Looking back at Atmosfear

Feature Sarah Dobbs 14 Jan 2014 - 06:26

A combination of video and board game, Atmosfear had players everywhere shouting at their tellies in the 90s. Sarah takes a look back...

Maggots! Whose turn is it? Answer me!

If you just reflexively answered “Yes, my Gatekeeper,” then you too have probably spent several hours of your life being shouted at by a videotape. Atmosfear (known as Nightmare in some parts of the world) was a horror-themed game that came out in the early 1990s, and quickly garnered itself a bit of a cult following.

For the uninitiated, here’s how it worked:  you got a group of friends together in a dark room in front of the TV, and set up the game board. Each of you picked a character – you could be a werewolf, a witch, a vampire, a zombie, a poltergeist, or a mummy – and a number. Then you had to write down your worst nightmare on a wipe-clean card, and put it in the middle of the board. The board part of the game was pretty straightforward, a sort of monster-flavoured cross between Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly. You had to move your character around the board to pick up six different coloured keys, and then head to the middle of the board, pick out a nightmare card, and ‘face your fears’ to claim victory. What made Atmosfear special was the video. 

When you started a game, you’d start the video playing, and a hooded figure would appear. He was the Gatekeeper, and to win the game you had to beat him as well as your fellow players. The game had an hour limit (the length of the tape) and there was a timer on screen to count down the seconds. When the time was up, the Gatekeeper won; if you managed to get to the middle of the board and claim your nightmare before then, you stopped the tape and celebrated your victory.

At intervals throughout the game, though, the Gatekeeper would pop up to shout at you and give individual players instructions. Picking the oldest or youngest player, he’d make them perform additional tasks, which ranged from rolling a dice to leaving the room while the rest of the players gossiped about them. Each time he appeared on screen, he’d address a certain player, usually the person whose turn it was, and demand a response: “Yes, my Gatekeeper.”

The whole game relied on players being willing to talk back to their telly. Which sounds silly, but people did. Launched in 1991 by the Australian production company A Couple ‘A Cowboys, Atmosfear sold two million copies within two years. It’s hard to imagine now, in the age of DVD and next-gen console gaming, how exciting the idea of an interactive VHS boardgame was back then. After all, it wasn’t really ‘interactive’ at all. It was all one-way: the actor playing the Gatekeeper was talking to a camera, not to the players, and he had no way of knowing what they were saying back. As players, nothing we did could affect him; the tape played back the same way every time. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was how we, as players, responded to the tape. 

Like pretty much everything, Atmosfear isn’t much fun if you don’t commit to it. To really enjoy yourself, you have to be able to embrace the silliness. Because no, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t answer the Gatekeeper promptly with the correct response; the game can’t punish you, because it has no way of knowing whether or not you said anything. If you roll the dice and don’t get the right number, there’s nothing to stop you rolling again, or just cheating and moving however you want to. But if you’re not going to get into the spirit of it, what’s the point in playing?

I remember first playing Atmosfear as a young teenager in a friend’s living room. We sat on the floor in the dark, revelling in the way her parents’ surround sound system made everything louder and more terrifying, shrieking with real, delighted fear whenever the Gatekeeper appeared. If you’re only half-arsedly playing the game, you don’t get the adrenaline rush at the end, when everything speeds up and the Gatekeeper appears more and more often, stopping the action just when you’re desperate for your turn to come round so you can try to reach the Well of Fears.

All it takes to ruin a game like this is for one player not to get into it properly. If one person refuses to do something the Gatekeeper asks them to, the whole illusion of the game is shattered. For that reason, you have to be kind of careful who you play it with. Anyone overly self-conscious, overly cynical, will spoil the, ahem, atmosphere for everyone. But get the right group of people together and it’s a lot of fun. 

Thanks to the success of the original Atmosfear game, it was followed by a series of expansion packs and sequels, which came with their own video tape and set of playing cards. My sister and I had both the Anne de Chantraine and Elizabeth Bathory games, though we never played them as much as we’d played the Gatekeeper version. (Actually, we might’ve only played the Anne de Chantraine game once. Every Atmosfear game features their host getting more and more decayed and creepy-looking as the game goes on, and Anne’s transformation from a pretty young woman into a hag with a melting green face was almost too horrible to ever replay.)

As VHS gave way to DVD, Atmosfear started to seem a bit dated. So in 2004, a new version was launched, with a DVD instead of a video. The board got a revamp, the playing pieces were more elaborate and smart-looking, but the biggest change was that the new technology allowed the game to change each time it was played. During set-up, you’d use the remote control to tell the DVD how many players there were, and which characters they were playing; that meant later, the Gatekeeper could call on specific characters to respond.

He could also challenge players to mini-games that involved picking onscreen options and getting different outcomes based on their choices; the clips are, to some extent, randomised, so no two games are exactly the same. Maybe the most significant change is that when a player wins the game, they can use the remote control to trigger a clip of the Gatekeeper wailing in defeat, a more satisfying victory than just turning the video off when you’d won. I played this version of the game with some friends recently and, having lost once, we talked ourselves into playing again to try to get the other ending – the prospect of turning off the tape probably wouldn’t have warranted a second game. 

Despite the clever new additions, though, I’m still kind of nostalgic for the original Atmosfear. Maybe it’s just because I’m an adult now, so less easily thrilled by loud noises on the TV, but the old version seemed more fun. The fact that the tape was the same every time was part of the magic, because the rest of the game would change anyway: you’d play with different people, get different rolls of the dice, and pick up different cards. Your reactions changed, even if the Gatekeeper’s didn’t.

As cutting edge as the game seemed at the time, it now seems quaintly old-fashioned, and there’s something nice about that. If you’ve got a copy of the video version sitting in your attic – and if you still have a VHS player – it might be worth blowing the dust off, turning the lights down low and the volume up loud to give it another go…

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