Monday, April 11, 2011

The Elements of a Great Game – Atmosphere – Setting

In exploring what gives a game great atmosphere we have to look at several different factors. The first of these elements I am going to talk about is the setting. Now, you may be thinking “Setting, Atmosphere, what's the difference?” OK, good question. What I am talking about is the backdrop of the world itself devoid of any “living” element. The scenery, the lights, the sounds, etc. I know that atmosphere and setting have very much the same definition in this context, but I'm drawing a philosophical line here. For the purposes of this study “Atmosphere” includes all the things in a video game that set the mood. The “Setting” only concerns the artistic style of the virtual world in question. “Do the trees look real?” is a “setting” question whereas “Would that character actually do that?” is an “Atmosphere” question. (OK, really it's a “Characters” question and “Characters” is another sub-set of “Atmosphere”, but I'll get to that later.)

In my last post I mentioned examples of where the setting was really done right and really done wrong. I want to start with the positive and look at some examples of well done settings. To begin with I am going to go where I often go in any “well done games” discussion, strait to the Legend of Zelda. (I know I talk about it a lot, but give me a break, it's LOZ man!) I have noticed that there are very few men my age that can't be brought to a screeching halt (no matter what they are doing) by the first few notes of the opening theme of LOZ. The same “Hey, isn't that...” invariably falls from their lips immediately. It is amazing that a simple video game could etch itself on the minds of an entire generation of young men (at least in the US).

How did it do this? Well, in part with the setting. In the land of Hyrule we found lush garden spots and burning desert sands. Monster filled mountains and lakes teaming with our enemies. The colors, the sounds, the music and the flashing lights all played their part in transporting us from Earth to Hyrule. When we entered a dungeon the appropriate setting was maintained. The music changed, the scene was darker, more sinister. You could tell something was down there, something bad. I remember how nervous I was when I first walked down into the first dungeon. I just knew I was going to get Link killed. (Needless to say, I did. I don't know anyone who beat it on their first try.) The mood was seamless. LOZ was a window to another world. We, the players, were looking through that window and helping guide a young hero to his ultimate destiny: saving the princess Zelda from a terrible fate.

For another great example I am going to turn to PC gaming. Many avid gamers no doubt know the name Sierra. At it's height it was one of the great PC gaming companies and helped to develop the “adventure” genre more than perhaps any other company. One of the anchors of Sierra's game design was setting. The games led players from one beautifully crafted scene to another. They presented us with forest glens and dark wizards laboratories. What they excelled at was presenting the player with a fantasized version of the real world. Scenes of beauty were drawn out like gardens. Everything was were it should be. A crystal lake, a flowing stream, a giant rock and a bird flying by at just the right moment to set the scene. We were also presented with dark dungeons and undead monsters. All things dark and terrifying. All these elements combined to offer something that seemed better than real life. What we found in Sierra games was a world of enchantment, a magical land that we wanted to be a part of.

Both of these examples pulled us into the games. The settings made us feel as if we were part of the worlds presented to us. A lot of work was put into them and they were very well done. However, not every setting ever presented has had such an effect. For my bad example I once again turn to PC gaming. If you have never played Champions of Kyrnn you have missed a truly beautiful and compelling game. It's difficult to play by today's standards, but I feel it is still worth the effort. This game was followed up by Death Knights of Krynn which was another masterpiece. The artwork was exquisite and the storyline amazing.

If anything it was better than Champions. However, the next release was Dark Queen of Krynn. I suppose you could call it a joke, but nobody laughed. Why was this? Improper setting. That's not to say that the graphics were unappealing or that the sound or music was harsh. It was beautifully done, both from a graphical and musical point of view. So what was wrong with it? It was ALL wrong.

Now, unless you know a little bit about Dungeons and Dragons and the two settings, Dragon Lance and Forgotten Realms, you might not fully understand what I'm about to say, but believe me either way. (I do know a good deal about them.) These two settings are very different from an artistic point of view. There are also key gaming elements that vary from one setting to the other. What does all this have to do with Dark Queen of Krynn? Well, the Krynn series was set in the Dragon Lance universe. The first two games were developed by SSI on a custom engine that was designed around Dragon Lance, just as they should have been. However, Dark Queen of Krynn was developed after SSI released Unlimited Adventures. This title was an excellent piece of software that allowed players to make their own D&D video games in the Forgotten Realms setting. It came with a large art package and it was truly possible to design your own SSI style D&D game in the Forgotten Realms setting.

Now, we hit the point of SSI's horrible, mind numbing mistake. They took their own Unlimited Adventures engine and altered it to try to squeeze a Dragon Lance game into it. How do I know that? I owned both! I had spent hours playing around with Unlimited Adventures and I recognized the engine! Could I have been wrong? Well, no, they used their own default graphics package!! Yes, that's right, playing through Dark Queen of Krynn you would run into the same still (and slightly animated) artwork that was found in the Unlimited Adventures tool set.

(Some of you may think these picture are identical, but look closely! You see those three moons just below the girl's portrait on the left. Well, those three moons are from Krynn. Now you feel yourself in another world don't you?!?!?)

That in and of itself might not have been a horrible problem (although the two settings have such completely different art styles), but they actually made STORY DESCISIONS based on what graphics they had on hand. For instance they had an awesome image of an elf changing into a dolphin. So, in Dark Queen of Krynn our heroes ride across the ocean on the backs of elves that have changed into dolphins. That doesn't fit the epic emotionally deep story you expect to find in a Dragon Lance game. The end result was that you felt like you were in the world of Forgotten Realms and someone was telling you a story about Dragon Lance. It was truly sad and the series ended there. SSI had pushed players out of a world they already knew and loved with a mangled setting.

The same thing can be done by making characters behave unrealistically or by presenting the player with a story that makes no sense, but we can touch on those things later. I've run on long enough for the moment.

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  1. Champions of Krynn! I spent hours mapping that game in a little notebook of graph paper. That brings back memories, I'm glad you mentioned it.

  2. It was truly awesome. Did you play DKK? If not it's worth getting.