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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I absolutely adored these games as a child and I was telling my 10 year old nephew about this last year, his only response was 'what's a video tape?'

I had a Star Wars version as a child. You were on the Death Star as it approached your planet and had to move around the board to destroy certain parts. At random times, Darth Vader would talk to you and you had to respond 'yes Lord Vader'.

My friend had a Star Trek version in which a klingon had taken over the enterprise. That one particularly worked because to win you had to stop the video and the remote's similarity to a Star Trek phaser added a lot in my 10 year old mind. I always got annoyed that he never let us watch to the end when we won.

Does anyone remember a betting game, maybe from the seventies, where you played a vinyl record? The disk had several different grooves cut into it, and each one was the commentary to a horse-race, each with a different result. Quite clever, really. I seem to recall Bob Monkhouse appearing on the TV commercial. What was it called?

They're Off?

I recently re-bought the original in a charity shop in the hope of hosting an Atmosfear night with my friends... Maggots!

Good article. I seem to recall the main problem with the expansion pack sequels was that they became far too complicated, especially in the case of the witch with its additional dice and packs of spell cards. The original was a fairly straightforward thing that I got all the family to play a couple of times, the 2 add-ons I had (witch & vampire, never played zombie) were veering more into Dungeons & Dragons territory. Plus, as you point out, the videos became so horrible that you couldn't play with young siblings or cousins anymore.

I liked that in the Elizabeth Bathory one you could get turned into a vampire and prey on your fellow players! But yeah, the witch one... bleurgh!

I actually only played the Baron Samedi one for the first time last year, and it is amazing, but not at all scary. It's just really funny. There's a bit with musical cues where you have to stand up and say things when you hear your tune, and it all descends into chaos pretty quickly.

There's another DVD spinoff, based on Khufu the Mummy, which is maybe more suitable for kids, though it's got a bizarre casino board, and it's really easy to beat. Every time Khufu comes on screen he helps you rather than doing nasty things to you, which feels like it defeats the point a bit.

... So, yeah, um, I think I've actually played all of them except the Harbingers one. Maybe I should get that one and complete the set.

That's terrifying.

A Star Wars one sounds amazing!

Do it! Just make sure all your friends will get into it.

'I release you from the Black Hole....'

Don't even blink...

I loved this game, must have played it dozens of times; I also got a Star Trek version with Captain Kavok who had stolen the Enterprise, but it couldn't touch Atmosfear.

I have a whole bunch of these games! The original Atmosfear with the Gatekeeper, the Baron Samedi expansion tape, the DVD version, The Harbingers in that HUGE box, and just recently got its expansion, The Soul Rangers. ALL were picked up from charity shops for very little money. I took the DVD version to play with my anime group one Halloween and they really enjoyed it. We turned the lights down, hooked up my laptop to the projector, put in the DVD and off we went.

I only recently rekindled my childhood love of adventure gamebooks ('If you choose left, turn to 97'), now you've got me longing for Atmosfear! I got the Harbingers edition one Christmas when I was 10 - it seemed a ridiculous luxury at 30 pounds, but it might have helped keep me away from expensive Warhammer.

Just to clarify, "Atmosfear" was created by two Australians and published in 1991 by Spear & Sons. The Star Trek VCR Game was first sold by the American company Decipher, Inc. in 1993. The Star Wars VCR game was sold by Hasbro in 1996.

I was thinking about this game over christmas. It's somewhere in the house....watching me.

What a great piece. Thanks for bringing back some fantastic memories.

Ah, I remember the Star Trek one! I was only about seven or eight and it blew my mind.

Then I played Atmosfear for the first time not long after, and they haven't let me out since...

On a recent playthrough, we managed to never, ever have anyone in the Black Hole when he said that. I suspect we might've forgotten some Black Hole-related rule somewhere along the line...

Own the original board game on VHS. I would never part with it, no matter how many purges of old things I have had.

I'm sorry, but when he made you approach the screen and said he was going to tell you a secret but then he yelled in your face as thunder and lightening went off scaring the absolute sh1t out of you.... genius.

They were great I remember playing all three with the Gatekeeper, the Baron and the Witch.;-)

I spent a year getting ALL of them, from Nightmare, its expansions, then Atmosphere (confusingly, they were slightly different games here in Australia), then its expansions, then the DVD ones, all on eBay. Still haven't managed to play them all...

I seem to remember that it was Robert O'Reilly (Gowron) as the Klingon Captain - but I might be wrong...

I had a Sherlock Holmes version where you had to solve a Holmes type mystery that I absolutely loved!

Ah the magic days of interactive VHS...

Frustratingly, you really need at least three players, which is why I don't get to play it as often as I'd like to. I played the Baron Samedi one with just my boyfriend and the music cues nearly killed us. Fun though!

This game was a ton of fun with a group of friends and a very , very large bag of shroom's. Bored us to death any time we tried to play it straight though. Over all , considering we were usually tripping , good memories of this one.

Any chance you would be able to tell me what the keystone rules are for Elizabeth Bathory? I recently bought a "complete" copy of the game that was missing her card, among a few other pieces, but knowing her rules is really the only thing keeping us from playing it right now.

Hi,

let me know specifically what you're missing and I will try and help. I have 6 grey keys for her, and there are 6 fate and 6 chance cards with info on for her. This is for the original VHS board game entitled the Gatekeeper. Cheers!!

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