Casual Adventures -- Testing the Atmosphere

by Becky Waxman 


Having previously discussed character and quest focused games in this series of casual game editorials, I'm now proceeding to another aspect -- atmosphere.

A game's atmosphere is surprisingly difficult to define, as the concept is amorphous and somewhat subjective. I've gathered some ideas below to make a start.

A Question of Style

Atmosphere begins with a game's visual style. The palette might be dark and ominous or bright and colorful. Environments can be stylized or photorealistic; they can give a sense of three dimensional depth, or they may be flat and cartoon-like.

Once an art style is established, texture and depth of the environments further refine atmosphere -- "a sense of the air around you." Think of the difference between seeing a photograph of a landscape, and viewing a real landscape, where you can watch the movement of water in a stream and see the sun glinting in the leaves. Animation and photorealistic graphics can add to a sense of realism. But stylized gameworlds can be just as affecting when they use graphics, animations, and camera angles that are consistent with the imagined world.

In The Mood

Atmosphere also embraces mood -- and mood is deeply influenced by music and other sounds. Remember the landscape mentioned earlier, and picture it with watery sounds from the rushing stream and birdsong from the trees above. Ambient sound, like visual animation, gives the effect of a larger world, full of persistent life. Music (especially if it isn't intrusive) can manipulate emotions on a subconscious level, adding a sense of uneasiness or melancholy or urgency or delight.

The most evocative atmosphere is one in which all these elements -- the setting, visual effects, camera angles, background music, ambient sounds -- work to establish a consistent sense of place.

Immersion Needn't Mean Drowning

I've seen the term "immersion" bandied about even more than the term: "atmospheric." The two are related: the latter can help to induce the former.

There are different levels of immersion. One example: you are playing a game that has drawn you in. You forget that you are at the computer. You forget what time it is, what day of the week it is, that you haven't eaten in hours. If it wasn't automatic, you'd forget to breathe. I call this "breathless immersion."

I think there's another kind of immersion -- not as intense, but almost as engaging. You have spent some time in the game, and you're starting to adjust. By now the visual style is familiar and the gameworld -- whether realistic or stylized -- is believable. You feel present in the environments, or you've begun to identify with the hero/heroine that you control. You start to anticipate story events and look forward to the next environment to explore. You're officially hooked. I call this "buying in immersion." You can buy into a world even if you aren't comfortable with what you find there -- if it scares, unsettles, or challenges you.

Atmosphere is one factor that eases the gamer into an immersive state, because atmosphere gives a sense of authenticity and adds to the sensation of being there. And being there is very close to immersion.

Six Games that Clarify Atmosphere

To illustrate these ideas, I've included six games described below that fit loosely into the "casual adventure" category. Simply playing these games will give you a better sense of the wide range of mood, visual impression and, yes, atmosphere available in adventure and casual adventure games. (Since casual adventures are shorter than "core" adventure games, it's easier to play them side-by-side or one-right-after-the-other in order to compare them.)

The discussion below touches on the effect of visuals, viewpoint, voiceovers, puzzles, characters and sound. The individual game descriptions also indicate particular features that add or detract from each game's atmosphere.

I'll start with a game that fits the most traditional definition of atmospheric -- a game set in an isolated wood, in an abandoned asylum, where an ancient evil spreads its horror.

Nightmare Adventures: The Witch's Prison

You assume the role of Kiera Vale, who has just been notified that she has inherited a family property on which sits the abandoned Blackwater Asylum. Curious and courageous, Ms. Vale has a sassy modern outlook. Much at the Blackwater Asylum -- located outside Boston -- has that old-fashioned New England aura. The place is creepy and decrepit, so our lovely young heroine is a distinct contrast to her surroundings. The game starts out slowly, with the full extent of the mystery gradually revealed as you puzzle your way deeper into the asylum grounds.

The environments in The Witch's Prison are viewed from straightforward camera angles. The graphics are naturalistic at first, revealing a gloomy sky, blowing mist, and a prominent full moon. The visuals gradually become more surreal, with deep, smudged colors and collage effects. The game draws you into past iniquities, and you see how modern technology has attempted to deal with them.

This game is distinguished by its crucible of puzzles, which bolster the atmosphere of mystery and decay -- of hidden things that shouldn't see the light of day. Pattern and code puzzles use occult symbols, and inventory challenges employ (among other things) bones, poison, and blood. Evidence of the efforts of others to contain the ancient evil eventually surface, and these create challenges with a more scientific aspect -- DNA testing, restarting machinery, and getting past electronic security measures.

This game has a surprisingly spare touch with one common aspect of atmospheric horror -- sound. Background music is minimal; you mostly hear the ambient sounds: water flowing, crickets humming, or a wolf howling in the distance. You will hear occasional voices, but the main character is not voiced. Still, the story, visual setting, and well integrated puzzles provide the atmosphere for an unnerving, challenging, engrossing experience.

Do Puzzles Enhance Atmosphere?

The puzzles in The Witch's Prison blend well with the environment and suit the story, so they don't disrupt the atmosphere and they add to immersion. What about games in which the challenges are distinct from the environments?

Puzzles that play more like mini-games (rather than integrated challenges) can bolster atmosphere if they further the story and reveal more about the characters -- though these are structured to bring engagement in small gulps, rather than sustained immersion. A good example of this puzzle style is the Blue Toad Murder Files, which also illustrates how well the human voice -- arguably the most flexible means for expressing emotion -- can create a compelling atmosphere.

Blue Toad Murder Files

This game is set in a cartoon-like English village, which you view in 3D flyover mode, swooping over the grazing sheep and well kept gardens. The atmosphere is one of pastoral quaintness that overlays a festering secret.  You play a vacationing detective who unexpectedly encounters the eruption of hidden depravity into...MURDER!

Blue Toad Murder Files is distinguished by its satiric writing and no-holds-barred humor. Its atmosphere is hugely bolstered by The Voice, which coaxes, questions, teases, simpers, and insults. The Voice is Tom Dussek, who does the voiceover for each character (including the female characters). It's a remarkable performance -- something like watching Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets, or Patrick Stewart on stage in his one person production of "A Christmas Carol."

You never actually walk around the village, but the game takes you overhead and guides you to each new location, where you interrogate the various villagers via cut scenes. The puzzles are individual set pieces/mini-games that are related to each character's needs and concerns. The atmosphere is one of whimsical tomfoolery, with a certain edginess. You will connect paths, distinguish differences, solve math problems and figure out anagrams. Ultimately you must also finger the perpetrator in crimes that range from leaving dirty footprints on the carpet to...MURDER!

Your performance is always rated (after failing to find the solution, you can skip any puzzle if you don't want to try again). When you answer correctly and within the time limit, The Voice compliments you extravagantly. When you answer incorrectly or outside the time limit, The Voice scolds you. (You aren't accused of being The Weakest Link, but the humiliation is roughly equivalent.)

Of the six games described in this editorial, this game (despite its comedic tone) evoked the greatest sense of personal terror. During the cut scenes, I bought in to the mystery and the humor, but I was subsequently pummeled by the puzzles. The thrill of victory (achieved by educated guesses to beat the timer) was outweighed by the inevitable agony of defeat.

Viewpoint and Perspective

Some gamers find it easier to appreciate the atmosphere and to become immersed in games in which the viewpoint is from the first person perspective -- where you are the main character, viewing the gameworld directly. Other gamers find it easier to immerse themselves in games in which the viewpoint is from the third person -- where you direct the movements of the character whose role you are assuming as he or she interacts with the gameworld.

Personally, I find that immersion comes somewhat more quickly in games with a first person perspective and photorealistic graphics. Below is the game that, out of the six, provided the style and atmosphere that immersed me fastest.

The Fall Trilogy Chapter 1: Separation

An explorer has fallen into a pit somewhere in Asia, losing all memory of the past that might explain why he is there. Colorful, exotic blossoms, intricate foliage, and carved stone reliefs ornament the walls. Steam rises from a lava pit below, and light pours in through openings overhead.

Though photorealistic, this is an idealized setting of impossible beauty. The game creates an atmosphere of awe accompanied at first by disorientation. Like the Land of the Lotus Eaters from The Odyssey, it washes away the past and tempts you to stay. Mood is established through ambient sound -- birds calling, water rushing, insects chittering. For "buying in" immersion, this game had me at hello.

Separation is a first person perspective puzzle adventure with a handful of category based Hidden Object challenges. The puzzles include inventory challenges and mini-games, many based on pattern recognition. (One minor atmosphere disruption: the optional 360 degree panning feature uses the right mouse button instead of the left mouse button. I never did get used to it.)

You occasionally hear the protagonist's thoughts, but his personality is undefined. You puzzle through the locations alone, except for mysterious voices that sometimes sound as the screen is infused with a brilliant light. The atmosphere is one of isolation in a slice of paradise, with reality forcing its way in to jar you into wishing to escape.

Story, Characters, and Expectations

Characters have a tremendous effect on a game's atmosphere, from their physical appearance to the way they think and speak and react to events. Games peopled with many minor characters establish a different mood than games where the protagonist spends most of her time isolated and alone. Sympathetic, likeable characters tend to create a lighter tone than difficult, conflicted characters. Assuming the role of a protagonist who is a mass of contradictions feels more ambiguous and disturbing than assuming the role of someone whose actions are predictable.

Plot also affects atmosphere, creating expectations of what will happen as events unfold. The gamer anticipates upcoming events with an attitude of trepidation or curiosity or amusement, etc.

Next up is a game in which the plot, puzzles and characters aim to amuse and charm.

Royal Trouble

Royal Trouble takes place in a fairy tale kingdom. The setting is a tropical island under azure skies, inhabited by a dastardly, shadowy villain. Our two protagonists, Princess Loreen and Prince Nathaniel, are captives in the villain's castle. They have never met until they bump into one another while attempting to escape the dungeons.

Neither Nathaniel nor Loreen has any compunction about leaving the other behind while scheming to escape. However, since working at odds with one another results in abject failure, they conclude that teaming up is their least bad option. Though the castle and its inhabitants evoke the Renaissance era, the two characters act and speak with a cheeky, modern attitude.

Loreen is impatient and high-handed. She is more impressed by the castle's tackiness than by its owner's cruelty. She thinks Nathaniel can work miracles for her. (She's a princess, after all.) Nathaniel usually expects the worst, and often finds it. He calls Loreen "her royal spoiledness," but he's soon resigned to dashing to her aid whenever she needs him. (He's a prince, after all.) Dialog between the two and conversations with the eccentric castle occupants are sarcastic and often pleasingly absurd.

The visual style suits the fairy tale ambiance. Like the characters, the environments are in colorful 3D. You'll encounter many inventory item challenges, plus devices to repair and concoctions to create. The story and gaming challenges call upon Loreen's wits and Nathaniel's resourcefulness as they improvise their way through the castle's cellars, kitchens, library, laboratory and towers.

Royal Trouble is partially voiced through a narrator who, with a suitably droll tone, relates the background story and comments on the characters as they develop. The game's only drawback is that the main characters aren't voiced. The mood is enhanced by background music that reflects the Renaissance era settings; like the characters and the atmosphere in this game, it is playful, lively and often comedic.

Embracing the Unfamiliar and the Suspension of Disbelief

For readers, the concept of "willing suspension of disbelief" held that the reader of a story had to work harder to believe in a supernatural world (a place populated by witches, ghosts or magical beasts, for instance) than in the real world (a village in England with a freshly murdered corpse, for instance). An analogy in gaming might be that the gamer has to work harder to believe in a stylized world -- with hand drawn or cartoon-like graphics -- than in a naturalistic world with photorealistic graphics.

Atmosphere can immerse, but it can also disturb and challenge. It is a key factor in forms of entertainment that pull you out of the ordinary and challenge you with a new way of seeing. Think of the eccentric personal vision in Tim Burton's films, or the unusual gameworlds in Grim Fandango or Machinarium -- where the world itself almost becomes another character in the story.

The two games that follow are set in hand drawn, surreal worlds with dark themes. Drawn: Dark Flight is reminiscent of the original tales by the Brothers Grimm. In it, a lurking evil threatens a kingdom and its innocent young ruler. Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent occupies an absurdist, graphic novel version of a small town in the U.S., where unknown forces menace the townspeople.

An intense, quirky atmosphere is risky. But when it works, as it does in these two games, it's unforgettable.

Drawn: Dark Flight

The opening sequence in Drawn: Dark Flight, takes place in the stone ruins from the original game: Drawn: The Painted Tower. The main characters are viewed in fragments. Franklin, the caretaker, has been turned to stone and then broken -- though he can still communicate. You catch a glimpse of young Iris in a portrait that is turned on its side and partially obscured.

The visual style provokes a sense of unease and apprehension. The environments are viewed from a first person perspective, and much about them is skewed, full of unsettling angles. Mist blows through empty streets. The houses are larger at the top than at the bottom, and monumental buildings and statues spring up in odd places. Animations are frequent: flickering candlelight, drifting sparks, flying creatures, falling rain. Mood is set by a pensive vocal melody, aided by melancholy strings. The game is partially voiced. Franklin's gruff communications are formal and authoritative. He's desperate, and he's essentially giving you orders. Iris' voice is delicate and sweet, though also formal.

The puzzles suit the game's twisted fairy tale style with a focus on the stuff of childhood -- kites, pop-up books, puppet shows -- tinged with the macabre. Sometimes you use a paintbrush or crayons and draw or fill in shapes. One fiendishly difficult challenge involves using little gates to let colors leak together and blend. It had me leaking multicolored tears.

The sense of brokenness magically disappears each time you enter one of the paintings or tableaus that Iris has left scattered about the landscape. Once inside these colorful scenes, the dramatic tone changes; some scenes even add a comedic touch. This contrast works well, though I felt that I was "really there" in the brooding city, but outside "looking in" while viewing the paintings. The paintings indicate what this world was like before Iris' evil nemesis destroyed it -- a reminder of what has been lost.

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent

Atmosphere can help take something dramatic or out of the ordinary and make it plausible. The story events may be absurd -- outrageous even -- but if the atmosphere, the environment and the character portrayals are consistent, you can believe.

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent has an off kilter, minimalist tone. It opens in the U.S. Department of Puzzle Research, in the basement of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, which houses the FBI. Agent Tethers receives a phone call requesting that he go to Minnesota and investigate the Scoggins Eraser Factory, whose production of erasers for the White House has unexpectedly ceased. Eraser production must resume or (presumably) the President won't be able to correct his mistakes.

The characters in Puzzle Agent are flat and cartoon-like. They have huge googly eyes. Heavy black charcoal lines frame their figures. Their skin tone changes, depending on the background color of the environments. Most of the characters in the town of Scoggins are suspicious of strangers and obsessed with puzzles. At first this odd behavior seems related to their isolation in the frozen tundra of this flat, 2D comic strip world. But something far more sinister is at hand.

The game is played from the third person perspective. Investigating the town and the factory presents Agent Tethers with a series of mini-game-like challenges, sometimes related to the environments (finding passage for his snowmobile, for instance), and sometimes as requests for help. None are timed. Whenever you submit a puzzle solution through official channels, you learn the ridiculously large amount that the American taxpayer pays to check your answer.

This game is a brilliant example of the use of sound to create atmosphere. The background music is techno modern with eerie flourishes that you would expect from an episode of "The Twilight Zone." It adds a chill to the air and, at times, an odd sense of self-parody. Ambient sounds include sinister echoes, crunchy footfalls, and wailing wind. Voiceovers are spot-on, emphasizing Tethers' straight-as-an-arrow personality and the townsfolks' nutty obsessiveness.

Without sound, this game is a tongue-in-cheek cartoon puzzle adventure. With sound, it's a creepy experience, in a place where something out there is not quite right. The most improbable of situations becomes oddly believable.

Ten Atmosphere Disruptors

While playing the six games I've described above, I encountered atmosphere that immersed me and, occasionally, aspects that broke that immersion. It's a complex task to integrate visuals, sound, story, characters, puzzles and interface, resulting in a memorable atmosphere without discontinuities that hinder the game's progression.

In fact, disruptions to atmosphere are common; in the fifteen years I've spent gaming, I've encountered many. Games seem more prone to these problems than other media because the gamer doesn't just watch what's going on, but also interacts with what's going on, which can generate barriers and inconsistencies. The gamer inevitably encounters technical issues with PC games -- a problem without parallel in other media -- and this also dispels the effects of atmosphere.

To conclude this editorial, I've listed ten factors that (all too frequently) disrupt atmosphere during the gaming experience.

The Disruptors:

1.  Glitches, crashes and dead ends.

2.  A difficult or innovative movement control interface. (Keyboard-only interfaces automatically qualify.)

3.  Repetition. Examples: invisible triggers or other puzzle structures that require extensive backtracking. Timed puzzles that are so difficult as to cause multiple failures. Dying and having to restart or retry.

4.  Lack of voiceovers for conversations between characters. (It's more important to voice conversations than to voice the protagonist's thoughts or hotspot comments.) Bad voiceovers. Inability to click through voiceovers. Intrusive or inappropriate music.

5.  Lack of ambient animations where they are clearly called for -- fire or water that is frozen in time. Cut scenes where the characters look very different than they do in other parts of the game.

6.  An overly helpful hint system or other messages and alerts that you can't turn off. Frequent or overly long loading screens. Narration or comments on the player's actions that are snarky or abusive.

7.  Inconsistency in the story. Examples: the characters don't act in accordance with their established personalities. The storyline doesn't meet the expectations it has created.

8.  Inconsistency in the gameplay. Puzzle logic that suddenly changes. Interface functions that morph mid-game.  Puzzles that don't mesh with the environments or the story.

9.  The game fails to get the details right. Examples: a realistic game that relies on unrealistic scenarios (e.g., ten different types of weapons lying on a street corner in midtown Manhattan). A historical era game that gets historical details wrong (e.g., a Victorian era game in which the heroine uses modern slang). Hidden Object screens with items that don't suit the surroundings (modern items in games set in pre-modern eras). Dialogs full of spelling and grammatical errors.

10.  Overwhelming complexity. Puzzles requiring dozens of sequenced steps performed perfectly. Games in which the interface requires a learning curve, plus the intricate story is difficult to follow, plus the challenges are quirky and layered.

Coming Up Next

Look to this space to see more discussion of casual games. The next installment in this series: Casual Companions.

*Note: some of the ideas for this article were influenced by the following articles: "Realism VS Idealization" by anjin anhut,  and "Analysis: The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games" by Jamie Madigan.

You can find out more about the willing suspension of disbelief here at Wikipedia.

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