Game Art Analysis, pt.2: Atmosphere

Previously we kicked off our game art analysis with classification. We showed how important it is for team leads and art directors to sort out games by their genre, setting, platform, and gameplay. In the second chapter of our guidance, we’re going to dive headfirst into the heart of game art: the atmosphere. How do developers whip up a magical atmosphere? What’s the secret sauce? And how to define the atmosphere? We’ve got all the deets right here!

The most common definition of the game’s atmosphere is the emotional experience of the players. To create this unique and immersive experience, developers often use visuals, sound, setting, and gameplay as tools. For us, artists, visuals are the most interesting tool that we need to carefully analyze. Good visuals can be made when all its different components are perfectly combined all together. Let’s take a closer look at these components!

General feelings

When making a primal analysis of the game, artists need to find the right words to describe the subjective feelings from the game.


My Time at Portia 

Feelings from this game can be marked by words: “bright”, “friendly”, “gingerbread”, “hothouse”, “homely”, “dynamic”, and “sunny”.

FAR: Changing Tides

“Lonely”, “hopeless”, “harsh”, “enticing”, “abandoned”, “mournful”.

Precise words can help artists to aim for the “right atmosphere” in the content creation stage.
But, if artists struggle with words, they can gather inspiration references or emotion concepts.

Sometimes, inspiration references are more precise than any words. They can also be used as a basis for a project’s color scheme.

Tone: brightness, contrast and depth

Tone is a crucial tool of expressiveness. It can show depth and volume, create needed contrasts, and establish an aesthetic language. In every game, tone solves its own tasks, and for artists, it is essential to know which tasks and how to accomplish them.


Limbo and INSIDE

In this B&W platformer game tone is responsible for navigation through the levels:

  • all the foreground in which the character operates is black;
  • the background and the depth of the scene is in shades of gray;
  • white color highlights the VFX, dangerous elements, and objects of interactions;
  • all the contrasts concentrate around the character’s journey.

A tonal scheme is a useful tool for game art analysis.

But in INSIDE, the next project of the Playdead studio, developers used other principles. 

In this game different plans could be light and dark at once: contrasts pointed in any place and aiming more in general atmosphere rather than gameplay needs. Objects of interactions are highlighted more by the color rather than the tone.

In the INSIDE there is a special visual tool called “shape fusion” or “tonal fusion”. It is a fusion of frames between objects and tonal unity of the entire grounds in order to simplify visual perception.

This scheme shows how forms merge works on major and minor scales.


For the art of DOTA 2, the entire guideline can be written. By the way, developers have already done it. But in our article, we want to highlight the brightness and contrast of Dota 2. In the character concept art, they used a specific scheme:

Here we can see two gradients:

  1. Brightness gradient. From dark at the bottom to light at the top.  
  • It creates an illusion of depth;
  • makes the object visually more sustainable;
  • a small object is better seen on the big map.
  1. Contrast gradient. At the top is more detailed and contrasted than at the bottom.
  • it enhances the three-dimensionality of the objects;
  • it brings all the players’ attention to the most important parts of the characters (head and shoulders).

Trivial Pursuit Live!

In this game we can see such tonal scheme:

The characters are much brighter than the background. The reason developers make this probably is because of irradiation illusion. It is an optical illusion when light objects on a dark background seem to be bigger than dark objects on a light background.

In the picture above white color seems to be dominant over black, as if it is being eaten.

Trivial Pursuit Live! 2

In the second part of this game there were changes:

The tonal scheme turned into a range of light shades and became almost useless. But developers used contrast gradient:

  • UI maximum contrast;
  • The background is less contrasting;
  • Characters are somewhere in between in contrast.

In general, the tonal scheme changes made the game less epic, but more fun and cozy (Maybe the target audience has changed also).

Bar Chart

Sometimes, it’s useful for artists to create a bar chart: it shows the distribution tonal range on black-and-white spectrum. 


Have a Nice Death

On this level is an unusual bar chart: a lot of dark shades, when the amount of light shades is decreasing exponentially, with a small jump on almost white shades. But this game doesn’t have completely white or black colors (which is not so obvious from the first view).

While creating concepts of new levels, artists can compare the bar chart of concepts with a graphic of reference. It can help them to keep a tonal balance.


Lighting always must be analyzed separately from other components of the game, because its role in creating tension and the vibe of the game cannot be overestimated. The lighting helps in navigation through the levels, creates depth in the scenes, separates elements from each other, and establishes the atmosphere.


Hollow Knight

In this Metroidvania game, the colors and settings of the locations change from level to level. In order to gather so many different designs under one platformer, developers needed to develop rules of light creation for every category of the game art.

We can divide the game’s art into three categories: platforms, background, and characters.

Platforms are the most important and contrasted part because the character moves on them. They are turned to us by shadow side and are highlighted on the sides with a contrasting rim light. They also have a clear stroke.

There is a quite different situation with the background. Any light can occur in the background (within the framework of the nuance), and stroke is only in the foreground.

The characters are flat, with no clear direction of light, and with minimal textures (to simplify animation). They always have a thick stroke (to improve readability).

The diversity of the lighting of static and dynamic objects is united by a ubiquitous black stroke.

Rise of kingdoms

When working on such projects (Farming simulators and strategy games with a single source of light on the stage) it will be useful to analyze the isometric grid and create a lighting scheme:

Here are some interesting moments:

  • Isometric grind built from parallels at an angle of 54.5 degrees relative to the vertical (instead of the usual 60).
  • The height of the building and the length of the shadow are the same. It means the sun is shining at a 45-degree angle (although in such games the sun is placed a bit higher to keep the shadows from making too much noise).
  • On the projection from the player, the angle between the vertical and the shadow falling to the left is 95.5 degrees, which means that the sun is not shining directly to the right, but slightly behind the objects.

Also, we can analyze the temperature of the light:

This primary scheme does not necessarily need to be clear: during the concepting everything can change. But as for the beginning this scheme is quite indicative:

  • On the props the light is warm, and the shadows are cold.
  • Self and cast shadows are similar in tone and temperature.
  • The light has yellow shades, and the demimonde is orange.

In Rise of Kingdoms, the lighting angle enhances the expressiveness of the volume and separates the buildings from each other due to the tonal fusion of forms in the area of shadows. The same light creates coziness, almost dawn, but without the low position of the sun.

Such schemes are useful when props of one object are created by a big team of different artists.


Color is one of the most important tools in game development and its functions often go beyond the creating atmosphere. Here are some of them:

  • evoking emotions in players;
  • focus and visual hierarchy;
  • progression;
  • the function of identification (teams, fractions, etc.);
  • symbols and hints;
  • content variations (potion, chests, etc.);
  • game’s branding.



In this game, color is responsible for the feeling of progression, when the location changes the color, emotion, and tension are changing also, and there is a sense of progress. 

These are color concepts of the main gaming locations of the Journey.

When creating concepts of the gaming locations sometimes it is important to understand the context:

  • What was before?
  • What will be next?
  • What is the feeling we need to evoke in the players?

Research has shown how colors, light, intensity, and speed of movement in games effects players’ emotions. Here is the result:

When analyzing the color palette, it is useful to create layouts like this:

When artists work with a clear palette, without the link to forms and meanings, it is easier for them to catch the emotion.

Color glyphs

Separately we need to define the roles of colors, such as group and dividing gaming elements (on the separate players, teams, zones, categories, and functions). That’s when color glyphs come into play! Color glyphs are the colors used to identify objects by them.


Horizon Zero Dawn

In this game, every climate zone and location, regarding the weather and the time of the day, has its own color palette:

But the special place in the game has a yellow color. The player rarely sees it in the scenes, because yellow has its own functions: navigation, symbols, and hints:

In yellow color painted places where the players can climb and other important UI elements.
A similar situation with INSIDE: yellow wire always leads to some secret.

In Little Nightmares, yellow is the exclusive color of the main character, therefore the color palette of the scenes avoids matching the character’s color.

The Portal series has a strict color coding system:

Here all the saturated colors are responsible for interaction and playing roles of hints, warnings, and symbols. Meanwhile, there is nothing on the backgrounds that could conflict with them on the color contrast. And orange and blue became the branding colors of the game.

Warcraft 3

The gaming props of the teams are often identical. In such cases obviously, color glyphs are used to identify competitors.

The same situation is in Cossacks: Back to War.

If an analyzed game has color identifiers of competitors, it is necessary to figure out the rules of color zoning. It is important because from game to game, the ratio of color glyphs and neutral colors could be varied:

Also, when developing the concepts (props, characters, etc.) it is important to remember that their own color spectrum must be different from the color glyphs of the game. Read more about color glyphs here.

Find the rest articles about our Game Art Analysis here:

Part 1: Classification

Part 3: The Style

Subscribe to our email newsletter

    Stay updated on the latest news from
    Room 8 Studio and Room 8 Group.

    Get in touch
    Let’s talk
    Get in touch

    Thank you

    Your request was sent

    Elena Natsvlishvili
    Head of production
    Vadim Krayevoy