Deus Ex: A Revolution In Atmosphere
I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for style over substance. A story can be littered with plot holes and internal inconsistencies, saddled with poor gameplay mechanics, but if the game is presented in an inventive, creative way, I’ll be willing to overlook some of those flaws in order to experience something unique. Of course, the more creative a game gets, the more flaws I can gloss over. With virtually no traditional gameplay to speak of, and an inventory and map system that is near useless, Killer7 should have never seen the light of day. But thanks to an aesthetic style that is as eccentric as the game’s director, the infamous Suda 51, Killer7 remains one of my favorite diversions from the traditional video game formula.
In other instances, these games can offer standard gameplay, but it’s the atmosphere that sells them, such as the case with Spec Ops: The Line. Although the combat system is rudimentary and has been seen hundreds of times before, the unreliable narrator and the surreal setting help keep gamers hooked, and the reward is one of the most fascinating games of the seventh generation.
The importance of atmosphere cannot be understated – it’s what immerses players into these fictional worlds, and is more often than not the element most responsible for leaving a lasting impression on the player. If properly utilized, atmosphere can help bring players back to a game for a second and possibly third playthrough, a tall order considering the fact that gamers have thousands of games available to them, all competing for their attention. When considering how beneficial it can be to replay games, the importance of atmosphere becomes even more pronounced.
A compelling, immersive atmosphere goes a long way toward explaining my personal love of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. With the sequel around the corner, and with a fan-made mod that overhauls the original releasing earlier this week, I was reminded of how much I enjoyed my time as the augmented ex-cop Adam Jensen. So I took my own advice and fired the game back up. What struck me on this playthrough was how the atmosphere helped me get through some of the tedium of the gameplay, and how it allowed me to overlook some questionable writing and cheesy voice acting. Human Revolution is a lot like Killer7 and Spec Ops: The Line in that, on paper, it shouldn’t be as successful as it was. But a closer look at how developer Eidos Montreal built up the world and setting helps illustrate the power of great atmosphere design.
It All Starts At The Menu
There are five key areas of design Eidos Montreal utilized to establish such a strong atmosphere – the score, the art style, the setting, the level design and textural stories. Each one of these plays an important role in setting up a future dystopia, a world on the brink of collapse from a number of issues, yet one in which there seems to be a small glimmer of hope, a chance for mankind to survive.
The music in Human Revolution sets the tone for the game, and it does so right from the main menu. I haven’t heard a theme song so haunting, yet so inspiring as this one, and I can honestly say that I’ve spent more time on Human Revolution’s main menu than I have for any other game, simply to listen to the music.
Human Revolution is a game all about insurmountable odds, a world torn apart by conflict, where little is black and white, and around every corner there is a TV or a newspaper that loudly and boldly proclaims the world is falling apart. But it’s also a game about humanity’s future, and the possibility of a future where climate change and disease are footnotes in history textbooks. The theme song reflects this dichotomy – it sneaks up on the listener, subtly building up to the point where it can no longer be ignored. The song has a melancholy feel, reflecting the war and political strife that is dividing civilizations across the globe, but those moments are, briefly, punctuated with upbeat notes, hinting at that possibility of a bright future. But the listener gets the sense that things will get worse before they get better. All of this is can be gleaned from the song in the main menu.
The rest of the score works to serve this goal, of creating an atmosphere of uncertainty, of little hope. Fortunately, the score never takes over a scene or becomes the centerpiece – it’s always complimenting the visuals, providing an additional layer of context. Many games will often allow the score to take over, to help emphasize an emotion or story beat, and it can come across as distracting. Halo 2 learned this lesson the hard way, throwing in a song by Breaking Benjamin during a pivotal boss fight.
Instead of getting caught up in the moment, players were instead treated to some bland radio rock that was completely out of place with the rest of the game. Thankfully, the score in Human Revolution never fully takes over, but it never hides in the background, either. The score is always working in tandem with the visuals, and while that may be standard for many games, the difference here is that the soundtrack is tied not to specific scenes, but to the overall story, meaning that the score is just as much a plot synopsis as the cutscenes are. In the end, the biggest accomplishment of the soundtrack is that it allows the player to feel the central conflict of the game, providing the foundation for the other elements to build off of.
Orange Is The New Gritty
In most games, if the developer wants to portray a world on the brink of destruction, the color palette will mostly consist of muted tones, and a lot of grey. Gears of War is a prime example – at the start of the seventh generation, many gamers were worried that next generation meant dull with a splash of brown. However, developer Epic Games were correct in choosing muted colors to convey war and death – the problem was that the only break from those visuals was the splatter of red blood that flew across the screen when the player used the always practical chainsaw-machine gun.
The world of Human Revolution is just as dark and gritty as any dystopia, however, Eidos Montreal knew that a dull, grey color scheme would detach players from the world they were building. In order to draw players in, they needed a color palette that would work within the game’s overall theme, but would provide players with scenes that could still be aesthetically pleasing. Because of this, most of Human Revolution is cast in a soft, orange glow, allowing what would otherwise be a dull, dreary scene to suddenly spring to life, without feeling out of place.
I was curious why Eidos Montreal chose orange, and I’m afraid my brief research into color psychology only helped to partially explain the choice. According to the study of how colors affect the human mind, orange (specifically a softer, less-intense hue) will be recognized as being warm and inviting, while a stronger intensity inspires action and motivation. Although the game occasionally features sharp, bright hues of orange, most of the time a softer tone is used, and I will say that this softer orange helped ease me into a relaxed state. This may seem to be at odds with the central theme of global conflict, but I think a color that invokes feelings of comfort and ease was used to help transition players into this world. It also, as stated above, inspires action, and it also happens to work nicely against the otherwise black and grey backdrop. Even though the graphics and character models are less than stellar (even for the time in which this game was created), I often find myself soaking in the busy streets of Lower Hengsha, or the derelict alleys of Detroit. Both locales feature skylines exuding orange light, and this trickles down to the player, invoking a warm atmosphere.
Occasionally, Human Revolution will take players to a city or locale that is shockingly white, with little to no additional color to be found. In these moments, the world turns from a dying, unstable world to one that is wealthy, stable, yet often populated with people or organizations who achieve great success at the cost of real human lives, humans who it just so happens live far below the wealthy, sometimes figuratively, and in the case of Upper and Lower Hengsha, literally. There is a coldness in these scenes, and it further highlights how the color orange helps to create an atmosphere that is at first inviting, but unnerving the more the player digs into it. And the way in which the color blends into the world demonstrates, both aesthetically and thematically, how all of these atmospheric elements are interconnected.
From Detroit to Antarctica
Being a game about global conflict, it’s not too surprising that the story of Human Revolution takes players all around the world. But the exotic nature of the locales is not what stands out – it’s the variety of the settings within these levels.
During the tutorial, players will find themselves shooting down augmented terrorists in a high-tech science lab, complete with prototype weapons that the U.S. military has commissioned for use out in the field. However, the next level takes player to a manufacturing plant outside of Detroit, which doesn’t scream anything other than mundane. Eventually, players will get to explore a few blocks in riot-filled downtown Detroit, before heading off to the crowded, vendor-filled streets of Lower Hengsha. Eventually, players will travel to Upper Hengsha (a city literally on top another city) and the offices of a TV news station run by the world’s most advanced artificial intelligence. The point is, the setting varies wildly, from the common, every day to the fantastical dreams of sci-fi writers.
The impact these varying settings have on the atmosphere is similar to how the color palette invites players into a world that, upon deeper inspection, is a deadly, alien world. Most sci-fi games never give the player a space to explore that feels real, like something they could experience themselves. As much as I love Mass Effect, I have to admit that the central hub of the games, the Citadel, always felt like the giant, alien structure it was, and though that fits perfectly within its science fiction, I couldn’t relate to it in any way. With Human Revolution, the setting helps ease players in by giving them something that is familiar – a warehouse, city streets – before sending them to someplace that is truly fiction, such as a giant, reverse-global warming facility shooting out of the Arctic ice. This balance of the mundane and the marvelous helps present a futuristic world that players can invest in, without knowing the story or the characters. It creates an atmosphere of comfort, awe and dread.
Finding Your Way Around Town
Just as the settings themselves helped establish a strong atmosphere, so to does the level design and layout of the hub worlds (hub worlds being sections of the game in which the player can tackle the main story and side-quests in a nonlinear fashion). In a strange way, it’s refreshing to go back to a game that came out before the open-world craze the industry currently finds itself in, back to a game that was content to give players smaller maps and levels that rarely feature an open room to run around in. There is a closeness felt throughout the level designs, and it’s one that forces the player to become intimately familiar with the world.
When wandering around downtown Detroit, players only have a few alleys and buildings they can enter, along with a sewer system that should only be used if it relates to a side-quest (otherwise, there is nothing of note, which makes sense since it’s a sewer). This may initially seem too constraining to the player, especially those accustomed to the open worlds of Fallout 3 or Grand Theft Auto V. However, by focusing on a small area in each setting, Eidos Montreal ably conveyed to the player how this large, global conflict affects everyone, even the homeless people who sleep down those dark alleys. Often times, when the player is tasked with saving the entire world, that whole “entire world” part seems abstract, but in Human Revolution, the player is able to humanize the impact of this conflict.
While this may be more beneficial to the story than the atmosphere, the closeness of the levels also ensures that players will be able to soak in all of those orange hues, and the variety of settings. The score stays with them the entire time, allowing the player to feel the intimate nature of this world, and the real human cost to this conflict. Of course, with Human Revolution being a stealth-focused game, there are plenty of hidden paths and ventilation shafts for the player to explore, meaning that even in a small space there is plenty of content to experience. But what matters most is that the level design is structured so the player feels the world, feels the atmosphere, and can be immersed in it and connected to it on a deep level. It’s a great example of how bigger isn’t always better, and how an expert developer utilizes every square inch of a space, so that the final outcome is greater than the sum of its parts. The tight corridor levels of Human Revolution ensure that players feel the atmosphere, from beginning to end.
There are certain aspects of the gameplay that felt tedious, specifically hacking. For those unfamiliar, hacking computers, door locks, security cameras and robots plays a big role in Human Revolution. Hacking is one of those real world tasks that no medium has really seemed to portray accurately, and Eidos Montreal opted to instead try to make a fun mini-game out of hacking. But the mini-game is a bit complex at first, and even when the player fully understands it, success is often left up to chance, and repeated failures drag these sections out. Yet I still feel compelled to hack every single computer I come across, just so I can read every email. I do this because the biggest enhancer of the atmosphere is in the textural stories this game tells.
Textural stories are those told in the background of games, and often times have little to do with the main story or even the side quests. Textural stories are everywhere in Human Revolution, and each and every one of them is significant in some way. But before explaining their importance to the story, it’s crucial to understand how the player encounters these stories, because the manner in which they are presented makes the biggest impact on atmosphere.
Emails are the most common means of encountering these stories – players often find themselves hacking a computer to get a vital piece of information, or a key code for a door, and while obtaining that information they also learn about the personal lives of those people who work behind those computers. Office romances, after-work beers, even employees speaking in code, scheming to steal company secrets or money – every computer, every email has a story to tell, and it often paints a picture of a world very much like ours. Rarely are these emails concerned with the main story – they’re coworkers complaining about the boss, or stressed about the poor economy they are forced to deal with. Again, these textural stories help paint a familiar picture, allowing players to relate to the everyday person affected by the main story. The world is no longer this abstract thing that the player has to save – it’s friends going to a baseball game, or a couple going out on a date.
But that’s just one way players experience these textural stories. All throughout the world the player find TVs and newspapers highlighting the breaking news of the day. Additionally, the player also overhears conversations between non-player characters commenting on these same events. What’s fascinating is how Eidos Montreal uses these stories to help bring each locale to life – in Detroit, the populace is concerned with the riots, and gang members use the time of instability to tag alleys, while panicked and frustrated citizens wait at train terminals, desperately trying to get home. When the player goes to Lower Hengsha, the talk switches to one of the game’s many powerful corporations, and how desperate the people are to get a job that allows them to move out of the dark, grimy streets of Lower Hengsha and into the bright, sunny open spaces of Upper Hengsha.
What’s even more fascinating is how these textural stories often give away major plot points and twists hours before they are introduced. On a first playthrough, the player won’t even realize that two people talking about a recent order for upgraded biochips will later become one of the two biggest twists in the game – these conversations blend in so well with talks of unrest in Australia and fears of global warming that the player will not pay them any attention until a second playthrough, at which point everything clicks. The world around the player is a living, breathing world, and it comes alive through these textural stories.
The atmosphere created by these stories allowed Eidos Montreal to do something every great developer does – link two distinct mechanics together. In this case, the textural stories are the bridge that connects the atmosphere and the plot. Without these, the game would rely heavily on immersion-breaking exposition, but fortunately that is not the case. Everything comes together organically, and the end result is a game that feels larger than it really is, that features a story that really emphasizes the impact it will have on the whole world, a game that feels like a real place, despite the crazy sci-fi settings.
Although Deus Ex: Human Revolution isn’t the first game to emphasize atmosphere over gameplay, it’s the best example of how powerful that can be when handled properly. Everything from the music to the color palette to the level design works to create a sense of unease, of conflict spanning the entire globe. Yet it also creates a sense of hope and comfort, and a level of familiarity that allows some of the more far-reaching and abstract story elements to feel natural. Some may argue that the gameplay will age poorly (or already has), but they would be missing the point – Human Revolution will always be relevant because it creates a strong sense of time and place, a portal into a world where cities are built atop other cities, and friends go out for a beer after work to catch-up. It’s sense of atmosphere will always remain strong, and without that atmosphere, the story of Adam Jensen would already be forgotten.