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What Really Makes a Game Atmospheric?

Discussion in 'General Gaming' started by Blackmill, Jan 11, 2016.

  1. Blackmill Learned

    Blackmill
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    I think we can all agree that a game's atmosphere largely comes from it's look, soundtrack, and writing. What I am wondering is how you would generally rank these three aspects in order of importance to a game's atmosphere. Also, what games come to mind as exemplifying how any of the aforementioned categories can influence the atmosphere? As an example, S.T.A.L.K.E.R seems to generate most of it's atmosphere from the look of the game while Morrowind's atmosphere benefits immensely from it's soundtrack and ambient noise.
     
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  2. kwanzabot Cipher Shitposter

    kwanzabot
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    soundtrack>visuals>writing if just talking atmosphere

    Stalker has very good ambient noise/weather ect but not much in the way of writing idk why but i used to stand in sidrovich's office listening to that song
     
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  3. octavius Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

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    The first game I think of when the word "atmosphere" is mentioned, is Thief: The Dark Project.
    In that game it's mostly from the visuals. That the game didn't have state of the art graphics enhances the atmosphere IMO. It's like how the old Star Wars movies feel much more convincing, with a lived in universe, than the clean, soulless, antiseptic CGI universe of the newer movies.

    The writing also contributes, even though it's minimal, or maybe because it's minimal, and leave lots of room to fill in with your own imagination. There are no 20 page tomes on the origins and story of the Hammerites and the other factions, or about The City, or even about Garrett himself.

    And of course the cutscenes. Like the writing they are on the minimalistic side, but highly effective in setting the mood.

    So, if I should rank the factors:
    1. Visuals.
    2. Writing.
    3. Sound (I never have music on in single character games).
     
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  4. Maxwell's Demon Arcane

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    Unity in systems, design, and art direction.
     
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  5. Snorkack Arcane

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    Show Spoiler
    The first game for me that wasn't just fun mechanics but also created a superb atmosphere was Super Metroid for SNES. It got the music, the sound fx and the visual design on spot and created an alien-like tension I never experienced before in games. In my book these three factors are still the most important aspects of a game to transport an atmosphere. If a game got those right I can totally live with subpar or even total lack of writing.
     
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  6. Xathrodox86 Savant

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    In a nutshell: the combination of mood, music and great story, supported by memorable characters and locations.
     
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  7. Unkillable Cat Prestigious Gentleman LEST WE FORGET Patron

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    All this and you don't bring up the sound of Thief? Very few games paid as much attention to sound as Thief did, and it is a vital factor in the atmosphere of the series (no comment on Thiaf). The games don't really have a soundtrack, but a long list of audio cues used at proper locations for ambiance, of which only a handful could count as music tracks - at least the first one did, the second one downplayed this and I can't remember if the third one did at all.

    To me, sound is a bigger factor than writing, but only to the point that it inches above writing to take the No. 2 spot, according to your list. I know of old 8-bit games with horrible visuals and sounds produced by horrible built-in speakers and next to no plot or story, but they still conveyed a tremendous sense of atmosphere.
     
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  8. octavius Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

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    I was talking about sound in general. Since I turn off music in most games, I "lose" half the sound. But I guess that makes the sound FX that much more important. For Thief the sound is of course vital, both to convey atmosphere (Horn of Quintus!) and to use for keeping track of enemies.

    Buy yeah, in retrospect I guess the writing is not that important, since I'm in the if-I-want-a-good-story-I-read-a-book camp.
     
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  9. Jarpie Arcane Patron

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    Ultima 4-6 and especially 4 and 5 did great job with setting the mood and atmosphere with the whole package like the manuals, maps etc.

    Modern games have pretty much forgotten this and I don't think gamers even care.

    Sent from my Lenovo B8000-F using Tapatalk
     
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  10. Delterius Prestigious Gentleman Arcane

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    Nah. Its not worth ranking these. Everything has to work together. The soundtrack, the voice acting and the art direction need to work in concert to build on the writing. Its the same thing in movies, the best script in the world can fall short when the director is mediocre. And the cheesiest piece of drama can be amazing if everything falls into place.

    The one factor people are forgetting here is the game itself. Look at Dark Souls 1. The Art Direction, the Soundtrack (or lack thereof for the most part) and all work together to tell a story. The story in question is one of despair and hopelessness. The combat system is crucial in this storytelling because A) Dark Souls is celebrated as more difficult than most games; B) Dark Souls exploration is cuntish and often unfair, meaning the world is a dangerous place, it doesn't merely seem as such and C) The ways in which Dark Souls is 'realistic', the issues of collision and control in combat, at first limit the player and force him to work with the fact of being a tiny human in a world of giant monsters.
     
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  11. J_C One Bit Studio Patron Developer

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    For me sound (music, effects and ambiance overall) is the most important when it comes to atmosphere. You can have ugly graphics or bad writing, but good sound design gets me in the mood everytime.
     
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  12. Blowhard Arbiter

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    Thief is the ultimate atmosphere-fag game. And they picked a perfect game for showing off all that artistry. What do you do as a thief? Go places, take things. Well, taking things is just a matter of pressing a button, so those places have to be damn interesting to be in. And fuck if they aren't in Thief. There's no game that nails atmosphere that hard. And one thing Thief gets better than any game:

    SILENCE. I think atmosphere is made more powerful by a lack of. The less you have to use to convey a mood, the more powerful the atmosphere. It's in the name: atmosphere. In the background, ambiguous, implacable - it may or may not even technically exist. In Thief all it takes is the sound of a guard whistling, or Garret making a snide remark, or a low hum in the background as your footsteps pad across a carpet. The real story is going on in the player's head, and the tension generated by the player's imagination is stronger anything any coder could conjure up. Think of how many games desperately try to make you feel some sort of emotion by bludgeoning you over the head with orchestral scores and cinematics and walls of text when Thief can generate stronger emotions by magnitudes out of looped ambiance, bare bones geometry, and footsteps.
     
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  13. Unkillable Cat Prestigious Gentleman LEST WE FORGET Patron

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    :bro: for Blowhard.

    Which brings up a point - the Fallout (2) soundtrack. It's brilliant, it's appropriate, but it's everywhere, and sometimes that doesn't quite add up. Case in point, Redding in FO2. Even after all official FO2 patches were released, one of the Redding maps didn't play any music, only silence. This actually added to the atmosphere of the map, as this map in particular has the freight elevator that leads directly down to the Wanamingos - leading some players into a false sense of security, while filling others with a sense of dread.

    This is something both System Shock games also failed on. SS1's music is non-intrusive and mostly just blends into the background (save for the elevator muzak) but SS2's music only has a couple of "appropriate" music tracks - jungle triphop is NOT something that should be played aboard an infested Von Braun.
     
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  14. Naveen Arcane Patron

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    No, not really. Skyrim reuses some iconic soundtracks and it also has a lot of ambient noises, but it lacks something, and the game feels like a renaissance fair.

    I believe it's the feeling of discovery. All the games you have mentioned, from Thief to Stalker, gave me the feeling that there is something worth discovering; they made me think about something beyond the button-smashing present. Also, they are games with a lot of tension, and the player is usually on the edge. There is a reason the dungeon, the cave, the jungle, or the abandoned castle is the perfect atmospheric setting (a gothic novel in a supermarket is not really a good idea.) You can slap all the fancy music and sounds you want on a game, that's not going to make it atmospheric, although it may trick you for a long time. That's what movies do when they want to show something "epic", they add "epic music."
     
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  15. Gerrard Arcane

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    Balance in all things.

    The difference is that when Skyrim came out it's been mixed in with the rest of 10 years of hearing Jeremy "It's all the same shit" Soule's music.
     
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  16. Gambler Augur

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    "Atmospheric" is a word people use when people they want to write something general about a game, while being incapable of accurate descriptions, summaries or analysis. Same thing applies to "immersive". If you want to have a meaningful discussion or an informative review, it's better to avoid those terms.

    Gaming has experienced the unfortunate onslaught of self-proclaimed media and literary critics, Ph.D.'s and new wave journalists who desperately try to be high-brow. I find it hilarious that after several year all those people haven't managed to create any semblance of useful vocabulary or analytical frameworks to speak about anything. They dragged in some vacuous pose-modernist lingo, invented some social signalling terms like "ludo-narrative dissonance" ("look, I have at least a Master's degree in Useless Studies!"), but nothing of value. Social parasites.

    The point of that rant is that there are several mostly unrelated meanings behind what you could call "atmosphere":

    1. Success at synchronizing your mood to the mood of the protagonist.
    2. Ability to convey the overall feeling of being in a particular environment. Sense of presence.
    3. Engaging your emotions towards characters. I don't mean tear-jerking, more like "emotional reasoning" (which is also a term I dislike). Empathy, sympathy, personal dislike and so on.
    4. Ability to keep your attentive and encourage you to retain information.

    There are more.

    Those things might be related through the mechanisms that enable them, but you can easily have one without the others. For example, music is great for #1, but can actually interfere with #2.
     
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  17. vean Scholar

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    Clouds
     
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  18. Morgoth Arcane

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    Anticipation, Pacing, Looting shit mostly. What Blowhard said.
     
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  19. an Administrator Self-Ejected

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    1:Visuals.
    2:Sound effects
    3: Giving tension to player and encouraging him to interact with the world.
    4: Avoid making a huge empty world
     
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  20. For me the most important part of Thief's atmosphere is the brilliant sound design. It's the same with SS 2 for example.
    Both games would be totally unable to build up an dark athmosphere of imminent danger without the sound design of the enemies.
    Just think of midwives/undead Hammerites they just work because of sound design.
    Show Spoiler

     
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  21. Raapys Arcane

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    This makes atmosphere men:
     
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  22. undecaf Arcane Patron

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    I don't think there's any one thing or a ranking list of usual suspects. It's a sliding scale from the way how all the different elements from visual art to audio to writing and to gameplay play out together (regardless of whether they could be thought of as "well designed" by their individual merits in isolation). One or two really strong areas can hold the candle to some extent, but the faltering (unfit, so to speak) parts will inevitably work as an anchor to try and drag the whole thing down, and an over excellence of that one or those two parts makes the faults of others all the more visible. And so on and so forth, something along those lines.

    I liked the atmosphere best in the STALKER games. To me they felt they had the balance of these different elements just about right. The first Fallouts were nicely atmospheric, VtMB was nicely atmospheric; and in a weird way I found the remastered version of Wasteland 1 to be strangely atmospheric too (guess the added soundtrack did something to it, can't really tell, I don't remember what I thought of it when I played it with only the bleepings).
     
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  23. Karellen Prestigious Gentleman Prophet

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    This is something that I've been thinking about lately. Setting aside how exactly you define "atmosphere", it should be plain that there are games that successfully convey and inspire mood even though they have no graphics, no music, no sound or no writing. You can even do it with just gameplay mechanics, though generally there tend to be some other elements to produce context. Ultimately, the key thing is to pick ingredients that are appropriate for the game and support the intended experience and to do those things well; depending on what you're going for, having too much writing, needlessly large, beautiful explorable locations or an intrusive soundtrack might actually be incongruous with the experience as a whole, and you're better off without. The overall experience and how aesthetic elements blend together with the game is what ultimately creates mood.

    Having said all that, I would posit that a good soundtrack is by far the single most consistently powerful tool of the three. One of the main reasons why so many old Japanese games have such enduring appeal is that the soundtracks in those games are really good and, more to the point, carefully applied to the game's benefit. For instance, you can take a bland, repetitive part of the game with rudimentary graphical presentation and next to no gameplay significance and slap this song on top and twenty years later people will get misty-eyed thinking about it.
     
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  24. JarlFrank I like Thief THIS much

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    When talking Thief, don't forget the sound and the god-tier voice acting.
     
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