The Art of Atmosphere

From Bioshock to Wolfenstein

by G. Christopher Williams

16 September 2009

Williams considers how the release of Bioshock has affected the way that apprehension and terror are evoked through the little details in video games.
Bioshock, 2K Games 

Playing through the first hour of Bioshock is unsettling. A brief introduction to the main character that merely consists of that nameless individual simply noting the tattoo of chains on his wrists leads to a plane crash and then finds you in first person perspective all alone amidst flaming debris floating on the ocean. After a few dodgy attempts to get through the walls of flame surrounding you, you find a gap into a dark ocean. 

Discovering a small island that is home to an ominous edifice, you make your way inside and are greeted with an immense statue. A plaque identifies the man enshrined thusly as Andrew Ryan. Despite the hesitation that this deification of a man might provoke, a submersible awaits below that will introduce you to the weird world of Rapture, and there is no choice but to take it given the limited options this seemingly small world affords.

The apprehension that these opening scenes provoke in the player are in part successful due to the perspective that the game forces the player into. The first person “I” of this game’s narrative is never taken for granted as exploring Rapture is a matter of adjusting your view to take in all of the elements that make up the underwater city. Discovery in Rapture is all about what you choose to see and what you take the time to observe. This is also one of Bioshock‘s general successes as it rewards observation of a city in decay with images and scenery that hints at what awful things might have taken place here merely by allowing you to investigate and draw conclusions about what you are seeing. The story’s perspective manages to reveal the story without much in the way of exposition.

from Bioshock, 2K Games

Additionally, the game marvelously allows you to feel the history of the place by wedding its architecture and landscape to the past. Between the art deco vibe of the architecture and furnishings of Rapture and the period music like “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?” floating hauntingly over crushed glass and the burning remnants of a New Year’s Eve Party, Bioshock immerses the player in a fantastic place that seems grounded in an authentic history because it looks and sounds “right”.

Bioshock’s success in generating such ambiance and evoking apprehension and terror seems highly influential on other first person shooters that seem to realize that this “up, close, and personal” vision of the world is one that allows for provoking an emotional response in a rather elegant way. It isn’t that other games or other first person shooters have not done so before, but they have done so rarely so skillfully.  But when playing through the first few minutes of id’s new iteration of Wolfenstein recently, I was immediately reminded of the feelings that Bioshock provoked in me the first time that I played it.

from Wolfenstein, Activision

In part, I suppose the period quality of the visual design and that first person perspective that I have already alluded to contribute to my sense of recognition and reminder of the atmosphere of Bioshock. After a brief introductory cutscene, Wolfenstein immediately launches the player into the role of B.J. Blazkowicz in a rail station circa World War II. The architecture and scenery feel authentic as well as the uniformed Nazis that will soon be mercilessly hunting you down. 

Little details, like a cheesecake picture of a girl in garters to her soldier boyfriend discovered amongst some documents in the station, contribute to the sense of the period really just “feeling” right. Events that follow as you further explore the station despite heavy enemy fire that might otherwise seem to disrupt the kind of furtive exploration that Bioshock often provoke, also succeed in adding an ominous and apprehensive expression of exploration in this early portion of the game. 

Despite the historical authenticity of this representation of World War II combat, shortly into your attempted escape from the station, you are greeted with some compellingly weird and fantastic images. While not immediately realizing the source of the strange phenomena as you enter certain rooms in the station, a force causes you and your Nazi opponents suddenly to levitate uncontrollably into the air. Regaining control of yourself, it is easy to quickly take advantage of the Nazis vulnerability, but an otherwise very unreal and unearthly sense of dread results from witnessing this phenomena again and again. Like Rapture, the historical authenticity of Wolfenstein is punctuated by an eerie sense of the weirdness and somewhat less familiar 1940s Europe that you will be inhabiting.

Unfortunately for Wolfenstein, its mimicry of the successful ways that Biochock provokes a real sense of feeling towards this virtual world through ambiance and atmosphere largely ends after that initial sequence. Yes, everything remains period and you meet a lot of folks that speak English with a variety of European accents, but the wonder provoked by the weirdness of the world surrounding you is never quite as overtly achieved in later moments in the game.

When comparing the two games, it seems reasonable to me to conclude that part of this lack of success seems due to Bioshock‘s commitment to unique level design and exploration as a vehicle to tell the story of an environment that feels lived in and Wolfenstein‘s somewhat more lacking commitment to these ideas. The world of Wolfenstein is richly detailed, and as an open world, you will explore the streets and sewers of a German city with some regularity.

While nothing here is completely cookie cutter, the familiarity of the environment breeds some lackadaisical response to it as well as some sense of redundancy; the buildings and homes of the city don’t look identical but once you have see them often enough, they begin to seem so. That one of the protagonist’s powers is to see through the “veil”, a kind of mystical or astral version of the world that you occupy, which in practical terms means that you will often be looking at the colorful wartime European city through a green hued lens doesn’t help in making the world of the game begin to appear rather monotone and begins to make sites look less and less unique and more like a game level than a piece of a larger world.

from Bioshock, 2K Games

Nevertheless, Wolfenstein does not skimp on providing varied kinds of environments to explore. Blazkowicz finds himself exploring environments like a country farm, an airfield, and a Nazi archaeological dig site, but unlike Bioshock, there is little that you really “see” in those areas. Bioshock‘s strength environmentally is in creating the sense that something has happened in whatever location that you find yourself in Rapture, that people have legitimately occupied this space, and that by examining those spaces’ remains that you may be able to begin to understand this weird world. 

For example, when entering the training facility where the Little Sisters were developed, one finds that in observing closely one of the cubicles that the girls were kept while being educated that observation yields a dearth of information and dread. Crayon drawings of tombstones on the wall with “Mom” and “Dad” scrawled next to them and a teddy bear lying beneath each tombstone is pretty compelling evidence of the loneliness and horror of the Little Sisters’ condition. 

That upon trying to exit the room, the player discovers that the panel to open the door is not where it normally is in Rapture (at the normal elevation of a standard door knob) further leads to the discovery that the panels to open the door on these “bedrooms” are considerably higher than normal—in other words, a place that a little girl would not be able to reach but an adult would. This discovery of the nature of the rooms to imprison a small child generates a great deal of pathos for the Little Sisters not through exposition (an explanation could have been in a found text or the recordings that do serve some expositionary function in Bioshock) but by personally seeing, drawing conclusions about, and experiencing their condition first hand. 

The first person perspective truly becomes one in which the “I” discovers things, not the illusionary sense of the personal that the first person provides in a literary text. “I” am becoming aware of history, not an “I” that is merely a narrator in disguise.

Such moments when the player comes to understand the world through an experience of the environment and feels something through that experience are lacking in Wolfenstein. Likewise, besides that first scene of floating Nazis, the game is bereft of scripted events that effect the player as he explores. Instead, the game depends on full motion video scenes to provide exposition about the plot, not these personal experiences of the weird that might cause the player to empathize with the character’s world alongside their avatar in the game. 

For example in Bioshock after arriving in Rapture in the submersible completely unarmed, the player feels desperately vulnerable as something that is difficult to see through the glass of the sub begins scraping at that pane. That the player might not even be looking through that glass (as I wasn’t when I first played it) but merely had become aware of the scratching aurally before turning and backing away instinctually from the thing on the glass adds to the experiential nature of this moment. 

When the thing disappears and the glass opens, it isn’t surprising if you hesitantly emerge (again, as I did—edging forward and then back into the submersible a number of times before feeling brave enough to fully emerge) because these visual and aural cues have created an ambiance of fear and the “character” that you are playing reacts as you really are reacting. This ambiance of fear allows the player not to merely intellectually understand the character that they are inhabiting (as the expositionary Blascowicz’s scream of “No!” when he learns of the death of another member of the resistance does) but allows the player to feel what their character appropriately would in such a situation.

While Wolfenstein‘s attention to detail might suggest a commitment to perfecting the art of atmosphere, what Bioshock demonstrates is the mastery of such an art by enveloping us as players and characters in that atmosphere. It is masterful at doing so because it allows the experience of the little details and ambiance to tell the story. Bioshock makes the player feel by making him not merely play but “be”.

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