Friday, April 8, 2011

The Elements of a Great Game – Atmosphere

“You awake to find yourself in a sunlit garden. Bees are buzzing in the trees as butterflies flutter about in the still, warm air. Beside you is a cool clear pool. As you study your reflection in it you notice the image of a beautiful young girl standing behind you, looking down on you. You turn, but no one is there....”

“The air is damp and musky. It smells of standing water and rotting flesh. There is nothing but darkness all around you. In the distance you think you hear something scratching inch by inch closer to you. The creak of a door fills the air with sound as a line of light slowly widens before you. There in the dim light you can hardly believe what you see...”

The atmosphere is the first paint applied to the canvas of gaming and indeed any storytelling. It is what pulls us in and makes us relate to what is going on about us. It sets a scene in which we can plant ourselves so that the story isn't just happening, it's happening to us. Although this is certainly important in movies and books it is of paramount importance in video games. Why? The answer is simple.

We watch movies and we read books; we are only observers no matter how involved in the story we are. However, in video games we help decide the outcome of the story. Is the hero victorious or does he die a horrible death?

“Now, would you go right or left?”
“I don't know, which way would you go?”
“Me? I wouldn't go either way.”

In a game you're not just silently watching on as the hero decides what path to take. You choose and your decision affects the outcome of the story. Atmosphere helps make the story personal and compelling. The more you can relate to the hero's situation the more you actually feel good when he finds himself in some beautiful garden and the more concerned you are when he is lost in some bottomless dungeon.

Although atmosphere isn't a universal component in gaming, it is almost universal in video gaming. If you look as far back as early Atari 2600 games you see digitized tanks, pixelated woman-stealing apes and square blocks that everyone knows are actually knights in full armor. Due to the limitations of the system we found the scene set in the manuals and box art. The label on Adventure made it very clear who you were and what you were doing even if the graphics couldn't.

Would asteroids have been as much fun if it was merely a math game where a circle broke big square blocks into smaller square blocks? Atmosphere was what pulled us in and made us want to rescue Princess Zelda, stop the evil Dr. Robotnic, and defeat those pesky Space Invaders. I think very few people would argue that atmosphere isn't extremely important, but what are its elements? How can it be done well and how can it be totally messed up?

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  1. Are those quotes from an IF game?

  2. The first two quotes were me trying to give an example of setting the scene as it were. The second set of quotes were from the movie Labyrinth. If you haven't seen it you've missed out!