Dark and Stormy Night

Dark and Stormy Night
The Illuminated Ones

Kieron Gillen | 24 Jul 2007 13:25
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Unsurprisingly, there's also an inherent tension between the practical use of lighting and the aesthetic quality it can have. "Say the light, which the player can be relied upon to notice, is some shade of green that causes retinal sear in artsy types," Thomas 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. 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 of resource control, where you're forced to make meaningful trade-offs to best achieve your goals.

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Due to their disparate backgrounds, designers and artists are making their own terminology. "Even if we had room for a how-to here, it'd be an incomplete formula at best," Thomas says. That it's being assembled in an ad hoc basis doesn't mean some startling effects aren't possible. Take Thomas' 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, 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, the effect is subtler. "The idea was to generate the subconscious sense of breathing in the entire building. 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 brain. For example, 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," Thomas 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 BioShock still close to release, Thomas is 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."

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," Thomas says. "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."

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