With the mist-drenched streets of forthcoming saga The Order: 1886 looking as compelling and moody as it gets, we’ve found ourselves contemplating the games that have truly immersed us in their clutches over the years.
From fantastical landscapes to nightmarish ordeals, Mark Butler picks out his 10 most atmospheric games of all time.
The Miller brothers’ seminal puzzle-based adventure is undoubtedly one of the most evocative and intriguing experiences ever made.
With virtually no backstory and context provided, you are simply left to explore the fascinating, multi-layered island of the title in as much detail as possible; unlocking its mysteries and uncovering its secrets along the way. A critical and commercial smash, it was early proof of gaming’s power to inspire through imagination, tone, and the navigation of extraordinary worlds.
Magic Carpet (1994)
Still something of an unparalleled original 20 years on, Peter Molyneux’s triumphant exercise in mystical wish-fulfillment is as absorbing as it gets.
Cast as a flying wizard capable of wielding spells both deadly and more subtle, you acquire ever more powerful magic to vanquish the fearsome creatures and rival sorcerers across a vivid sweep of oceans, mountains and deserts.
The terrific, eerie music – together with such surreal elements as gliding, sentient balloons – give the game’s mood a truly unique flavour, and it is the true epitome of an experience where whole hours simply evaporate away.
Broken Sword: Shadow Of The Templars (1996)
Armed with beautiful hand-drawn scenes, perfectly realised characters and the elegant sweep of Barrington Pheloung’s sumptuous score, this ingenious point-and-click puzzler may seem simple on the surface – but there is a whole host of hidden depths to be uncovered.
The globe-hopping storyline moves from genteel Paris to moody catacombs, rural Ireland and dusty Syria, drawing you further and further in along the way. It’s an astonishing, attention-holding tale told with the ideal blend of grit, mystery and humour.
Silent Hill (1999)
The first great psychological triumph of the survival-horror boom, Konami’s twisted, surreal and supremely dark nightmare was a defining moment of unease; plunging players into a seemingly-inescapable onslaught of dread and foreboding.
Searching for your daughter in a deserted town – deserted, that is, save for monstrous grotesques lurking in the fog – it remains one of the greatest horror experiences of any medium. Simply recall the warped school, the pitch black alleyways, or the hellish Otherworld signaled by sinister air-raid sirens, and shiver at the memory.
And hey, that’s before we even get on to Akira Yamaoka’s nerve-shredding music.
Fatal Frame (2001)
Speaking of great horrors, the fiendish minds who dreamed up this sadistic gem demand admiration and outrage in equal measure. Make no mistake: Fatal Frame really knows how to unsettle and frighten on a deep, deep level.
Boasting creepy, crafted and overwhelmingly effective atmosphere in abundance, which renders even a seemingly innocuous, ordinary room a source of considerable anxiety, its skin-crawling blend of slow-burning gothic horror and Far Eastern folklore makes it the closest thing to being in a Grudge-like nightmare you’ll ever experience.
Shadow Of The Colossus (2005)
A fantastically original creation, Team Ico’s masterpiece thrives on its moody treks through an eerie, shadowy and impossibly vast landscape, in search of gigantic, lumbering giants who must be mounted, climbed and slain by the desperate player-character.
The experience of galloping around the magnificently-realised gameworld is second only to the astonishment of encountering these towering behemoths, whose conception and design helps to inspire a genuine sense of awe. Simply spellbinding.
STALKER: Shadow Of Chernobyl (2007)
An open-world survival saga set within an irradiated fall-out zone around the infamous Chernobyl plant: STALKER presents a landscape utterly devastated, hostile, and brimming with mutated creatures and plant-life.
Similar in set-up and execution to the hugely successful Fallout 3, this nonetheless stands out on its own as an effectively atmospheric and unconventional experience, at a time when more mundane and unimaginative shooters have become the norm. Its hellish post-apocalyptic gameworld – and disturbing enemies – make it one of the most gripping titles of recent years.
The jaw-dropping descent into Rapture would be evidence enough of this incredible game’s power to enthrall and absorb; but Ken Levine’s masterful dystopian thriller has further tricks up its sleeve.
Exploring the shattered ruins of a once-mighty city sees you faced with run-down apartments, overturned clinics and makeshift torture chambers, enduring nerve-jangling run-ins with deranged splicers along the way. Who could forget the unnerving delights of Sander Cohen’s decadent theatre – or the various other stand-out crazies along the way (“THE ICEMAN F***ING COMETH!”)?
Danish outfit Playdead mustered something truly special with Limbo, a beautiful yet haunting creation. As well as being visually distinctive and astonishing, it is also emotionally evocative: inducing feelings of fear and unease but also sadness, amusement, excitement, curiosity, anger, awe and, ultimately, at the game’s deeply touching and poignant conclusion, hope.
A 2D puzzler set amidst a backdrop of eerie, desolate landscapes, and dominated by a constant sense of macabre atmosphere and fiendish threat, it’s a simultaneously disquieting and awe-inspiring experience; one that evokes unease and wonder in equal measure. Inescapable once started; unforgettable once finished.
Within minutes of stepping out into the huge, enticing world of Skyrim, and gazing into the dense mystery of its evocative landscape, you’ll almost certainly feel an overwhelming urge to ignore the pressing concerns of the game’s main storyline and simply sprint off into the distance – determined to find out what lies over the next hill, or discover just where that winding path up ahead is likely to lead.
The epic fantasy RPG boasts a captivating and incident-packed world – at once jaw-droppingly beautiful and thrillingly dangerous. Its landscape is so remarkable, and its quests so engaging, that you could quite easily find yourself playing for days at a time. And you really couldn’t be blamed for doing just that.
What would be your most atmospheric games?
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