Balancing An Oppressive Atmosphere With Fun

Single player games serve two primary purposes to me. They provide a fun, relaxing experience that I consume for enjoyment. For example, something like Mario Odyssey distills this essence, a game that strives to achieve no more than to provide a joyous space to explore. Games also provide me with opportunities to learn, experience and challenge myself. This can come in many forms, such as the explicit social and ethical conundrums that a game like Paper’s Please presents, to more nuanced human issues in RPGs like the Witcher. I also think that an opportunity to learn and challenge the player can come from the atmosphere of the game, not just the content. A game that seeks to make the player feel a certain way – the isolation and claustrophobia of Bioshock, the emptiness of the desert in Assassin’s Creed Origins.

The interplay between these 2 components of games is a source of struggle for me as a player. I want experiences that mentally challenge me, but when the atmosphere begins to detract from the fun of the game, or make it actively stressful, it can become hard to play. A game that failed in this regard for me was Resident Evil 7. I know it might seem like a stupid example because it is clearly designed to be scary, but the tension was just too much for me. I wanted to learn the story and explore the house, but each time the game gave me a chance to take a break or quit it was all too easy to do so, and even more difficult to relaunch.

The game I really want to talk about today is Dishonored 2. Aside from the incredible creative freedom the game gives you in your approach to gameplay (Arkane is second to none in this regard), the great accomplishment of Dishonored 2 is the balance the game manages to find. The game gives you an impenetrable world to explore. With sheer fortresses, sharp edges, guards at every turn, the world strikes both fear and awe in the player as you investigate a dense police state. It is an intimidating place both from a gameplay perspective and a mental one. There are few moments of levity and joy to be found, and the depressing, grim tone is omnipresent in your interactions and exploration. I found it to be a challenging world to explore, as it is tiring and stressful experiencing such an oppressive world from the viewpoint of a silent assassin. More than a few times I had to pause to take a deep breath during my time with the game.

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Despite all this, I think Dishonored 2 mitigates the oppressive atmosphere very successfully. Travel to a new assassination destination occurs on a boat. On this boat you wake up, write in your journal, speak to the crew, and have a few moments to collect yourself between expeditions. I really feel there is a lot of value in having a safe space within the world that the player can exist in and interact with without the fear of death and without a gameplay challenge to deal with. These pockets exist in the levels too, such as an elevator here, or a small closet there, and this break in the tension helps make the game easier to pick up each session. Another factor is the difficulty – Dishonored 2 is an easy game. While it is nice to have to think about how to approach a situation, the stakes for failure are relatively low, and you can usually fight or run from anything challenging. While the feeling of isolation and scale can feel intimidating, the gameplay usually did not. While maintaining some sense of importance for gameplay decisions with the chaos and detection systems but providing many lanes of escape, I think the difficulty level made the game far less stressful to play. Finally, I think the environmental design plays an important role. Having a diverse colour palette, bright levels and varied non-hostile NPC populations made the game visually appealing even though the context that the environment existed in was far more hostile.

Usually I bounce of games that I find stressful. But I did not bounce off of Dishonored 2. At times I found it mentally challenging to play and the experience wasn’t always “fun” (often due to oppression in the world and feeling it gave me)… But ultimately, I think that the oppressive atmosphere is what challenged me as a player, provided the most interesting experience and elevated it from being merely a good immersive sim.

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