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  • Take It All In: Imbuing Games With A Potent Atmosphere

    - Michel Sabbagh
  • When it comes to engrossing the participant into a work of art, one of the most efficacious concepts a creative talent can leverage to have their vision fully realized and capable of enthralling even the most discerning of critics is the idea of using visual and/or auditory tone to create a gateway into whatever world said participant witnesses or conjures up in their mind, namely via the work's "ambiance". Whether it's to make a personal statement about the human experience or simply scratch that sensory itch in consumers, artists can freely project a specific atmospheric impression onto them using the tools and themes at their disposal to have their creation beckon the audience. It's a neat trick that worked its charm in literature, cinema, theater, music and painting, with video gaming being no different.

    Having undergone a sizable gestation phase since the medium's advent and showcasing its true potential with the move to 3D (as seen in 1997's Blood and 1998's Grim Fandango), atmosphere has simultaneously contributed to the reinforcement of the immersion factor and corroborated the idea of gaming being a powerful art form. On top of complementing and even contextualizing a title's presentational and gameplay aspects, ambiance also accentuates the player's appreciation of the experience and makes the designer's invitation to their world that much more irresistible. To put it simply, the concept of a tangible mood that can be perceived and admired through vicarious means alone (e.g. watching someone else's playthrough) can be utilized as an effective tool for luring the participant into the virtual environment and remaining there for additional reasons.

    Given its reliance on technical resources and artistic features, a game's vibe has only become more multilayered and conspicuous at the turn of the century. From the vibrant (and daunting) stages that make up Snake Pass (2017) to the Canadian hinterlands that prey on the avatar in The Long Dark (2017), the flexibility and power on offer has enabled developers in all genres to generate an aura of any quality (e.g. mystery, charm, wonder) capable of captivating people from all walks of life. But as I explained in my piece on the importance of presentation two years earlier, the recycling of narratives, themes and audiovisual traits can impact or, worse still, homogenize the title's character to the point of déjà vu (hence the aforementioned point I made about atmosphere being tied to the designer's technological and creative considerations).

    Atmosphere can elevate an already fetching virtual world to new heights when elegantly conceived. Its ethereal nature, however, means that it's not exactly clear-cut from a development standpoint, making its strengths and weaknesses more elusive and liable to tampering. As a phenomenon arising from a combination of various audiovisual and mechanical aspects, ambiance stands as a somewhat delicate quality that can be well-produced under the right circumstances and alongside the roamable environment. This requires the developers to have a fundamental understanding of their vision and craft their title's physical makeup to accommodate all sorts of opportunities for promoting a certain mood that sets the appropriate tone for the experience and accompanies the participant throughout their adventure.

    To corroborate the above thoughts, I shall provide six useful ground rules for producing a palpably rich atmosphere that not only enthralls the player, but also complements the game's overall presentation and/or mechanics in a harmonious fashion. For each principle, I'm going to present an example that nails that particular guideline.

    DISCLAIMER: The tips I'm sharing with you may or may not be compatible with every title depending on the designer's philosophy and vision, but they serve as general tenets that can benefit the product when well-implemented.


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