Imagine, a player loads up a game called The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim for the first time and after a short stint being greeted by flames and smoke in an area not far off, you are greeted by an expansive land of snow and ice.
It’s not that easy to describe, however, the player is greeted by more than the land before them, they are greeted by the animals weaving in and out of trees, curiously afraid of the armored figure. They are greeted by the wailing snowy wind, and the distant roar of a dragon, sat atop a mountain in the distance, and they are greeted by an atmosphere that they are free to explore in its entirety.
It is this atmosphere that make games what they are, even when players don’t realize it.
The sounds and sights of the world players engross themselves in is what makes players stay. It is captivating and when done well, it can alter the players mind in ways that can induce fear, wonder, and amazement.
Gameplay is important, of course, but without good sound design, environmental art, and sound lighting, the game will fizzle out.
What made games like Dead Space and Resident Evil so terrifying was their sound design.
In Dead Space, a popular survival horror game set in space, players will hear the hiss of pipes, the creaking of the colossal metal ship they are walking in, and the skittering noises of enemies nearby.
Without these atmospheric tones and well-timed sound effects, the game would feel no different than The Sims. It is this sound design that draws players in and makes their heart pound as they creep through dingy hallways littered in torn limbs and gore, not just the graphics.
Graphically, a game can be amazing but if the environments lack life or atmosphere, they will ultimately fail to become a true game.
Skyrim makes use of all aspects of environmental design. Birds chirp, snowy wind whistles, the sound of a wolves footsteps behind the players character induce fear and panic as they try to figure out where the enemy is from within a patch of brush.
Of course, video games aren’t all about panic or inducing fear. Good environmental design can also induce wonder.
Most players that first step into the world of Skyrim agree that they were met with a feeling of wonder, and curiosity as they crept down the snowy mountainside, hearing the sound of every footfall and windy whistle and gazing at the beautiful environment created by the artists and designers at Bethesda, the developers behind the game.
Another game players recall feeling this exact emotion was Bioshock Infinite.
Players will find themselves thrust into a skytop city brimming with alternate universe American culture. Statues of George Washington and other founding fathers litter the world, american flags are hung everywhere, and the sound of bells and atmospheric chatter swiftly bring players into the world it is trying to purvey.
These atmospheres sometimes take years to create. Certain games require teams to visit locations all around the world to record sounds or conduct research on the feel of the atmosphere of the area they are trying to create.
Assassin’s Creed developer Ubisoft sent teams to modern Egypt to get a feel for how things looked and felt before they set upon to create Assassin’s Creed Origins, the developers first foray into ancient Egypt.
For games that take on historical roots, accuracy is key. Researchers, designers, and artists painstakingly scour the internet, real-world locations and books to accurately portray the world or time period they are designing.
It is an amazing feat, especially for smaller development teams but the work that goes into the design of a games environment lasts the lifetime of the game.