Atmosphere is a hugely important part of the modern gaming experience. It is a product of artistry - of controlled, intentional style - and a direct precursor to that most prized of gaming states: immersion. A well-crafted atmosphere allows and, at its best, demands a gamer stop playing a game, and start living it.
The city beneath the sea could never be as striking and inspiring as it was on our first visit, but BioShock 2 retains the delicious dichotomy of the original game. Upbeat post-depression era music echoes through the gorgeous, decaying ruins of Rapture, substance-addled psychopaths mutter in the dark, and the player feels very alone - and very driven to return to their beloved Eleanor. A wonderfully immersive game, driven by a great narrative and an incredible setting.
While other games listed here achieve a remarkable sense of place and time through towering production values and limitless budget - arguably a more impressive feat, since more can go wrong - there's no denying Limbo's capacity to fill the player with an incredible sense of desperate loneliness, and the absence of hope.
The simple grayscale palette, two-dimensional world and characters and total lack of music mean the designers have fewer facets to screw up, and the player has fewer details to focus on. Everything here is bent towards this terrible, hellish reality The Boy wakes up in - and its austere design provides a troubling, thought-provoking, emotionally raw experience.
I suppose I shouldn't be so surprised that a JRPG deserves a spot on this list, what with Demon's Souls taking the crown last year, and like that remarkable title, Resonance of Fate strives at all turns to be very, very different. The ancient, gargantuan, crumbling tower of Bazel is a remarkable setting - as shocking and original as Rapture was, on our first visit - and the world you explore with its wrought-iron detailing, mile-wide clockwork and neo-Victorian sensibilities colors one's experience and emotions with a heady mix of ultra-hip style, desperation, and vulnerable human longing.
Heavy Rain is a story/adventure - and little else - so its success hinges entirely on the player's ability emotionally engage with the characters and their world. It is almost entirely dependent on its presentation to achieve this, and - writing aside - Heavy Rain is at the top of the class. To describe any one scene is to do the whole an injustice, but - aside from an opening sequences that dabble in positivity - Heavy Rain successfully fosters a sense of ever-building tension and impending disaster. Its music, art direction, camera work and phenomenal graphics push it well above-par, and give it a very deserving spot on this list.
Heavy Rain may have had its eye on the prize, but if any game in 2010 took technology and used it to create dynamic art, it's Red Dead Redemption. It's a very graphically impressive game - weather and light effects in particular are stunning, and provide us with the standard by which all video game sunsets shall, henceforth, be judged - but technological wizardry is just the beginning.
Red Dead Redemption sets itself apart with all levels of presentation. I'm not just talking about voice work or music or a well-presented narrative - I'm talking about how every single facet of this game is bent towards a single point: creating the spaghetti western experience, and setting the player loose in it.
Perhaps no single game this year has so successfully rendered a virtual reality. Not even the winner of this category, really - but atmosphere isn't just about world-building - it's about how easy it is for the player to slip in, and live in that world.
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Fallout: New Vegas is graphically inferior to almost every title on the list, and your adventure throughout the Mojave wasteland is threatened by devils far worse than deathclaws: the game itself seems to be constantly attempting to yank the player from the experience with glitches and semi-regular hard freezes. In terms of being a product that you can reliably explore and enjoy, it is a spectacular failure, incomparable to any other game I played this year. Such remarkable, immersion-breaking catastrophes of technology, however, don't stop it from being the single best game of the year when it comes to allowing the player to submerge themselves in a rich, engaging world.
Upon examining many of its individual facets, Fallout: New Vegas should not win this category - but the experience the game provides is far more than the sum of its occasionally cracked parts.
An ever-changing story that begs to be explored again and again, retold over and over - this is not just a game to be played, it's an adventure to be lived. A world that breathes icy fear down your neck one moment and gives a knowing smile of human kindness the next, suggestively beckoning you over the next hill, and into the unknown.
"...if the setting manages to spark your imagination, and you find yourself immersed in its world (which is, I should note, most gamers' default setting) what awaits is an absolutely spectacular single-player experience. Fallout: New Vegas is a world so huge, so intimidatingly deep, so detailed and rich in its history and presentation, so inviting and inspiring that it it doesn't merely live up to the standard set in Fallout 3, but shatters it.
... and while it still has some of the sticking points of its predecessor, it provides an experience of much greater depth and breadth."
- from the review -