Creating Atmosphere

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This is an archived Game Theory Discussion, started on 29 Jan 2004. Please do not edit the text, except to add to it at the end.

Creating Atmosphere


With little competition, this is probably the biggest mystery of game crafting. How to create the atmosphere to a game? Is there a set of rules to follow, or a formula? Is it a conscious effort, or is it driven by forces just beyond the designer's awareness? Does atmosphere lie in technical details alone, or do the plot, dialogs and puzzles effect it as well? In this Game Theory Discussion we shall try to pinpoint the elements that create atmosphere.

What is atmosphere? Firstly, what is atmosphere? defines atmosphere as "The dominant tone or mood of a work of art.". This definition fits computer games like a glove. What the player 'feels' is the atmosphere. For example, in "Clive Barker's Undying" (yes, it is the only horror game I played. So what if I'm a wuss?!) the atmosphere is scary and creepy, creating a 'virtual paranoia' in the player. Or, "Planescape: Torment" set up an emotional tone to stress the message of the game ("What can change the nature of a man?").

Why do we need atmosphere? Computer games, as a relatevly new medium, are constantly evolving. Gone are the days when all the player wanted was mindless fun. Now, the gamers are searching for content and style. Good atmosphere can absorb the player in the game, and make him feel much closer to the occurances on his screen. With good atmosphere, it's not just the player character that is running, and shooting, and solving puzzles and being scared - it's the player as well. There are other things atmosphere can do. For example, it can add new and more sublte meaning, or a new level of connection to the character. For example, in "Grim Fandango" the film noir elements helped us feel better related to Manny, like in the movies of old. Another thing atmosphere can do is present a new perspective. For example, in "Max Payne" the dream sequences are murky and blurry, so that we can play it from Max's point of view.

The basic division Traditionaly, adventure games are divided into two main schools: humoristic and serious. This division is of course based on atmosphere. Despite the ability most adventure games have to easily categorize the games into both these schools, the difference is not that easy to define, as the line between both is quite gray. There is no checklist to fill to belong to one of these styles. Instead, it's a collaboration of various parts and techniques of the game. Here are the main things to look for:

  1. Art. Graphics are the first thing we witness in a game, and is therefore the initial defining object of a game's atmosphere. Much like adventure games, art styles fall into two main categories: realistic and cartoony.
    Day of the Tentacle
    Here is an example of cartoony art, from "Day of the Tentacle". We can see that the room and characters are not drawn realistically. The heads on the characters are too big (caricature style), the angles of the stright are seemingly random, even the verb coin GUI buttons use a goofy fonts.
    Day of the Tentacle
    The animations are also far from authentic-looking, with various stretchable body organs and impossible to pull of facial expressions, as is seen in the following screenshot from the same game. Now, let's take a look at a realistically drawn room. This one is from "Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers". As you can see, this one looks much more 'correct' - the angles are fine, the lightning falls as it should. Also notice the attention to detail.
    Gabril Knight 1
    These screenshots show the contrast betweent the two styles perfectly - one is surrealstic and bizzare, the other is organized and realstic. A serious game will almost surely use realisic graphics (I cannot recall one that didn't), because choosing otherwise will 'lower' it's theme to a joke level (Note: "Grim Fandango" graphics are not cartoony - it's about how you draw, not about what you draw). However, this is not necessarily true the other way around. For example, the first two "Monkey Island" games used realistic graphics.
  2. Music. The music is always there, but the player rarely gives it his full attention. This makes it perhaps the most powerful tool in creating atmosphere - it can set the mood like nothing else. Anyway, the same rule as before persists. If the music is goofy, jumpy, happy and bizzare then it most likely belongs to a humoristic game (Mark's "Fatman" soundtrack jumps to mind). On the other hand, if it is moody, deep, creepy, mysterious etc., then it probably is part of a serious game's soundtrack (such as the entire "Grim Fandango" soundtrack).
  3. Puzzles. In serious game, the puzzles must be fully logical and not too far-fetched. In humoristic games, the puzzles can use "backwards" logic. The monkey wrench puzzle in "Monkey Island" is a perfect example.
  4. Dialogs & Messages. If each and every line of dialog in the game, or every comment tries to contain a joke then the game is probably humoristic. That is not to say that serious games can't have humour - they can, and in fact they should. But serious games should know where to put the line, to know when the jokes become forced.

These are, in a nutshell, the four objects to look at if you wish to make the most basic distinction between various styles of atmosphere.

How to create atmosphere? After this introduction, we arrive to the one million dollar question - How? As I said earlier, it is hard to do some sort of formula - there is none. Atmosphere is formed differently in every game, and each game's atmosphere is unique in its own right. This is so because everything in the game influences it - from music, art and plot to the colour the GUI, the mouse cursor and the footstep sound. In fact, each and every gamer grasps the atmosphere of a game a little bit differntly from another. Nevertheless, I think there are some elements, except the one stated above, the are more dominant in setting the tone of the game. Here are some tips:

  1. Equip yourself with a vision. Most great film directors (*cough*stanleykubrick*cough*) have a vision of what they want to do before they begin working on it (*cough*2001clockworkorange*cough*). For a long time, they visualize in their minds what they wish to see in their finished product. This way, when the filiming begins the director has a general feeling of the atmosphere he wishes, and it is much more easier for him to channel it the right way. Many adventure game designers, mostly independant, tend to overlook this. Yes, they do have an idea. But an idea is no vision. An idea is about a concept; vision is about presentation - how the game will look, how it will sound, how it will feel. If you already have a vision of what you wish to accomplish before commencing work, you will find it much easier to set the tone of the game right.
  2. Add artistic touches. In DGMacphee's GTD: Backgrounds and "mise en scene" we discussed the diverse artistics devices that can be added to games, but which are, sadly, usually ignored. Things such as light tinting and perspective can add plenty of life and character to a game. Remember that most of these touches are unusual, and thus have a stronger effect then something casual and typical. An example of this would be Vel's "Who Wants to Live Forever?". The death scene light changes were a truly brilliant, and added so much to the atmosphere.
  3. Use your cutscenes. In cutscnes, the creator has freedom to do what he wishes without the limitations of gameplay. With more space to manuever, the designer can some very atmospheric scenes. Take Chirlle's "Pleurghburg: Dark Ages" for example. The dream sequence after the first day makes such a strong impression that the player just can't look at the game in the same light anymore.
  4. Have non-linearity to stress importance. If during the game the character faces a choice of great importance, the player may feel that his actions are more significance. Las Naranjas' Uber-Protagonist phenomenon enables for this to happen - the player has difficulties with making the distinction between the game and himself, and thus gives in his mind an added touch of importance to the occassion. This way, there is more meaning to the game, effecting the atmosphere strongly. An excellent example would be the ending of "The Uncertainty Machine" (Beware, spoiler ahead) where the fate of the world lies in the character's/player's hands.
  5. Use your supporting characters as a tool to define atmosphere. A supporting character is something controlled and programmed by the creator of the game. Through it, he can transfer his subtle messages to convey feelings, themes and messages. It can be an excellent tool in the designer's hand to form atmosphere. The perfect example if Glottis, Manny's sidekick from "Grim Fandango", who formed the light side of that excellent game.
  6. Keep a consistent atmosphere. If you try to suddenly change from a surrealistic to a realistic atmosphere, the only thing that will be formed is a mess. Be consistent - do not try to have several contradictory styles and patterns at the same time. This doesn't mean you can't vary your atmosphere - you can. But if you do, then make it subtly and slowly, and always keep close to the game's general tone and mood.

Well, these were my thoughts on the subject. Over to you.


You might want to anonymize those mobygames pics...


Ha! Can you believe this bastard? When I try to anonimyze the pics it says the message is too long. Heh. I'll think of something.

Edit: A bit of help from tinyurl, and it's fine.

Big Brother

I believe the backgrounds in GB: SOTF were digitized photographs (with a bit of pixel pushing added).

Just so you know.


Really? It looks to me more like they were painted. Perhaps some are based off of photographs... others, really don't look like it.

Anyway, nice topic. Another thing is, you can start creating atmosphere before the game even starts, with a good manual and website. Especially if they create a sense of anticipation or mystery.


Ginny? DGMacphee? GarageGothic? Goldmund? Anyone?


Oh man, I have a lot to say, but it's so much that I cant type it all at once. And I have to go to sleep..

I'll add to this tommorow, when I become un-lazy:

Atmosphere makes games unique, stylish, and intereting, but most of all it makes them immersive. If a game catches your interest with anything, be it characters, dialogs, story, puzzles, graphics, music, and such, you will most likely be pulled into the game. Usually, when playing most amateur games, I feel very distant from the chracters and the story, because I know at all times that it's just a game. If the game manages to do something surprising to pull me into it (or draws me into the story by creating interest and suspense), I suddenly forget that I am playing a game, and feel that I am indeed experiencing a story. An example i cant seem to stop bringing up is TK's Mags game, which is, mostly just an average game. The graphics aren't great, the story is simple (as it often is in MAGS games) and the first puzzle isnt very interesting. I didnt expect a mags game to be better, as mine are usually worse, so I played through as always, with the intent to to just 'finish it'. Then, i reached the last puzzle, which (see spoiler below) totally blew me away: Spoiler below, select the area to read the text I use the mixture on the dragon, and expect nothing more than to win the game at that. This is not the case. Accompanied by great, tension inducing music, an arcade sequence begins, and I am blown away. I die immedeatly, and then I reload, more ready for it.... I feel more immersed in the game, which has become much more fun in a mere second. I forget about the artificial way I felt for it, and enjoy it much more. This simple addition would not surprise me in a commercial game, but in an amateur mags game, I didnt expect it at all. One problem though, is that I hadnt saved when i reached that part of the game, and had to replay, which is fine since the game is short, but would have bothered me a lot if it were long. This problem of not expecting to have to save may be solved in time by better games. Of course, atmosphere doesnt mean having to save, and I rambled quite a bit just now, but I think games should just make the effort to add something that grabs the player by the nose and makes him/her feel more connected to the game. Things like a surprising twist in the story for example..

Well, this wasn't exactly about atmosphere, it was about the reason for having atmosphere. I did mention that the music that accompanied the game helped greatly in creating atmosphere. The music itself wasnt an amazing piece, instead it worked for the pupose it was made for: creating suspene. The rest of the tunes in the game created some atmosphere too.

The music in Apprentice fit very well with the mood of the game, causing the player to feel "inside" the game world. I don't quite agree with your distinction of art styles, that is, serious and cartoony (or humorous). I'll elaborate later.

Wow, I went on much more than I expected, I have a comment to practically everything you said in your post

To be continued...


I agree that imersion into the game plays a major part in its atmosphere. Who here didn't jump the first time they openned a door in DOOM, only to find a nasty demon of some sort directly on the other side?

Related to that, I think it helps to have the player identify somehow with characters and situations in the game. As such, stereotypes of some sort can often be used effectively. In playing through Day of the Tentacle, I'm sure we were all able to think of someone (be they someone we know or some other charachter we'd come to know through TV or movies or books or whatever) that typified the essense of the geeky nerd, the vapid ditz and the burly moron. With barely even being introduced to the main characters, we're already able to know a great deal about who they are and what they're all about.

While to some degree that has to do with the cartoon nature of the game, we can also see this in something like Gabriel Knight. Very quickly, we're able to get a sense of Gabriel as a womanizer of sorts and of Grace as a fairly strong-willed, no-nonsense, type. We've all met these people before, so most of what they say and do "fits" very well.

This use of character types can thus be an effective tool in getting the player into the game, as it allows for the quicker formation of attachment to the characters. Added to this, additional characterizaton occuring in the game that BREAKS the player's pre-conceived notions of the characters can have immediate interest value and help them care about the characters even more as a character is fleshed out and gains percieved depth.

EDIT: The emotions of characters, too, can play a large part in building a game's atmosphere, especially if we're identifying with them. As an example, in the game Shannara (GREAT game, by the way), I felt like crying when (POTENTIAL SPOILER AHEAD!!!) I (well, the main character... this young elf guy) had to pretty much decide the fate of the female lead of the story (that scene was a tear-jearker to say the very least... and the craziest part is that I sort of knew it was coming!).

In a similar sort of vein, some sterotypical situations help form atmosphere by drawing on the player's life experience and allowing them to relate to it. Placing a character in their school and dealing with bullies, or having a character dealing with the death of a loved one are both situations that many players have dealt with either directly or by proxy, and are thus prone to evoking real emotion if the situations are presented in a somewhat realistic manner. For this, and for the example of character stereotypes, it makes me think of how comic books changed once Stan Lee really got rolling with Marvel with the early Spider-Man stuff. Here, readers were presented with a vigilante in tights who had the ability to clight to walls, super strength and a sort of sixth sense, yet they were also presented with a teenage geek who had problems with his foster mother Aunt May, girls, friends and the general drama of teenage life. Readers were thus treated to a mix of fantasy and something that very much resembled reality... and they obvioulsly liked it, otherwise there wouldn't have been a gazillion superhero books to follow that would try to emulate a similar kind of effective formula. A little dose of realism is what a lot more amateur adventure games could definitely use, IMO.

Switching gears somewhat... pacing of the adventure can help set the atmosphere in a game. Pretty traditional in many a good story, is to start things off slowly and humbly, gradually building things up, and then hitting the audience over the head with a big finnish (and maybe winding things down afterward, depending on the intent). Alternately, there's the possibility of getting right into the think of things from the start and following up with a real barrage of content from start to finish (think WarioWare, if you need an example) for a far more intense atmosphere.

Literary-type devices can also be key in forming atmosphere. Themes and symbolic imagery have been mentioned to some extent already. Other elements like foreshadowing can be very effective tools, too. Having some inkling of what's to come can help heighten tenion in a game immensely.

(having trouble staying online, so I'll finish here, at least for now... I've probably said all I had to say pretty much anyway...)


Haven't read yet, but I just wondered where to find the previous GTD articles. They should been taken care of. All I could find were Template:Forums.


Quote from: jannar85 on 01 Feb 2004, 23:31

Haven't read yet, but I just wondered where to find the previous GTD articles. They should been taken care of. All I could find were Template:Forums.

Not sure if there were more than these, but anyway:

GTD: Giving Personality to Characters:

GTD: What's Wrong With Adventure Games

GTD: Minority Characters in Adventure Games


Atmosphere is a huge subject. And it's very much related to the mise en scene and character-related GTDs we've had earlier. I can't seem to bring everything together, so I'll just mention a few thoughts I had while reading the discussion so far.

In regards to the visuals, I think the realistic/cartoony division is flawed. At least if you consider the first two Monkey Islands realistic! Not only is the anination very cartoony indeed, but the backgrounds are about as cartoony as they get without going overboard as in MI3. If you looked at movies with the same criteria, would all non-animation movies count as realistic? Edward Scissorhands, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Spy Kids? I think a more interesting split is between stylized and realistic. Even though the films of Martin Scorsese and David Fincher are (sometimes) about real people in real situations, they are heavily stylized. Nobody would call them cartoon movies, but they certainly aren't realistic.

I'd consider all the Police Quests to be realistic - or as realistic as they could get with limited technology. This is the game equivalent of Cops or America's Most Wanted. That the later titles used digitized backgrounds and characters (PQ4 used both, PQ3 characters only) are clear evidence of this ambition. They show the world as it is (through the eyes of the designer at least), without trying to evoke emotions in the player by using symbolic shapes and colors. If a crime scene seems spooky, it's because it actually would be quite horrific even in real life (and the game adds to this with atmospheric music rather than visual cues). Gabriel Knight, on the other hand, while naturalistic in style, is actually very stylized. The set design, the lighting, the color scheme - it is far from realistic, and even a seemingly boring location like the professor's office comes off as sinister with all the masks and stuff silhouetted in the foreground. Just compare the crime scene by the lake in GK1 to the crime scenes in PQ4. The stylization in cartoony games is often meant to evoke "fun" and sometimes "childish". But it could easily work for serious games as well. Certainly the style of graphic novels like Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns and Sandman could work just as well, if not better, in a horror game, than the cheesy FMV of Phantasmagoria?


I believe the backgrounds in GB: SOTF were digitized photographs (with a bit of pixel pushing added).

No, they're painted as cornjob said. I was watching the "Making of Gabriel Knight"-movie from the CD version, and they tell (as well as show), how the backgrounds are painted in what looks like watercolors. The characters however are based on digitized actors.

But back to the subject of atmosphere. I really think it has as much to do with the game world as with the specific story being told. Think of Blade Runner. Even if you didn't remember the characters or the plot, you'd remember the atmosphere. It's not necessarily independent of the characters, because it's shown from their point of view (the New York of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver is much different from that of Alvy Singer in Annie Hall), but it's bigger than the story. Some games that really managed to convey atmosphere through their game world are Dreamweb, The Colonel's Bequest, Freddy Pharkas and King's Quest 4 (you could argue that the King's Quests lost direction with their "Mixed Up Fairy Tales"-approach, but I think no. 4 in particular had a wonderful setting to explore). To me, adventure games are all about exploring strange worlds and meeting weird and wonderful characters. And this is where the atmosphere comes from. Plot, puzzles, dialog. It all comes from the game world. And art, audio and narration are the tools to convey the essence world to the player.