So 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 a human being; as well as a huge, blood-stained mechanical behemoth, and a flickering clock on the wall painting the numerals 00:00 on the gloom.
Feeling a little disturbed, I press on and squeeze out of the pipes into absolute, sheer darkness. There’s a steady little 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 two-foot 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.
This is Saw: The Video Game, a shining example of a bad game made moderately playable because of its atmosphere – and, while it’s quite frankly broken in parts, I can’t help but enjoy it thanks to moments like the one described above. Yes, a good game can be let down by a lack of atmosphere, but it’s worth remembering that games with a lot of flaws can be forgiven for a number of them if the player is presented with a world that really draws them in.
There’s a scene in Kane & Lynch: Dead Men set in a crowded Tokyo nightclub that has the hapless duo kidnapping the daughter of a Japanese crime lord and carrying her unconscious body across the club. Its packed wall-to-wall with people, the music is loud enough to be disorienting and the strobe lighting obscures the flashlights of the guards and blurs the line between enemy and innocent bystander. The scene overall is a tense, frenetic gangfuck that left me feeling drained and exhilarated in equal measures, which almost made up for almost everything else about the game being spectacularly bad.
When I play a game, I want to feel as though I’m involved. I want to invest actual emotions in the characters and the world, and as a result I want to be affected by all of the conflict and drama. If you imagine gameplay and narrative as the two slices of bread in a sandwich, then atmosphere is the filling that holds everything together, if you see what I mean. Without a good atmosphere the player is constantly reminded that they’re actually just pressing buttons, and nothing is more damaging to immersion than that.
I remember being decidedly underwhelmed by The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion because despite its technical prowess it just didn’t draw me in and hold my attention. Yes, the world was huge, but it was visually uninteresting. Every new bit of terrain felt exactly like the last, which soon turned navigating into a chore. To make matters worse, whenever I came across a character I could interact with they stood there with a vacant expression muttering the same lines of badly-written dialogue again and again. As my girlfriend keeps assuring me, size doesn’t matter, and I’d much rather have a smaller, deeper world populated with relatable and interesting characters than a sprawling map that’s shallower than a dinner plate.
Atmosphere isn’t just about how a game looks and sounds, although that’s certainly important. What it really comes down to are the details, more often than not small things which you barely notice but nonetheless have a profound impact on your experience.
Consider Bioshock, a game with an atmosphere so thick that you can feel it draped over your shoulders. Every aspect of Rapture gels seamlessly together to create a truly believable dystopia: a once-prosperous civilization gone terribly awry. It feels real, alive, and when you’re within that world you feel as though you’re a part of it. 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.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately (perhaps as a result of writing fiction), and it’s a topic I’m definitely going to cover in more depth in the near future. For now, feel free to list other examples of bad games with great atmosphere (or vice versa) in the comments. Maybe we can get a discussion going or some shit.