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World atmosphere in games, measuring and categorizing

Posted by Servant of the Lord, in Article, Indie games, Design 09 January 2012 · 947 views


Three journal posts in three days, after 30 days of silence. I must be on a roll! Except, uh, none of them are about progress on my RPG project. Posted Image

My brother recently observed over the phone that, "...you seem to be a collector of games, rather than a player".
That's a fairly accurate statement. I don't really have the time to play hours and hours of games, but I greatly enjoy acquiring high quality indie games (and some specific innovative mainstream games) when they go on sale cheap enough. (I'm a casual collector, rather than a focused one).
My tastes in games have definitely shifted over the past few years and now my main focus when playing games, is the artistry and beauty of the world in the game. This same focus will be my focus when designing my own games.

It's the atmosphere of the world that I'm looking for, and that is a sum of multiple things.
The order of importance, for me, when creating atmosphere in a game scene or area goes something like this: (diminishing importance)
Music/Sound > Coloration(color pallets)/Art-style > Freedom of movement/Freedom to explore > Architecture style > Fairness of enemies/Non-irritation > Characters involved > Graphical quality > Level layout

I'm probably missing a few other things that should go in there, like background history of the world/area.

Here's some games I enjoy for the world you are immersed in:
(Loosely and lazily rated in terms of atmosphere and world, not rated in overall game quality or enjoyment - Also, obviously it's my personal opinion and people's opinions vary)

- Quest 64 (N64) Posted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted Image
- Lost City of Malathedra (PC) Posted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted Image
- Machinarium (PC) Posted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted Image
- Myst and Riven (PC) Posted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted Image
- Shadowgrounds (PC) Posted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted Image
- VVVVV (PC) Posted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted Image
- Minecraft (PC) Posted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted Image
- Mario 64 (N64) Posted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted Image
- Metroid Prime 1 (Wii) Posted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted Image
- Halflife 1 (PC) Posted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted Image
- Elderscrolls 3: Morrowind (Xbox or PC) Posted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted Image
- King's Field (Playstation 1) Posted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted ImagePosted Image

(By the way, I'm greatly looking forward to The Witness - I strongly believe it'll rate at least four stars, possibly 5, when it comes to atmosphere and world)

Yes, that's right. In terms of atmosphere, VVVVVV is equal to Myst in my book. Anything 3 stars or more, I'd replay (and most have already replayed multiple times) solely for the atmosphere and world.

One thing I observe in these games is that the graphical quality of the game comes second to the world design itself. Great atmosphere and great worlds can be created even with poor graphics (See: King's Field, VVVVVV, Halflife 1).
Another observation is that world design and atmosphere is not bound to a specific genre (VVVVVV = 2D sidescroller, Halflife 1 = FPS, King's Field = 3D action RPG).
A third observation, and one that somewhat surprises me is that while 'Freedom of movement/Freedom to explore' is important to immersion and atmosphere, it doesn't depend on it (King's Field = freedom to explore in multiple directions - one big dungeon with chokepoint obstacles, VVVVVV = freedom to explore until you enter a fairly linear dungeon - dungeons can be overcome in any order, Halflife 1 = Infamously linear game moving from room to room, battle to battle, with only the freedom to move around in the last room or two you are currently in).

So going back to my spur-of-the-moment attempt to measure the effect of game attributes on world atmosphere:
Music/Sound > Coloration(color pallets)/Art-style > Freedom of movement/Freedom to explore > Architecture style > Fairness of enemies/Non-irritation > Characters involved > Graphical quality > Level layout

...It does seem to me that while some things contribute greatly to world atmosphere, no one thing on it's own is required. That is, that lack of any one of those attributes can be made up for by strengthening the others, despite some attributes (Like music and art style) carrying much greater weight than others. This is especially good for us as indie developers, because we can (and have been) enhancing some parts of our atmosphere equation (like Music and Art style) to compensate for that infamous and controversial area where we can't compete with the big studios: Graphical quality.

Thoughts?




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