By Sam Coles:
There are times where we the players stop and take in the environment we are in, this can be because the situation is tense in horror or we are in awe as we explore a beautifully crafted open world as we drive, ride or fly through it. I want to go through a few examples of atmosphere in video games, from the dark and oppressive to the serine and calm and why they had an impact on me.
The first time I played The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion I wasn’t expecting it to impact me as much as it did when I first played it on PC when I was 14 years old. It started off by dragging me by the nose through a linear corridor within the Imperial Dungeons curb checking cult members, however it was when I left the darkness of dungeon is when I was encapsulated. The first time I emerged from the dungeons into the world of Cyrodiil, I was enthralled as sun shined over the green rolling hills as the magnificent musical score of Jeremy Soule chimed in.
Oblivion has a calm and collective atmosphere, I feel safe when I play this game as it is a game I like to play to relax with the vast towns, cities and rural villages, which I have yet to discover all of them over a decade later. Not to say that game can’t be action packed and tense, all you have to do is enter a cave or dungeon with the music switching from relaxing to dark and foreboding. When I play Oblivion I don’t necessarily partake in specific quests, I generally just roam the lands exploring, greeting NPCs and just soaking in the markets of the various towns as if it were my own region where I know the ins and outs of the area. The game is certainly crude by today’s standards but if you can ignore the character models and just take in the environment, it is almost tear inducing with how beautiful it is this why I hold this game in higher regard than Skyrim.
Another game that had me just exploring and just taking in the environment was The Witcher 3, I played The Witcher 2 before hand in 2012 when it debuted on the 360 where I then went back and read the two books that were translated into English at the time. The second game had detailed environments, but lacked the exploration of the world that I felt when I read the books as Geralt hunted monsters with his sharped witted friend and bard Dandelion.
When first started to explore the open world of The Witcher 3, I felt like Geralt did in the books where he was searching every nook and cranny for his prey while asking the locals, it represented his character from the books more in the third game compared to the second. As I walked through the streets of Novigrad and Oxenfurt it is as if they have leaked off the pages and onto my television screen, coupled by the beautiful musical score provided by the Polish folk band Percival.
Now we have the other end of the spectrum of atmosphere with the dark and oppressive environments in the world of F.E.A.R, this game at first seems to be another action game following the popularity of the Matrix of the time but it is more than that. F.E.A.R is more than just an action game; it is dripping with atmosphere, with its deep and dark corridors with music at a minimum. When there is music it has an industrial tone as you trudge through the oppressive environments as you hear are your footsteps echoing, coupled with the distant whispers of threats that are unknown which can be sweat inducing.
F.E.A.R is a game where you have to embrace the darkness, 99 percent of the game is enveloped in a thick layer of pitch black darkness, you would think this would hinder the experience but it doesn’t as it makes you feel uneasy as you have no idea what lurks human or not. The game is over the top with the gunfights, but after firefights the game slows down as all you can hear are the subtle laughs of Alma as well as objects flying off shelves as the restless ghosts are trying to push you away.
Resident Evil 4 although predominantly an action game, has a surprisingly solid horror atmosphere, don’t get me wrong you’ll be mainly knee capping monks and suplexing them. However the game can suddenly change and be very tense, as it disarms the player making them think this is a harmless action game and then it goes quiet and you just hear the ambient noises or the terrifying Regenerators. It was always a good juxtaposition to the action and a good reminder that it is a Resident Evil game, you have high octane action for it to then to switch the atmosphere to terrifying, and again the lack of music in these segments coupled with the sound of the environments is all you need.
Atmosphere in video games can be something that comforts you or it can be used to terrify the player and keep them on edge, when a game gets it right it is absolutely beautiful and it sucks you into that world.