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Illuminated Ones: Shadow & Light In Games

[This was originally printed in a slightly different form at the Escapist in 2007. Post-Bioshock 1 and 2, it struck me as a good time to return to what was on Jordan Thomas' mind back then - especially the sections which foreshadow Fort Frolic. And with the darkness obsessed Amnesia due within a week, turning our mind on what lurks in the gaming's dark also struck me as worthwhile]

Light is, as far as fundamental issues in game design goes, an opaque topic for most gamers. In modern 3D engines, it's something you simply can't have a level without – or, at least, one which doesn't involve a lot of bumping into walls. It's something that effects mood and functionality, so acting as a supporting pillar for both the artistic and mechanistic elements of game design. But when implementing it, what is a designer really thinking about? To shed a little light on the matter, I talked to Jordan Thomas, best known as co-designer of the Cradle in Thief: Deadly Shadows and has been recently been working on a little game called Bioshock.

So – what exactly does lighting contribute to a level? “Artists and designers use light to help guide the player through the metaphorical 3D space that represents the game world,” Jordan says, “Now, I use the fancypants word for ‘not literal’ because, relative to the tiny miracle that is the human visual cortex, we’re still very much in doodle territory, game-wise. Vanishing points. Flat, textured shapes collapsed into a fundamentally two-dimensional screen. Without light, the illusion of depth dissolves into a radioactive cardboard nightmare where everything shares the same solar glow. Most folks find that disorienting – y’know - if they have eyes.”

Bar making a 3D environment negotiable, it's also used to explain changes to the player and engage the emotions. “In the absence of their sibling senses – smell, touch, and taste – sound and vision have had to grow up swiftly in the gaming space,” Jordan says, “Essentially – lighting allows you to shout in subtext.” In Bioshock, sound and light try to bypass the actual active critical mind of the player and go for the subconscious. “It’s an old set of tricks, shamelessly employed all over the world by game developers, film crews, theater folks, (and even interior decorators),” Jordan says, “Imagine if we tried to tell the player, “please to be feeling empathy … now!” with words, or even a thin veneer of fictional abstraction in the guise of scripted dialogue, when we’re not even sure what he or she is looking at. It would come off as hokey or worse, preachy. People are used to being ‘sold to’ by words, and many of us have cultivated a healthy disregard for same, even when we are explicitly seeking entertainment. Light and sound are the hidden path into our hearts. They’ve got us surrounded.”

Equally, the actual uses and power of lighting has changed across games. In fact, originally much of what interests him was simply absent. “I tend to be interested in games that stimulate a sense of fear using a sort of ‘illumination economy’, or that involve light directly in gameplay as a force,” says Jordan, “In the 2D era, there wasn’t a lot of this, except in very deterministic adventure game vignettes. The closest thing that occurs to me in hindsight would be the omnipresent fog of war in the XCOM series – that sense of paranoia about what might be lurking outside the uncovered area.”

The modern age changed that, with games like Thief, Splinter Cell and recently the Darkness using light – or its absence - as a primary game mechanic. “It’s territory, and you have to conquer it, piece by piece,” Jordan says, “In this case, dark is friendly, and light is hostile. And there’s a certain sort of thrill you get to turning back and seeing all the shadow in your wake – as if by viewing your mission in time-lapse, it’d look like a big scary wave of fractal black, devouring the building. This became possible in the era of baked-in light maps, and had an interesting purity during that period. Modern per-pixel lighting is more realistic, but also harder for the player to intuit exactly how much illumination a given section of the floor represents.”

But as lighting improves, removing this precision, other options open up. “More recently, in the era of dynamic lights, stencil shadows and their softer-edged modern cousins, the obvious flashlight mechanic was born,” Jordan continues, “It creates a sensation of panicky myopia. It invites you to genuinely notice your limited field of view again, with an imaginary assumption that if you’re not directly looking at something, it’s somehow faster and more dangerous. Active management of a light source had been done earlier than true dynamic lights, but until the shadows started leaping and shifting around you, it felt phoned-in.”

Unsurprisingly, there's also an inherent tension in light in games, between the practical use of lighting and the aesthetic use of lighting. “Say the light which the player can be relied upon to notice is some shade of green that causes retinal sear in artsy types,” Jordan says, “Or the deep gloom which is so integral to the emotional intent of a scenario makes it too difficult to discover the game-critical Paperclip of Destiny lying innocuously on the Linoleum of Fate.” But it's actually more than a simple dichotomy – the third pressure of technical constraints presses down. “If you want dozens of torch lights casting overlapping shadows in some swaying cathedral to the noir-god, you have to be prepared to make a sacrifice,” Jordan notes, “Every shipping game with review scores above sea-level is a study in elegant compromises. Lighting for a real-time renderer is not wildly far afield from playing an RPG or strategy game” That is, it's a game where you're forced to make meaningful trade-offs to best achieve an approximation of your desires.

Perhaps most interesting about game designers is the variety of influences they take from. Since, at least until recently, there was no formal professional route into games, backgrounds are as varied as individuals. As a result, influences intermingle. “Some of us are film school grads, others theater majors, and still others are traditional visual artists,” Jordan says, “Still others may have spent a summer or two working on a giant, old-school haunted house where you physically walk through the hall of mirrors and somebody grabs your cringing body parts in the dark.” As a result, designers and artists are making their own vocabulary. “Even if we had room for a how-to here, it’d be an incomplete formula at best. Game lighting can’t really be reduced in that way, even by the roundest, most aggressively bespectacled academics among us – because it’s so contextual,” Jordan says, “The team flips switches and twiddles dials, and the black boxes in their collective brains all pattern-match until it recognizes the sublime ratio. Frame rate being the ultimate trump card.”

That it's being assembled in an ad hoc basis doesn't mean that some startling effects are possible. Take Jordan's previous work with the aforementioned Cradle in Thief: Deadly Shadows. A shadowy nightmarish Victorian orphanage/asylum and one of the most uniquely petrifying destinations in games. Lighting tricks came into play. “In order to help telegraph the sense that the building had a kind of malevolent sentience, I rigged all the white electric light-sources in the level to constantly scale up, then down in brightness, as slowly as the technology allowed for,” Jordan explains, “Rising and falling.” This is unusual, in that the majority of lighting in games is set to cross a 'difference threshold', where a person is able to perceive change. By aiming beneath that, a subtler effect may be created. “The idea was to generate the subconscious sense of breathing in the entire building,” Jordan says, “The punch-line is that I have no idea whether that work actually paid off, because you can’t really interrogate a subconscious mind.”

Some effects were more aimed at the thinking mind. For example, the when any of the denizens of the Cradle approached a bulb, it'd flicker violently. “It was level-wide and systemic, in the sense that I never knew exactly which AI would interact with which light,” Jordan says, “So the result was that you could feel them stalking you by watching and listening for those disruptions, no matter where you tried to hide. That, obviously, was meant to leave a mark – and while hardly an original idea in film, I had never seen it done in a simulation.”

With the Bioshock still close to release, Jordan's understandably reticent to talk about specifics of his work, even though it rests even more heavily on lighting theory. "Suffice it to say that my section of the game is an attempt to generate a sort of surrealistic dread, leaning heavily on the sense that the player is on a stage, and some of the key tropes that people associate with the artificial, exaggerated atmosphere of a theater production are constantly active around you,” Jordan explains, in overview, before moving onto spoiler-skirting specifics.

The section is governed by a temperamental character with a stage-magician's control over the environment. “From the moment you walk in, you are pin-pointed by a white hot spotlight, which illuminates these little motes of dust around you and tracks you as you move around the level,” Jordan continues, “There are sections of the space that are extremely shadowy and paranoid, except for the presence of that beam. You can't really help but feel like the star of someone's private, twisted little show.”

The lights also empathize the relationship this unseen character has with you. Whenever he speaks to you across the PA system, the colors of ever light on the level are blended via a specially developed system the Bioshock technical team put together. “Purples and other cool hues, as far as the eye can see. This is when he's pleased with you,” Jordan says, “When he's done speaking, the lights revert to their normal state. And if he becomes angry, well – I'll let you guess what happens to the lights. And the music. And the enemies who vault through space with the grace of dancers.”

This returns to another old game designer trick – using the environment as a signifier for the computer-characters personalities. “Because theater lighting is already so florid and deliberately overstated, my intent was to treat the level as a kind of massive 'mood ring' for this character, to give him the larger-than-life presence that he was written with by the game's creative director,” Jordan says, “Some of the most famous stage productions (musical or otherwise) would be absolutely terrifying to be trapped inside, if you can't really see where the audience sits, or where 'backstage' begins. Theater is, by its very nature, apart from reality – and I think there's a lot of potential in that for surrealist scares.”

It's also a neat little metacommentary on the nature of games. “Fact is, the player of any single-player game is already experiencing a massive amount of stagecraft,” Jordan argues, “You're already this over-the-top Ninja Rambo cocktail for whom this pocket world is quite literally built, in classic Garden of Eden style. Wherever you're not currently looking, stumpy little stagehands are yanking out pieces of the set and backdrop, shuffling things around for the next big scene. And, of course, the world around you often feels similarly 'possessed' by some mad puppeteer in the sky. So to embrace that (and maybe satirize it, a little) by nailing you with a traditional spotlight and allowing the primary antagonist of the region to embody a kind of control-freaky stage director role just seemed, well, poetic and fun.”

“The game is primarily a shooter, so I'm not yet sure how much of this vibe or tongue-in-cheek pretence will leak into the player's adrenaline wash by osmosis,” Jordan says when considering the effect, “But it was very rewarding to see all the lighting effects play out – again without that canned feel that you get when it only works for a five-minute sequence. And for that, I have to give props to the Bioshock team - I owe them a debt of gratitude for their willingness to indulge and support me in another fairly experimental, artistically-driven experience."

Which explains Jordan's near future, but – when talking about Lighting in a wider state – where does he think we're going to see lighting pushing next? “Watch for an even more intimate marriage of light and color to the moods of game-controlled characters,” Jordan argues, “As long as we’re striving for a way to communicate the emotionally complex without using verbal dynamics that we still can’t simulate properly, we’re going to want to suggest it visually.” He also suspects, as always in games, technological improvements are going to offer unprecedented experiences. “I’d wager that the next giant leap will allow the player to directly manipulate the entire outdoor lightscape, or using light as the fully shaped, volumetric force that it wants to be,” he argues, before giving a tip, “Keep an eye on games like Alan Wake. Think about burning your way through a living wall of black, rippling tissue with some kind of divinely anointed Mag-lite. Think about you, the player, weaponizing a solar eclipse.”

“Remember Light magic? Dark magic?” he says, “ I think those time-honored clichés are about to turn literal.”

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Kieron Gillen


Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.