How Atmosphere Can Make or Break a Game

I think that there are a lot of things about game that are done brilliantly by most, and then there are some things that are done incredibly poorly. One of the biggest offenders would have to be atmosphere in games. It is actually a topic that is discussed quite heavily and is something that I still feel a lot of games completely miss the mark on. It might not be fair to expect videogames to have the level of atmosphere that a film or album by a master could do, but at the same time, eventually videogames will have to be held to certain standards or the format will simply be written off completely.

Videogames tend to have a laser-sharp focus on this abstract concept of “graphics,” and that the better the “graphics” are that the better the game is. In a way, it reminds me a lot of the arms race to have bigger, better, more powerful guns, when the reality is a gun in a skilled hand can do more than a bigger gun in a less-skilled hand. The same goes for games. There are some times when there is just too much atmosphere in a game or just too little, and very rarely is there any sense of balance involved in any of them, and a lot of times we get this strange concept of better graphics as a way to create an atmosphere, but it seems to fail.

There is no better example in my mind of a game without a real atmosphere than the Gears of War series. Now, I’m not knocking those games, because for all of their faults, they are incredibly fun games and I’m not sure that they are trying to create any sort of interesting atmosphere. Graphically, it is on par with just about everything else using the Unreal Engine and the aesthetic seems to just be muscled-up freaks with big guns. The thing is, you could play through that entire series of games and never feel all-that attached to them because there is something very artificial about them. Sure, it is a game and everything about it is artificial, but it is almost like they didn’t try to truly pull you in.

Graphically, Telltale’s The Walking Dead really isn’t all-that spectacular, in fact, it really does look a bit worse-for-wear, never mind the fact that it goes for a more cartoon-like style over realism. Yet, even though the visual style and graphics are not going for a realistic style, the game does an amazing job of creating an atmosphere that most games can’t do. I tend to stay away from games that veer on the side of horror as the idea of atmosphere tends to be lumped into dark and dreary with close camera angles and overly-dramatic music playing at all times. The Walking Dead doesn’t rely entirely on these things, and isn’t looking for sheer shock factor in the scares, instead the entire game has a feeling like it is taking place in a world where in your mind you can actually piece it together and feel for the characters.

While those are only two recent examples, I believe that they sum up how atmosphere can take a good game and make it a great game, and how a game without atmosphere can still be fun, but be missing that “it” factor that makes for a great game.

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