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What Makes Good Atmosphere in a Video Game Part 1: Fake Ads July 7, 2010

Posted by Maniac in Editorials.
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This series is going to be a little different than what you might’ve read before.  I’m not going to be talking about graphics or sound in any of the articles.  For this article series, I’m going to be doing something a bit different than you might expect.  I’m going to be talking about “atmosphere” in levels of immersion.  Now this immersion can mean anything in the game that adds believability to the environment.

I’m going to devote the first part of this series to talking about in-game advertising.  Don’t get me wrong, I love advertising in games, so long as the product is fake.  Why is fake advertising more immersive than real advertising?  Because seeing a billboard for a product that you know can only exist in the game adds a level of immersion that further cements the logic of the setting, and can show the player that there is a deeper connection with the world behind the scenes than just the game itself.

The No More Heroes games are my favorite for the Nintendo Wii.  I was one of the few people that actually enjoyed the open world aspect of the first game and was also one of the few disappointed it was removed in the sequel.  While there were plenty of limitations to the open world which drew you out of the immersion of the game, to me the setting was incredibly real.  One billboard existed along the coastline, advertising a non-existent product.  As a person who lived on the West Coast of the US for a short time, seeing that billboard in the open world of No More Heroes felt like I was back there every time I played.

Then there was 2008’s Dead Space.  Peng, f33l, Sun. The fake ads all over the ship were the big testimony for me that not only people had lived on the ship but there was a larger universe out there.  Seeing Sun vending machines with cans strewn all over the place around it was jarring.  The vending machines were similar in style to our own, but yet still futuristic.  Showing that they had been damaged to the point of being broken into with all of that soda being ignored gave deeper credibility that a once lived in environment was now vacant, and whatever alien force left had no interest in our petty beverage choices.

This doesn’t work when I see real advertisements in games, I hate seeing real products in games (with the exception of Bawls, I’ll get to that later).  Nothing can throw me out of the game’s immersion more than seeing an advertisement for something real, even if the game is “realistic”.  Every time I see something real in a video game it throws me out of the action because there’s an anchor to the real world that pulled me out.

There’s also the practical application of using real world products in your games, such as what if the game doesn’t show your product as very reliable?  Cue Alan Wake, which showed the world Energizer Batteries ™ won’t last more than a few seconds in a flashlight without having to be replaced.  At least the unsponsored car batteries in the game would fully restore in a few seconds to a full charge regardless of how long the high beams were left on with no permanent damage or need to ever be replaced.

In fact the only time I could think of a real product being served well in a game (if not completely out of place) was the Bawls product placement in 2002’s Run Like Hell.  Of course the only reason I liked this was because Bawls is my favorite soda, and it was nice to see that the company, hundreds of years in the future, would finally have vending machines all over the place, and be served in arcades, bars, fitness rooms, and apartment hallways.  Oh and they also heal injuries sustained from fighting alien monsters too.  Not too much, but if you drink enough of them you won’t have to see a doctor.  About 20 could probably return you from near death.

Want reliability?  I’ll stick with Brand-X™!

Now this was just one article and I know I barely scratched the surface of some truly great fake products in games.  What are your favorite fake products?  Come back next time for Part 2 of “What Makes Good Atmosphere in a Video Game”: Fake Radio Shows.