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  • Take It All In: Imbuing Games With A Potent Atmosphere

    - Michel Sabbagh

  • 1 - Embrace a guiding motif to maximize atmospheric potency and consistency

    One of the key issues that the developers must keep in mind with regards to achieving the intended kind and level of ambiance is to determine and stick to a specific style that will communicate and unify the character of each of the title's discrete spaces. This decision can make or break the world's unique identity and one's perception of it since immersion hinges heavily upon the cohesiveness of the multiple components that constitute the product as a whole. Having a hodgepodge of motifs trying to one-up another for the top spot would result in one being confused as to what precisely they're supposed to feel, which can spoil the mood and remind people that they're merely in a game. Ergo, the designer must see to it that the primary tone not only governs the prevailing aura everywhere in the experience, but also ensures that the architecture and vibe of the levels or open world make sense within the context.

    Voodoo Vince demonstrates the sizable benefits of coating the game with a unifying theme with flying colors, both literally and figuratively. Over the course of this 2003 platformer, Beep Industries hardly make any secrets of their infatuation with Louisianan culture and aesthetics. From the twisted, chasm-ridden streets of New Orleans teeming with pockets of nightlife to the muggy and dense bayous that house all sorts of cartoonish but menacing critters, players will be exposed to all kinds of vibrant locales that hardly if ever veer away from the title's defining characteristic. Combined with the eponymous protagonist's makeup and Steve Kirk's chirpy composition, Voodoo Vince oozes Southern style wherever one may go, engendering an experience that inspires an intense desire in the participant to casually explore and take in the eccentric scenery.

    Given that an identity crisis can rob any work of art of its personality and make its components harder to appreciate in the participant's eyes, it's only logical for one to adopt a stylistic concept and do their best not to veer away from it. This can be a tricky endeavor for the developer since they also have to shake things up from a level/world design perspective in order to keep the player engaged and immersed, but the presence of a principal motif does at least streamline the process. By focusing the thematic research phase on that of memory, imagination and fact, the designer can effectively conceptualize and produce stages/regions that convey the through-line of the experience in multifarious ways, begetting an assortment of stages that can stand out on their own while still feeling contextually felicitous.

    2 - Apply dynamism to the geometry with a mixture of variable lighting and shadows

    In addition to imbuing the overarching space with a predominant aesthetic that is reflected everywhere one may go, the developers must also take care to avoid having the world feel static in any way, something that can be accomplished visually through careful distribution of luminous and tenebrous properties. As creatures that are predisposed to the consumption of ocular stimuli, humans derive their sentiments of specific places from the locales' colors that are tweaked in accordance with the light sources that gradually breathe life into the environment and/or enshroud it in a sea of uncertainty. Depending on atmospheric needs at certain points in one's playthrough, having a particular balance of lighting and darkness meticulously assigned to the virtual field can yield a palpable ambiance that neatly complements the experience's gameplay and story beats.

    One title that pulls no punches whatsoever with regards to its implementation of lighting is the 2004 stealth 'em up Thief: Deadly ShadowsRight from the get-go, the player will perceive just how essential to the sense of place the conspicuous (and mostly extinguishable) light sources dotting the City are. Whether the gamer is skulking about the corridors of the Shalebridge Cradle or the dingy Pagan Sanctuary lying underneath South Quarter, harsh shadows that become lightly distorted with the crackling of the fire producing them and moonlight seeping gently through window glass will paint the entire surfaces the Master Thief walks and hugs. In a world that mostly wants the avatar behind bars, the darkness will prove to be his best friend, and the tactile atmosphere stemming from said darkness and its opposite enables the participant to feel deeply grounded in the space.

    Being a natural agent that can produce eye-catching byproducts under the right environmental circumstances, light serves as an elegant tool for adding color and/or mood to the virtual space in a way that can visually transform the adventure. While the application of that graphical resource must still be considerate from a technical and artistic perspective, the developer can essentially treat the physical geometry as an elaborate canvas on which they can experiment to identify the best mixture of bright and dark properties for an individual level or region. Combined with a concrete understanding of the macro and micro experience goals governing the title, the designer is capable of concocting a dynamic ambiance that can prove unforgettably inviting, terrifying or something in between to the participant.

    3 - Leverage the soundscape to maintain the player's level of attention in the environment

    Of course, how one's surroundings are graphically depicted is just a single part of the atmospheric equation, for audio plays a similarly crucial role in imparting the spirit of the space. Because a human being's field of view has little to no impact on what they can hear compared to the visual information they receive, the developers can take advantage of this sensory limitation to relay the audio work in clever and all-encompassing fashions without necessarily having to rely on the gamer's other senses. Whether they want to further drive home the characteristic nature of the world or have the player shift their focus on an outstanding detail they don't see, the designer's gamut of possibilities with regards to keeping one engaged on an auditory level is only limited by their imagination and what the setting in question can ethereally transmit.

    2007's S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl  wears such attention-to-detail on its radioactive sleeves and never lets up when it comes to audibly conveying its tone. As a sentient landmass that's awash with all sorts of paranormal anomalies and mutated fiends preying on artifact-grubbing scavengers, the grim Zone of Alienation envelops one's senses with every step they make, with the ambient soundscape being its standout weapon of choice. Feral hounds barking in the distance, swirling winds that may or may not stem from a Whirligig, and the occasional shimmering of the vegetation juxtapose with the guitar strings and campfire banter that call the player's attention to nearby humans. GSC Game World's intention with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was simple: to make people feel more like the hunted than the hunter their avatar technically is, with the Zone's merest windfart being enough to instill an eerie sensation within its inhospitable embrace.

    As a general rule of thumb for having an indelible soundscape, the developer can determine how immersive it is simply by ignoring the visual elements (i.e. closing their eyes) and focusing on the auditory ones, which can guide them toward the best audio mixture for their purposes. Similar to the issue of atmospheric lighting, the designer can make use of the physical field's layout and structure to ascertain noteworthy possibilities for arousing one's senses in a fashion that hovers between pleasant and foreboding. When also taking into account the world's level of activity and scope (which will be covered later in this article), the title can generate a euphonious biosphere that'll further engross and ground the player into their surroundings as they become acquainted with them.


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