The Illuminated Ones

Light, as far as fundamental issues in game design go, is an opaque topic for most gamers. In modern 3-D engines, it’s something you simply can’t have a level without – or, at least, one that doesn’t involve a lot of bumping into walls. It’s something that affects mood and functionality, 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. Recently, he’s 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 3-D space that represents the game world,” Thomas 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. … 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.”


Beyond making a 3-D environment negotiable, lighting is 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,” Thomas says. “Essentially – lighting allows you to shout in subtext.” In BioShock, he wants to use sound and light try to bypass the 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. 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. … Light and sound are the hidden path into our hearts. They’ve got us surrounded.”

Lighting’s uses and power have changed over time. Much of what interests Thomas was simply absent in early games. “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,” he says. “In the 2-D 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 X-COM series – that sense of paranoia about what might be lurking outside the uncovered area.”

The modern age changed that when games like Thief, Splinter Cell and, recently, The Darkness used light – or its absence – as a primary game mechanic. “It’s territory, and you have to conquer it, piece by piece,” Thomas 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.”

And as lighting improves, Thomas says new options are becoming available. “More recently, in the era of dynamic lights … the obvious flashlight mechanic was born. 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.”

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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.


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.”

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.

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