Video games are increasingly tailored to keep gamers coming back for more. No longer limited to MMOs and multiplayer, single player games offer multiple campaigns, varying endings, or dynamic plots that adjust to your choices as you play. While those features make for an interesting experience, they won’t matter if the in-game world doesn’t take hold of us and refuse to let go. Since we’re human beings with limbic systems that give us those pesky things called feelings, a good atmosphere is vital to us—sometimes all it takes to make us want to stay in a game, even after we’ve explored every inch of its world.
For me, the atmosphere might just be the single most defining characteristic of a good video game. It’s what always pulls me in initially. It’s why I’ll often go for an indie over the latest AAA release these days. And it’s absolutely crucial to that oft-cited feature that’s imperative for most of us: immersion. More than anything else, the feeling I get from being in a game’s world will determine how absorbed I am by it and how much I’ll want to stay that way.
Merriam-Webster defines atmosphere as follows:
a : the overall aesthetic effect of a work of art
b : an intriguing or singular tone, effect, or appeal
Taking the definition into account, it’s important to note that atmosphere is also somewhat subjective. Different aesthetics will appeal to different people, so for that reason, this list is a personal one. Below are a few games that kept me lost in their “overall aesthetic” along with my attempts to figure out why.
5. Legend of Grimrock
I played this game recently, so it’s fresh in my mind, and it’s the impetus for this list. Legend of Grimrock’s defining feature is its challenging puzzle mechanics, but it’s backed by an atmosphere that stuck in my head and made me want to keep pushing forward. It might owe some of its atmosphere to nostalgia, as it’s reminiscent of old fantasy dungeon crawlers like Wizardry and Might and Magic, but nostalgia fits the definition by adding an extra layer of appeal.
At the beginning of Grimrock, you’re dropped into a dungeon inside a mountain with literally nothing but an immediate feeling of vulnerability. As you navigate your prison, you run across mysterious statues, words etched in stone, bits of ancient machinery, and torches to keep the darkness at bay. Grimrock is creepy, ominous, and filled with its own distinct mythology. It’s dark fantasy at its finest.
4. Silent Hill Series
Maybe I’m cheating by including an entire series, but for the most part, Silent Hill has kept such a uniform atmosphere that it’s nearly impossible to single out one installment.
If a horror game doesn’t scare you, then it’s not worth playing, and scariness is defined by atmosphere. The Silent Hill series is admittedly weak when it comes to combat—running away is almost always your best option—but I don’t play Silent Hill for the action. I play it because I fell in love with the town.
From that first moment in the original Silent Hill when Harry Mason stepped into the fog and his radio emitted eerie static, I was hooked. Beneath my frayed nerves and sheer terror was an unquenchable curiosity. Silent Hill is a fully realized setting that could easily be anyone’s hometown, giving you an immediate sense of place and pulling you in with a familiarity that’s almost comforting when you’re not being chased by monsters. The town becomes yours, or at least it feels that way, after spending so much time in it. The pervasive fog, noises from nowhere, and brilliant music by Akira Yamaoka all add to the series’ intensely recognizable atmosphere, making Silent Hill an undisputed champion of survival horror.
3. Hotel Dusk: Room 215
A game’s atmosphere becomes even more crucial when it’s set in the past. Developers must stay true to the era in question while conveying a sense of nostalgia, a goal which is apparent in Hotel Dusk. With its hand-sketched graphics and a touch of noir, the game succeeded in making me feel like I had stepped into 1979.
Some of the most captivating games grow out of a unique art style, which is definitely the case with Hotel Dusk. The character interactions are done in animated, stylized ink drawings, and the cut scenes feature gorgeous watercolor backgrounds. The color palette is mostly warm browns and yellows. The soundtrack, consisting of soft piano arrangements and relaxed jazz numbers, adds to the overall feeling of decades past. All of this is even more impressive when considering that CING were working with the limitations of a handheld gaming system. Bottom line: Hotel Dusk is lovely.
In Ico, you play as a boy with horns who was exiled from his village to an abandoned castle, but you quickly discover the castle isn’t empty. It’s inhabited by a shadowy queen who has imprisoned a princess for reasons unknown but surely sinister, so you set out to free both her and yourself.
That simple setup is the extent of your knowledge for most of the game. You must work with the environment and your limited resources to find your way out of the dark, foreboding, and enormous castle. No hints or clues are in place to guide your way. Every part of the castle, every contraption could be useful…or not. It can be difficult to distinguish between what you’re meant to interact with and what’s just, well, part of the atmosphere.
Dialogue and music are virtually nonexistent in Ico. The only sounds you hear are those you would expect if you really were running around a castle—the echo of footsteps, the grunt of exertion, the rustle of wind. The graphics have an ethereal feel, juxtaposing light and shadow as expertly as the greatest impressionist artists.
The castle seemingly never ends, and when you get a chance to view it from a high vantage point, you can see why. It’s huge. It’s enough to make you feel lost, which is the crux of the entire game. Ico was practically built on its atmosphere, with minimal story and dialogue to accompany it, and it’s perfect.
1. Half-Life 2
Valve’s dystopian masterpiece tops my list of most atmospheric games. Not many others have so completely pulled me into their world, and Half-Life 2 was one of the first to do so. The minimal background music combined with sweeping vistas of barren landscapes and urban decay imparts a sense of loneliness that stays with you. The whole thing feels philosophical, with abandoned buildings and fallen structures reminding you of human transience at every turn.
You’re forced to navigate through the underbelly of places in Half-Life 2, whether it’s walking through sewers or traversing a bridge’s girders, because the usual routes are too dangerous or demolished. Valve really excels at constructing locations that feel real. Backgrounds and restricted areas aren’t always clearly defined, forcing you to actually explore and feel your way around. When a game makes you forget the real world around you, that’s when you know it has truly succeeded in its atmosphere.