Bleak Atmosphere 0 - Happy Clouds 3
A lot is said about emotion in games these days, and with good reason. Emotion is the absolute heart of all human experiences. None of us would do anything if it didn’t have some emotional feedback so of course we want to find it in the games we play.
Atmosphere is also intrinsically linked to emotional resonance, although I would still see them as two different components of a piece of art/media/design/whateveryouthinkgamesaretoday. The problem is that many games, and many game designers, have got an exceptionally wrong headed idea about what emotion and atmosphere in games actually means.
We’re going to take the player to new places, places they may not wish to go!
Here’s my beef.
When game people say “Our game is extremely atmospheric” they usually mean “We turned off most of the lights.”
When game people say “It’s a deeply emotional experience!” they usually mean “We had a female character but we threw her off the top of a building.”
The problem is that the term “atmospheric” comes with the unspoken pre-fix of “oppressive” or “gloomy”. This is in the same way that the word “emotional” lands pre-supplied with any number of hidden adjectives, but usually it means “a bit angsty, a bit negative, oooh dear she died” (and yes, it usually is a she). I’m not going to go into the generally poor treatment female secondary characters receive in video game narratives, (there are many good articles and blog posts on the subject) but cheap deaths are an all too common occurrence to make you feel sad.
Both of these issues reveal the stunted emotional range to which games often aspire. A linguistic shorthand that actually serves to skip a critical part of the creative process - that being the question, “Just what type of atmosphere or emotion should be created through the game.”
Atmosphere is not inherently gloomy, atmosphere can be fun, or surreal or chaotic or childlike. Similarly emotion can be positive, cheerful, surprise, amusement, fascination, sometimes even confusion. There’s plenty of funny, lighted hearted, joyful games out there. From the wonderful Loco Roco to the delirious Whale Trail. These are games with exceptionally well honed atmospheres yet they’d never crop up in discussions of the most atmospheric games.
Work the Player, not the Character
There’s several interesting things going on here, first off is the poor use of narrative in games. I say poor use as opposed to simply poor because it is perfectly possible for a good narrative to be mishandled by a game and for a poor narrative to be used as the backbone for a surprisingly enthralling game. (I’d look at Infamous in this instance, it’s a clichéd, hackneyed plot but provides a framework for a really entertaining game.)
We often forget that the emotion of the player is the true prize, not the emotion of the characters within the game narrative. Yes, use of narrative is a great and obvious way to manipulate the emotions of the player, but we should always remember that we are trying to get the player to feel, not to observe. This is how poor use of narrative can affect a game. If the designer fails to appreciate that the emotions of the player are the most important factor, then the game can fall flat on its face. Instead of passive narrative we should be talking about the emotions of play itself. The delicious pleasure we get from simply moving that little red dot around can be just as satisfying, if not more so, as watching Sniper Wolf spend twenty minutes moaning about how her jacket doesn’t button up at the front.
I think that because a lot of the fun, bright, unapologetically cheerful games forego the epic cutscenes and put all their effort into the gameplay itself, the emotional content is overlooked.
Yeah, man, it’s like really DAAARRRRK!
I don’t know if this is simply a semantic issue, where people actually mean dark when they say atmospheric or emotional. Or perhaps it actually reveals a slightly dismissive attitude to positive feeling games. Is there some barely concealed belief that all this Goth-up-trees Emo nonsense is somehow more sophisticated and culturally valuable than cheerful squirrels and smiling clouds?
Personally, I think it’s a little from column A and a little from column B.
To those in Column A that just use the wrong words, I won’t judge you too harshly, unless you’re a game journalist in which case - please leave games and writing alone for the rest of your life.
As for the column B-ers. You lot need to grow up. Seriously. I have no intention to disparage the power of loss, pain and tragedy in art, but there are countless wonderful, relevant and culturally important games, books, films and works of art that are cheerful, funny, warm hearted and pleasing.
As game designers we should be proud to create experiences of all kinds. To dismiss positive feelings as being inherently less valuable than gloomy angst is a stupid, foolish mistake. Getting a player to feel happy, excited, hopeful, surprised or bemused is just as great a goal as getting them to feel scared, sad, angry, vengeful or frustrated. And getting the player to feel those things while they are actually playing the game is perheps the greatest goal of all.
Here’s some games that I think are atmospheric or emotional. Some are in the traditional acceptance of the terms, some are significantly less so. (Add your own in the comments.)
Loco Roco - Everything smiles at you. Or sings to you. One of the defacto standards in cheeful atmosphere games.
Halo: Combat Evolved - Clearly a traditional piece of atmospheric game design, and a good example of “good use” of narrative rather than strictly a “good” narrative. There’s an unforgettable sense of isolation and desperation when standing alone on the beautiful hillsides of the Halo. That isolation is gradually replaced with hope as you reassemble the UNSC corp, then crushed as the Flood emerge and leave you in an even worse situation. It genuine emotional dynamic. More interestingly, hope is rarely used as a key gameplay dynamic in video games.
Tiny Tower - Those Bitizens pack a tremendous amount of character into those chunky little pixels. Their posts on Bitbook and the general feeling of busy lives coupled with the constant demands made on you as the player make you really feel part of this little community. It all combines to lend the game a startlingly tangible atmosphere.
Lego Star Wars - There’s a wonderful warmth and humour present in every game in the Lego series. The Star Wars games succeed by creating a completely fresh sense of fun on top of the romantic adventure of the source material.
Tiny Wings - A wonderful combination of sweet music and the strange sense of isolation in this almost entirely lifeless, windswept landscape. The inevitable loss to the fall of night and the perfectly realised graphical style make Tiny Wings actually one of the most atmospheric games of the past few years without even trying. (Limbo - I’m looking at you and shaking my head)
Portal - Again, one of the more conventionally atmospheric games, but one that adopts a more sophisticated approach to most of its Myspace-haircut-wielding brethren. The emptiness, the sterility and the marvellous drip feed of the mystery behind the Enrichment Centre builds to a truly exceptional piece of atmospheric game design.
Jogosity loved Ico and thinks that it is clearly one of the most atmospheric games he’s ever played, but enough has been written about Ico and the whole point of this post was to highlight the other side of atmosphere. Please add your own alternative-atmosphere games in the comments!