories from within an escape room perspective.


First, stakes refer to the sense of danger or urgency that players feel as they race against the clock to escape. High stakes create a sense of tension and excitement, as players feel that their success or failure has real consequences. Designers can increase the stakes by setting a tight time limit, adding elements of danger, or making the stakes personal to the players (creating a player competition for example).


Rewards refer to the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that players feel when they complete an escape room. This sense of reward is what drives players to keep going, even when the stakes are high. We can create rewards by making puzzle experiences challenging but solvable, providing clues or hints to help players along, or offering a sense of progression as players make their way through the room.


Tension, the third metric, is the feeling of uncertainty or apprehension that players feel as they navigate the escape room. Tension can be created through a variety of means, such as creating a sense of mystery or intrigue, using suspenseful music or sound effects, or adding unexpected twists and turns to the experience. The puzzle solving process itself is also a form of tension as players hope they have the correct solution and must input via the padlock or keypad (for example) to test their theories.


Finally, catharsis refers to the sense of release or relief that players feel when they finally escape the room. This sense of catharsis can be created by providing a satisfying conclusion to the experience, such as a reveal of the story behind the room, or a sense of accomplishment when players successfully complete the challenge.


Now that we've established our terms lets look at an example of using these metrics to analyse the enjoyment factor of an experience very different to an escape room.

A First Date


The ultimate stake: rejection. The loss from a date can make our heart beat and bring up in us the worst of our self loathing. The stakes are rarely higher when it comes to "fun" experiences.


The reward is the feeling of connection, arousal, excitement, and a big boost to the self esteem. From this comes happiness, confidence, and joy.


The tension arises mostly from the conversation. Will your joke land, will your stories engage, and will your choice of wine showcase your diverse yet exceptional taste?


The catharsis to the above tension is when the joke does land, or your taste in wine IS deemed impressive. It's the sigh of relief that follows any exchange involving risk.

As you can see the role of Stakes to Rewards and Tension to Catharsis is the same dynamic. This relationship is self-similar at differing scales. In the conceptual framework of the experience we have tension and catharsis framing our motivations for engagement. In the experiential part of the experience we move through tension and catharsis to earn our reward despite the stakes involved.

A good experience makes us feel emotions and an effective strategy to cause an emotional reaction is to create a motivation offset by a risk, and deliver tension and release in order to propel the audience through the experience. Doing this effectively will ensure that your audience member is focused, engaged, and is ready to feel surprise, joy, excitement, sadness or whatever emotion you're trying to provide.

In conclusion, we experience designers must consider the four metrics I have outlined- stakes, rewards, tension, and catharsis - in order to create a truly exciting and memorable experience for players. By setting expectations and building a sense of urgency, tension and satisfaction, the escape room experience is made more engaging and enjoyable for players.

In a follow up post I would like to explore in greater depths where some experiences fall short of achieving the above. Can you think of any experiences that have rewards without stakes, or tension without rewards? I can...

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