As much as I hate to admit it, Ubisoft did something right. I’ve made no secret of my problems with the studio, but I can’t deny when they make a great game. ASSASSIN’S CREED: ORIGINS is a return to form for the franchise, receiving well-deserved praise from critics and consumers alike.

But what truly sets this game apart from others, what elevates it from a great title to one of my favorite games of 2017, is the atmosphere. ASSASSIN’S CREED has always striven to create detailed, historically authentic worlds, but never has the series pushed the envelope as far as they have with their portrayal of Egypt.

Playing through ORIGINS immersed me in a way no Ubisoft game has done before, and it got me thinking about just how important atmosphere can be to a game. Atmosphere is a pretty vague term in the industry. It usually refers to a combination of art style, worldbuilding, and immersive detail that draws the player into the world. It’s about that feeling you get when you’re fully sucked into a game.

ASSASSIN'S CREED ORIGINS
I feel like I could step into this world and explore it.

A good atmosphere uses sound, visuals, and lore to evoke emotion and engagement in the player. A good atmosphere can tell a story on its own. It can make a silly, cartoony world feel real. Sure, not every game requires a unique, compelling atmosphere, but any game from any genre can benefit from one. Open world sandbox games like ORIGINS benefit the most from a well-crafted atmosphere, but too often, developers ignore this basic rule of thumb.

 So, what can other games learn from ORIGINS? How do you craft a compelling atmosphere? How can atmosphere improve your experience in an open-world game? Well, let’s take a look!

Using What You Have

At the core of a game’s atmosphere is the world in which it takes place. From here, a tone is set, a style is established, and the game’s flavor begins to take shape. It’s important to use your world to advance the atmosphere. A lot of games feature complex worlds with deep backstories, but few utilize these tools in effective ways.

How often have you played a game touting a unique, creative world, only to find that creativity locked behind an appendix? In doing this, the creators segregate the world from the experience, removing the lifeblood from their atmosphere.

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Tying It All Together

In ORIGINS, every aspect of the game is inseparable from its world. Ptolemaic Egypt is the perfect stage for an open-world adventure, and Ubisoft unleashes the full potential of the setting. The exotic wildlife, rugged environments, diverse cultures, societal structures — they’re all fuel for the game’s atmosphere and content.

The music, art, and dialogue are heavily steeped in the time period. The clothing and weapons take into account the various cultural distinctions of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. Throughout your journey, the player will come across Egyptian khopeshes, Roman spears, Macedonian swords, and even ancient relics of the Persian conquest. This is how you use the tools your world provides.

ASSASSIN'S CREED ORIGINS
Even the weather becomes a gameplay element.

Compare this to THE ELDER SCROLLS IV: OBLIVION. It may be one of my favorites, but it suffers greatly from its failure to embrace its own world. A newcomer to the series would assume that Imperials are vague Roman analogues and that their homeland is a poor-man’s Middle Earth, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

There was a time when Cyrodiil was among the weirdest, most unique lands I’ve ever seen in a mainstream RPG.  All that creativity was removed from the final product, resulting in a sanitized, forgettable world. This is a worst-case scenario for atmosphere. Worldbuilding is meaningless if the player can’t experience what makes your world unique.

In ASSASSIN’S CREED: ORIGINS, cultural variety takes center stage. Each culture provides its own distinct flair, and nowhere is this more evident than within ORIGINS’ many cities. Travelling from an Egyptian town to a Greek city results in some genuine cultural whiplash, as the architecture, clothing, language, and behavior of the populace shifts before your eyes. I truly feel like an outsider in Alexandria, surrounded by the remnants of a foreign occupation.

The Atmosphere Should Contextualize The Gameplay

But atmosphere doesn’t just belong in the background. It should go a step further and enhance the gameplay. Too often do your activities feel repetitive and meaningless in open world games. It’s a common issue, and until recently I could understand why. When you break it down, video game activities can be boiled down into a few core actions, and they can easily feel like chores in the wrong hands. It’s in the context of these activities that the player finds purpose and excitement.

A bad sandbox floods the world with activities and collectibles with little rhyme or reason. Often, the developers assume the sheer density of content will keep the player engaged, but more often than not it just burns them out. For a good example of this, take a look at any open world Ubisoft game between ASSASSIN’S CREED 3 and WATCH DOGS 2. These games drown the player under a deluge of activities that end up feeling like chores because they do nothing to build upon the gameplay or atmosphere.

ASSASSIN'S CREED ORIGINS
This isn’t a game. It’s a checklist.

In ASSASSIN’S CREED: ORIGINS, they go the extra mile to contextualize the environments, the collectibles, and the activities. Each side activity, be it chariot racing or arena fighting, draws inspiration from historical sources. You’re encouraged to visit famous landmarks, which serve as fast-travel points. Enemy bases aren’t just slaughtering grounds for the player. They each make sense in terms of design, placement, and player-motivation.

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There are bandit camps along roads, and the player can actually watch merchants get robbed if they venture too close. Garrisons are littered throughout most towns and are designed with defense in mind. Sometimes, enemy locations that seem random reveal small stories for the player to discover.

Depth Beneath The Surface

Recently I was walking down the streets of an Egyptian town when I noticed soldiers guarding an abandoned home. Upon further inspection, I learned the state seized the house to sell it to Greek investors. This ties into the overarching story of the area, which revolves around Greek settlers pushing the Egyptians into the slums. It gives the player a reason to fight the soldiers and is a perfect example of showing instead of telling.

ASSASSIN'S CREED ORIGINS
Visual storytelling can go a long way.

There are a few exceptions, and if anything they prove the rule. In very rare cases, an activity or quest will feel as pointless as it does in an average sandbox game.  In one quest, the protagonist talks a widow out of killing herself. He shares his own sorrow, relates to her grief, and eventually gets her to smile and laugh again. Well, suddenly needing to save her from a band of leopards is so tonally jarring that it’s hilarious.

This sort of shoehorning is exactly the sort of thing games need to avoid. Still, these mistakes only draw more attention to the vast amount of effort and detail that went into the rest of the game’s activities, aided by a thick, deep atmosphere that enhances every aspect of the gameplay.

But adding context to the gameplay isn’t enough to create an engaging atmosphere. The world needs to exist beyond the gameplay. It needs to feel alive.

ASSASSIN’S CREED: ORIGINS Creates A Living World

The phrase “a living world” is more than just a buzzword. It’s something every sandbox game should strive for. For years, my biggest problem with Ubisoft was how shallow and artificial their worlds felt. Everything feels too catered for the player, too forced, too “gamey.” Artificiality is the death-knell of an open world.

The player needs to feel like this world continues to exist when they shut off the console. They should feel like they can step into this world and explore it. Once you achieve this, the player’s experience becomes real. The story, the characters, the gameplay, everything has more weight to it when the player is engaged in the atmosphere.

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Unlike previous games, ASSASSIN’S CREED: ORIGINS’ world doesn’t feel like it exists solely for the player. These little touches make the world feel organic, dynamic, and alive. To give you an example, I found myself in a city shared by both Greeks and Egyptians. I stumbled across a note written by a Greek doctor outside his office. He claims that due to “increased demands” from the Greek merchant class, he can no longer serve Egyptians in his place of business.

ASSASSIN'S CREED ORIGINS
You’d be surprised how many of these homes contain their own little stories

What purpose did this have? To my knowledge, absolutely none, and that’s why it’s brilliant. This is just a random glimpse into the life of a Greek doctor, and an example of the oppression the protagonist is fighting against.  More than anything, it advances the mood and theme of the location. The game doesn’t always need to spell out why you should hate the “bad guys.” The atmosphere does that for you.

The Little Things Go A Long Way

In every city, you can see the massive divide between the rich and the poor. Walking down the streets, you’ll come across musicians singing about local legends, Greeks performing a traditional dance, priests handing out food and chanting hymns about their god. These little touches go a long way. It seems at every turn there’s something to see, some new encounter that breathes life into the world.

Now, to be fair, even ORIGINS isn’t perfect in this regard. There are cracks in the atmosphere that can leave the world feeling a bit robotic. NPCs often repeat the same lines of dialogue, and even though they’re speaking Egyptian and Greek, I know most of the words by heart. The game has more than a few bugs, breaking the immersion and reminding me I’m playing a video game.

But when all is said and done, the world of ASSASSIN’S CREED: ORIGINS is a perfect example of how a living world can enhance the atmosphere.

The Point

When it comes to games, atmosphere can be just as important as gameplay. A lot of people play games to explore other worlds, and there’s nothing like a game that truly sucks you in. It’s difficult to create an engaging atmosphere, but it’s more than worth it. In a world flooded with mediocre sandboxes with similar gameplay, the atmosphere is what makes your game stand out.

I wish more games would embrace their atmosphere the way ASSASSIN’S CREED: ORIGINS did. Thankfully, the game was a commercial and critical success. With this in mind, we can only hope rival studios take a page from Ubisoft, and invest as much time in their world as they do their gameplay.

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