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            Can you handle it?
by Ethos

Best Atmospheric Experience 2010 – Riddles

Saturday, January 1st, 2011


Finally! Due credit can be given to this downloadable gem of a game. Mass Effect 2 and Heavy Rain both built dense, palpable atmospheres – but Limbo builds an atmosphere unlike anything seen before, through methods never used. It’s a game that truly stands in a class of its own, and it must be experienced firsthand.

With barely a backstory explaining it, Limbo throws you into a dark, uninviting wood, where you must search for your missing sister. Everything is black and white – the protagonist is a small, silhoutted boy with beady, glowing eyes – which always shine, even in the darkest surroundings. The pale white lighting flickers like a failing street sign, which adds a subtly bizarre atmospheric effect.

As you go forward, it becomes clear that this forest is the personification of a child’s nightmare. Night-shrouded woods, infested with bullies, gigantic spiders, and devious traps. In spite of its juvenile protagonist, Limbo has an unexpectedly brutal side to it – deaths are brutal and bloody, often involving beheadings or skewerings. Certain puzzles, even, display an unexpectedly macabre nature – at one point, you must drag the dead bodies of children to a lake, then use them as stepping stones.

Background and foreground layers fade and become more distinct to create different atmospheric effects. All the while, a minimalist sound design is utilized – Limbo has no musical score to speak of, and instead chooses to assault your ears largely with dead silence and footsteps. It works brilliantly.

I wish I could say more about Limbo, but I must remember that I’m here only to discuss its atmospheric merits. Limbo is unlike anything I’d played before it, and it’s easily the best atmospheric experience I had in 2010.

Runner Up: Heavy Rain

Well, anything I say here will sound a little tepid in comparison to Lameish’s recent gushing article explaining the game’s atmospheric merit. Oh well. Heavy Rain is a game that builds its atmosphere not through bizarre and fantastical fantasy worlds or heavily stylized aesthetics, but rather, through the gritty realism that permeates its world, characters, dialog, and graphical presentation. It’s well-written, well-acted interactive thrillride, but it’s real life –  and it’s impressive to see a game build such palpable atmosphere through such meager conventions.

Best Atmospheric Experience 2010 – Ethos

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Mass Effect 2
*WARNING: Many extreme Mass Effect 2 spoilers are detailed below*

Very few games can control my heartbeat like Mass Effect 2. It plays the thing like a harp. Slowing down, speeding up, sometimes stopping completely. At the beginning of the game when Commander Shepard is running through the collapsing Normandy and finally makes her way to the bridge, the fearless commander is forced to slow to a walk. The music cuts away, and all that’s left is the sound of Shepard’s breathing through her helmet and spacesuit while the player notices a beautiful and horrible view of a closeby planet because the majority of the roof of the spaceship has been ripped off.

This is just one example, and unlike God of War III’s tactic of saving the best for first, this moment is consistently matched and conquered throughout the experience.

Choosing to kill Samara or her daughter, boarding and exploring a dead reaper, stumbling upon a cannibalistic slave society, hearing Harbinger’s voice issue philosophical threats as you flee a structure set to explode. This is a game that is so alive and thick with atmosphere that it is the only game in which I don’t mind being a little scared from time to time. Granted, Mass Effect is very rarely a scary series, but the point is that I’m so drawn into the world that it’s like I have no choice but to trek on until completion.

While some people love to play through multiple times to see all the possible reactions and outcomes, I’m so sold by Mass Effect’s atmosphere that I can’t do it. I have played through 1 and 2 one time because it makes no sense any other way to me.

Mass Effect 2 is dark and depressing and epic and varied and occasionally a little twisted, and you can feel it with every step. I might prefer the first game, but Mass Effect 2 is an atmospheric masterpiece.

Runner up: Darksiders

I could chose Heavy Rain, but I’m going to use an excuse that I just bashed earlier in these awards and admit that I hate that game too much to pick it. Epic Mickey even had a fair shot at #2, but I’m too let-down by its technical shortcomings.

Darksiders surprised me in not only how much fun it was, but in how dense some parts of the world felt. It was nowhere close to Mass Effect territory, and I can assume improvement for the sequel, but it would be silly to deny that I didn’t feel the hopelessness and ruin throughout the experience.

Darksiders jumped from creepy to epic to surprisingly pretty with ease, and the world felt cohesive and exciting to explore. Not to mention that the lead character, War was treated by enemies with fear and respect along with the typical malice. Not a common reaction from terrifying looking baddies.

As I talk about it, maybe this – more than DeathSpank – was the second game that Riddles was too stupid to play. He likes God of War, he likes Zelda, he likes pretty things and great atmosphere, and he pretends to like good games, so suck it up and buy this one, Olivia!

Oh, and both Mass Effect and Darksiders have good music. That helped the atmosphere in both.

Best Atmospheric Exerience 2010 – Lameish

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Heavy Rain

Every time I sat down to play this game, I walked away craving a stiff drink, a cigarette, and even the most remote sign that my actions had any consequence against the crippling omnipotence of a human propensity for the rape of innocence. No HUD, no score counter, just you and the most claustrophobic urban wasteland imaginable, where the broken make their homes and the naked hide from light. You’ve failed as a father and a man, allowing your life and the life of your one surviving son to sink in to disrepair, until he is stolen out from under your crippled hands, taken to a place that, in all likelihood, is better than the rickety tin-roof you’ve managed to raise over your head. The nights are black and the days are gray and the rain floats the sewage out in to the streets and its all you can do to bend to your antagonist’s will in the desperate hope that you might return your son to the bleak life you’ve carved out for him. Hookers, trench coats, and typewriters all decorate the walls of this grizzly jouer-noir. I’d sign a petition to get a surgeon general’s warning put on the box and little travel pack of Prozac placed inside. Gold star.

Runner Up: Mass Effect 2

Every planet, space station, and starship bears its own individual architecture, customs, and practices. Where other games struggle to assemble an effective atmosphere, Mass Effect 2 pulls off dozens. Just another brilliant example of the level of detail and creativity that went in to this game’s construction. Unfortunately, it suffered from being a jack of all atmospheres, master of none. In fairness, its hard to compete with a game that makes you take a serious look at dropping your un-paid, part-time videogame journalism gig to work the homicide beat.


Best Atmospheric Experience 2009 – Ethos

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

flower-game-screenshot-1 Flower

Man, even I’m getting sick of talking about Flower at this point. But the bottom line is that Flower has more atmosphere than most games I’ve played this decade, forget 2009. Every detail is exact. The individually rendered blades of grass reacting to the wind. The game only has to begin its first minutes for a player to feel like they’ve had a glimpse into what heaven might look like if such a place were to exist. Typically nothing can bring on or satisfy a mood faster than music, but Flower is the one game with an atmosphere powerful enough to rival a great album. And you know it’s a feat if Flower beat out my favourite Zelda game since Majora’s Mask.

Runner Up: The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks