Atmosphere is Everything
Jonathan | On 19, Jun 2013
Every gamer judges a title by their own set of criteria. For some, nothing at all matters if the gameplay isn’t fun or engaging. For others, they might require a strong story that pulls at the heart strings in order to find enjoyment in their titles.
For me? I need an atmosphere that envelops me in the world these characters live in, and I need to feel like I’m actually experiencing what my character is playing in order to fully appreciate the title I’m playing for what it is.
Don’t get me wrong, I love mindless games that have no real appeal other than just being fun as well. While personally I feel stories in multiplayer heavy shooters or racing games are mostly throwaway, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy popping in a game like Blur and going to work wrecking faces. I just mean that personally, I want to feel like an active participant in the worlds I’m spending 10-300 hours in.
Games that may not have sold well or been global blockbusters have often stood far and above the competition for me, and a lot of that has to do with the atmosphere provided in the game.
Take Bioshock, for example: As you move throughout the lost city of Rapture, you feel as though you’re a part of this desolate and long since destroyed world. Splicers attack you because they’ve been corrupted and they simply don’t know any better, or perhaps it’s because they are hoping you’ll free them from their torment of mortal coil. Because the atmosphere was so brilliantly done in the original Bioshock, I found myself wanting to become a denizen of Columbia in Bioshock Infinite – only to find that you can hardly explore much of anything, and it effectively ruined a lot of the wonder I had while playing through it.
Recent games like Metro: Last Light have been doing an absolutely fantastic job of nailing their target atmosphere. I knew Last Light was good having played it at PAX East, and I told the manager at a local GameStop that I felt like Last Light was going to be a big hit despite having a low buzz. He said he’d keep an eye on it and let me know, and sure enough when I went back a week after Metro released, he said that not only had he sold out but had been having difficulty finding new ones to sell because the demand had been so high. When a game aims to be part of a genre that has a niche following, it had better make sure it brings the “A” game. Metro: Last Light absolutely nails this by making you feel like you’re in a post-apocalyptic Soviet Union while making the already heavy environment even more terrifying by adding demons and other horrifying monsters, effectively making another solid entry in the storied “survival horror” genre.
Another great example of fantastic atmosphere came in the form of a game that barely sold any copies, yet has a pretty strong cult following because it’s far better than it was ever given credit for. That game is Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Sure it’s fairly generic, with a character who looks like a lost member of the Mishima family (and is essentially John McClane from Die Hard) but the atmosphere of the game is brilliant. A world where machines have taken over and eliminated the human race, leaving nothing but an unkempt earth that slowly but surely continues to heal the wounds inflicted on it by mankind. As the populace dies, the plants reclaim lost land and you’re left with a destroyed utopia that absolutely fits perfectly with the game you’re playing within it. Crysis 3 tried this same approach, but Enslaved pulls it off considerably better.
The world is often disjointed, yet beautiful, as things almost look futuristic, yet strangely modern.
Finally, another game I’d like to mention is El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. As you’re playing as an angel sent back to earth to reclaim angels who have fallen, you wouldn’t really expect much from a setting but what El Shaddai does is takes you on a journey through some of the coolest art styles I’ve seen in recent memory. The art style is what makes the atmosphere work in El Shaddai, and the resulting mix of moving watercolors and “acid trip” style vibrant colors make for one of the most memorable experiences of the current generation, despite the game only being “okay”.
I’m sure there are hundreds of other games I could mention in this space, including things like Manhunt or Condemned, possibly even The Darkness 2, Tomb Raider (2013) or Mirror’s Edge (which I adore) – but what kind of atmospheric elements draw you into games? Does atmosphere even matter to you, or would you prefer a game that is fun above all else?
No matter what, if a game doesn’t have a compelling atmosphere, I’m far less likely to become attached to it unless it’s just meant to be mindless.