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Oh, hello. Were you trying to scare me?
While playing Doom 3, an Imp jumps at me as I open a door. I wonder aloud, “Should that have scared me?” I believe that was the developer's intended purpose, but the event didn’t even startle me. Why not?
Well…maybe because it was about the fiftieth time that something lunged at me.
At the beginning of the game, Doom 3’s atmosphere was extremely effective. Dark hallways with eerie sounds emerging from them made a player dread walking through such corridors. You'd fear what might be waiting — time to grab a flashlight and march into the unknown.
All of a sudden, you hear a loud noise as a door opens beside you, and some freakish Hellspawn jumps at you, causing you to jump out of your seat.
It was a great experience the first five times, but when almost every room in this long game has a similar moment, you begin to dread a different, unintentional thing: repetitiveness.
Doom 3 offers an example of what I call atmosphere fatigue. This condition develops in players when they play a game that clearly creates a specific mood (and does it well); however, fatigue starts to set in once that ambience becomes overused and abused, with little attempt to switch things up.
Things that once scared the player are now a cause for a yawn. The atmosphere is still there, but its effectiveness has dried up due to overuse. When you become aware of your own gameplay concerns and not those of the character whom you are playing, the game has lost its immersive quality.
While I’m tempted to blame the length of Doom 3 as the reason why the atmosphere’s effectiveness wears off, length is not necessarily the problem. Other lengthy games, such as The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, manage to sustain the atmosphere in a way that does not become stale. Oblivion constantly offers the player new experiences all while maintaining consistency with the atmosphere — whether you are defeating a beast or hunting for treasure in a cave.
Who knew that an empty room with plain white walls could offer so much variety?
Even shorter games can sustain an atmosphere effectively. Portal comes to mind. The mood is remarkably the same throughout most of the game: White walls surround you while a computer remarks on your progress. But a similar story with Oblivion applies here since you constantly have something different to do within the same environment.
Therefore, the key to sustaining an effective atmosphere is to offer the player variety. Doom 3’s scares were great at the beginning, but if they were used few and far between, it would have improved the game. And if the game used jump-out-of-your-seat moments sparingly, it should then offer the player something different to do in between those gaps — something that consistently builds its ambience.
Creating an atmosphere in the first place is difficult. Once a developer achieves that, though, they should not be completely satisfied and cut-and-paste this mood throughout the game. It may be effective for a portion of the experience, but atmosphere fatigue will eventually arise in the player. The game’s mood needs to evolve during its entire course — with new experiences that remain consistent with the overarching feel of the game.