Monday, 25 June 2018

Discussion point: What kind of game deserves a high score in Environment and Atmosphere?

By The TAG Team

Environment and Atmosphere

The final category is the most ephemeral of them all, since atmosphere of a game is something hard to point out. Essentially, we are speaking of the capacity of the game to create a feeling of immersion - that magical moment in which we forget the world around us and are inevitably sucked into the game world. It is what makes us shiver, when playing a horror game, and laugh uncontrollably, when playing a comedy.

The problem of subjectivity with this category is almost inevitable. For instance, a reviewer with nostalgic feelings toward a game will have more chance of being immersed in the game than a reviewer who has not played it before. And what is even worse, even one reviewer might have different views about the atmosphere of the game, depending on their current state (just try immersing yourself in a game after a stressful day). Despite the subjective nature of this category, can we still find some criteria, by which to say, when a game has excellent atmosphere? Other questions you might consider:
  • You sometimes see opinions that adventure games must be comedies, since creative adventure game puzzles don’t really make sense in a serious setting. Is it still possible to make, for instance, adventure games with a gritty atmosphere?
  • More generally, which is more important for an adventure game - puzzles or atmosphere? In other words, which should have a better overall score - an adventure game with original and interesting puzzles, which would otherwise be uninspiring, or an immersive adventure game with only mediocre puzzles? And more generally, should we evaluate adventure games as games or as works of entertainment/art?
  • Some reviewers have suggested that there are additional elements of adventure games, which are not included in PISSED-scoring (Overall Fun Factor of TBD and well-craftedness of Alex). Are there such elements or are they covered by some of the existing categories?
  • Should there be some criteria for using discretionary bonus points? Until now, the maximal bonuses have been +3 for originating the adventure game genre and -3 for plagiarism. Are these reasonable limits that should not be exceeded?


  1. To some of your questions:

    - Comedies... well, certainly, a sense of humor helps make many games more enjoyable, but it is possible otherwise, just a heck of a lot harder. For example, I wouldn't necessarily call the Gabriel Knight series a comedy, but they were certainly enjoyable games, in part to the other factors, like a rich environment and well-defined characters. The side stories (such as the sexual tension between Gabe and Grace) help a lot as well. Even the early Sierra games, which some reviewers here dislike for their constant deaths, were likely a lot more popular because of how humorous those could be. A little sense of humor helps.

    - Puzzles vs Atmosphere - I suspect that a game with great puzzles but a lousy atmosphere would bore the average player really fast, and they would put it down and not play it anymore. So, I'd go with atmosphere.

    - Both of those "not included in PISSED" items ARE included in PISSED. Overall Fun - well, good, fair puzzles, good gameplay, and a good atmosphere would likely add up to the same thing. Well-crafted, same thing - it's all those other things added together.

    - Discretionary is discretionary. Let the reviewers do as they feel fit, within the numerical limit. If you put rules, then it's no longer discretionary.

  2. Also, I don't think this category is much more susceptible to subjectivity than any other. A review is all opinion. How many old-school LucasArts fans feel that the parser in a Sierra game is inferior? I strongly dislike Myst, so I might not review a similar style game well either, based on things like inventory, while someone else might rave about the simplicity of it....

    Or also, with technological limitations, how many people will have different opinions on the quality of music and acting? We've seen it in the comment sections of many reviews already. No part of PISSED (or any review, anywhere) is immune to subjectivity.

    1. I am the first to admit that all categories in PISSED are more or less prone to subjectivity of the reviewer, but I would say this is more outstanding with the Atmosphere. I think that with any other category it is in some measure possible to appreciate what the game offers, without being really engaged with the game - for instance, you can note that graphics are artistic, story is creative and puzzles are well-crafted, and still not be very interested of the game as a whole. On the other hand, it would seem rather odd, if a reviewer had a lot of positive things to say about the atmosphere of a game without being very into it.

  3. >You sometimes see opinions that adventure games must be comedies,
    >since creative adventure game puzzles don’t really make sense in
    >a serious setting. Is it still possible to make, for instance,
    >adventure games with a gritty atmosphere?

    Funny - I've always felt that (good) horror games have an obvious advantage in this area, as they are more focused on evoking a strong emotional response.

    Take Shadow of the Comet as an example. Despite the cheesy voice acting and mediocre background art (urgh those digitized photos with primary colours), the game is absolutely DRIPPING with atmosphere:

    Many elements, from nervously shifting gazes to dramatic pauses in dialogue, effectively communicate that there is something wrong with the town.

    I'm also baffled by the importance of puzzles vs. atmosphere question - isn't the point of PISSED to score these areas separately and average them?

    Of course, if the style of puzzles clashes with the intended tone of the game, points should be deducted (preferably from Environment & Atmosphere). Shadow of the Comet does have an arguably silly sequence involving a flying device, but IIRC never stoops as low as throwing a stick at a dog-like monster in Darkseed.

    1. "I'm also baffled by the importance of puzzles vs. atmosphere question - isn't the point of PISSED to score these areas separately and average them?"

      Reviewers do have the possibility of handing out discretionary points, if the average as such doesn't satisfy them, and they might be used to give more weight to some area of the gaming experience.

  4. This category is often my Waterloo because I feel that by the time I get here, I already rated all of the components separately. Environment is the whole feeling that a game gives you, connecting puzzles, scenes, and dialog together into a cohesive whole. (In some ways, this is a "cohesiveness" score.)

    A comedy that isn't funny? A mystery that doesn't generate suspense? Both would be easy calls for a low environment score, even if the art and the dialog was otherwise well-done.

    1. I share the feeling that this is the hardest category to score. I especially find it hard to differentiate it from the Story and Setting - what's the difference between Setting and Environment?

    2. My theory has always been that Trickster just needed an "E"... ;)

      Setting is that the game takes place in a haunted carnival. Environment is that the carnival legitimately has you leaning forward in your seat wondering what is going to happen.

      Setting is placing your game on in a military base on a mysteriously empty planet. Atmosphere is having the feeling of loneliness be a part of the game mechanic, informing the puzzles and design.

      But I agree completely that Environment may tend to overlap more than some other categories. It scores well generally when the others score well. It's the top of a pyramid.

    3. This category is heavily related to suspension of disbelief. If one or more of the other categories is faulty - a puzzle or story element is illogical, or the dialogue is riddled with typos - it tends to also break the suspension of disbelief.

  5. I guess a good question to pin down this category would be: what game would score low in all the other categories but high in this one? Or vice versa? Or is that even possible? In other words, what is this category measuring independent of the other categories?

    1. I am guessing best fit for a game with high Atmosphere score and low scores in other categories would be some kind of very experimental adventure game, with barely any puzzles and no plot at all, trying mostly to generate some mood in the player. I suspect we won't be seeing many of them, but it is in the limits of possibility.

    2. And the inverse, a game with low Atmosphere but high other scores would be some kind of big-budget well-polished piece that somehow doesn't even add up to the sum of its parts, let alone more. I was thinking originally of those beautiful cookie-cutter grindy Korean MMORPGs that are fun for about a dozen hours until you figure out how meaningless the geography is and how long it's going to take you to do anything worth doing.

      But on the adventure side, I can suggest Sentinel: Descendants In Time as a candidate here. It's beautifully made, the puzzles are generally complex and interesting, the conversations feel natural, with good voice acting, sound and music are good, interface involves smooth WASD movement in a 3D world, with no inventory to worry about...but it's strangely shallow. The various areas are disjointed, the puzzles get repetitive, there's too much backtracking to solve them, and it really lacks that sense of cohesion that people have mentioned here. One review describes it as the gameworld having been made for the puzzles rather than the other way around.

    3. >what game would score low in all the other categories
      >but high in this one?

      In an above comment I did try to bring up Shadow of the Comet, which I believe is rather weak or unremarkable in many areas - the puzzles involve randomly wandering around until you stumble onto the next story event, there's the infamous photo development puzzle, the interface is inconsistent and unresponsive, the story is heavily on the cliché side with little character development, the background art is mostly an uglily digitized cut & paste job, and much of the voice acting is amateurish/cheesy; the only significant non-E strengths being the dialogue portraits and music - but it nails the atmosphere.

      Still, the disparity in that game is not as extreme as in the hypothetical one described by Ilmari. The non-E aspects are competent enough that the game shouldn't score abysmally even if you only count those, and it probably lacks lasting emotional depth to score a true 10 in E (I would personally rate it a 9). There might be more extreme cases but Comet is the "best" one I can think of right now.

  6. I agree with Joe Pranevich that the Environment and Atmosphere has a lot to do with the cohesion of other elements. This does not make it redundant though, as we are looking at another element of those categories. The music and sound effects can be good, but if it doesn't fit the feel they're going for (and I'm looking at you, theme song from Enterprise) it can completely ruin all the other aspects trying to create an atmosphere. In the same way a game can have great puzzles, but they should fit into the area around them. A binary logic puzzle would not fit in a medieval setting for example, like a sand-timer puzzle would not fit into something like a space adventure. The programmers have to find a way to fit the puzzle in, e.g. they could use sluices and canals for a binary puzzle in a medieval environment and get away with it, but it requires some creative thinking on their part.

    As for the comedy aspect, I have seen enough games that get away with almost no humour at all. The Dig, and the more recent ones I have dabbled with like the Dark Eye series and A New Beginning all create enjoyable worlds that don't need to joke around to keep the player's attention. Serious adventure games are likely harder to write, but in the long run it is easier to keep up a serious pace than to keep the humour good, a good look at all the comedies on television or in film that have a great first season or installment but then fizzled out during the 2nd or 3rd should be sufficient warning.

    Personally I like games with good immersion. But it shouldn't come at the expense of gameplay, especially puzzles for adventure games, or it becomes too much of an interactive film where we feel more like audience than players. It shouldn't be taken too seriously either, things like the space-quest trailer hidden in the cave in King's Quest 2 was humorous without breaking the feeling of the game. As with most things a balance needs to be struck to keep the player interested but busy as well, we are playing to be be entertained after all.

  7. Another way to think about this category might be in terms of how meaningful does the game feel. An experimental indie game with low production value might still be able to feel very meaningful, while a polished production with good independent standards of content might not be able to mesh that content well into a meaningful experience. If you come away from a game feeling like you've gotten something out of it beyond mere entertainment, like an insight into human nature, or inspiration for a project of your own, well, I'd argue that's the best kind of meaning. But a game could still get a high score here by effectively evoking its setting and tone.

    1. Or how unique/memorable the game is. Then again, originality does not necessarily equate quality.

  8. Regarding PISSED in general, I've been thinking of compiling a list of canonical "reference" reviewed games, for every reviewer to play to calibrate further reviews. The games would be selected by the following criteria:

    * They're uncontroversial - no QfG1 remakes.
    * They're evenly apart on the PISSED scale.
    * The average deviation of the score areas is low - ideally they'd be 1+1+1+1+1+1, 2+2+2+2+2+2, 3+3+3+3+3+3 and so on.
    * They're relatively recent.
    * They're as short and painless to play through as possible.

    Here's a list I have come up with, containing eight games roughly 10 PISSED units apart:

    Serrated Scalpel - 77 (7+8+8+7+8+8)
    Longbow - 73 (7+7+7+8+7+8)
    EcoQuest 1 - 60 (5+6+5+7+7+6)
    Larry 2 - 50 (4+4+4+6+6+6)
    Future Wars - 43 (3+4+4+6+5+4)
    Les Manley 1 - 30 (2+2+3+4+4+3)
    Hugo II - 18 (2+1+2+2+1+3)
    Psycho - 10 (0+1+1+1+2+1)

    I chose The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes for 80 instead of Indy and the Monkey Islands because its score has a lower average deviation. Same with Longbow over KGB. (Some other games, closer to "true" 80 and 70, might eventually replace these two.) Additionally, Future Wars was chosen instead of the likes of Codename: ICEMAN (40) as the latter seems too tedious to play and is more outdated technologically. There is a little too much unevenness and overlap in the scores currently, especially in the upper end, so you could reduce the list to half so that the games are 20 points apart.

    Of course, this is no substitute for more thorough experience of having played dozens of games. But it does hopefully provide guidance on what a stereotypical game of 10, 20, 30 and so on is like. (And I wanted to do this as a thought exercise.)

    1. You have a good idea here. I appreciate that you looked at games that have consistent scores rather than games that excelled in one category or another.

      I may regret opening the curtain a bit (but who's still reading this comment thread, anyway?), but I built a build right after Trickster left that initially served as the "bible" for how we rated games, to be as consistent with him as possible.

      We have never shared this document with the broader community (and I may remove the link later), but here is a tiny peek at how the sausage is made:

    2. So it's just a collection of short quotations and buzzwords - not even using a large sample size, just one game per rating number. A little disappointed. :-P No wonder you started these discussion points for more clear criteria.

      >You have a good idea here. I appreciate that you looked at
      >games that have consistent scores rather than games that
      >excelled in one category or another.

      Another reason I did this was I thought it would be fun to play these from worst to best, and see a steady increase in quality.

    3. Well, for the record "short quotations and buzzwords" are a lot better than nothing! ;)

      Doing the ratings well was one of the big concerns as we transitioned from Trickster. That was a long time ago now and I think we all feel more comfortable in our skins as far as ratings are concerned, but this series of posts has been enlightening in terms of how we collectively view these categories.

    4. To be fair, at the time when Joe made his bible, the goal was more modest - to get reviewers in tune with Trickster's mindset, when he was solely scoring games. In the long run, this wasn't enough, since we are not mere clones - all of our reviewers are individuals, with their own likes and pet peeves. I think one of the main ideas in these discussion points was to see how much subjectivity our readers tolerate in reviews - and to find out if there are at least some basic reviewing principles we can and should agree upon.

      I like the idea of "standard games", but it's good to remember that these are prototypes only for games with little or no deviation between individual category scores. For instance, even the best of text adventures score often something in 40s and are still quite different for Future Wars.

    5. It should also be noted that basically all reviews of any game will have some subjectivity in them, no matter the professionality of the reviewer or institute he is working for. That is why when considering a AAA game purchase I think most people try to read at least 3 reviews before splashing out.

      For this blog however we get a lot more feel from the reviewer in a playthrough, so we can easily see that while Alex enjoyed certain aspects he also got tired of the same "Penny gets captured and Brain has to find her" schtick. This makes it a lot easier to form our own opinions of a game instead of just blindly looking at the end score, which I think is the best way to explore these old games.

    6. Just FYI, Alex last reviewed QfG3. I was the reviewer on Inspector Gadget. But I otherwise completely agree with your point that the long-form reviews help you to understand what aspects of a game are good and bad to that reviewer.

    7. Oh bugger that's what happens when you're trying to do work and read blogs at the same times, thanks for the correction!

  9. This reminds me of something I read about C.S. Lewis who, in his scholarly work as an English professor, was concerned with the overall atmosphere of a story. Speaking of Romantic literature (not, like, romantic comedies--but rather the Romantic period of literature), he wrote (as quoted by Michael Ward in Planet Narnia):

    "Lovers of romances go back and back to such stories in the same way that we go 'back to a fruit for its taste; to an air for... what? for itself; to a region for its whole atmosphere--to Donegal for its Donegality and London for its Londonness. It is notoriously difficult to put these tastes into words."

    Ward discusses how Lewis used this approach to understand the appeal of Hamlet: "It is 'the vast, empty vision' of Hamlet that is, in his view, Shakespeare's chief accomplishment--the sense that 'a certain spiritual region' has somehow been captured by the use of images such as night, ghosts, a sea cliff, a graveyard, and a pale man in black clothes. Within the mesh of these images the mysterious epiphenomenal flavour of Hamlet is caught and communicated to the attentive reader or theatre-goer."

    Yes, that's drama and literature rather than computer games, but for my part, I think my response to the atmosphere of a video game is very similar. The atmosphere of Zork I is a dilapidated house in a forest, with a sword and lantern inside, and a hidden door to a troll and a thief and Flood Control Dam #3 beneath. Day of the Tentacle creates its atmosphere through a wacky scientist in a wacky mansion at night with a time machine. In The Dig (which I think is a deeply atmospheric game, and certainly not a comedy!) it's the desolate planet, the sense of isolation, with foreboding but non-obvious danger in the strange alien technology that surrounds you.

    Following the thoughts of Lewis, I think it's the interplay of a game's elements that creates its atmosphere, rather than any one particular element. For example, the atmosphere of Loom isn't communicated through any particular guild, but rather the set of guilds in total, set in their own distinctive and memorable environments, amid a world on the brink of chaos where magic is animated by music.

    It seems to me that a game should achieve a high score when it weaves the components that make us its atmosphere into a coherent and emotionally resonant whole (acknowledging, of course, that there is a degree of subjectivity in assessing that). Those components could include a number of things--dialogue, music and graphics, puzzle structure. In some sense, then, maybe its a measure of the extent to which the other PISSED categories come together well or not.

  10. Comedy is definitely optional. Note, however, that even very serious films often have some humorous dialogue; it strengthens the drama. Using film rather than game examples, Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects are very serious films with some dark humor. Star Wars is serious, but has quite a few comedy bits, both in dialogue and over-the-top action sequences.

    Quest for Glory is a serious high fantasy game series, but we chose to leaven the drama with puns and other humorous descriptions. There are also some humorous characters such as the Gnomes and Hans, Franz, and Ivan, but I would say that overall, most of the dialogue is serious.

    We adopted that style because the game was originally designed as a serious game, but the unsubtle 16-color artwork (at least in town, which were the first scenes painted) didn't fit with serious high fantasy. Also, our original lead programmer, Bob Fischbach, wrote some silly stand-in "look" messages, and I liked them.

    Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption leans more to the comedy side compared to Quest for Glory, but again has a serious underlying plot. Shawn O'Conner is a wisecracking rogue, and his roommate Aeolus loves to pun and writes unintentionally (from his viewpoint) humorous love songs. Most of the other characters are serious. We let Josh Mandel run wild on creating humorous interactions with most of the background objects, which keeps the game light.

    Future games in the series may be more skewed towards the serious than in the first game, but all of them will have a mixture of drama and humor.