Article - Creating an Atmosphere (Unofficial Article)

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A - An unofficial article
Ok, I apologize not writing English well. Because of that, it’s not logical that I write an article. That’s why this article hadn’t been submit to Spiderweb and is unofficial.

I know some people won’t be able to read just because the poor English. I know it could lead to misunderstanding just because of the poor English. I’m not a specialist in any subjects or domains related to this article. I’m not a confirmed scenario author; I’m not a writer with little talent; I’m just a player. Because of that, many people will think that it’s not logical that I write this article. They could be right.

I wrote it anyway because I wanted to write something about the subject. I named it “Article” because I put much more effort to organize its contents than I usually do for any other post. I don’t know if this article will be of any use to anybody able to read it, but here it starts, at least!

Tip: There’s a glossary at the end of the article, you could check it quickly before to read further the article. This glossary explains the signification of some words in the context of the article, computer RPG game or even BoA. I added it in order to avoid misunderstanding, particularly because I don’t master the English subtleties. The first time I use a term listed in the glossary, I put it in italic.

B - Atmosphere is intangible
There are many different sorts of atmospheres. This article is about atmospheres that are an intangible quality of a place, of an environment, of a story. It isn’t about the weather condition, the use of the word atmosphere in a text, and so on.

There are multitude sorts of atmosphere, like:
- A place that has a psychological atmosphere, like a dark atmosphere, an oppressive atmosphere, an atmosphere of terror.
- A place that has an atmosphere, you couldn’t say what it has, but it has an intangible quality. That could be your dinning room that as an atmosphere or a swap area that has an atmosphere.
- A place that has an atmosphere that is strange, like a weird atmosphere, a mystery atmosphere, a fairy atmosphere, an odd atmosphere.
- A story or a part of a story can also have all these sorts of atmospheres.

An atmosphere can be anything but is intangible; it isn’t a concrete fact. You must produce and effect on the player. He should feel the atmosphere.

For example, he should feel the dictatorship atmosphere in the town and not only read dialogs and see events that show that the town is under the rules of a dictator.

C - Some very general rules to create an atmosphere
There are no general rules that always work or are always required. However, there are some general rules that will often give you more chance to create an atmosphere. I highlight them because this article is mainly only based on these rules.

Tip: If you prefer to start with more concrete material than general rules, jump to part D. I never refer directly to these rules in the other sections of this article.

1 - You need to have some originality if you want to create an atmosphere
A tough and very important point is that you need to have some originality. For example, a sound well used could be very efficient for creating an atmosphere. However, when you are the 10th to use the same sound in a scenario, the player will mostly not hear it and it will be difficult to product the desired atmosphere effect on him.

This rule is certainly a general rule, but if you can’t make better, often but not always, it will be better to use an overused material than doing nothing. That’s not always true, because some players will get tired of the repetition.

2 - Don't develop more than one atmosphere at the same place
It's very easy to break an atmosphere and trying to mix two is a same area is an impossible challenge. Therefore, the easiest approach is to build only one atmosphere in an area.

That is certainly a general rule that you should always try to follow. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t build two atmospheres in one area, each in a different part of the same area. This could even produce some interesting atmosphere effects.

3 - Don't develop more than one atmosphere during a story
This is the same rule than the rule 1 but applied to events and actions (actions are special events; in the game context they could get a special meaning because they could oppose actions of the player to other events). Those events and actions develop a plot or a subplot. During this subplot development, it’s better to avoid creating more than one atmosphere.

That doesn’t mean that all events or actions should be linked to the creation of the atmosphere once you started create one, but when an atmosphere is created during a plot development, it’s better to not mix it with another.

4 - Coordinate the area and the plot to create a more powerful atmosphere
When you design an area in order to create an atmosphere, you’ll make it stronger if you develop the same atmosphere through a plot that occurs when the party explores the area.

Instead, if the area tends to produce an atmosphere and the story another one, it will be more difficult to make the player feel them both.

This rule is just a rule to make easier the creation of an atmosphere. It isn’t a general rule. The reverse rule can produce strong atmosphere effects but is tougher to succeed.

5 - Give time and space to your atmosphere
If you develop it through the time and by using all the area around, this will often gives it more strength. The player will feel it more and will remember it better.

That’s certainly not a general rule always true, it's possible to create an atmosphere for a small area and for just an event, and you certainly could use this opportunity if you can.

D - The base material to create an atmosphere
Any elements of the game could contribute to create an atmosphere. You can use fights, puzzles, traps, secrets, and so on. However, the graphics, sounds and texts are the base and the easiest materials to use in order to create an atmosphere.

The following sections are just example of what you can do with those materials in order to create an atmosphere.

D.1 - Giving an atmosphere to an area through its visual aspect
Choose a theme for your area. It is better if it is a bit original for the game. Then design all the visual details around this theme.

Use graphics to make scenes
Take care that when you design the visual details, it is often efficient to build details around a little scene. For example, use a set of objects well put in an area in order to illustrate a recent battle. Another example is to polish the details and the choices of graphics used in order to build a farm. That is important to put sense into your area and this will help to give it an atmosphere.

Be original
The tough part with BoA is perhaps to be original if you do not use new graphics. However, you have some potential of originality by using new graphic combinations. It is a tough goal and the efficiency could vary a lot depending of the player. The problem is to have players that will find it unrealistic. They could be hurt if it is too original for them. They could be hurt if you use some graphics in a context that seems to them too different from their original use in the game. However, that could be very efficient in order to be original.

Another possibility to be more original is to use contrasts. You put together two areas that are more rarely mixed. This will help you to use some more original graphic mixes and an area could highlight another, which is just near or around it. If you succeed to produce a better effect on the player, you will have more chance that for this player, you will have succeed to give an atmosphere to your area.

D.2 - Giving an atmosphere to an area by using sounds
Again, your sounds need to be consistent with a theme that you have chosen for the area.

There too, the problem is to be original if you do not create new sounds. Moreover, it is even worse because unlike graphics it is difficult to use combination of sounds to produce something new.

However, often it will be better to use with spare a sound that match to your atmosphere, even if previous scenarios used already this sound too often.

D.3 - Giving a mood to an area by using texts
The purpose here is to substitute the effect through graphics or sounds by an effect through a text. However, it is mostly the same idea. Be original, when it is for a whole area, be consistent and avoid repeating yourself.

You can use any sort of texts in any context in order to create an atmosphere. However, some type of text will be easier to use. For example, you can use a dialog with a NPC to add in it some information that will help to create an atmosphere. However, a short text description of an action, an event, a place, a character or an object, will be a type of text much easier to use in order to create an atmosphere.

Use short texts
Use short texts because you need that the player read them in order to produce the effect. Alas the majority of players will not really read them if they are too long.

Use short texts to describe an event, an action, a comment made by a PC or NPC, to describe an area.

Messages in log
For message in the log, use one very short sentence. Don’t multiply them at a high frequency. Don’t forget that the next text could make the previous disappear in the log.

Never put important gaming information in these sorts of texts because the player could not see them.

Messages in text bubble
The use of message in text bubbles is very limited. They are show only during a brief time and you have no control on that (apart in cut scenes but that’s not the subject).

Even the player has not setting to change this time length and for players that aren’t very comfortable with English those sorts of messages can have more than few words.

Apart if you find a special technique to avoid the problems involved by text bubbles, you should use them only to give a bit more life to NPC. For example this could be a NPC sobbing. This sort of details could help to create and atmosphere.

Panels and dialogs
Sometimes when the party enters in a place, you could use a panel to describe it. Those panels could be a little longer but avoid making them too long. Try to mix in these panels some pure gaming information with atmosphere elements. Pure gaming information could be a reference to the main plot, of a mystery to solve, of a possible fight, presence, trap, secret, magic item or treasure, everything that any action player will take care to read.

Do not harass the player with panels or dialogs because the game engine makes them modal.

Be original
To be original through text is easier than by reusing graphics or sounds. Alas, you need to be a good writer, particularly because you need to be short. That does not mean that you must give up, but at least put a lot of care in your writing.

A real difficulty is to avoid repetitions. To minimize the problem, think of synonyms, choose with care few places where you will put a strong atmosphere, be diversified in your scenario, think that an atmosphere isn’t necessary a terror atmosphere. There are many more possibilities to add atmosphere in your scenario. This could give some mystery to a place or could make it more real. This could make more original the local people. This could add density to a chaining of events or to a plot or subplot. This could help to give another dimension to a NPC. More of all, this could intricate the player and attract his attention.

D.4 - Giving a mood to an area by using gaming elements
It’s not obvious how you could use a puzzle or a secret in order to help create an atmosphere. I give few examples, but I’ll let your imagination works if you want more examples!

To use some type of atmosphere like terror, a very tough fight could be a powerful tool. If you develop a raising atmosphere of danger, take care that you should satisfy the player expectation that you have create yourself. So a very tough fight at the end could be a necessity.

For example you could use secret walls to have creatures going through walls in order to surprise the player. Secrets could help build some mystery atmosphere.

Perhaps you could use few invisible traps in order to surprise and stress the player. It could help to build some sort of atmosphere. Those traps aren’t really technical traps in BoA but a terrain script or a special encounter script that will do the effect on the party.

A puzzle should require the full attention of the player so in general it will not be easy to build an atmosphere at the same time. But there’s a little example in VoDT. You get closed in a room, a gaze is filling the room and you have to find the exit quick and you just get a hint. It’s a little puzzle that could create some panic or terror for a short time. In itself this puzzle doesn’t really create an atmosphere but it could be one element among other that contributes to build an atmosphere.

E - Take care of few base points
There’s certainly much more to say in this section but the scenario maker apprentice I am couldn’t add more. Next sections quote few other examples less general but they are linked to special effects.

E.1 - Take care of your triggers and unusual path that the player could use
The problem is that when you are coming from A to B the effect could mean something but not from B to A. If you allow the effect for the wrong path, you could easily fully destroy an atmosphere by doing this sort of error.

To polish this and avoid having unrealistic events:
- Take care to manage cross triggers that could disable each other. In BoA you could use one SDF shared by two terrain scripts or special encounter scripts. This SDF will get different values for each case, party hasn’t walk on A nor B, party has work on A but not on B, and so on. Each script will take care to disable or change the event created by the script. This will allow managing different player paths.
- Take care of player possible paths. Do not forget that there are many insane players who will never follow the path you had in mind.

E.2 - Cumulate and multiply the events
When you need to build an atmosphere, it is tough. If you use text tools, it is tough because you should avoid long text to read. Sometimes, to overcome both problems, you could build an atmosphere through many different events spread throughout a place, an area, a series of events, and so on.

Take care that you should not forget the originality. Therefore, when you multiply the events to build an atmosphere you should take care to avoid repeating yourself. In fact, in few cases, the repetition could be a strong effect.

A good example of cumulated events in order to build an atmosphere is how in VoDT is build the general "end of world" atmosphere.

F - Some types of effects
F.1 - Sudden surprise is major for some type of atmosphere
A typical example is for frightening the player in order to build an atmosphere of terror. The surprise is also a way to attract the attention of the player, so you could use it just to highlight an event or a place that is important for the development of an atmosphere.

Very classical is to use a sound but don’t forget that there is few chance that it works if it’s not a new sound for the game.

Mostly as classical is to surprise visually the player through a sudden and unexpected visual element. In fact, that will work mainly only for action so hardly for BoA. However, the Za-Khazi Run shows a nice example by using a fully dark area. Using a secret wall could be one way to build better a visual surprise in BoA. Just behind the door will be better if the player cannot close the door once opened. Hills, heights, just a corner could allow a visual surprise too but this will be more difficult.

Building that with text is also possible but you will really need to be a good writer. That’s a subject too subtle for this article and me!

To build a weird, odd, fairy or fantasy atmosphere (real fantasy not only reuse archetypal elements of Fantasy), surprise could be one of the tools used. In both case you need to bring the player elsewhere than his known world. For that purpose, the surprise of an unexpected and out of context element could be very efficient to build that sort of atmosphere.

F.2 - Building a raising intensity
Some types of atmosphere require that you build them in the long term and that you raise slowly the intensity.

This requires that you link series of events. The difficulty is to manage the dependencies between the events. It’s not only that you need to cumulate a series of events; it’s that you need to build a sorted collection of events.

A possible way to manage that is to have each event not fully linked to a place but a set of events linked to a set of places (triggers). Then by using a SDF with an incrementing value, you could build your sorted collection of events.

Some typical examples are an anguish atmosphere, a fear atmosphere, a weird atmosphere.

F.3 - Building on player expectation
Using player expectation is a tool to use his imagination and you can use its power in order to give more strength to an atmosphere. A typical sort of atmosphere that takes profit of this sort of effect is anguish or terror.

Player expectation is also a great tool in order to build surprise. The player awaits something and nope he gets surprised. If you want a faerie, fantasy or weird atmosphere then it could be useful to use the player expectation.

Suspense is not an atmosphere (but you can imagine that there’s an atmosphere of suspense even if this seems a little strange). However, when you build around the player expectation, it is definitively something to think of, because it’s a very efficient tool to make your scenario better. So try to add a bit of suspense in each expectation that you build. Give hints but no certitude, not easy but it worth the effort.

There are different tricks to build an expectation. You need that the player awaits something so this thing is not yet here. This could be for example, a future event to happen, a place to discover, an encounter to do, a NPC to meet, a story development to occur.

When you build player expectation on something, often the effect will work if later you build more expectations on the same thing. This will often allow raising the expectation but more importantly, this could also make player remember more this expectation and if you succeed that, the effect will be much stronger.

When you build an expectation, you should never provide the full information, think of two words, mystery and hints.

Also, don’t raise the expectation too high in order to avoid a disappointed player. A typical example is to make the player very worry about a future encounter and when it happens, it’s just an easy fight.

Some examples:
- A basic example is a goal, for example, when a quest is given.
- Provide information through a dialog about something in the future. For example, a fortuneteller, just some information about a place or NPC that you do not know yet. Ok it is more to build suspense or just to build a story progression. However, this is useful to build a raising intensity of an atmosphere.
- Provide current information but it has an impact on the future. That could be a sound, which is a hint about something around; you do not know yet what it is. This could be a small message in the log about an event not far. Quote that this could be a sound description or visual information hard to provide dynamically through graphics. This is great to build anguish or terror.
- Provides a bit of map, do not forget the cross on it and take care that the player should not know yet where it is exactly. Well, this example is just a smile.

G - Special uses of NPC for creating an atmosphere
G.1 - NPC joining the party
In you make a NPC join the party; he could be a powerful tool to help create an atmosphere. The text bubbles uses are very restricted by the game, so you can’t really do a lot of thing with text bubbles to make the NPC talk.

However, you could use few modal panels in order to show some comments done by the NPC. For example, you can use the NPC to show him afraid or worry of something. You can also use him just as a tool to tell the story with text. This could help you to create an atmosphere.

The more powerful usage of a NPC added into a party is to build an empathy for him. He will share the adventures of the player who will develop more easily an empathy for him. The empathy can be a good tool for creating an atmosphere, this is detailled in the next section.

G.2 - Use empathy for NPC
However, there is something more special about NPC; it is the empathy for an NPC. That could be useful to produce a stronger effect that could help build an atmosphere.

For example, if you want to build a weird atmosphere, making a NPC act or speak in a strange way could be a useful tool. If before, you succeed to build the player empathy for this NPC, the effect will work much better.

A more typical and very classical example is to build an "end of world atmosphere". Quote that this means in fact "mostly the end of humanity".

In VoDT, there are many examples of NPC usage in order to build an atmosphere of a disaster for the whole area. That works better each time the scenarios succeed to build some empathy of the player for the NPC.

If you want to produce an atmosphere improved by the sadness of the player, then building empathy for NPC is a major tool.

You can build empathy for a NPC in many ways, some examples:
- Add more story background for the NPC.
- Give him a real personality and show it.
- Make him contribute to player actions.
- Make the player own him a favor.
- Link his story with another NPC. For this last NPC you had already built player empathy for him.
- Put him a bit in the party for a special sub quest. During this quest, make him lives and interacts with the party.

There are different atmosphere where this empathy trick could fit to the theme and could be very efficient. All those cases directly relate to human. For example:
- In order to give a dictator atmosphere to a town.
- In order to give a slavery atmosphere to an area.
- In order to build an "adult" atmosphere like a prostitution place.
- In order to build an epidemic atmosphere (new and rising will be more efficient but more tough to implement).

H – Glossary
The context of this article is a RPG game and more precisely BoA. And I could use some terms in an uncommon usage that could involve misunderstanding. That’s why I added this small glossary.

Area: Just its general meaning and never reference technical area as mentioned in the BoA editor documentation.

Text bubble: Yes, just the text bubble in BoA that could appear for a NPC but in fact also for PC or a terrain.

Log: Yes, just the text log that you see in the game.

Scripts: BoA has a programming language that can use the scenario author in order to program different elements of the scenario. There are different scripts and you can call them from different contexts. Check the BoA editor documentation for more details.

SDF: Stuff Done Flag, it’s a technical element available for making BoA scenario. You can use plenty different SDF, each allows storing a number. You can set this value and get the current value of a SDF in any scripts or even some other editor elements. For programmers, SDF are sort of global variables. Check the BoA editor documentation for more details.

Story: In this article I use this term in a special meaning, a piece of the game that narrates a chain of related events. There are various shift with the common meaning:
- It’s not the global story that tells your scenario.
- It doesn’t necessary have a standard begin of end, it could be a just a part of a bigger story.
- In its definition I substitute “fiction” by “game”, it’s to be clearer about what I mean in BoA context. The chain of related events could use no text and will not be like a movie a cartoon or other more standard supports to tell a story. In BoA, in fact this means most often that you should accompany an event by some text (bubble, panel, dialog, message in log) in order to give some sense to the event, particularly if you want to link it to another event. But that’s not always true.
- Finally, I don’t want to enter in the detail of "sequences" explained by The Creator in his article "Building Blocks". I think (but not fully sure yet) that it’s a scenario designer point of view more than a player point of view. It’s about designing a chaining of events that force the player to go through them in order to put in scenery a bit of story. I don’t think that in general a chain of related events necessary relate to a sequence, and eventually a sequence could be a chain of unrelated events apart by their chaining (not sure of what use this could have).

Special Encounter script: BoA allows defining area on the ground that could call a script when the party will enter in the area. In the BoA editor documentation this is more generally mentioned as “Special Encounter” and you can attach a script. I used instead “Special Encounter script” to avoid confusion with the general meaning that could have “Special encounter”.

Terrain: Always a reference of Terrain mentioned in the BoA editor documentation. In this article I never use this term for a general meaning.

Terrain script: BoA allows defining an area on some sort of grounds (not in outdoors) and attaching to this area a script. Different area could use a same script. A script could be call at different events like periodically or when the party will enter in the area. Check the BoA editor documentation for more details.

Town: In this article it’s just a town. It’s never a reference to “Town” area mentioned in the BoA editor documentation.

[ Monday, May 03, 2004 19:04: Message edited by: Vent ]
Posts: 175 | Registered: Friday, April 2 2004 08:00