A Cataclysmic Dawn: Atmospheric Gaming
Foreword: So we have this new guy on the site, doing columns and news for us. He took the liberty of introducing himself, and effectively stole my thunder. But like the almighty, now-female Thor, my thunder cannot be stolen; only converted into different types of energy. Without further ado… – Cavie
Hi! I’m Bracken and welcome to my new column slot. I’ll post my thoughts on gaming and gaming concepts under this column every couple of weeks, so feel free to start a flame war in the comments about my poorly actualised opinions. For those wondering about the title of the column, it comes from my Twitter handle (@CataclysmicDawn) which itself comes from a Rise Against song. Enjoy the article!
Atmosphere is vitally important to the success of a game. The sights and sounds of a title do a lot to add to the overarching feeling of it, and without them, games struggle to establish meaningful context or impact to their setting or events which occur throughout the game. Yet still, many games fail to establish any defined atmosphere and suffer quite severely as a result.
A prominent example of this is Infinity Ward and Activision’s Call of Duty Ghosts. The beginning of the campaign opens to a father telling a grandiose military story to his two disinterested adult sons, shortly before the area they’re in (and as it turns out, much of the US) gets hit by orbital strikes from the hijacked ODIN satellite. This introduces players to an uncertain world – a world where changes are abound for better or worse, and conventional military tactics have been defeated.
Flash forward a few years, and you’re in the ruins of Los Angeles, patrolling the crumbling remains of the city for Federation troops, who are busy invading. The sons are now soldiers, and their father – previously a veteran – is in a position of command. You run through some streets, shoot some bad guys and get a dog (probably the best explored character in Call of Duty: Ghosts).
This is where Ghosts started to lose the atmosphere it initially created so well. The crumbling ruins of Los Angeles turned to stereotyped enemy facilities and jungles, and the brothers are suddenly expert soldiers – the game devolved into a generic point A-to-point B shoot ‘em up with a lot of wasted potential.
The title, which started off as promising, suffers from later over-explanation of events and lack of thematic focus. This led to an inconsistent, unfocused atmosphere which sold an initially intriguing concept sadly short.
It’s easy to see where the concept fell short: Uninspired design. The visual platform, most notably the environments – failed to push for anything above a generic, bland military campaign, while the voice acting often felt hollow – perhaps an indication of how little of substance the characters actually had to say.
Contrastingly stands Media Molecule’s charming papercraft title, Tearaway, which released in 2013 for the PlayStation Vita. The title put you in the lightly folded shoes of Iota or Atoi (male and female respectively) and tasked you with delivering a message to the player (“the You” in Tearaway lore, which uses the Vita’s front character to make the player appear on screen).
If the game sounds silly, frivolous and light-hearted, that’s because it is – and the game stays true to this throughout. Contrary to Call of Duty: Ghosts’ example, Tearaway doesn’t try to needlessly explain everything that happens throughout the title, nor does it stray from what it was originally indicated to convey.
Tearaway and Call of Duty: Ghosts are two games fixed at opposite ends of the spectrum, but neither fluctuates particularly significantly. The same cannot be said for BioWare’s first Mass Effect title. The first adventure in the futuristic armour of Commander Shepard took players through some of the best and most immersive missions seen in action RPGs, but this contrasts massively with the side missions and planetary exploration in the title.
Mass Effect’s missions were structured excellently. You were facing foes that you knew very little about for large parts of the game, the story developed at a capable pace and the combat didn’t feel entirely out of place. This all worked in tandem to build a very distinctive, methodical atmosphere, which persisted throughout the first title’s story mode and set up the rest of the series excellently.
Then, however, came the optional missions and planetary exploration. In these, players would sift through expansive, empty planets with copy/pasted bunkers, mines and buildings, for mostly arbitrary objects (collectibles and valuable resources being the most prominent). To compound players’ misery, the vehicle BioWare provided for these missions was the Mako – the six-wheeled, jet-boosted armoured vehicle (space tank) which handled like a drunk ferret on an acid trip.
The scant backing music, surprisingly generic planets and unnerving lack of dialogue between characters while planetside meant that the planetary exploration largely killed the excellent atmosphere which had been created by the main story arc. This was a great disservice to an impressive introduction to what would go on to be a blockbuster of a franchise.
Atmospheric gaming is important, because it promotes immersion – players are more likely to become engrossed in a world which they can understand through thematic cues than a blank slate with little direction or intention. This helps create relevance – or at least the illusion of it – which allows games to tell stories with a far greater sense of context.
In effect, it’s the difference between an apple core and a full apple; it’s easy to see which you’d sink your teeth into and which you’d throw away (providing you aren’t an apple core fetishist, of course). Atmosphere’s a vital part of a game – it fills in a lot of a title’s substance and allows it to be more thoroughly fleshed out. What gamer wouldn’t want that?