Independent microstudio Allgraf recently released survival action game Darkout on Steam, a title which makes heavy use of lighting effects to evoke a tense atmosphere as players venture into the unknown depths of its procedurally generated levels.
To find out more about the sandbox game's unique lighting, Develop spoke with Allgraf CEO Adrian Banninga on what such stark light and dark contrasts add to the game, how this was achieved, and what other developers can learn from implementing these effects.
Could you briefly explain the game and what kind of features it includes?
Darkout is all about survival in a hostile environment filled with enemies that are strong in the shadows of night but vulnerable in the light represented in a beautiful 2D rendered environment unlike anything seen before.
At its core lie a set of deep sandbox mechanics akin to that of Minecraft where you can manufacture and build a huge variety of weapons, gear, shelters and all other kinds of technological gadgets to help you survive. Darkout is for those who love a challenge as you are literally dumped into a world with nothing but your wits and a few items from your crashed stasis pod to begin your journey of survival.
What technology lies behind the game's lighting effects? Is it something you developed in-house?
The lighting we use in Darkout was developed in house and plugged into the Torque 2D engine by a team of coders that do this purely for the passion of working on a project of their own, unencumbered by the rules and limitations of a regular game industry job.
We use multiple different types of effects layered together to make it all look like one cohesive system. The flashlight for instance uses its own mash for creating real-time shadows as you move, while the light on the player suit and torches use another system for their dynamic shadows.
What drew you to developing the game this way? And what does it add to the game?
Darkout is all about light versus dark. At the heart of your survival it is the only thing that can keep the shadows at bay, where the creatures that inhabit this world can come and go as they please. Without it you are vulnerable, and prone to being killed, a lot.
I wanted a world that was beautiful, but dangerous. When people think post-apocalyptic, they think Mad Max, Fallout, brown desolate places with deserts that stretch for miles and most likely some form of mutant inhabitant or cannibal waiting somewhere around the corner to kill you. I wanted to go another direction. I wanted colour, in a dangerous place where shadows ruled. The jungles of Avatar sprang to mind with its glowing plants and wildlife as a natural way in which the world would adapt to defend itself against such dark creatures.
This led to the creation of the jellies, glowing plants etcetera. With a background in cinematics I knew all about volumetric shadow effects and what made a rendered scene look good. I wanted that kind of effect and ambience in the game to bring the world together and something cool not only to play and explore, but to look at and remember when you finished playing.
Naturally we have more environments but the lighting works to enhance all of them. Running around in the city with shadows cascading and changing as you move through the broken tunnels looks pretty awesome.
How difficult has it been to achieve the title's distinct lighting effects?
The lighting system evolved slowly over time as we gained more experience working on the engine and became comfortable with exploring the limits of what we could achieve before we melted the CPU/GPU. We came upon a method that not only allowed a lot of lights with shadows, but also dynamic shadows without slowing down the system much.
If you turn off the lighting and shadows in the game you will find that it does not affect the FPS that much, unless you start placing tons of lights, and we are still improving on it.
We also added the volumetric fog effect and bloom to add more ambience to it and these three systems work very well together in achieving the light that you see in the game now. When we added AO as well the whole world just seemed to come together and hint at that depth that was simply not there in a 2D game.
I am quite happy with what we achieved visually and am proud to have Darkout on my Portfolio.
What do developers need to consider when implementing distinct lighting and shadow effects in a game?
Depth. You need to make it work for your game, not just have everything possible for no reason. Obviously three dimensional lighting is slightly more expensive and complex, but you also need to ask yourself, will dynamic shadows on everything really help you show the game in the light that you want it to?
Everyone is into global illumination lights baked into a scene, or dynamic shadows and AO all over the place, but even in 3D rendered scenes you use lights that don’t cast shadows, or even use GI. There are many tricks like shaders that darken the foreground, add edge glows from light directions, that some time look even better than a light that casts full on shadows.
Do you think developers make enough use of lighting and shadow effects in games? Most games, even horror titles, seem to be well lit enough not to require even a torch.
No, I think contrast in a scene is something people have forgotten about to tell a story. Everyone has become too used to seeing everything on screen. Take Darkout for instance. We tested various different night time settings in Beta, from pitch black, to almost completely full moon looking.
But what I noticed is that when you make it too bright, people do not use their torches and flashlights, because they can see already. Players are spoiled today that when you give them a dark game they turn up the gamma and complain your game is too dark. There is no contrast anymore, no mystery in the dark, because it is never dark. Well, with Darkout, it will get dark, and you will need to turn on a torch, throw flares, glow sticks, flash grenades, and run when they all go out.
I am not one for easy games, and I beat every game I play from beginning to end on hard mode, because it’s a good feeling when you know you beat something hard.