There is no drama without tension, so the saying goes. And there are very few things that build tension than a well-crafted atmosphere.
Considering how hectic my day’s been, I could just end the post there and be on my merry way, but I feel it’s necessary to elaborate for a variety of reasons. So, here goes.
There’s a part in the early stages of Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines where you must enter a supposedly haunted hotel and retrieve an item of importance to both the local baron and to the spectre inhabiting the building. The sequence of events that take place in that hotel can only be described as “harrowing.” Between the music, sound design, lighting and use of the game engine, an atmosphere of sheer terror is built, infusing the scene with tension without a single shot needing to be fired and no dialog spoken above a whisper. To this day, the thought of going into that digital hotel gives me pause.
The bit I played through last night in Half-Life 2 Episode 2 applies. The antlion hive is just downright creepy. Eternal Darkness is another good example of a game building atmosphere, as is Silent Hill 2, part of a series of games based on the real-life town of Centralia right here in Pennsylvania. I’ve driven through that town on more than one occasion, folks, and let me tell you the most sensible thing to do is just keep on driving. This sort of setting is also the inspiration for many of the works in the World of Darkness, and Storytellers would be well-advised to rely upon such sources.
Conveying atmosphere in writing alone can be difficult. You have no way of relating the sight, sound or smell of something outside of words. And yet there are those who have proven themselves masters of printed palpable dread. Lovecraft, for example, and Stephen King to a lesser extent. Tolkien’s descriptions of the balrog and Shelob can be chilling, to say nothing of the reaction of millions of fans at the appearance of Voldemort in the books of Harry Potter.
Let’s have a few more examples. Who scares you, as a writer? What do you think about when you want to convey a certain atmosphere? How do you channel dread, or fear, or despair into a written work?
Go ahead and give me your thoughts. I’ll be waiting. Watching.