“Oh what an atmosphere!” sang no-longer-famous British comedian Russ Abbott in his magnum opus, 'Atmosphere'. “I love a party with a happy atmosphere, so let me take you there, and you and I'll be dancin' in the cool night air!” Words as poignant now as they were in 1984. Snobs out there may feel that Abbott's brand of 18-to-30s-holiday-in-Benidorm-pop lacks the emotional power and technical genius of, say, Joe Dolce but what it lacks in musicianship, it more than makes up for in evocative imagery. Listen to the music embedded below but ignore the video. The image of a shit party on a 1980s cruise ship will fill your mind's eye like diarrhoea in a water bomb.
What makes video-games art is their ability to transport the player to another world. All great artwork does it. No painting expresses the horror of the war more powerfully than Picasso's Guernica. The Wire is a brilliant portrait of modern-day Baltimore. Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier transports the reader to 1930s Northern England (then rants for a hundred pages about how socialists are dickheads). Some say art is completely superfluous but I couldn't disagree more. Art is escapism and escapism is essential, especially in a world in which the few people that actually have jobs seem to work in a call centre.
I'm in the middle of Deus Ex: Human Revolution at the moment. It's a magnificent piece of work. Seventy percent RPG and thirty percent FPS, it's extraordinarily ambitious. It falls flat in places. The FPS element is a touch under-cooked. Sometimes the conversations get rather 'Resident Evil on the Playstation' and the load times are a chore, especially when you have to re-play a few times. But it's a small price to pay when you take into account everything it does right. The story and illusion of non-linearity are all brilliantly constructed. The most striking element, however, is the atmosphere.
Walking the streets of Detroit and Shanghai is a pleasure. Sure, they're dank, dystopian shitholes but they're so perfectly crafted that you feel like you're right there. Despite being set in the future, there are enough familiar elements to help your brain fill in the blanks. At one point, I walked into a subway station and could almost smell the stale piss (I had just pissed myself but it wasn't stale yet). This hasn't happened to me since GTA4. I would happily sit in a taxi and watch Liberty City float past my window. My enduring memory of that game isn't a character, mission or spectacular building. It's watching a scabby old building go by. I've played plenty of games since then but none have drawn me in to that degree until now.
GTA4 is often criticised by the gaming community for forgoing 'fun' in favour of realism. It's not an argument I've ever bought into. Fun, as defined by these critics, appears to be directly correlated with the number of jetpacks and explosions in the game. Saint's Row 2 is presented as a superior alternative because, I dunno, you can customise your character into an obese transvestite with a shit Cockney accent. 'Fun', by definition, is something that provides amusement or enjoyment meaning 'fun' can be derived from, listening to Bitches Brew, reading Murakami, solving a Rubik's Cube or even watching a virtual city pass by your virtual taxi window. All relatively sedate activities when compared to spraying shit on a housing estate but no less 'fun'*.
When I play a game, fun happens when I'm whisked away from the drudgery of my life. Atmosphere is arguably the most important part of that. It's what tricks my brain into thinking I'm in another world being a fucking superhero and not an unemployed weirdo in a bedsit.
So yeah, more of it please.
* I don't want to come across as critical of Saint's Row. It does what it does very well and I'm not such a pretentious hypocrite that I won't admit to laughing like a chimp while battering someone to death with a giant purple rubber cock.