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The lights also emphasize the relationship this unseen character has with you. Whenever he speaks to you across the PA system, the colors of every 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," Thomas 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 non-player 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," Thomas 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 meta-commentary on the nature of games, Thomas says. "Fact is, the player of any single-player game is already experiencing a massive amount of stagecraft. 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 pretense will leak into the player's adrenaline wash by osmosis," Thomas says when he considers the effect his lightshow will have on players. "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."
But when talking about lighting in a grander sense, where does Thomas think we're going to see the field going next? "Watch for an even more intimate marriage of light and color to the moods of game-controlled characters," he says. "As long as we're striving for a way to communicate the emotionally complex without using verbal dynamics ... 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. 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? I think those time-honored clichés are about to turn literal."
Kieron Gillen has been writing about videogames for far too long now. His rock and roll dream is to form an Electro-band with Miss Kittin and SHODAN pairing up on vocals.