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Atmosphere can elevate an already attractive environment to new heights when elegantly conceived and conveyed. Its ethereal nature, however, means it's not clear-cut from a development standpoint. Bethesda alum Michel Sabbagh analyzes the ambient effect.

Michel Sabbagh, Blogger

June 21, 2018

17 Min Read

When it comes to engrossing the participant into a work of art, one of the most efficacious concepts a creative talent can leverage to have their vision fully realized and capable of enthralling even the most discerning of critics is the idea of using visual and/or auditory tone to create a gateway into whatever world said participant witnesses or conjures up in their mind, namely via the work's "ambiance". Whether it's to make a personal statement about the human experience or simply scratch that sensory itch in consumers, artists can freely project a specific atmospheric impression onto them using the tools and themes at their disposal to have their creation beckon the audience. It's a neat trick that worked its charm in literature, cinema, theater, music and painting, with video gaming being no different.

Having undergone a sizable gestation phase since the medium's advent and showcasing its true potential with the move to 3D (as seen in 1997's Blood and 1998's Grim Fandango), atmosphere has simultaneously contributed to the reinforcement of the immersion factor and corroborated the idea of gaming being a powerful art form. On top of complementing and even contextualizing a title's presentational and gameplay aspects, ambiance also accentuates the player's appreciation of the experience and makes the designer's invitation to their world that much more irresistible. To put it simply, the concept of a tangible mood that can be perceived and admired through vicarious means alone (e.g. watching someone else's playthrough) can be utilized as an effective tool for luring the participant into the virtual environment and remaining there for additional reasons.

Given its reliance on technical resources and artistic features, a game's vibe has only become more multilayered and conspicuous at the turn of the century. From the vibrant (and daunting) stages that make up Snake Pass (2017) to the Canadian hinterlands that prey on the avatar in The Long Dark (2017), the flexibility and power on offer has enabled developers in all genres to generate an aura of any quality (e.g. mystery, charm, wonder) capable of captivating people from all walks of life. But as I explained in my piece on the importance of presentation two years earlier, the recycling of narratives, themes and audiovisual traits can impact or, worse still, homogenize the title's character to the point of déjà vu (hence the aforementioned point I made about atmosphere being tied to the designer's technological and creative considerations).

Atmosphere can elevate an already fetching virtual world to new heights when elegantly conceived. Its ethereal nature, however, means that it's not exactly clear-cut from a development standpoint, making its strengths and weaknesses more elusive and liable to tampering. As a phenomenon arising from a combination of various audiovisual and mechanical aspects, ambiance stands as a somewhat delicate quality that can be well-produced under the right circumstances and alongside the roamable environment. This requires the developers to have a fundamental understanding of their vision and craft their title's physical makeup to accommodate all sorts of opportunities for promoting a certain mood that sets the appropriate tone for the experience and accompanies the participant throughout their adventure.

To corroborate the above thoughts, I shall provide six useful ground rules for producing a palpably rich atmosphere that not only enthralls the player, but also complements the game's overall presentation and/or mechanics in a harmonious fashion. For each principle, I’m going to present an example that nails that particular guideline.

DISCLAIMER: The tips I'm sharing with you may or may not be compatible with every title depending on the designer's philosophy and vision, but they serve as general tenets that can benefit the product when well-implemented.

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 Shadows. Right 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.

4 - Provide a balance of wide open and enclosed areas to optimize scope and detail

Having a paramount motif for crafting the perfect vibe for their game may go a long way toward refining the virtual environment's character, but the developers' efforts can still be undermined if they fail to consider another significant aspect of ambient design: breadth and depth of universal detail. Because long-term exposure to a single quantity of audiovisual stimuli can prove stale in the human mind and cause the player to tune out and yearn for something different, the designer mustn't rule out the possibility of expanding or narrowing the horizons throughout one's playthrough. By offering the participant a palate-cleansing variety of compact/broad spaces that prioritize subtleties/grandeur, the developers can keep the experience feeling fresh and the gamer continuously engaged as they bask in the ever-shifting nature of the setting.

The historically inclined Kingdom Come: Deliverance impressively incorporates that careful balance of atmospheric breadth and depth into its framework. Throughout this 2018 role-playing epic, Warhorse Studios make no qualms about their Bohemian pedigree, something the avatar will briskly pick up upon as they're trekking through the meadows and settlements adorning the medieval countryside. The grassy hills and thick woodlands that stretch for miles on end ingrain in one's mind a sense of scale that sells them into the idea that they're inhabiting a full-fledged kingdom, while the furnished and moodily lit interiors inside cities, towns and villages beget a lived-in impression that reflects the livelihoods of their occupants. Having both the inside and outside worlds contrast with one another with convincing results on both ends can make for welcome changes of pace that ensure the player never feels deprived of anything best appreciated from afar or up-close, resulting in the immersion factor being solidly maintained.

With a landmass whose complexity and size can vary from one spot to the other comes opportunities for scenery changes that can accentuate certain visual aspects such as coziness and splendor. While the ratio of interior and exterior spaces (and how big/small each of them are) is up to the developer to decide, the aforementioned issue of long-term exposure to a homogeneous form of stimuli means that the likelihood of ambient shifts should remain in one way or another. The designer can fulfill that promise through an understanding of how they can tweak the spatial parameters (in accordance with the title's pacing) and where the participant may go, all without violating the guiding theme or technical restraints. Doing this can translate to a world that not only feels balanced, but also has a little something for everyone in terms of atmospheric preferences.

5 - Tweak activity levels in the space to showcase contrasts between isolation and company

While the environment in and of itself does act as the foremost conduit for the developer's choice of vibe, a lax attitude toward what inhabits it and how it is allocated over the course of the experience can undo much of its intended effect. This is where the designer has to be especially careful while designing and tweaking the aura because the amount of action in a particular level or region of the world can achieve one of two results: supplementing the artistic considerations of the surroundings the gamer is in OR overpowering the spatial motifs to the point where the player is more distracted than focused. Combined with the issue of scale and audiovisual fidelity, nailing the appropriate level and type of activity can have a transformative impact on the final product, with the positive outcome engendering a unique ambiance that takes full advantage of the medium.

Abzû serves as a peerless example of placing the participant in an environment that can prove tranquil and lively in similar quantities. Being set entirely within a vast body of water with few opportunities for land-based exploration, Giant Squid leverages its underwater romp's setting to spice things up and downplay them as well with regards to the fauna and flora one will come across. With seemingly boundless vistas filled with all varieties of fish that surround the player, and sunken structures that encircle the main character with silence and darkness, the title hardly overwhelms the avatar or deprives them of the audiovisual appeal that can arouse the senses in Mother Nature's aquatic abode. True to its thematic premise of soothing but never overbearing solitude, Abzû rewards people for taking their time admiring the scenery and letting its atmosphere enfold them as they witness and cherish what marine life has to offer.

Because of the aforementioned human need for ocular and auditory stimuli that should alternate between sparse and dense, how active a locale can be must become a consideration on the developer's part that can greatly affect one's impression of the experience. This means that when it comes to building the space that'll accommodate the entities present in it, the designer must provide a certain amount of room for any number of dynamic props or NPCs whose actions will convey the appropriate aura for whichever spot the gamer is in. Failure to do so may result in areas that either feel too lifeless or overwhelming for their own good, with success begetting a sense of place that is befitting of the title's overall tone and communication of it throughout the player's journey.

6 - Structure the environment in a congruent fashion to solidify the mood

As exciting as the atmospheric permutations the designer is capable of realizing can be, the risk of them not making sense in the grand scheme of things from a topographical viewpoint can still haunt the development process in spite of their tonal consistency. While more easily achievable within a relatively seamless field than a series of separate levels broken up by load times or choke points, having the space arranged in a manner that suggests verisimilitude can enable the avatar to remain focused on appreciating the flow and potency of the ambiance without ever paying attention to whatever seams the developers may have left in the game. By visualizing the virtual world and brainstorming ways to smartly connect its components, the designer can simultaneously solidify the game's aura and keep one well-grounded in their environs and the impression they get out of them.

What Remains of Edith Finch embodies the principle of building a setting that achieves its effect via its congruousness. With most of the title taking place inside an eclectic family home, Giant Sparrow saw to it that the player would become acquainted with and captivated by the idiosyncratic layout of the house. From the moment the titular character sets foot inside the mucky kitchen and right till the end when she gains access to the final bedrooms, the participant will gradually map out a picture of the sundry areas they'll be visiting, with their respective vibes and levels of coziness being their defining features. By juxtaposing the moody quarters with one another and having them connected in several ways (e.g. crawlspaces), What Remains of Edith Finch paints the idea of an atypical estate that derives its atmosphere from its quirky harmony, made all the more tangible by the building's tightness that emphasizes the attention-to-detail.

Similar to the idea of a predominant motif governing the title's aesthetics, having an idea of the interconnectedness between different stages/regions can provide the designer with a chance to reinforce the feeling of cohesion that can make or break immersion. The potential for atmospheric synergy means that the developer must ensure that every major facet of the audiovisual presentation and geographical makeup mesh well with people's expectations of the space and their locomotional abilities, which can yield some experimental risks that may or may not pay off. When structural congruence is achieved, however, the environment can manifest itself as one that respects the player's suspension of disbelief and even presents a kind of plausibility within the in-game context that adds a lot to the ambiance, no matter how surreal the journey may be.

As a medium whose level of interactivity enables the participant to be let loose and uncover the designer's universe at their own pace and leisure, video gaming acts as an immaculate substrate for all kinds of feelings that can be efficiently meted out via the virtual world and its contents. By perceiving said world as a character of sorts with its own idiosyncrasies and identifying the means through which its tone can be imparted in an unobtrusive and organic manner, the developer can craft an experience that transcends its physical features and delivers an aura that mantles the player at every turn. The principles I provided throughout this post will ensure that whichever mood the designer envisions and seeks to realize, they'll be able to wield and leverage the tools and resources necessary to augment the immersion factor and impel gamers in an adventure whose ethereal qualities make them wish it could go on in perpetuity.

Let me know what you think of my article in the comments section, and feel free to ask me questions! I’ll do my best to get back to you as promptly as possible.

Personal blog: https://michelsabbagh.wordpress.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Watfen64

LinkedIn: https://ca.linkedin.com/in/sabbaghmichel

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Email: [email protected]

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