Video games today are far more immersive than ever, and that isn’t simply because consoles and PCs have gotten more powerful.
A lot of the beauty and appeal in modern games comes down to a less quantifiable factor: Atmosphere.
Atmosphere, when done right, can turn the bundle of programming, art, and sound that we call a video game into something so much more than the sum of its parts.
Though it is easily overlooked, especially for newer devs focused more on the nitty-gritty of game development, the atmosphere is a crucial component for any successful release.
In this article, we will cover the basics of game atmosphere, so you can better appreciate it in the games you play, and improve the atmosphere of the games you create.
What Is Game Atmosphere?
When we talk about a game’s ‘atmosphere’, we don’t mean things like virtual clouds. In fact, ‘atmosphere’ is no single thing in itself.
Rather, the ‘atmosphere’ of any game is a combination of many things: art, sound, post-processing effects, story, dialogue, and more.
The best way to understand the atmosphere may be through an example. Compare two games Breath of the Wild and Elden Ring. Both are open-world action-adventure games with fantasy elements and similar mechanics.
Yet both give off very different feelings, owing in large part to their unique atmospheres.
Breath of the Wild features picturesque natural environments, whimsical characters, vibrant colors, and perky sound effects. All of this creates a more lighthearted fantasy world.
We feel the desire to protect this beautiful world and the characters we meet, playing nicely with the game’s story.
Elden Ring on the other hand has a darker atmosphere. The game features edgier imagery, corrupted natural environments, hostile characters, and realistic sound effects.
Overall, it is a more moody atmosphere that lends a sense of dread, and this goes along nicely with the hostile game mechanics players will be up against.
In this example, neither game has a better atmosphere than the other. Rather, each game is made great by a purposeful use of atmosphere that helps to communicate the developers’ vision for the world and how the player should feel about it. This is the power of the game atmosphere.
‘Atmosphere’ vs ‘Game-Feel’
In game development, there is also another closely related concept of ‘game-feel’.
While both ‘game-feel’ and atmosphere are important and affect how the player feels about a game, ‘game-feel’ tends to be more about the moment-to-moment experience of playing a game and the way a player interacts with the world.
Atmosphere on the other hand is more all-encompassing and abstract.
Why Is It Important For Games To Have An Atmosphere?
Game atmosphere can do a lot to improve the overall impression of your game, so it’s important to make it a part of your game.
On the other hand, a lack of atmosphere, or an atmosphere that is at odds with the game’s mechanical and narrative design can be off-putting to players and lead to poor reception.
It’s also important to consider that the bar for video games is being set ever higher, even for indies. That means players have come to expect a certain level of polish in games. If you release a game with no atmosphere, players will notice something ‘off’, even if they aren’t sure what.
A game with a good atmosphere feels alive, making it much easier for the player to feel immersed. This has many positive benefits. It makes the player invested in the world, making them more likely to continue playing and to make great memories of the game.
It makes the game into more than just a game, but into an emotional experience.
A game with a bad atmosphere can be distracting and take the player out of the game. In the worst case, a poor atmosphere can even end up diminishing work you’ve done in other areas, sabotaging your player’s impression of other aspects like the story or gameplay.
How To Design Your Game Atmosphere
Atmosphere in game design is the sum of many parts. For this reason, it can actually be a complex task to really nail the atmosphere you are going for, even if you have a good idea of what that is. If you don’t have a clear game atmosphere in mind – good luck!
For these reasons, you should consider your game’s atmosphere from the very start. Having a clear idea of the atmosphere will help guide your decisions through the entire project, and help you to tie your atmosphere more closely to the other elements of your game.
Here are some things to consider when deciding your game’s atmosphere, sorted into the different categories that go into game development.
Visuals are obviously a major part of games, and these may be the biggest area where your atmosphere will be developed. Things like color palettes, textures, and lighting all help to build a mood, as well as animation and how things in your world move and interact.
Another big part of the atmosphere in games is the weather and particle effects. Is your world stormy and moody, or bright and sunny? Is there a fog obscuring hidden threats, or is the level in clear view for easy puzzle-solving?
Finally, post-processing is a small thing that can make a big difference. Effects like bloom, motion blur, and lens artifacts can add that extra bit of polish to your project.
Game sound will probably be the second most important factor in the atmosphere of your game. Ideally, your player should be able to close their eyes and hear what kind of world they are in.
Imagine how a realistic shooter like Battlefield would feel with cartoon sound effects. While it may be humorous for a moment, after long enough it would get grating. On the other hand, a game like Super Mario Odyssey benefits a lot from more cartoonish sounds and might feel empty with more realistic sounds.
Music (or the lack of music) can be another big factor. A good score can raise tension, create a sense of security, or even play a narrative role through the use of recurring motifs.
Finally, ambient sound can be a great way to make your world feel alive. Adding this detail to your game will make the world come alive even in quiet moments.
Story, Dialogue, and Characters
Atmosphere and story have a very important relationship, often helping to accentuate one another. The types of things that happen in your game world, as well as the beings that live, should feel in line with the overall vibe of the world itself
Characterization can be a big aspect here as well. A great example of this is the FPS-puzzler Portal. The game features very few characters who are mostly heard through voiceover and whom we can’t interact with.
Despite this, the main antagonist GLaDOS has become one of the most beloved and memorable characters in gaming, and really helped to set the mysterious and brooding mood of Aperture Science, all thanks to expert voice acting and writing.
Finally, gameplay should not be seen as a separate element from the atmosphere. The way the player interacts with the world is going to shape their impression of it.
If your world is easy to navigate and motion feels fluid, the game will feel very different from a world where even simple tasks present much resistance. Is the game simplistic and easy to understand, or are mechanics obscure and complicated?
All of this can add to the atmosphere.
A great example of this is the game Death Stranding. Though often humorously described as a ‘walking simulator’ this is actually a major element in driving the game’s atmosphere.
The player has to always be paying attention to the world rather than just breezing through, and this helps them to really feel the severity and danger of the game’s setting.
Examples of Games With Good Atmospheres
Many of the games mentioned in this article so far present great examples of masterful game atmosphere, but here are some more for you to take inspiration from, or just to enjoy playing.
- Silent Hill – One of the most famous early examples of atmosphere in 3D gaming, the all-consuming fog turned technical limitations into a genius atmospheric choice.
- The Last of Us – In an era of arcade zombie games, Naughty Dog went for a slower more character-driven game, giving it a very impactful atmosphere.
- The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask – the younger brother of Ocarina of Time keeps players on edge and makes for a much gloomier and darker feeling entry to this usually-colorful series.
- Bioshock Series – The worlds of Rapture and Columbia ooze atmosphere. Though the settings couldn’t be more different, they both set the mood of the games perfectly through visuals, sound, story, and more.
These are only a few of the games that stand out most to me, and there are dozens of others that fit the bill. If you’re interested in learning more about adding atmosphere to a game one of the best places to start would be with the games you love.
Play them with a careful eye on what choices they make and why, and make notes on how you feel at certain moments, and how this feeling is achieved. With some careful planning and smart execution, your game may be ranked among these greats as well!
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