Atmosphere vs Story
So I recently finished a game for DLH that I really liked. It was a strange little title that focused on puzzles and environmental manipulation to progress. The art, the music, and entire atmosphere of the game was gorgeous, but as I sit here typing this, if you asked me what the game was about I would draw a blank.
I gave the game a good review because, as a game, it was fun. Fun is the first thing I care about in a game, with everything else coming after. But I'm a writer. When you read The Paladin, there's no interactive sections or light and shadow puzzles to play around with. It's a story. That's it's purpose. This game's story was lackluster, to be completely honest. It was silent and had no text. Everything was contextual, but despite that, a story could've been told. They chose to keep things vague and lean heavily on the mechanics and the aesthetics of the game. There's nothing wrong with that in a game if those aesthetics are that good, but I wonder if that doesn't happen in novels and films, too.
Okay, obviously it happens. I'm sure we can all think of movies where the action was non-stop excitement from beginning to end, but you probably couldn't name the protagonist. This is a little less prevalent in books, but I'm sure it's still out there and that's why I'm wondering what the balance should be.
Books that introduce a new world, something different and unique, have an edge in that they can get away with a weaker story because the reader is busying ooo-ing and ahh-ing at all the set dressing. This is why movies like Men in Black or Harry Potter usually have less successful sequels because they've spent all their aesthetic currency on the first movie. Half of those films charm comes from seeing what's around the next corner. What new spell, new alien, or weird contraption might be in the next scene?
Some obviously handle this better than others, but I hope this illustrates the point. If you don't have a solid story and focus too much on your atmosphere, you'll burn through things quickly. Once there's no more new shiny things to reveal to your audience, you'll have to keep their attention with good ol' fashioned plot.
So what do I think of atmosphere myself? I mean, I obviously use it. I'm an urban fantasy writer. I have monsters and gadgets and spells and secret organizations to illustrate. But I like to think that I balance that with a good story. I try to think about how it would be if I removed the fantastic elements. If you pull out all the monsters and vampires, it still has a mystery and adventure. It'd probably be more of a police drama, I guess, but I think it'd still stand without the mystique of monsters and magic. And that's what I feel is important. Let your atmosphere enhance your story, not be your story.
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Keep your eyes open for my debut novel, The Paladin.