Tips & Tricks: Building Atmosphere

Building an effective atmosphere in your levels is critical in immersing the player in your world. The atmosphere should fit the given context of the world, while still maintaining believability, which can be a little tricky to pull off. In my own approach to level design, I put a huge amount of effort into building the atmosphere of the level I’m creating, and have had a few fellow students approach me recently about how I go about doing this. It certainly isn’t always an easy task to get right, but when atmosphere is done correctly, it can add depth, reality, and engagement for the player, further drawing them into your game or level.

Keep reading to learn more on how to build an appropriate atmosphere!

Defining Atmosphere

Long before you ever open up an editor, you should be thinking about the atmosphere you’d like to implement in your level. You probably have a ton of cool ideas in your head about what you want to do, but narrowing them down and writing them into your pre-production will help you to focus, and thus create a more effective atmosphere. I usually add an additional section to my pre-production that includes atmosphere, mood, and feeling. This section, which I’ll refer to as the atmospheric definition, is generally only a short paragraph or two, but defining how you want the player to feel in your level early on will help make the implementation process easier. Because documentation isn’t everyone’s forte,  it helps to examine other forms of media to come up with your level’s atmospheric definition. A lot can be learned in terms of building atmosphere from other media, such as films and novels. Do a little research and find something that conveys a similar atmosphere or mood to what you want, and take note on how that atmosphere is achieved. For example, if you were making a fantasy world, you might want to (re-)read the Lord of the Rings, or you might watch Star Wars if you were making a sci-fi level. Those are just a few simple examples, but it really does help to take the time to research via other media forms; you can even reference that research in your definition to get the team into the same mindset. When it comes to actually writing that definition, think back to your high school (or college) English courses; remember when your teacher used to ask you to write about the mood of a novel? Well, think back to how you would write about a novel’s mood and apply those same practices to defining the atmosphere in your level. It’s important to be clear and informative, especially when working with a team, so don’t just say something like, “It’s supposed to be dark and creepy.” Why is it supposed to be dark and creepy? How are you going to make it dark and creepy? Ask yourself these questions and you should be able to come up with a concise atmospheric definition that will make implementation much easier.

Influences

While writing your atmospheric definition, you should have been thinking about ways to achieve the desired atmosphere. In my experience, there are four key influences on the atmosphere in a level: aesthetics, sound, lighting, and gameplay mechanics. Of course, there are other influences, but these are the main ones that will directly affect the player’s feelings in the level. As a level designer, it is your job to effectively coordinate any combination of those four influences to build your atmosphere. When working with larger teams, you will likely have other people to take care of some of these things instead of you doing everything; in that case, you need to clearly define your atmosphere in your pre-production and work closely with those team members to ensure that the correct atmosphere is obtained. On the other hand, students and independent developers will probably have to do all of this themselves, which is why you will generally only see one of those four influences implemented, but using more than one will be much more effective. Below, I will discuss each of the four influences, as well as ways level designers working on their own can implement them.

Aesthetics

Using aesthetic and visuals cues to build an atmosphere is probably the easiest of the four mentioned above, although that’s not to say it is necessarily easy. Creating a visually pleasing level can be hard enough to do, so making those same visuals compliment and improve the atmosphere of the level is a whole other playing field. That being said, learning how to make a visually pleasing level is probably one of the easier things to learn from this list, and building atmosphere from it just takes some tweaking. Once you get it down, you can then learn how to build atmosphere into your environment from the beginning, and it will become second nature to you.

The best advice I can offer when it comes to aesthetic atmosphere is to use only materials, textures, meshes, and other assets that compliment the atmosphere you’re going for. Putting space-like stuff in an whimsical outdoor level isn’t going to make sense, so stick to only using assets that would fit in the world you’re creating. Object placement can also be important, as it can affect enemy locations, line of sight, and cover, and can even be used to enhance the mood. The Gears of War and Dead Space series do a good job of using object placement to enhance mood, since they both make the player cautious whenever they come across cover or a corner in a narrow hallway. Populating your level, which, for those who don’t know, is the act of putting in assets that make the environment more believable but are not necessary, is crucial to obtaining the right mood and can help to draw the player deeper into your world. Putting in a bunch of beds, chairs, tables, etc. may seem trivial and time consuming, but it makes it look like people actually live in your world and can give a little insight into those people’s lifestyles. Think about it: would Bioshock be the same without all the creepy furniture and whatnot? It could still be playable, obviously, but it would be lacking that atmosphere that really makes the game. Visuals can go a long way, so don’t just toss in a bunch of random assets and hope for the best if you want to convey an effective atmosphere. I think the best practice for learning how to make atmospheric aesthetics is to look at other games and even movies; it’s not too often you just see a room with nothing in it.

Sound

Sound is one of my personal favorites to work with when it comes to building atmosphere. There is a huge repertoire of different types of sounds that can effect the atmosphere of your level, but depending on how you use them, they could be either effective or ineffective. You can use ambient music to set the mood, while sound effects can ground the player in the world. I recently used voice overs for one of my levels, which added to the eerie atmosphere I was going for.

When implementing sounds into your level, be sure that you use sounds that make sense in the setting, as well as for the genre. For example, if you are making a sci-fi level, you probably don’t want music that sounds cheery or medieval since that might send mixed messages to the player. Sound can also play a key role in amping up the tension, just like you’ve likely noticed in movies. When situations in films get tense or dramatic, the music changes to better fit those situations, and this same technique can be applied to your levels, or games for that matter, as well. A few examples of where you could change the music would be during enemy encounters, when the story takes a turn for the worse or for the better, or even when the gameplay mechanics alter.

I’m certainly no expert on sound design, and you really don’t need to be either if you’re a level designer, but it is certainly a helpful tool to learn. There are a lot of free sound databases that you can use, but always check up on copyright restrictions, especially if you are going to be publishing your work or using it for profit. Some editors even come with pre-loaded sounds, so check those out as well to see if they fit any of your needs. If you plan on using voice overs, I recommend downloading Audacity, which is a free recording program with a lot of built-in features. You might even check with your school or any smaller recording studios nearby to see if you’d be able to use their equipment. Another tip for voice overs is to try different accents and ask friends to help out; it’s fun and can make your world more believable. If you’ve met any sound designers at conventions like GDC, you could even try asking them for some help. Some might charge you while others are just trying to get their work noticed, but by no means should you ever try taking advantage of sound designers. If they aren’t up to helping you, try asking for a little advice on how to get started and go from there.

Lighting

Lighting is another of my favorites, and I’m actually working on a study of lighting level which I will post soon. Some people have a natural affinity for understanding lighting, while others would rather hand off that job to someone else. The truth is, realistic lighting is extremely difficult to reproduce. Sure, you can just plop point lights down willy-nilly, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to look good. You need to consider light placement, light radius and reach, shadows, direction, coloring, the actual light source, indoors versus outdoors, the physical space, any objects or meshes nearby, water or glass if applicable, how it affects other lights, and even the type of light being used. That’s a lot to think about when lighting your level, but if you take all those things into account, your lighting will look much better than if you just stuck point lights everywhere.

The best way to learn lighting is by looking at the world around you. Go outside and examine how lighting works in real life; you could even take pictures to reference for levels later. There is no better study of lighting than what you see with your own eyes, but if you’re still having trouble, try taking an art or photography class if you can. I am currently working on a study of light in which I am taking two areas, one indoors and one outdoors, and taking pictures of them during different times of the day. Then I’ll use those pictures to recreate the areas and the different lighting seen in each picture. Of course, it’s not going to look exactly like the original pictures, but it’s certainly good lighting practice and I highly recommend trying this out for yourself.

Remember that lighting can dramatically alter the way the player perceives the world around them. If everything is very bright, it’s more likely to invoke feelings of safety, while darker levels may invoke fear or uncertainty. Tinting the color of the lighting is also an interesting way of changing the atmosphere, as colors are already known to set certain moods for people. Warm colored lighting is associated with reds, oranges, and yellows, and can easily make the level or room feel more comforting or even urgent. On the other hand, cool colored lighting is associated with blues, greens, and purples, which can invoke feelings of sadness or calmness. There’s a lot to be learned from using specific colors, so do a bit of research to ensure that your level is going to set the mood you want. Colored lighting is a fun way of building atmosphere while still making it believable; after all, not every light emits pure white light. Taking the time out to learn how to light your levels properly and in interesting ways will really pay off and will leave you with realistic, intriguing worlds for the player to explore.

Gameplay Mechanics

Using gameplay mechanics to build atmosphere might seem a bit strange sounding at first, but if you think about it, it really makes for a great device. By altering the physical space to force the player into using a different gameplay mechanic, a level designer can create a completely different feeling for the player. For example, let’s say that the player has up to this point been running around a more open world, but now they’ve discovered a crawlspace. Obviously, they aren’t going to just run through the crawlspace like they’ve been doing, so they will need to use a different gameplay mechanic, crawling, to get by. Making the player crawl through this narrow space will force them to adapt to the new situation and form new feelings about the situation. In this example, the player might feel claustrophobic or confined, or perhaps even intrigued by what could be on the other side. This is something you as the level designer can take advantage of, and it is important to remember that players are going to take different actions and have different feelings in a cramped area versus a large, open one.

The biggest issue with using gameplay mechanics to help build atmosphere is balance. You certainly don’t want to litter your levels with areas that force the player to change their mechanics, as that would seem, well, forced, but you also don’t want too few of those areas or else they will feel random and out of place. Finding the perfect balance is tricky and takes some work, so I recommend grabbing a few friends to playtest your level and let you know how it feels. Playtesting is going to be your greatest ally, especially when altering gameplay mechanics to convey different moods.

This is something I’ve only tried a few times because it is difficult to do correctly, but if you can pull it off and balance it properly, it is certainly going to make your level more interesting and exciting. After all, no player wants to do the exact same thing over and over, so give them a bit of change in gameplay every now and then, and they’ll likely be much more engaged. Just be careful not to overuse mechanics or completely change the gameplay. If you plan on using a mechanic several times in your level, gradually introduce it by giving the player the option to do it or not the first time they encounter it, rather than merely forcing them to use it.

The four influences described above are in no way the only ways you can build atmosphere, but they are the ones I have found to be the most effective and useful. Building a good atmosphere is a difficult task in itself, one that I by no means believe I have mastered. It takes a lot of practice to get right, but believe me when I say that that practice pays off and you will find yourself with more dynamic, believable, and interesting levels. I hope this helped, and as always, feel free to comment, critique, or ask any questions! Thanks for reading!

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