Part 1 – Atmosphere and player immersion, a definition of the concepts
Atmosphere is a complex mix of story theme, narrative tone and perceived mood
An atmosphere can be viewed as a pervading tone or mood felt about a creative work. In games with a narrative, players are actively piecing together in-game elements to make sense of the story. A tone mostly emerges from a game’s writing, while a perceived mood is partly influenced by the game’s musical coat. Both narrative techniques are ultimately interpreted in a subjective manner by players but are still reliable means to encourage players to feel a certain way.
Games like Journey, Child of Light or Dead Space are such memorable experiences because they align their graphics and narrative tone with the soundtrack.
Along with a given tone and mood, the theme of a narrative also helps forge a game’s unique atmosphere. While a tone is the manner in which the game presents its theme, a theme is the main subject or idea behind the game.
For example: While both belong to a retrofuturistic genre and revolve around themes of self-determination and destiny, Bioshock and Paradigm have completely different tones. The first is grave while the second opts for a more humoristic approach.
The atmosphere of a game is another key factor in promoting its immersion
The player’s immersion is the deep mental and emotional involvement in a game. Highly immersive experiences are captivating enough to hook a player for extended gaming sessions and stay in their mind long after the game is finished.
Gaming strengthens the link between atmospheric engagement and immersion because it is highly interactive. Unlike movies or songs, the interactivity of games balances cognitive gaps.
When we watch a movie or listen to a song, those mediums control what we perceive. This isn’t the case for games—story and audio pacing, along with environmental storytelling and information giveaways, are essential for our imagination and engagement.
Cognitive gaps: the building blocks of the players’ imagination
Unsurprisingly, the use of cognitive gaps is linked to evolving technology. While it was easier in the ‘80s to leave space for cognitive gaps based on technical limits, recent gaming platforms allow developers to expand on the base content of their game for extended periods of time.
While adding content can be a way to genuinely prolong the story, some mechanics have a diminishing impact on atmosphere. A few that come to mind are kill and fetch quests, skin boxes, seasonal passes, loot boxes or cosmetics. These additions can make sense from a business point of view, as keeping an active player base offsets the development costs of new IPs. Furthermore, not all games need a strong atmosphere to have an impact on players.
For games which do rely on atmosphere though, like RPGs and survival games, these mechanics challenge the player’s suspension of disbelief. Like in design and art, imposing creative barriers makes for better results.