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The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is five years old and I’m still blown away by its sunsets. They are, hands down, the most beautiful and underrated part of one of the best RPGs ever made. From dawn’s first grey touches to the glaring white of the noonday sun to a rosy redness as it dies into a gold-tinged purple twilight the game’s use of lighting was phenomenal. Although plenty of big AAA games can use lighting to their advantage, few actually do, with many studios aiming for realism. Realism is great in its own way but when it comes to using light to enhance rather than to just present a world The Witcher 3 wins every time.
Lighting has come on in leaps and bounds ever since shadow mapping was first invented in 1978. Twenty years later every time Crash Bandicoot jumped a dark circle appeared beneath him (or not if he was falling to his death). Similarly this shadow would stretch out behind, in front or to either side of the oddly proportioned marsupial depending on which way the sun was moving. Crash Bandicoot wasn’t the first to use this technology but it is the first game with shadows that I remember and rather than make Crash and Coco and Dr Neo Cortex seem more real it enhanced the fantasy and drew me deeper into this bizarro world. Flash forward another couple of decades and shadows are just one part of some of gaming’s most beautiful images.
Gaming, in its modern iteration at least, borrows a lot from movies much the same as a lot of movies borrow a great deal from games. Without gaming’s rapid advances in computer generated images a lot of blockbuster films would be treading water. Similarly without the decades of films to draw from lighting in games wouldn’t be on the cutting edge that it is. The train robbery in Red Dead Redemption 2 committed by Arthur, John, Sean and Charles is, in terms of lighting anyway, almost directly lifted from Andrew Dominik’s epic western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The characters and shots may be different but the Roger Deakins-inspired lighting with its ghostly fog, lone figures and monolithic locomotive all radiate the influence of Dominik’s masterpiece.
Lighting in the kind of well-produced cut scenes of a Rockstar game is all well and good but what about gameplay. For the purposes of this article it’s best to view the games we’re talking about as complicated machines like rocket ships. The engine powers everything sure but what it’s powering is infinitely complicated and it’s myriad parts aren’t always understood by the thousands of people that worked on it. The welder won’t fully understand the same things as the rocket scientist just as they won’t completely comprehend the responsibilities of the astronaut. It’s the same with games. The game designers know how to make things move and interact with one another but when it comes to lighting everything around the world they’re building they leave that up to the artists.
When I say lighting has come on in leaps and bounds I mean that. Consider GTA V compared to Michael Mann’s Heat, its primary stylistic influence. GTA V was a well-rendered game upon release in 2013 but it wasn’t an especially well lit one. It maintained the balance of cartoonish violence meeting real world grit but it could never achieve Heat’s sun-bleached or nighttime blue aesthetics that are still so well-regarded today. Five years on when Rockstar released Red Dead Redemption 2 the difference was astronomical not just in cutscenes but in gameplay too. Mangrove swamps came alive as sunbeams burned through mist-choked foliage. Shadows of mountainous clouds rolled over the great plains. A single, baleful red orb stared pitilessly from behind black hills as it rose to bake the desert sand. It’s images like these that imprint themselves on your mind as both part of and separate from the game itself.
One game of the modern era that consistently maintains a beauty that beggars belief is Control. While both The Witcher and Red Dead series have their imitators there are few if any games like Control. A blend of Twin Peaks, The X-Files and the online forum known as the SCP Foundation Control centres around Jesse Faden. Jesse is a young woman looking for her brother after a devastating event in her childhood home town of Ordinary. Her hunt brings her to the Oldest House – a brutalist, invisible-to-the-naked-eye skyscraper – that houses the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC). Within Jesse finds a prison and research division of monumental proportions; far, far larger than the outside would indicate.
Each area of Control is different and while some conform to structural reality – offices, maintenance tunnels, labs etc. – others do not – a cavernous starlit quarry, an entire department flooded with clocks, a motel adrift in space-time. With each new area comes new lighting. As with the different levels some of it conforms and some of it does not. Fluorescents light much of Control’s offices and labs and corridors. Other areas are lit by the blazing orange of an ever-burning furnace. Some, such as a boss battle in the extra-dimensional training area known as the Astral Plane are dim until a giant spider’s eye finds you with its spotlight-bright gaze. Another boss fight has Jesse go up against one of the FBC’s security officers soaked in the blood red light emanating from a TV.
In gaming great lighting means great hardware, usually. Other recent games like Carrion have shown what can be done with minimal lighting and a neo-retro design. But for games in the AAA sphere it means bigger, more expensive graphics cards like the juggernauts N-Vidia produce. The recent advent of ray tracing – that is, a complex kind of lighting in 3D environments that enhances visual realism – is one of the leaps I mentioned earlier. This is what games like Control, Red Dead Redemption 2 and other high budget titles use. It’s important to remember that lighting technology should be used to enhance, not just present the world it’s lighting. If this is kept in mind than the future of video games is not bright, it’s beautifully lit.
Featured Image Credit: Author’s Own Screenshot.