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Atmospheric Circle

by: Dean Samuel

Atmospheric Circle is a two-Dimensional interactive piece, aimed at showing how scenes can be percieved differently by changing the way they look and sound. It consists of two scenes, 'smoke' and 'water', both of which can be viewed with or without the 'horror mode'. The horror mode essentially changes the sounds and colours attatched to that scene, demonstrating how something that looks and sounds pleasant can be interpreted entirely differently by modifying the sounds and visuals. The circle and sounds are manipulated by the location of the mouse on the screen.

Games developer Playdead, a company founded by games designer Arnt Jensen in 2006 has created two critically acclaimed side scrolling platform games, Limbo and Inside. Atmospheric Circle gets the majority of it's inspiration from these, as well as other games such as Dark Echo.

Limbo is presented with a unique, monochrome art style, accompanied with somber audio that compliments the visuals to create an eerie and uncanny setting. Both Limbo and INSIDE use minimalistic controls (consisting of movement, jumping and grabbing) allowing simple gameplay. Without text clues or on screen dialogue, a unique experience is created opposed to other video games. The game forces the player to use their initiative and explore themselves.

This is something that I wanted to replicate in my art. Though the interaction is simple enough, no instructions were provided on how to interact with my art during the exhibition. The mouse being acompanied with the computer, which my work was displayed on, was the only indication that it was interactive. Also, the way I programmed the buttons meant that the user would only discover them if the mouse was within a certain range. My hopes were that on discovering buttons they would then play around with the program, alternating between modes themselves to find out what my art actually had to offer. Having the buttons dissapear when the mouse was near the center of the screen also prevented distractions and focused the attention back to the visuals.

Limbo and Inside both use a child as the protagonist, which sounds like it should be friendly and inviting. Their decision to place a child in unnerving environments as well as using unsettling death animations creates a sinister and disturbing feel. I tried to replicate this feel early on in my developments by creating environments that mixed foreign like strictures with common objects such as buildings. Here are some assets I created which were intended to be used as part of my work before the asthetics were overhauled.

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The water scene in Atmospheric Circle is pleasant and inviting, decieving and encouraging the user to explore, the horror scenes show how the program may not be what it initially seems, just like the games. 

Dark Echo is a horror game that doesn’t rely on in game assets to create its visuals. Instead it uses a visual sound system to create patterns and get feedback from the environment by bouncing the sound off walls. It is a visualization of echolocation in a way. The asthetic of Atmospheric Circle was influenced by this, and Playdead's games designer Arnt Jensen's work on Limbo, who wanted to 'create an aesthetic for the game without resorting to highly detailed three-dimensional models, and instead directed the art towards a minimalistic style'.[1] As well as the minimalistic design of Atmospheric Circle, the interaction simply consisted of mosue movement and clicking. I think using a minimalistic design instead of the more detailed three-dimenstional worlds helps add the the feeling of isolation. It also allowed me to manipulate the visuals with more ease, which I wouldnt be able to do with my level of coding so much with imported 3D assets.

Here are some progress videos of the water scene

Inside, Limbo and Dark Echo are single player games that contain little to no interaction with friendly characters. Having to explore without the presence of others adds a psychological horror element to the game. The only interaction the user gets with other entities in Atmospheric Circle is with the tentacles on the horror water scene. Other than that the art piece feels isolated.

Audio was a key component for my work, it helps add to the feeling that the work is living in ways aesthetics cannot. A real time breathing algorithm was created to portray the boy’s emotions in Inside. Depending on the situation he is currently in, his breathing pattern will range from neutral to panicked. I focused on getting the sound to react to the user in my work. Horror mode for the water scene changes the sounds depending on the location of the mouse. Towards the edge of the screen will sound more like a heart beat, moving the mouse towards the center of the screen will create a more eerie sound, representing the tentacles that follow the user. All sounds aside from the 'crackling fire' in the smoke scene were created by myself using AudioSauna. I wanted to create all the sounds myself to give my work a more distinct feel and have the users interpret the sounds for themselves.

Here are some of the sounds I created for the horror version of the 'water' scene


It was apparent to me that there may have been a problem with the buttons before the exhibition started. While they worked, a small minority of people did not move the mouse close enough to get them to appear, meaning they wouldnt get the full experience of my work. I could have increated the distance the mouse had to be for the buttons to show, but this would have also been a distraction, taking the focus off the circle and the experience less imersive overall.

You may have noticed that in my progress iterations for the water scene, the lines are blue and thick, though in the final code the lines width is only one pixel wide. This changed happened after i implemented a shader. The version of GLSL that was being used does not allow the command SetLineWidth to be used, resorting in the circle's line width to a pixel wide. This was a small cosmetic problem but changing the line thickness made the circle look smoother and more visually pleasing to me.

I wanted to keep the interaction with my piece simple and game like, which is why i had it displayed on a computer and used a mouse as the form of input. This is quite boring and maybe not as interactive with the user as it could be. What I could have done was displayed my work on a large touch screen and have the mouse interaction replaced with hand gestures as well.

Clicking on the screen in Atmospheric Circle would cause bubbles or smoke to emit from the circumference of the circle. These particles would delete after they left the screen. Clicking repetitively would have too many particles on screen at once, causing the program and framerate to slow down until the particles vector size decreased again. I should have set a limit on the number of particles that could have been created at once to prevent this. Aside from this, the program was robust and didnt crash.

While working on Atmospheric Circle, I envisioned that it would be accompanied with headphones as this is more immersive. I realised during the exhibition that while it was, it also prevented others from knowing that the program had sounds. Removign the headphones and playing the sounds through the speakers was more intruiging for the public and drew more attention. 

Reactions from the public were good overall, some people mentioned that the water scene on horror mode reminded them of Limbo and other horror games such as slender man. People also said that the program was visually pleasing, which is usually a priority in any work that I produce.

Link to GitLab Repository


[1] Story, art and music direction -  Website


Demo of 'water' and 'smoke' scenes with and without Horror Mode