What does a good game and an excellent piece of writing have in common?
They both get finished.
Neither make the audience too scared, nor too bored to continue; they create just enough challenge and just enough reward to keep the audience engaged, and intrigued.
Games aren’t interesting if they don’t present a challenge. Writing isn’t interesting if it doesn’t tell you something you don’t know.
Fundamentally, all games and all forms of writing operate as stories. Even Rock-Paper-Scissors has a beginning middle and an end.
Good games and good writing must surprise the audience, regularly and effectively.
Neither can afford to be predictable or confusing.
Failure to achieve this balance means that the book you’re writing will pile up in Tsundoku, and the game you’re making will sit unplayed.
Stories must exist in the goldilocks zone between the audience’s anxiety and boredom in order to be finished.
This zone is called the ‘Flow Channel’, named such because stories which occupy this space effectively maintain audience attention in a way which minimises resistance.
When audiences experience flow, they don’t think about whether or not they’re going to turn the page, or play the next level.
They just do.
All good stories exist within the flow channel from start to finish, but not all stories worth finishing are good stories.
Flow alone is not enough.
Imagine riding a rollercoaster without any hills, turns or bumps.
It wouldn’t be a rollercoaster, it would be a big mechanical slide. While its novelty might pull you in for one ride, you won’t be lining up to ride it again.
In principle, the secret sauce of rollercoasters is the same as that of your favourite games and writing;
The tension between anxiety and boredom must be variable, while still existing within the goldilocks zone.
Think about the moment of relief after you complete a hard level, or finish an intense chapter.
Without this variability. Without peaks and troughs of tension throughout the audience’s journey, audience attention cannot be sustained.
This is why every story arc has multiple peaks – moments throughout the piece where the stakes are high, and times of low pressure in between.
If tension flatlines, the story dies.