Friday, January 6, 2012

Best of 2011 - atmosphere.

2011 boasted a remarkable roster of games with an uncanny sense of time and place. Most of the games on this list go out of their way to put the 'fear' back in 'atmosphere', but every title noted here successfully invites the player to experience not just a world, but an emotional reality that aligns with it.

It is a product of artistry - of controlled, intentional style - and a direct precursor to that most prized of gaming states: immersion. These are the most involving, most affecting, most atmospheric games of the year.


"Have you ever had a nightmarish fever-dream in which you explore the game you've been playing lately? Everything is drifting, unreal and frightening, but you're strangely at ease as you navigate. That's precisely the effect Madness Returns had on me."
There is some seriously messed-up stuff in Alice - stuff that left me comparing the game's emotional payoff with Silent Hill 2 - but Alice is more than the sum of its parts. It's not simply a collection of gorgeous art direction and creepy thrills - there's something dark and violent and emotionally true, at its core, that remains with you long after you've walked away from Wonderland.

Portal 2 has the distinction of being the only comedy on this list - or, heck, in almost all of modern gaming - but that doesn't stop it from offering a strange, funny, lonely and independent world that will have you peering through frosted windows in the hopes of glimpsing just a bit more. With such sparse strokes of a pen, this heavily-guided game becomes insidiously absorbing.

Portal 2 set message boards afire with its arrival, as gamers desperately tried to fit its pieces into the greater Half-Life universe - and therein lies part of its draw.

There is a winking, self-aware wisdom in Portal 2 that casts the player both as observer and participant in its endearingly clever, dark comedy - but (like a few others on this list) it succeeds perhaps because of everything it doesn't offer. There are no audio logs to pick up, no collectibles to find - and while all the details of its world are charming, it is the gaps - the empty spaces, begging to be filled, that would explain this mad world - that seduce us so.

honorable mentions

Skyrim's atmospheric success is doubly impressive, thanks to the variety it successfully presents. Gentle horns echo the grandeur of its horizon-spanning, heavens-scraping vistas, turning swiftly to thrumming, ground-shaking choruses when a dragon crashes to the ground in front of you, or a bandit chief makes their foolish move.

It offers an incredibly rich world, and strolling through the idyllic, bustling streets of Whiterun feels just as emotionally true as tracking a deer through the cold, misty trees of The Reach. Trudging across the swamps of Hjaalmarsh as a serpent screeches above, picking your way through the trap-laden tombs the Dwarves left behind, standing on a peak of the Throat of the World as a snowstorm lashes your face...

Skyrim's phenomenal weather effects, impressive graphics tech, pitch-perfect music and wonderful art direction doesn't limit the game to a single emotional value or genre - it offers what feels like an entire world - and while it successfully achieves so much, the sheer breadth of its scope prevents it from reaching the pinnacle.

Unfortunately, nothing yanks you out of immersion like bugs or loading screens, and - despite its stunning success, as a general rule - Skyrim has a ton of gremlins built into it that shatters your suspension of disbelief. Even ignoring its bugs, this game's loading times are egregious.
"You spend a great deal of your time in Skyrim waiting to play Skyrim."

On a scale of scope or polish or depth, Dead Island's reality is a pox-riddled grotesque, when seated beside Skyrim - but while it lacks the budget, graphics, art direction and narrative drive, it somehow manages to grasp even greater heights of immersion and emotional engagement with fewer, simpler tools.

Somehow, with little more than great dynamic music, deteriorating weapons and absolutely amazing combat, Dead Island becomes a game that is less played than lived. Picking your way through a zombie-ravaged resort town, scrounging for precious healing items and keeping a constant ear out for the moans of the recently-deceased simply feels... accurate. Vital.

One is always slightly on edge while strolling along its turquoise shores or slipping through the cramped alleys of its slums, and when the music kicks up and your onscreen hands clutch their precious weapon just a bit tighter, Dead Island mutates from an uneasy stroll to a savage thrill as you plunge into its incredible melee.

There is something earnest and elegant about this game, and its systems, that absorbs one entirely. It's like an ink brush painting from the 1600s.

That's right - I just compared Dead Island to Kingfisher Perched on a Withered Branch. Such simple tools, such sparse, bold, effective use of them - it achieves so much, with so little.

Still, it is at least akin to Skyrim in one regard - while it's a stunning achievement in certain areas, its technical foibles deny it unmitigated success, and prevent it from placing any higher on this list.


"It's so... thoughtful.

The world is crafted from glistening metal and glass, but nothing feels quite right about it, and one never feels quite safe within it. Every form has a function - but the function is either just broken enough to give one the sense of a world in decay or operating so well it's a lethal threat. Light dances and flickers across blood-streaked walls. Video displays only seem to just barely work, and machinery will obliterate you with one missed step. The world is bent to the task of your doom.

Cries and gutteral calls echo through the vents, but every now and then, I swear I hear someone whispering my name. The scream of venting steam sends a chill up one's spine, and when you access a B.E.N.C.H. to upgrade your RIG or weapons, the work table unfolds with a growling roar, like some hungry nightmare creature.

The workbench.

The game is constantly playing with and riffing on fear - but always careful to never repeat itself. If it ever plays the same card twice, it is only with an added twist on what came before that toys with your expectations - faking left only to swerve right, and dazzle you again."
Thanks in no small part to its staggeringly high-caliber presentation, Dead Space 2 nearly sweeps this category with its consistently measured approach to fear, brilliant sound design and a total lack of caveats that would hold it back from greatness.

This game never trips over itself and throws the player from the shadowy science fiction they find themselves trudging through. There are no loading screens, there are no bugs - there is nothing but you, the fantastically well-realized environment and the nightmare creatures that stalk its halls.

With one of the most well-defined and thoughtfully constructed game worlds of the year, its remarkable sound design, flawless overall presentation and consistently clever approach to strumming on chords of terror, there's only one title that could step out ahead of Dead Space 2 and claim this year's top honors...

best atmosphere
of 2011

Well, obviously.
"[Dark Souls'] finely-tuned design, presentation and mechanics do a better job of absorbing the player in its reality than any title in recent memory..."
Like Dead Island, it achieves much with relatively little, and the player's total and uninterrupted immersion is not merely a product of its environment, but a requirement of surviving the game. Your stratospheric level of involvement is constructed into the game's very mechanics. Like Dead Space, this title suffers no technical gubbins that could damage your complete absorption in the stark, beautiful, romantic world of Lordran.

Its spectacular, deeply affecting art direction, bleak, electrifying sound design, wonderfully mysterious, minimal narrative and fantastic combat hammer home an eerie, lonely, adrenaline-burning experience that constantly has the player warbling between grim confidence and abject terror.

"[From Software] were able to bend their reasonable but unremarkable mastery of current-gen consoles to a focused, precise vision of gothic fantasy that gets right under your skin.Here, the artists were free to let their imaginations roam to a dark world that echoes the fantasy landscapes we only ever saw in our dreams as children, while our parents read us stories of brave knights, evil monsters, ancient ruins and insane cities. As whippersnappers, we lived in those worlds, curled up on couches or safe in bed, regularly drifting from rapt attention to that ethereal, barely-conscious place that loomed before the sandman took us away - so we could continue exploring in our dreams.

The fantasy worlds we wandered in our larval forms were never crystal-clear - they were swirling miasmas of details we were sure of, and an eerie fog obscuring the minutiae beyond - breeding a feeling of joyous discovery and uneasy trepidation of what unimaginable things lay in wait, just past the doors of our understanding.

That is what Dark Souls feels like..."

Dark Souls is a game about walking ever-deeper into a miasma of shadow, with nothing to protect you but your own hard-won understanding of how to survive its cruel and uncompromising systems. It's about emerging from those swirling mists to find yourself before a towering monstrosity that can crush you with a single blow - about knowing with surety that this nightmare creature will kill you - and being simultaneously quite sure that you will, before this day is done, kick its ass so hard that it will see the curvature of the earth.

It's about constantly and repeatedly overcoming what seemed impossible.

I've only ever said this about one other title, but... Many games have atmosphere so thick you could cut it with a knife.

In Dark Souls, the knife would get stuck.


  1. All the screen shots of Dark Souls I've seen have been too dark. Not "atmosphere" dark; but "I can't really see what's going on here" dark.

  2. Have you tried watching trailers? I like the Bartholomew one, but maybe that's just 'cause I dig the song - either way, it's never an issue in-game.

  3. Damn it, Chance. You make me want to play the absolute crud out of Dark Souls. I just don't know if I am brave enough. I bought Demon Souls and I made it absolutely nowhere. It was so brutal and depressing yet I still saw the appeal. Why must I be such a babyface?

    Also, your Scott Pilgrim reference is noted and appreciated.

  4. Ah! I'm glad someone got that one. Also, don't feel like you have to play DS - just because certain folks reckon it's the coolest thing since twin analog sticks doesn't mean it's actually up your alley - that's why I still haven't played Gears 3 or Halo Reach yet.