I think it [System Shock 2] has an atmosphere. Not a lot of games have atmosphere, and that really draws people…

–Ken Levine (quoted from this article)

I’ve always felt that atmosphere is one of the most important, if not the most important, element of a game; it is ultimately what draws you in, encourages you to explore, gives you empathy or disdain for characters, and traps you in the virtual world for hours on end. However, the term itself is almost never used by gamers, reviewers or even designers. When a game is compelling and draws you in, its atmosphere is typically (by some incredibly bizarre mechanism) dubbed as “storyline”, “narrative”, or “plot.” Then it seems subsequent analysis focuses on the narrative elements of the game due to the false terminology. I think Half-Life is probably the biggest victim here. For years I’ve read forum posts and reviews about how Half-Life was incredibly popular and and able to push the bar due to its incredible story. However, if you take a step back, Half-Life had a pretty lackluster story: you open a portal to another dimension, there’s some mysterious dude following you around, you make your way to the lambda complex, you go to Xen, you kill the Nihilanth, you make some deal with the mysterious G-Man. You could probably write it all out along with all the dialog in a couple of pages. In terms of storytelling it doesn’t really go beyond first-person-shooters such as Quake or Doom. The bottom line is that Half-Life had a terrible storyline, it was the atmosphere that drew you in. A sense of chaos (after the resonance cascade), danger (fighting the extermination squads), and alienation (very literally, being in Xen). This is also what made games like Doom and Quake (and probably every other game on a “greatest ever” list) popular. In fact, even though I mention Half-Life, there are games which, in my opinion, are a lot more fun to play and do a much better job of creating a captivating atmosphere (e.g. System Shock 2, Deus Ex, Thief, Homeworld, … I can go on and on…).

(oh, and I’m specifically not making any criticisms of Half-Life 2 b/c I haven’t played it… yea, I know, it’s been a long time since it was released… maybe, I’ll pick up the orange box)

So what constitutes atmosphere? This and similar questions I constantly think about. (I’m currently writing a design document, but that’s besides the point). It’s very difficult to come up with a comprehensive list, as a lot of atmospheric elements (not only in games, but art, movies, etc.) just seem to come together naturally when looking at the finished product. In any case, here’s my attempt to dissect what constitutes atmosphere in a game:

  • Overall environment (weather [I’m so sad more games don’t have interesting weather fx], plant-life, terrain)

  • Architecture

  • Lighting (both globally, i.e. the sun, and locally), shadows, and colors (of light and textures)

  • Characters and dialog (not necessary, but if there are characters in the game and they can draw you in and you can connect with them in some way, I believe it adds to the atmosphere. For example, if you have to protect someone, and they’re represented as a genuinely innocent and vulnerable person, the game suddenly has an added sense of danger as well as heroism and empathy. On the other hand, if the character is an empty vessel, just there to fulfill the mandatory “escort mission,” the character adds nothing; perhaps he/she even takes from the atmosphere)

  • Sound effects (from the article linked to above, “You can’t [in System Shock 2] identify every single thing you can hear. Sounds, voices, things people are saying, things you can’t hear that are of unclear meaning. That creates a great deal of tension. It adds another element of mystery, another element of suspense.”)

  • Music (I think music adds a lot, I was really disappointed that Doom 3 and Quake 4 didn’t have music tracks, and they may have been better games with compelling music to drive the action forward; especially, given the repetitive nature of the missions.)

  • Animations (especially w/ humanoid characters, if it doesn’t look right, it’s usually instantly noticeable)

  • Level of detail, the higher the better (i.e. nuanced elements in any of the areas above. For example, the reload animations for certain weapons in counterstrike, the way clips or parts of a weapon are “slammed” in place, giving a sense of force [it’s been a long time since I played counterstike, I’m specifically thinking about the M4A1 or the Steyr AUG A1, I don’t remember which]. Similarly, the way Duke Nukem slams clips into the pistol. I could give a million example here in a variety of areas, but I’ll keep this short.)

  • Interactivity with environment, (in general) the higher the level, the better, (how the player or characters are able to interact with elements in the environment, from the largest to smallest scale. For example, can you shoot out a light? blow thru a wall? (ugh) push a crate? I say *in general* the higher the interactivity the better because in certain cases interactivity with the environment could destroy a lot of the preceding items in this list. For example, being able to move the sun, this can significantly screw up lighting, shadows, and colors of a level. For certain games, a real-time simple lighting or radiosity solution *might* offset the impact, but that very dependent on the game itself and the artists working on it.)

  • Non-linear or seemingly non-linear level design (A level doesn’t have to be non-linear to be good, and a non-linear level isn’t always a good thing, as it can confuse games and annoy them with what they consider to be pointless detours. However, painfully obvious linear level design is not a good thing and makes you painfully aware of the artificiality of the virtual world your in. For example, at certain points in Quake 4, once you’ve killed a bunch of Strogg, a door which was locked will magically open up.)

Anyway, that’s my list, for now, maybe I’ll modify as I learn new things, play more games, and reconsider certain items I’ve listed. In particular, I’m thinking a lot about Bioshock, and the concept of allowing the player to make moral choices.

oh, and if you haven’t figured it out, I hold System Shock 2 in very high regard 🙂

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