Games that Ooze Atmosphere

Atmosphere is a crucial part of a game’s art style. The atmosphere ties together the various elements of the art, from the music to the colors to the visual objects to the writing. Good atmosphere highlights the art style, making subtle details pop, while bad atmosphere can dull even the most pointed and direct object. The use of atmosphere can bring players into the game when needed, and can signal changes, making them more organic.

I have yet to really find a good definition of “atmosphere,” but in general, I find it to be the basic presentation of the artistic style. That is, the general feeling of a game, based on its art direction. Atmosphere can be conveyed in several ways, including the color scheme, the visuals, the music, and even dialogue. But it’s not any one of those elements; rather, it’s a combination of compatible elements that present themselves. Atmosphere is necessarily reactive; atmosphere can go against the themes or tone of a game, or can take a player out of an otherwise immersive experience. But what intrigues me the most about atmosphere is that rarely do we talk about too much atmosphere; that is, unlike most artistic elements, when it comes to atmosphere, more is better.

So what games really use atmosphere to their benefit? What games use their art direction to simply ooze every drop of atmosphere they can? The game that inspired this post, and one of the better examples, is Persona 3. Persona 3 is a JRPG, and one that I don’t think I’ve talked much about on this blog, favoring its sequel Persona 4. But Persona 3 was recently played on the Extra Credits design stream, and in addition to being a well-designed game with a cohesive art style, I’d forgotten just how much atmosphere the game has.

Persona 3 is a dark game, exploring themes of life, death, despair, courage, and coping with powerlessness. If that sounds like a teenage emo’s wet dream, it’s not entirely wrong, but it’s far more complex than that. Dealing with these heavy topics requires coordination of the narrative, music, art design, and even combat mechanics. Each uniquely add to the atmosphere, preparing the player for a serious, introspective, and somewhat melancholy experience.

Specifically, first we have the color scheme. Persona 3 uses blue as a focal color, with darker greens and blacks as well. The only contrast comes from vibrant reds, but even those are subdued. It already feels oppressive. From there, the art direction tends toward combining detailed setpieces with fog-like or cloudy elements that obscure the scenery. Interestingly, the amount of obscurity changes throughout the game, lightening and darkening the atmosphere depending on whether the scene needs to be lighthearted or serious. The music switches between slow but moving to glimmers of positive, then often switching to fast-paced, but still somewhat melancholy, rap.

Every moment in the game sets up a scene that telegraphs the kind of scene the game wants to tell. A light-hearted moment in the dorm with your friends will have lighter music and more lights in general, possibly with furniture or other landmarks with more varied colors. A plot exposition dump will often take place at night, outside, in cloudy areas filled with blacks and dark greens, while a simple piano melody plays in the background. Even without a single piece of dialogue, the player knows exactly what the scene is trying to convey, and the player is immersed in the game world.

Another game that oozes atmosphere is Transistor. Where most of Transistor relied on “less is more,” the art style is where the game holds nothing back. Set in a sci-fi future, the incredibly detailed setpieces combined the fast-paced combat and subtle narrative make the player feel like part of the world. Transistor plays on traditional cyberpunk tropes, but puts them in the art style, merely creating an atmosphere of cyberpunk rather than relying on dialogue or exposition.

Never Alone takes an even more slimmed down approach to atmosphere, focusing on a single aspect of the culture of a First Nation tribe in Alaska and distilling it into a puzzle platformer. Whereas Persona 3 went for a melancholy atmosphere, while Transistor was more mysterious, Never Alone uses the cultural trappings to give a sense of foreignness that inspires curiosity. The atmosphere makes the player want to know more, and to expect the game to tell more, which it does. The mix of traditional Alaskan tribe art and modern 3D sprites lends a familiar but intriguing atmosphere as well.

While most games use atmosphere to lend subtlety to their art direction, Disgaea uses atmosphere to reinforce its in-your-face, lighthearted, and hilarious game. This is a game that doesn’t take itself seriously, but acts just serious enough to be a parody of traditional JRPGs. The color palette is bright and varied, but still well controlled. The sharp dialogue and clever character designs are funny enough on their own, but combined with the art direction and the bombastic soundtrack will make you fall off the couch in laughter. It’s rare that I can call a soundtrack “funny,” but somehow the composer strikes this interesting balance between fast-paced and varied themes that sets the player up to be knocked down by a joke in the dialogue. Rarely do we see atmosphere used in games for humor, especially when the atmosphere is intentionally straightforward, but Disgaea pulls it off really well.

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Time and Eternity: Wait, This is Good?

Time and Eternity for the PS3 is a classic example of an underrated niche game. Nominally, it’s a JRPG, but it trends much closer to a visual novel with some interesting gameplay than a traditional, combat and stat heavy JRPG. For all its faults, I just want to keep playing it.

The premise is that you are Zack, a knight, who is marrying the princess, Toki. On your wedding day, assassins attack and kill you both. Then, Toki transforms into Towa, and you travel six months into the past to stop the attack on your wedding. Shenanigans ensue.

Several things differentiate this from a typical narrative-driven RPG. First, the only character you control is Toki/Towa. Turns out, Toki and Towa are two souls who share one body, and who only switch when you level up (or use a rare item). While the main character is nominally Zack, the story is really about the three characters and their continuing romance.

Which brings me to my second differentiation: the romance has already started. In most video games, the beginnings of romance are really the only parts of a relationship you can explore. Find the girl, say the right dialogue options, get the secret sex scene, and boom–you’re a couple! But Zack and Toki are already a couple–hell, they’re trying to get married. The story focuses more on building on that foundational relationship, how Zack and Toki deal with everyone trying to kill them and how Towa fits into their relationship. Several story moments focus on the small romantic moments that could really only occur between a couple who have a relationship already.

Third, the game is extremely light-hearted and tried to be humorous, and succeeding more than failing, honestly. This is not a game for the serious-minded goth teenager who dresses in black “like his soul.” Time and Eternity boasts a colorful cast of characters in ridiculous situations that will more likely make you laugh at them than with them. For example, the first bosses you fight are two people dressed like assassins with thick Southern accents. You beat them, and then find out that they’re not assassins at all–but rather, part of an Assassins Fan Club! Of course, the leader of the Fan Club is a Spanish-accented well-dressed man named Ricardo who constantly hits on Toki. Did I mention that they were also bakers? I mean, they have to have day jobs. There are several of these moments, particularly in the sidequests, that play on the absurd and are just hilarious.

Fourth, this game focuses away from exploration. Maps are not too large, and objective markers and treasure chests are clearly marked on the in-game map. In that sense, you’re really not encouraged to explore the world to find something hidden. Rather, you’re directed toward the main plot points with the interesting parts marked in case you want to find them. It ties back to the idea of the game focusing more on its story than the typical trappings of RPGs.

In its exploration of the characters and the central romance, Time and Eternity plays out much more like a visual novel with a combat system tacked on. Not that the combat system is lacking (it’s actually quite good), but the focus is clearly more on the story than the gameplay. But even the mechanics play a role in the central narrative. Every time you level up, Toki and Towa switch, forcing you to control the other character. Each has their own skill tree, and each is proficient in one of the two main weapons, Toki being better with guns and Towa being better with swords. In addition to typical stats like Strength, there are also Love and Sincerity stats, which play into which of the Toki and Towa you are closer to. You build skills with “Gift Points”, which function like skill points in any other RPG, but here, they act as if Zack is giving gifts of skills to his fiancee, furthering the romantic angle.

However, the game is not perfect. The anime art style is generally good, but the animation is a bit choppy and the sprites seem oddly rough for a PS3 quality game. The soundtrack is good, though not particularly memorable, despite being much more forward and melodic than many game soundtracks. The voice acting ranges from excellent to mediocre, though that might depend on your tolerance for cheesy, hammy performances.

Despite its flaws, though, Time and Eternity is proving to be a hidden gem on the PS3. While probably not worth the original $50 price tag, it’s available on PSN for $20, and will occasionally go on sale for $10 or lower. Very much worth it at that price. It’s rare that we see a game delve into romance in quite this detail, and it’s even more rare to find a modern game that is so light-hearted and tries to be humorous without being too crude. An underrated game caught between two niche genres that is certainly worth your time and money.