The Value of Atmosphere

I emerge from the forest shrouded in darkness.  A large, red house stands before me, light streaming through the windows.  Is someone home?  The front door creaks, echoing its reluctance off the walls of the old house.  Strange portraits of unknown people gaze down at me.  They almost seem angry, as if I have trespassed here, as if my presence here violated some ancient accord.  It seems somehow darker inside than it appeared.  An old grandfather clock rests by the stairwell, silent and waiting.  I have only taken a few steps inside when a persistent thudding catches my attention.  Footsteps…is there someone upstairs?  I head towards the wooden stairwell, dread in my heart, not wanting to go on but at the same time knowing that it is necessary.

Impressive, considering all this happened in a game that looks like it could belong on the original Nintendo game system.

Say hello to The Last Door, a point and click horror game.

Say hello to The Last Door, a point and click horror game.

I want to talk today about atmosphere, something that isn’t inherently necessary to a medium, but can greatly enhance its power.  If you’ve ever read a book, or watched a movie, and said to yourself “wow, I actually feel like this could be a real place” or “I feel like I’m actually there”, then the atmosphere has done its job.  The central purpose behind atmosphere, whether its in a game, book, or movie, is to draw you into its world.  It wants to make you feel the setting, to let it wash over you.  It’s an incredibly powerful tool.

Let’s take, for example, the video game Bioshock.  Bioshock is a game that takes place in an underwater city, born out of the mind of a man who wanted to create his idea of the perfect society.  Inevitably, of course, things go wrong and by the time you show up, everyone has descended into what are essentially drugged up mutants.  I mention this game because the actual gameplay of it wasn’t all that great.  The guns felt like they had little to no heft behind them.  Hitting enemies with a wrench didn’t feel very satisfying, and the abilities you got weren’t always very useful or practical.  But it was the game’s story, and its atmosphere, that kept me going through it.  Gazing up into the water, tinted green by the neon lights of the underwater city, was quite the experience.  It was an amazing feeling, just gazing out of a small window into the watery abyss beyond.  The distant calls of whales and other undersea creatures sometimes reached me as I wandered around the ruined utopia.  It sold the setting in ways no dialogue ever could.

I feel the same way when I play Myst, a game I’ve mentioned quite a few times on this blog.  Just sitting still in that game, listening to the waves beat against the shoreline, can have such a powerful effect.  The game has a powerful feeling of isolation, but also of intrigue.  It makes you want to know more about this mysterious place, and the secrets it conceals.

Atmosphere isn’t solely relegated to the realm of video games.  Movies and books make use of it too, using artful shots or descriptions to draw you closer to the place they are trying to portray.  But I feel like video games stand in a unique position to utilize atmosphere in ways that no movie or book ever could.

A lot has been said on the nature of interactivity when it relates to video games.  Usually, this is mentioned when the debate about the effect of violent games on kids springs up, and it is usually used in the sense that the interactivity of games makes them inherently different and therefore they should be scrutinized far more than other mediums.  It is precisely this interactive nature that makes an atmosphere in a game so much more powerful than in a book or movie.  When you watch a movie or read a book, your engagement with the setting is relegated to those specific details that the director or the author wants you to pay attention to.  But in a game, that is largely removed.  In a game, you are in control (most of the time), and you get to engage with the setting in your own way.  Sure game creators will use certain techniques or tricks to draw your attention to something, but there are so many small details that go into crafting a believable setting for a video game that chances are you won’t notice them on your first time through.  Unlike in a movie, you can pay attention to every insignificant sign or read any little poster pinned to the wall.

But this power is also a weak point.  If a game creator is not careful when crafting  a setting, or they simply don’t care, then the atmosphere can work against the immersion of the player.  If the details don’t line up right, or the player manages to get outside the created space (which usually involves falling into a never-ending black void), then the believable sense of the world can shatter, revealing it for the artificial construct that it is.  In a movie or book, certain tricks can be used to conceal the fact that the setting or events are not real.  Cameras can use certain shots to cover up details that would break the immersion of the viewer, and authors use the flow of their words to guide a reader along.  We artistic types tend to engage in deception, using trickery and artifice to convince you that the worlds we create are real or believable, when they are in fact the product of our own fevered imaginations.

Power and responsibility go hand in hand.  The creators of fictional worlds must be willing to make their creations seem real, or else their target audience won’t be willing to invest themselves in it.  This is what atmosphere is all about.  It drives and pulls someone forward, enticing them to come and explore more of this fascinating story or world.  Everything has an atmosphere to it.  It doesn’t matter if it’s happy, sad, or just quirky and ridiculous.  Every story or work of fiction has one, even if it isn’t inherently obvious or necessary.  Whether we want it or not, it is already there in our works to begin with.  It is our decision whether to sharpen it into a powerful razor, or leave it as a dull stone.

That’s all I have for you this week.  As always, tune in next Wednesday for another post.  Until then, have a great week everyone.







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