I game for atmosphere

Why I play games


I've been pondering lately why I enjoy games, and what kinds of games I tend to gravitate to. The more I thought about it, the more I found that it's probably ultimately an unsolvable riddle, but that in itself seems a little like a game. Either the gamer or the technical part of my brain has taken the bait, and this post is about one aspect of gaming I enjoy. This one's one of the more irrational aspects: atmosphere.

Whether I'm playing a tabletop game or a video game, the game's world and lore and visual appearance is a persuasive factor. I'm a gamer who gladly surrenders to the illusion that playing a game is spending time in a storybook or a fantasy. I don't seem to care whether the game world is a dystopian cyberpunk city, an idyllic dreamworld untouched by time, a steampunk factory, or a wartorn wasteland, just so long as it intrigues me. If I enjoy spending time in the world, then I'm apt to play the game often.

Annoyingly, I can't always quantify or qualify what intrigues me. Things I think I like sometimes fall flat, while things I never knew I liked somehow capture my imagination. The post-apocalyptic wasteland is a pretty reliable trope for me, as are zombies, and yet both Dying Light and Walking Dead have never managed to appeal to me the way Dead Island and Left 4 Dead 2 do. Confusingly, I don't long for a tropical island setting in real life, but the strangely tranquil (aside from the zzombie infestation, I mean) Banoi of Dead Island never gets old.

Pretending to like the world

I think the way I engage with games is strongly influenced by roleplay. Whether or not I would like a setting in real life doesn't affect how my player character or avatar does. In other words, I can real-life enjoy a game world by imagining I enjoy it. And I do this for a variety of different reasons.

Sometimes, it's because the game mechanics are really good. If I enjoy a game for how it plays, then I'm likely to grow some fondness for the game world. That doesn't always compel me to come back to the game once I feel I've beaten it, but it keeps me invested while I'm working on it.

Other times, I like the game world despite the mechanics. Maybe the game mechanics are just average. Frankly, as much as I enjoy it, Fallout the Board Game probably qualifies here. The game design is impressive and accurately mimics the complexity of the video games, but it's no Blackstone Fortress. But Fallout is a setting I love, and the board game's atmosphere ensures that I continue to play it.

When atmosphere is missing altogether, I often find myself enjoying a game but not developing fond memories of the game after playing it. There are some very good classic card games, like Texas Hold 'em and Blackjack, that I enjoy but don't "love" in part because there's no sense of immersion. They're fun to play, I enjoy the time I spend playing, but I don't lovingly look back at the experience or agonize the time until the next game. Of course there are exceptions to even this rule, if you can call Skip-Bo a classic card game. But generally, the world and lore and atmosphere of a game is important, whether it's a thin veil over a set of great mechanics, or an integral part of what makes the game work.

Lore master

Atmosphere is by no means all-powerful. Like most people, I won't play an otherwise unbearable game just because it has atmosphere. Like many a gamer, I've made purchases after judging a game by its cover art, and regretted it. Paired with an entertaining game, though, atmosphere is an important component that

Photo by Riho Kroll on Unsplash

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