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.