The Power of Atmosphere

Whilst my internet was recently out for a week I did a number of things I don’t normally do: rip out & replant a whole garden, socialise outdoors with friends, and revisit countless games I thought I’d played to death. You’ll be pleased to know I’m going to be talking about the latter.

Atmosphere is the most powerful element of any story-driven game, but also the most commonly overlooked. In a world where changing game mechanics and drama over design philosophies hogs the limelight, we seem to be missing the “soul” that brings life to so many outstanding titles. This ever-crucial atmosphere can be made up of any number of different factors, from the visual design to the soundtrack, right down to the nitty-gritty of story direction and character interaction, and it’s so easy to lose sight of the importance of that concoction.

Let’s take Halo 3: ODST, one of my favourite games of all time, for example. I’m convinced it’s not only the best but also the most underrated Halo title of all time. It didn’t have the iconic multiplayer of its predecessors, nor the famous green protagonist and his trusty purple digi-lady either. What it did have, was an identity all of its own – a unique spin on the series that brought so much new life to the formula whilst feeling like the Halo you knew and loved.

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ODST had it all – excellent character design, engaging yet familiar gameplay and a varied campaign. Most importantly, despite feeling just like its predecessors it had a soul of its own which made it feel so very different. Marty O’ Donnell & Michael Salvatori’s legendary Halo themes of wonder and triumph were brushed to one side to open the floor to a totally different type of soundtrack. The slow, solemn saxophone waltzes coupled with delicate piano melodies were *ahem* instrumental in producing an overwhelming sense of despair and loneliness as the Rookie explores New Mombasa, not knowing if any of his squad are still alive.

The story of ODST is ultimately one of loss – salvaging one single asset from a devastated capital city. Even in the flashback missions where you have many allies, the missions are ultimately still failures, the only victory being the survival of the player characters. The game doesn’t throw this fact in your face though, you experience it naturally as the dialogue, set pieces and music come together to form an atmosphere where victory IS survival. This struggle is what takes a game that, on paper, is no different from the machine gun romps of earlier Halo titles and paints it in a totally different light that puts the player’s expectations on the back foot.

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I could talk for hours about the composition of ODST but the fact is this game is one of many that come and go with little appreciation given for the atmospheric masterpieces they embody. Next time you jump into a new game, take a few minutes to stop, look around and take in the skybox, listen to the music and think about the choices behind that track. Why did the villain say what they did in that last cutscene? What does it tell you about their motivations and the world this game is set in?

Perhaps the atmosphere is so well crafted, so natural, you don’t even notice its influence on the game. Dig deeper into the soul of the game, and you might even notice its influence on you…

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