Monday, April 1, 2013

Defining atmosphere through BioShock

Games tell stories through dialogue, narration, and cutscenes, but it’s environmental storytelling, often referred to as atmosphere, that usually tells the most about a character or setting. One of the first things they teach in film study classes is the phrase, Mise en scène, translated from French meaning placing on stage. It means nothing in a scene is there by accident, everything is meticulously placed and serves a purpose.

Most games set up their environments effectively, but BioShock is one of the few games in recent years to do it eloquently, making the underwater city of Rapture feel not only natural, but real. From its art direction, taking on a retro 50s era aesthetic, to its inclusion of timely music from that era, BioShock created a unique place that, despite its dead and abandoned nature, felt alive and left its mark on players.

What makes up the atmosphere is a combination of art direction, sound design, and environmental details. The clip above encapsulates all these with the corpse of a Big Daddy sitting in the middle of the room, the wooden beam breaking from his dead weight, and the blood stains against the far wall, probably from the struggle between the Big Daddy and its attacker. But it’s the sound design that relies most heavily in this moment.

If you listen to the clip above and with your eyes closed, it’s amazing what you can interpret through just the audio. The voice of Dr. Tenenbaum realizing where her hatred is rooted from, the flooded area sways with the sound of water, the creaking of walls as water pressure pushes against them, the moan of the Big Daddy draws dread with each clamoring footstep, the mutterings of a splicer just outside the room looking for you. All of that is illustrated just with sound.

No matter how fantastic or unrealistic a premise might be, small details like stumbling uponwhat looks like a lived-in bedroom, rather than just a sterile room, helps create the sense of place. It’s one thing to find a crate lying around lifelessly that has no connection or context to it, it’s another to come across a half-played game of pool with bags of potato chips and bottles of liquor strewed about unfinished. It conjures narrative questions like, who was here, and what happened to them?

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