Games deliver experiences unlike any other medium; inviting the audience to not only enjoy an audiovisual show, but interact and be a participant of one of their own creation within the developer’s world. This has only come more into focus with the development of VR technology, whereby the player is literally dropped into the game. In this segment, I’ll be touching on one of the most powerful tools in game creation: Atmosphere.
What is Atmosphere?
An often underappreciated yet meaningful facet of video game design, or for any medium conveying experiences in general, is Atmosphere. But what is Atmosphere? This is that special something that sparks an emotional response, instills a certain mood within the player and then thoroughly engages them in unexpected ways. For the purposes of this article we’ll be taking a look at one of the best (and my favorite) examples of Atmosphere in the gaming industry: The Tower of Latria from FromSoftware’s Demon’s Souls.
Setting the Mood
Demon’s Souls is a distilled experience, featuring only 5 distinct levels with compact and concise stages revolving around specific themes. I’ll be focusing on the third level, the Archstone of the Tower Queen: The Tower of Latria. As you can guess from the image below, The Tower of Latria is prison, as no RPG is complete without this! However, a key difference between it and other games is that you don’t start out in one or as a prisoner here (I’m looking at you Oblivion).
“An old man took revenge on the Queen by locking her family in a prison with inhuman guards. All that escapes the place are the prisoners’ cries.”
The Tower of Latria is a complex and terrifying level with clever use of sporadic lighting. It’s corners feel rich, its air heavy, and the inhabitants eerie. This entices both fear and more importantly, curiosity within the player. Drawn in by the allure, and pushed on by your own imagination, Tower of Latria is the “ne plus ultra” of atmospheric mood.
There is no music and yet, the space you’re in is not silent. You hear your footsteps as you explore the area and bells ring in a distance from Lovecraftian wardens that patrol the echoing corridors. As you progress further, you come to a point where you can hear faint singing, but where is it coming from..
My Casual Walk Through Latria
Traumatized by several jump-scares and numerous losses of souls, I begin to realize that the only way to find where this sound is coming from is to go there myself, which I do, reluctantly…
The oscillating two note melody slowly grows in volume as I near its source. It’s beneath me, around the corner, but I get lost and escape death few times more. Then, almost by mistake I’m there, as an audience to this solitary opera. Taking a step forward, I see a figure in a cell: a woman clad in an tattered dress and a worn-out masquerade mask, swaying with her arms stretched out to accentuate her tune. Now I’m terrified! I’m not only taken aback by the macabre, but also fearful for unexpected surprises looming in the shadows. Through courage or sheer stupidity, I lurch towards that cell, that singing, that fear.
Giving in to my curiosity all the while feeling faint. The cell is unlocked, I step in… singing stops. It stops, and stares at me. Our gazes lock. Now I’m in for it. I’m literally in that damn cell I told myself I would never go near. With nothing to lose (absolutely a TON of souls to lose!) I stagger forth and hear the words…
Why Latria Works
The Tower of Latria succeeds in creating a unique impression on the player thanks to a slow and measured build up of tension, and anticipation. That impression is what creates the feeling of an “Iconic” location and character, which is unlike other levels in the game. For example, the Valley of Defilement features sludge, mud and all around ickyness that ends up feeling more annoying than terrifying. Latria pulls you in with sound, frightens you with strange monstrosities, and pushes you forward into a complex labyrinth of locked doors, driven by your own frightening imagination. All of these element combine to create an unforgettable experience, which is what gaming is truly about…
At the risk of sounding cheesy and pretentious: experiences are what all of us, as humans, are receptive to. Our lives revolve around exeperiences. You share a moment with a loved one, you’re happy. You get hurt, you’re sad. Someone wrongs you, you’re angry. The Tower of Latria succeeded in creating a situation I wanted to share with others, that marked me as a person thanks to my own interpretations, and that I keep thinking about many years later. For this reason, I believe FromSoftware and Sony Japan Studio successfully defined the Atmosphere pillar for their first “Souls” title, allowing them to build from there towards the “Soulsian” genre they are enjoying now.
There are many others that provide phenomenally memorable experiences as well. What’s your favorite or what stood out for you?
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