I’m sidling my way through a series of rusted, steam-spewing pipes when I come to a little hole in the wall. If I stand still I can peer through and see the dangling remains of what I assume was once a human being, suspended from the roof by chains. There is a huge, blood-stained mechanical behemoth, squatting in the shadows, and a flickering clock on the wall painting red numerals on the gloom. They read 00:00.
Feeling a little disturbed, I press on and squeeze out of the pipes into absolute darkness. There’s a steady bleep as the shotgun-collar around my neck lets me know that somewhere in the impenetrable void ahead there’s an enemy I can’t see, waiting to bludgeon me to death. Fumbling for my lighter, I manage to bathe a circle around me in warm, flickering light, just as the hidden psychopath springs from the shadows with a desperate wail, a blood-stained lump of piping raised above his head.
Saw: The Video Game has several moments like this one. It also has repetitive, unimaginative puzzles and some of the worst melee combat in any game I’ve played. Saw is a bad video game in almost every sense of the word. Interestingly, the one thing it gets right was powerful enough to carry me all the way through to the end. That thing is atmosphere.
Atmosphere is a vital component in the creation of fictional worlds. This is true across all media, but when it comes to video games – which are what we’re dealing with here – the relationship between atmosphere and the overall quality of the product is particularly strong. If you imagine gameplay and narrative as the two slices of bread in a sandwich, then atmosphere is the filling which holds everything together. Without it, the whole sandwich is bland and likely to fall apart. But, when the filling is particularly tasty, most people can accept the bread being a little mouldy.
There’s a scene in Kane & Lynch: Dead Men for example, set in a crowded Tokyo nightclub. The hapless duo is there to kidnap the daughter of a Japanese crime lord, which involves carrying her unconscious body from the office upstairs all the way through the club. The whole place is packed with people, the music is loud, there’s smoke everywhere, and the only distinction between armed henchmen and innocent bystanders is the torchlight of the guards, which is buried within the frantic strobes. This mission has stayed with me for a while now, among a handful of others like the Heat-inspired bank heist, and often when I think about it I forget that Dead Men is a spectacularly bad game.
When I play a video game, I don’t want to really feel as if I’m playing a video game. I want to invest actual emotions in the characters and the world, and I want to be fooled into thinking I’m a real part of what’s going on. I want the conflict and drama to affect not just the characters that I’m controlling, but me personally. When a game has no atmosphere, the player is constantly reminded that they’re just sat on the couch in their pyjamas pressing buttons.
I remember being decidedly unimpressed with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion because it felt like a game world rather than a real one. That moment when you emerge from the starting dungeon into the light, standing in the glare and looking out over the huge expanse of land before you and all the possibilities for exploration and adventure it represents – that’s a great moment. At least, it is until you realize the textures haven’t loaded yet. Interacting with non-player characters is even worse, as they mumble the same lines of badly-written high-fantasy dialogue and cycle jerkily through their handful of stock animations. In Oblivion, the sandwich filling is spread incredibly thin. As my girlfriend keeps assuring me, size doesn’t matter, and I’d much rather have a smaller, deeper world populated with interesting and relatable characters than a sprawling map that’s shallower than a dinner plate.
Atmosphere isn’t just about how a game looks and sounds, though. What it really comes down to are the details, more often than not things so small and seemingly inconsequential that you don’t even notice they’re there, even as they profoundly impact the experience you’re having.
Consider Bioshock as another example, a game with an atmosphere so thick you can feel it draped across your shoulders. Every aspect of Rapture gels seamlessly together to create a truly believable dystopia. This is a once-prosperous civilization gone terribly awry. There’s nothing in there that is trying overtly to make you feel a particular emotion; no cheap gimmicks or parlour tricks. You’re scared, or empathetic, or angry, or betrayed, simply because you believe in the world and the characters that populate it. Atmosphere creates that kind of emotional investment all on its own, and it isn’t because of the polygon count or the fact you can set people on fire with your mind. It’s because you can root through the bins, get drunk on somebody’s discarded merlot, and listen to the final recorded moments of some poor woman’s life while you set someone on fire with your mind.
I’ve been considering this a lot lately, and I think it’s partially a result of writing fiction. Atmosphere is a difficult thing to create and maintain. Often, when I’m building a scene, I imagine it as a video game world which I’m walking my avatar through, describing what the character is seeing, hearing, smelling, rather than simply what the space looks like geometrically or architecturally. I think it works, and if I ever write a bestseller I’ll have video games to thank for it.
In the interest of community spirit, I want to encourage people to suggest some examples of bad games with great atmospheres (or vice versa) in the comments. I don’t typically encourage this kind of behaviour due to my natural dislike of humanity, but in this case I’ll make an exception.