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Ambience and Atmosphere

August 8, 2012

Dear Readers,

Another thing I’ve come to really appreciate in The Secret World is both the ambience effects and the atmosphere the developers worked to create.  Both of these considerations are long traditions in video games, so it’s certainly not a breakthrough on Funcom’s part, but it’s added a lot to the game.

The first time I can really remember being scared by a game was in Legacy: Realm of Terror.  I was probably 12 or 13 when I came across this game, and horror games were a new concept to me.  Microprose created it, the same ingenious developers who made Civilization, X-Com, Master of Orion, and Master of Magic.  I hadn’t heard of H.P. Lovecraft, mind flayers, or madness brought on by seeing things too horrible to describe, but I had heard of haunted houses.  The game’s ambient sound was very spooky.  You could hear moaning zombies far off without realizing they were actually standing right behind you.  You’d turn a corner and there’d be a horrific floating monster without a face.  There were rooms covered in skin.  It was pretty freaky stuff.

On top of that, your character screamed when he or she was surprised.  That corner you turned, that zombie you didn’t know was behind you, when you realized it in-game, your character let out a piercing scream, which, of course, scared the absolute bejesus out of you as a player, as well.

The atmosphere was no slouch, either.  The game utilized darkness well, and if you didn’t have a light source, it wasn’t just an inconvenience; things went black around you, and you became closed in.  Legacy showed me early on just how important ambience and atmosphere could be in games, and may have contributed to the fact that when I see something scary in a movie, I don’t cover my eyes; I cover my ears.

Ambience in MMOs has been an important element since I started playing, as well.  Try turning it off in WoW if you don’t believe me; all the little background sounds you’ve become accustomed to are suddenly gone, and the game world immediately feels flatter.  Ambience became incredibly important in Zul’Aman, too, when it was a 10 man raid.  The bird boss, who floats up in the air and electrocutes everyone not directly under him, would do that at random, and the effects were much more lethal than they are as a 5 man boss.  You couldn’t just crowd him, though, as he had a brutal chain lightning that was similarly very dangerous.

One of my friends at the time noticed that if you turned all the game sound down but the ambience up, you could hear the rain start a few seconds before he floated up, allowing you to predict when he would use that effect.  We were able to better prepare by beginning to collapse before he started the effect, making the boss and, thus, the bear run much more doable.  The devs actually built ambience into a game mechanic.

Atmosphere’s been important in WoW, too.  I’ve always enjoyed outdoor raids; dungeon raids have become so common that when you were standing underneath the sun in Zul’Gurub or Ahn’Qiraj, you had more a feeling of epicness than when you were crammed into those small spaces beneath the earth.  Similarly, the icy interior of the Lich King’s lair always impressed me, including the grand ice pinnacle that towered above you, upon which sat your foe.  It was a beautifully designed interior, and added wonderfully to the chilly feeling you were supposed to be left with.

But none of those games are why I’m writing about this today.  The Secret World, again, has captured my greatest attention because of their use of ambience and atmosphere.

There are forests in the game plagued by Ak’ab, large, slimy insects that nest in pulsing, grotesque pods around the area.  The ambience in these locations is extremely disturbing.  There’s sounds of squelching, popping, branches breaking, and slimy slime sliming its way around.

In the game’s first haunted house, there’s intermittent periods of shrieking, laughing, and crying just on the edges of your hearing.  The ambience is truly horrifying – not scary – but unsettling to the point that it can be distracting.

The atmosphere in some of the places, too, is terrifying.  This game makes good use of darkness, occasionally giving the players a miner’s hat or the like that casts a small circle of light ahead of you in the environment.  As you move around, though, you see things on the edges of the light; sometime when you turn to look they’re there, and sometimes it was nothing.  There’ll be shadows moving in the far background, or red eyes off to your left that turn out to be a hidden monster that pulls you suddenly towards it.  It’s incredibly well designed to creep you out.

My wife was underground in a mine that I had recently traversed.  I’m a packrat, so I don’t throw anything away, and I’d kept a helmet from the first “darkness” dungeon we’d come across.  I mostly kept it because it was absurd and fun to put on and use for no reason (it’s actually on my potion hotbar).  I’d gone through the dungeon using that helmet without any problems.  My wife, though, cleaned it out of her inventory and was forced to pick up an “old miner’s helmet.”  The helmet was working fine and then, without warning, went out.

My wife was cast into near total darkness.  There was some ambient lighting, some bioluminescent fungus growing in the mine, but she was essentially blinded.  She became visibly distressed and had to step away from the computer for a while.  I knew there were flares not far from where she was, so I assume the blackout was a scripted event that I missed by using the “wrong” helmet, so I let her know she just needed to go a bit further to find them.  She continued, but had further to go than I realized, and got more and more spooked.  The effect was impressive; I’ve been reading and teaching about how poor games are at affecting our emotions, and this was in direct contrast to that argument.  Kudos, Funcom.

So once again, The Secret World does not disappoint.  However, I’m sure that in whatever game your’e playing, if you take a moment to appreciate the ambience and atmosphere, to stop and think what the developers were aiming for, you’ll develop a greater appreciation for what you’re playing.

What are some of your favorite ambience or atmosphere moments from games?


Stubborn (and a lucky packrat)

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Krel permalink
    August 8, 2012 6:34 pm

    agree with you 100% on TSW. Not sure if it’s an Illuminati-only solo instance or not, but that parking garage with a helmet light that was unreliable provided the best “scary bits” in a game I’ve seen in a very, very long time.

    • August 10, 2012 12:16 pm

      Yes, the shades in there truly startled me. Since they weren’t there on your way on, on my way out, I just jogged along until WHAM one pulled me to it. It gave me quite a shock. After that, I progressed more carefully, but still missed some hidden in corners behind cars. It was a very unnerving experience.

  2. Valerijana permalink
    August 10, 2012 11:17 am

    its not, i did the garage as Templar. But i heard every faction has a slightly different experience there

  3. Merridew permalink
    August 18, 2012 9:20 pm

    Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. The beach hotel mission. To this day I can’t do that mission 1) at night 2) without turning the sound off. I also blaze through it as fast as I can. Freaks me the hell out. That whole game does a decent job of “atmosphere”.

    • August 21, 2012 9:32 am

      I never got around to trying that game out. Every time I see it on sale on steam, I almost buy it, but usually something else is just a LITTLE more attractive to me and I pass. I’ll have to remember this next time and just go ahead and buy it.

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